I am often asked to speak to various groups of cattlemen concerning grass fed beef production and marketing.The following represents one of these meetings:
Though my education and experience are in the field of livestock production my only credentials in coming to you tonight is Our Story. The story of our family farm would parallel that of many of yours and it is in this story that lays the true passion for what we do.
I heard it remarked a couple of decades ago that you needed to decide if you were in the land business or in the cattle business. I will admit that for years we were in the land business and did not depend on our farm to exclusively support our family. Not so today. We are tied to the land by love and respect but also depend upon it for our income.
For years we have sponsored a Christian retreat at our farm. Folks from all over the country and Canada have attended. Many of these folks seemed to enjoy the weekend or week on the farm as much as the spiritual renewal. City folks who joined our family in farm chores made us appreciated anew why we felt privileged to live on a farm. One evening a lady from Atlanta, who had attended one of these retreats, called and wanted to buy a cow! I remembered her quite well as she and her husband were allergic types and had to stay inside most of the time for our Missouri hills played havoc with their sinuses. As the story goes, she had been a vegetarian for over 14 years and had recently shown signs of deficiencies for which her doctor advised she seek out better protein sources, mainly red meat. Being a computer research analyst she did her homework and came to the fact that the healthiest, safest and most humanely produced red meat was grassfed beef. It was from this collaboration between a computer guru and a family farm veterinarian that American Grassfed Beef was born.
We raise our beef the way a growing niche of consumers appreciate, but Ripley county did not provide us a local market to sell this sort of beef and we were forced to market through traditional means. With the advent of Internet marketing we now ship all over the country to a nation-wide market as well as a growing local segment, which includes St.Louis. Taking the plunge to market direct from the farm has brought to our family obstacles and new fields to learn how to tackle. Learning how to manage a website with a shopping cart, how to box beef so as to have it arrive at its destination in good shape; each new obstacle brought its own learning curve. As homeschoolers we have always tried to teach our kids that learning never stops and we live that truth.
I love the Missouri hills and creeks where we live, but my real passion is for sustaining the American Family Farm. We have been witness, as I am sure many of you have, how the brightest and most valuable resource of our rural communities (our children) have left the farm to earn a better living. I believe that marketing direct to the consumer breathes new hope into the small family farm and offers opportunity for some of these kids to return. That had always been a dream for our family. That dream was realized when our two oldest boys now work in the business full time, the third attends a nearby community college and works at the farm.
In an environment where the meat industry is becoming increasingly vertically integrated with the top 3-4 retailers calling all the shots. It is by niche marketing that though we may not be competitively different we can be comparatively different and promote that difference advantageously.
I think about it this way, one of my favorite places is a gourmet coffee shop. Why am I willing to pay $5 for a cup of coffee that I could get anywhere for 75 cents. What I am buying is not just a cup of coffee, but an experience that lifts my spirits and distresses my mind.
What we have to market is not just beef, but an experience. It is marketing to the consumer Our Story and it makes them feel a part of the farm. A significant number of consumers state that if given the choice they would prefer to buy their food directly from a farm. Farm direct sales is what I call relationship marketing and growing numbers of consumers are willing not to just to purchase through that route but to pay a bit more for it. They appreciate the special care, handling and confidence in the products that come from family farms.
There are a growing number of consumers who appreciate grassfed beef not just for its health benefits and safety…
Not just for the idea that it is sustainable agriculture and better for the environment…
Not just because it is more humane and healthier for the animals.
But because it also provides them a chance to be a part of the farm experience when they support it through their purchasing dollars.
Pivotal in sustaining the American Family Farm and taking beef from grass to the table is the small niche processing plants. In these plants such as ours located in Jackson, Missouri the small producer of special valued beef is treated with special care. The past decade has seen a dramatic decline in these processing plants that are being squeezed out by the behemoth, factory assembly line plants. 10 years ago 73 small USDA plants were in Missouri, today there are only 30 and of these there are only 4 bonded, ours is the largest of these bonded plants.
Again, I can only tell you our story and how we got into processing. We had gone through a couple of different processors and had finally found a plant that was willing to take our beef and give it the special handling and packaging that our customers demanded. We had developed with their help value-added products such as summer sausage, bratwurst, jerky and snack sticks. They did a great job of private labeling our beef and we appreciated the skill of their butchers, many of who have been in the business for generations.
Two years ago, the owner called and informed us that he was going to close the doors. The paper-thin margin had just gotten too thin.
So, we bought a processing plant. We are staking our hopes on the idea that other small beef producers will find need of a small processor used to special, individual handling of animals, familiar with direct marketing and private labeling, prefer skilled butchers and even need help in finding appropriate marketing channels. We have our organic certification pending and will soon be humane certified.
A whole new learning curve!
I am here not just to represent a grass farmer, a beef producer, a direct marketing business owner, a livestock processor but a member of a special organization called the American Grassfed Association. This non-profit, national organization represents multi-species producers, professionals in health, education and food services as well as researchers.
The organization undertakes a variety of activities to promote, educate and communicate the grassfed industry.
We have been working towards the establishment of a grassfed definition and criteria, communication this to the USDA who will soon issue a grassfed standard. We are working toward the creation of a grassfed certification program.
We sponsor educational opportunities for consumers, producers, and professionals interested in grassfed products. We will sponsor, along with the US Grassfed Society a conference in Colorado Springs, July 20-22. This conference will include some of the most notable grassfed speakers covering topics such a livestock production, marketing, finances, and certification programs. It will also attempt to bridge the road between the producer and the consumer through chef demonstrations and participation in a farmers market.