If there was something positive that came out of a year of dealing with a global pandemic, it may well have been a booming demand for home-raised beef. Empty meat cases at the local grocery store helped forge a lot of new relationships between consumers and their nearest beef producers. At some point, though, life goes back to whatever normal is, and with that, there may be a challenge in keeping these new customers.
Take it from two producers who have been direct marketing beef for 20 years: Making and keeping loyal customers is not a quick or an easy process. It can, however, be done. How do they plan to keep and build upon this new customer base? Start by thinking about supply.
CONSISTENT SUPPLY IS KEY
"If you're out of stuff all the time, you're not going to be able to maintain customers," Scott Barao says. "We don't sell anything but beef. We don't have as much as a bun in our market. If somebody comes in looking for a cut, and we don't have it, we can get away with it maybe once; but the next time, they're going to Whole Foods where they can get toilet paper, too."
Barao, executive director of The Jorgensen Family Foundation, which operates Hedgeapple Farm, says they market 160-plus animals every year through the Buckeystown, Maryland, farm market. Even with a fall and spring calving season, consistent supply is an ongoing challenge. Barao's solution is partnering with cooperator farms that have staggered calving seasons.
As for the quality component, another key to retaining customers, Hedgeapple is a purebred Angus operation, a breed generally known for carcass quality. While Barao, a former Maryland Extension beef specialist, notes he shies away from extremes and single-trait selection, he makes sure sires used in the program are above breed average in carcass quality. He supplies cooperator herds with bulls and buys their calves at weaning to keep that quality at a consistent level. Hedgeapple has worked with the same group of cooperator producers for about 10 years, so the females in these herds have a high degree of Barao's sires genetics.
Hedgeapple is strictly a forage-fed and finished operation, which can be a challenge on the quality end. Once again, Barao says genetics help a lot, but he also relies on high-quality forages such as alfalfa.
Alfalfa is, in fact, the centerpiece of the growing and finishing process, along with orchardgrass. Cattle graze the perennials from the time they are weaned at 8 months until harvest, typically 20 to 22 months for steers and 18 to 20 months for heifers.
"If they don't gain 1.8 to 2.2 pounds a day, they aren't going to produce an acceptable carcass," Barao continues. "You don't want them falling off. They have to be on a rising plane of nutrition. If you screw up in this system, you're done -- there is no compensatory gain."
During cold months, he relies on high-quality baleage to fill in the gaps. The result is carcasses that consistently grade high Select to low Choice.
"I can say confidently we have a quality product," Barao explains.
SELLING SIDES AND QUARTERS
Ric Coombe and his family don't have an on-farm market. Instead, they sell mostly sides and quarters produced at their Thunder View Farms, located at Grahamsville, New York.
They supplement sales by supplying a local retail store and a nearby food hub with individual cuts and ground beef. They, too, need beef year-round to keep the business going. Having a fall and spring calving season helps; in addition, they rely on nutritional management to spread out harvest and supplies.
"We push some a little faster and let others plod along a bit more," the cattleman says. They try to keep time on a finishing ration to 90 days, which may mean backgrounding cattle on high-quality grazing for a month or so longer, or putting them in the feedlot a week or two earlier. The overall goal is to get them all processed by the time they are 18 months of age.
It doesn't hurt the quality. Coombe says the 100 head of purebred Angus steers and heifers finished annually consistently hit high Choice. "We could go to Prime, but our customers don't want to pay the extra money for fat," he says.
Customer service, customer service, customer service. In a local meat business, this is where you can set yourself apart, Maryland's Barao stresses.
"Customer service does not exist anymore, and when you can stand out, you'll get loyal customers," he continues. "Loyal customers tell other folks about you. There is no better marketing tool than the testimony of a satisfied customer."
For example, Barao says Hedgeapple sells quite a few standing rib roasts over the holidays.
"Everybody who buys one here goes out the door with a brand-new meat thermometer and a cooking guide. It's a $3 investment on a $200 to $250 roast.
"People don't know how to cook or select cuts anymore," he adds. "So, we help them select a cut and give them a cooking guide, [and] help them with recipes and meal ideas and serving size. They can text me, they can e-mail me and get the help they need with cooking."
Barao also says packaging comes under the "good customer service" heading.
"If somebody picks up a recipe that calls for a pound of ground beef, and you're selling ground beef in 2-pound packs, what are they gonna do?" he asks. You need to be conscious about how you package beef so it matches up to recipes. That adds an element of convenience consumers expect today, and it helps build loyalty.
INVEST IN YOUR IMAGE
"Our freezer truck is a nice truck," Coombe says. "When we make a delivery, it represents a food product that is delivered with food safety and cleanliness in mind. It isn't delivered in the back of a pickup truck in coolers with hay around it."
And, when customers visit Thunder View Farm, they see a pristine operation that won the National Cattlemen's Beef Association 2018 Environmental Stewardship Award.
At Hedgeapple, the farm market is in a 1790's log cabin saved from the wrecking ball, moved to the historic farm and reconstructed. The farm is an oasis of carefully managed pastures and undeveloped land in a high-traffic, environmentally fragile area.
Honesty is an important part of that image or brand building. Coombe says it's so important to be open and plainspoken with people.
"Today, our demand exceeds our supply, for example, but we're not bringing in beef from other places," he says. If you're selling all-natural or pasture-finished beef, Coombe says follow the plan, and not just when someone is watching. Transparency is so important in direct sales.
"Our farm is always open to our customers, so they can come see what we do. And, they do that frequently. People from Staten Island who buy our beef want to come up and bring their kids. When they see the cattle on grass and pet a calf, it makes for a customer for a very long time," Coombe explains.
It's the same at Hedgeapple. Barao says his gate is open all the time. When customers pull in, they can see heavy steers grazing that Maryland alfalfa.
Both Barao and Coombe believe customers they've gained over the last year will keep coming back.
"They're willing to suffer a little inconvenience because the product is excellent," Barao says.
Ditto for Coombe. "I believe I'll keep 75% of the COVID customers. They came to fill a need, but when they got the product, they found out it was worth the extra cost. I think I'm going to have a lot of these customers for a long time."
Little Idea, BIG Response:
While experience may be the best teacher, there are times when enthusiasm and innovation get high marks, too.
Scott and Sarah Die-McElfresh have only been in the direct marketing business since 2019, but they have already made an impact.
Co-managers of Vista Farms, a purebred Angus operation, the couple has been selling beef to Fannie's, a café near their Fayette, Alabama, headquarters. They started advertising sales to the public on Valentine's Day 2020. Then came COVID-19.
"I saw the empty shelves in Walmart and thought we could help," Sarah says. The couple had just gotten five head processed in March, so they had the inventory. They came up with the idea of a drive-through sale.
"We did it on Saturday at the farmers' market in Fayette, Alabama, on April 11. We sold 5 pounds of ground beef for $20. We sold 830 pounds that day, most of it in an hour and a half," she continues. "It was a quick, clean exchange. They gave us $20 cash, and we handed them a bag of five 1-pound packages of ground beef."
The event advertised itself. A Tuscaloosa radio station found out about it beforehand through a referral from the state nonprofit program "Sweet Grown Alabama." Then a Tuscaloosa television station picked up on it. "We had people come from Birmingham, Tuscaloosa and across the line in Mississippi," Sarah reports. Better yet, many of the customers asked if they had other cuts available. The McElfreshes gave them a price list, and, "They've returned for more," she says.
For More Information:
> The Jorgensen Family Foundation/Hedgeapple Farm: www.hedgeapplefarm.com
> Thunder View Farms: www.thunderviewfarms.com
> Vista Farms: www.vistafarms.org
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