Communities look to ranchers for their beef as COVID forces corporate meatpacker slow downs
John O’Dea of Indianola, Nebraska has been direct marketing beef for a while now and is growing that side of his business even more. He shared a few tips for those seeking to get into that market. “Know your potential customers, and don’t try to be everything for everyone. Make sure your current genetics and feed resources match what your customer wants. Don’t try to be the low cost provider and know your real costs and the real yield of your animals. Chasing an ultra-premium product might not be cost effective. Prime rib-eyes are easy to sell, the burger from the same animal might not be as appealing. Set realistic sales goals for short and mid-term and have a 12 month and 5 year plan.”
With the packing houses slowing down, many consumers are now seeking out ranchers to purchase beef directly from the source. Producers are hoping once they get the taste of good high quality protein they will be back for more. With the rise in popularity of grilling and more meat connoisseurs, direct meat marketers are optimistic that their sales will continue to grow.
Jacob Wingebach of Sandhills Beef Company in Mullen, Nebraska is happily providing that product. “Ultimately we are slammed, I have a successful business venture now, and we are working our tails off right now feeding people. We are helping ranchers and feeders but I have a lack of housing and labor. I hired a guy out of the oilfields of North Dakota who called me out of the blue but I have had zero interest from local people. Cutting meat is an art and takes experience. The reason we are in the position we are in, is there is no butcher industry, no one breaks down a whole carcass, whole muscle butchering. The people working in the packing industry do a good job but it’s not as high a quality product, they can’t hold it to a standard. I can’t do it cost competitive, ours is a higher quality product, it’s not the same product its better and should be worth a premium.”
Wingebach is still waiting on a USDA inspection, so currently all his butchering currently is custom, which means it can’t be sold piece by piece. He has been helping ranchers connect with consumers and when the shortages hit he was able to book his plant now months in advance. If he can hire more skilled workers he will double his output, he says.
Wes Plummer, one of the partners of Lower Valley Processing Company, in Kalispell, Montana is seeing plenty of demand, too. “I don’t know where it will ever end, everybody wants local products, all kinds of meat are going out the door like crazy, and hamburger is going out faster than we can grind it. We use a lot of boxed meat since we can’t process enough to fill the supply and our boxed meat suppliers are cracking down. I could be three times as big and still be swamped. I think a lot of people are hoarding it, coming in and buying 500 pounds of hamburger at a time, I finally had to set a limit at 100 pounds. We got to have more businesses starting up if they can get past the political scene and government regulations. In Montana there are federally inspected plants and their meat can go across state lines, state inspected plants can supply schools and restaurants within the state. There are also custom exempt plants for custom processing. There was a big demand for it before the virus hit; people want to know where their meat comes from with no implants. They want to learn about what they are getting and they trust small local businesses.”
Plummer was on the Beef Council and US Meat Export Federation for a number of years. “Our school district is the biggest in the state and we supply them with hamburger patties and sausage links. That part of our business is gone right now with the schools closed. We give field trips to kids of all ages, they want to know where their meat comes from too. Most of our beef comes from a local producer, and we try to buy most of our hogs local and from the Hutterites if we need more.”
Lacey Block from Havana, North Dakota recently started Ranchers Rebellion Beef Company, LLC. In the past they had finished and sold a few head and had such a good response on the quality of the carcasses, the flavor and texture of the meat that they decide to expand. “It was created from the necessity of needing to generate more income from our ranch to insure our future as independent cattle ranchers. We are now a unique company offering a start to finish farm to table product all through local small businesses available conveniently in a local retail setting. We strive to increase our local economy while providing an affordable high quality product, there isn’t a lot of money in it. After the Tyson fire last year and the true volatility of the market was exposed, I started researching and asking questions until I was comfortable scheduling beef processing,” Block said. “Our beef is not only grown from our own farm, but to keep up with demand other local experienced ranchers in our area contribute their cattle as well. I personally go to their farm and pay them more than market value. We also feature what ranch the beef in our freezers is from, allowing the customer to know exactly what they are buying and allowing for more income to the rancher on quartered freezer meat sales.”
Ranchers Rebellion Beef Company utilizes a local USDA federally inspected butcher for processing and packaging. Their beef is dry-aged for 14 days and is still offered in quarters or half beefs for those who wish to buy in bulk. In rural communities, sustaining small business can be difficult, Ranchers Rebellion is offering means to create more foot traffic through stores by offering customers a completely new and innovative way to conveniently and affordably obtain locally grown, high quality farm to table product. “Our local retailers are also paid a commission based on quantity of beef sold,” Block said.
Block understands that many families don’t have extra freezer space or the budget to purchase a large amount of meat at a time. So she has also offers beef by the pound in local businesses. “Our communities want to support small business, farmers and ranchers; a simple, convenient and affordable way to do so just hasn’t existed. The integrity and moral value of our business sets us apart from the rest. Our beef’s unique process of farm to table convenience has developed into a brand from start to finish that a customer can appreciate and a producer can stand behind.”
Block has faced challenges. Her beef was randomly selected for additional testing by the state of North Dakota. She was unable to sell any beef until the testing came back and had to tell a hundred customers that their beef wouldn’t be available that week. With her business starting at the same time as the panic buying and shutdowns she had to change her business plan overnight. She recommends anyone wanting to get into direct sales to learn about tax reporting, managing sales and each town’s individual rules. “It has been so rewarding but also been a ride. I now have a waiting list of stores waiting for me to put my freezers in their stores. It’s been crazy to be involved in this industry right now, it has put the broken food supply system in a whole new perspective.”
“If you are interested in generating more income for your farm contact me, I would love to help you move your beef to a retail line. If you are a business owner interested in carrying our beef line contact me, I will help you find a local rancher in your area to work with. The way beef is brought to the table is not working anymore, someone is making a whole lot of money and it isn’t the cow/calf guys, the backgrounders or the feedlot operators. I know if my boys are going to make it as 7th generation independent cattle producers our “normal way” of selling (beef) has to change and I have found a way to change it. My love for raising cattle runs over 100 years and multiple generations, I believe our future generations have a future in agriculture; it’s just now a necessity to diversify our income,” Block said.
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