Nutritional tests on meat from Buffalo Groves in Colorado found the cuts were significantly lower in calories and cholesterol than grain-fed bison meat, providing a marketing angle for David and Marlene Groves.
Nutritional tests on meat from Buffalo Groves in Colorado found the cuts were significantly lower in calories and cholesterol than grain-fed bison meat, providing a marketing angle for David and Marlene Groves. Photo courtesy of Buffalo Groves

Direct Marketing Meat & Animal Products

After years of watching feed prices rise and pork prices fall and wondering how they could stay profitable, Denise and Bill Brownlee of Wil-Den Family Farms in Pennsylvania decided in 2002 to exploit what they saw as a market advantage – their outdoor production system where hogs farrow and finish on pasture without growth stimulants and with minimal antibiotic use.

Given the time commitment involved in direct marketing, the Brownlees started by scaling back from 170 sows to 60, aiming to sell 900 to 1,000 animals a year at a premium price. Over the past several years they’ve explored a variety of direct marketing strategies. A SARE grant enabled them to partner with a local nonprofit group to test a subscription service for meat, in which up to 100 members would purchase annual shares of pork chops, sausages, bacon and ham.

What they found was that customers were more comfortable with monthly meat subscriptions than with annual meat shares. “We tried to pattern it after how people are used to buying from vegetable farmers: paying upfront,” Denise Brownlee says. “For whatever reason, they were hesitant to commit.” Their experience shows that translating marketing strategies from one type of product to another can require some tweaking.

Decades ago, most meat and animal products were sold directly to customers, but all that changed with the advent of the modern feedlot-to-wholesale system. Recently, consumer concerns about nutritional health, food safety and animal welfare have spurred renewed interest in buying animal products directly from the source. Producers, meanwhile, see the value of re-connecting to consumers.

Making the most of your direct marketing efforts requires being able to explain to customers why your product is better than what they can find in their local supermarket. To make specific nutritional claims for your product, consider getting samples tested by an independent lab. With a SARE producer grant, David and Marlene Groves tested their 100-percent grass-fed bison meat, which they sell directly from their Colorado ranch. They learned that the meat was slightly lower in fat and significantly lower in calories and cholesterol than the standard published values for bison meat.

“It’s very hard to confidently market your product if you don’t completely understand it,” Groves says. “Most buffalo for sale in the supermarket is grain-fed, and it’s much fattier.” Once customers understand the difference, they often are more inclined to buy Buffalo Groves meat.

Another expanding market opportunity for sustainable livestock producers centers on health. Health care practitioners and individuals seeking to improve their diets in response to concerns about chronic disease, pain syndromes and various disorders are fueling demand for better quality meat. The University of North Carolina Program on Integrative Medicine used a SARE grant to compile a directory of locally raised, grass-fed livestock products after receiving repeated requests for such information from holistic health care providers in the area. Part of their research included sources of meat with desired levels of omega-3 fatty acids.

For livestock producers facing an increasingly concentrated market with a few large processors controlling prices, direct marketing offers the opportunity to retain a greater share of product value. Marketing meat and animal products, however, means making food safety issues paramount. (See box with more information about animal product labeling and claims)

Provide cooking instructions, especially for grass-fed meats, which require lower cooking temperatures than conventionally produced meat – “low and slow,” as Texas rancher Peggy Sechrist likes to describe it. If possible, provide samples. With a quality product, sampling can be the most effective form of marketing.

Jim Goodman of Wonewoc, Wis., began direct-marketing organic beef not only to increase profits, but also to talk with and educate his customers about sustainable beef production. After 16 years of selling to packing companies, Goodman now delivers beef to restaurants, a farmers market and directly to friends and neighbors. Customers are getting used to ordering by e-mail in the winter, so direct marketing continues during the winter through scheduled deliveries.

“Traditionally, farmers never see their customers,” says Goodman, who regularly drives 75 miles to Madison to deliver beef. “It’s nice to be able to hand your customers a package of burgers with tips on how to cook it and be able to tell them how the animals are raised.”

When he takes a 1,500-pound steer to the packing plant, he receives about $1,000. That same animal brings $2,500 minus about $450 in processing costs, when he sells it directly.

“People are willing to pay more for direct-marketed organic beef,” he says. “Once you get regular customers, you develop a friendship with them. Then people start talking about buying meat from ‘my farmer.’ It really is the way marketing should be done, the farmer delivers a quality product, and the consumer is happy to pay them a fair price, everyone wins.”

Cooperatives provide another route for direct marketing meat. In 2001, a group of Iowa livestock producers launched Wholesome Harvest, a cooperative featuring organic meat sales in five Midwest states. Co-op founder Wende Elliott, who raises lamb and poultry, got a grant from SARE to research the potential -- since realized with steady sales. “Only by working together can farmers protect the added value of organic meat and capture premium prices,” Elliott says.