Liz and Nate Brownlee run Nightfall Farm in Crothersville, Indiana. They raise livestock on pasture, using rotational grazing and GMO-free feed; and sell chicken, pork, lamb, turkey, and eggs at area farmers markets, to chefs, and to 55 meat CSA members. They have just completed their sixth season farming. Before that, the Brownlees worked on farms for five years to gain experience. They brought two key skills to this project: (1) A basic understanding of what it's like to open an on-farm meat processing facility. While in Vermont, they worked in an on-farm, state-inspected poultry processing facility. The facility was in its first-year operating, so they gained a behind-the-scenes look at opening an on-farm meat processing facility. They have maintained ties with this mentor farm, and have relationships with two on-farm processing facilities in New York. (2) They regularly collaborate with other farmers, and have organizational skills that will be critical to opening our farmer-to-farmer butcher shop.
Dennis and Tricia Bowers and family, alongside Tricia’s parents, Kenneth and Mona Plumer own and operate Plumer & Bowers Farmstead. Without GMOs, hormones or antibiotics, they raise 100% grass-fed/grass-finished beef, grass-fed/grain-finished beef, pastured laying hens, small grains, popcorn, field corn, alfalfa and soybeans on their 1,000-acre farmstead. They sell beef, eggs, popcorn and whole-grain flours at the farm and farmer’s market. From the late 1940’s to the late 1980’s, Kenneth processed his family’s beef on-farm and processed pork on neighboring farms. Mona assisted in cutting and wrapping beef beginning in 1964. Tricia helped process beef in the 1980s. We are committed to responsibly and respectfully raising our animals from birth to slaughter on foods that we cultivate. A farmer-to-farmer butcher shop would extend this commitment from birth to beyond butchering.
Another collaborator is Max Joyner. Max is a chef in Columbus, Indiana. The Brownlees have been working with Max for five years (selling whole chicken, whole pigs, and whole lambs). The Bowers have been working with Max for over two years now (selling their wheat and popcorn). Max regularly butchers pork, lamb, and beef from local farmers, including the Brownlees, for his restaurant. Max was eager to collaborate on opening a farmer-to-farmer butcher shop. In the future, Max will provide butchering expertise and labor. During this project, Max helped assess materials needed, site plan, and labor costs. If the butcher shop opens, he may also provide the site for our butcher shop. His farmstead includes a 40x60’ pole barn with heated floors, drainage, and good lighting – and he bought the farmstead with the express hope of converting the pole barn into a meat cutting space.
Problem Addressed and Solution Pursued
Access to quality meat processing is a problem throughout our region. Problems include:
- Availability: Schedules are so full that available butcher dates are 3-4+ months away
- Labelling and Packaging: Farmers selling directly to customers often have health department requirements or customer demands that are different from other farmers,
- Transparency: Farmers who sell directly to customers depend on assurance that the packaged meat is, in fact, their own meat.
- Fuel Cost: to/from the butcher shop and back to retrieve the meat
- Time Off-Farm: during trips to/from the butcher shop
We aimed to increase the sustainability of our livestock operations by ensuring access to a red meat processing facility that meets our needs as small, direct market farmers. We used SARE funds to plan a “farmer-to-farmer” butcher shop: a facility designed by farmers, for farmers.
Project Research Approach, Outreach, and Farmer Learning Outcomes
This feasibility study included: detailed cash flow projections; business plan; regulatory planning with an eye towards food safety and HACCP plans; and a site plan and list of materials needed. We wanted everything to be open source and available to other farmers, so we published all of this information on our website, www.nightfallfarm.com/processing, and distributed it at conferences.
We wanted to share what we learned, so we gathered other farmers who face butcher access and quality challenges, so that they could learn together. After our activities, farmers reported increased understanding of both regulatory and financial realities for existing and potential butcher shops. Our outreach included:
- A tour of butcher shops in the Indianapolis area, as part of the 2019 Indiana Small Farms Conference. Participants toured two state or USDA inspected processing facilities as well as one retail area, and listened to a panel discussion with nearby farmers who have opened butcher shops
- Presentation at the 2020 Indiana Uplands Winter Farming Conference, where we shared about both our feasibility study and the survey results
We also conducted a statewide survey of livestock producers to get a better sense of their frustrations and needs. We designed the survey to help inform the “whats” of our butcher shop: what services to provide, what scale, etc. However, it also informed the social sustainability of this project. Eighty farmers from 30 Indiana counties filled out the survey. The survey results affirmed our own frustration with current processing options – and made clear that there is a niche for a (several?!?) farmer-focused butcher shop(s).
Succinct Statement of Research Conclusions
This SARE project has been incredibly useful. Our feasibility study confirmed that there is a true need for a farmer-focused butcher shop(s), and that a version of this business could be economically viable. Our cash flow analysis, floor plans, equipment lists, etc. are all available for free at www.nightfallfarm.com/processing. In short, a 5-species, kill and process facility would be difficult to sustain given the parameters that we set for ourselves: a focus on farmers’ needs and quality over quantity; the ability to build the business slowly over time (so perhaps starting with one part-time employee), etc. However, a 3-species cut and wrap facility is financially viable and meets quality of life objectives for the owner of the business while also meeting farmers’ needs for reliable, farmer-focused butchering.
We also learned a great deal of information about how butchering options relate to farmers’ social and economic sustainability. We suspect that this information could be critical to other farmers interested in opening butcher shops. Nearly every respondent (88%) cited their processing situation as a barrier to expanding their farm business. Details about their input is in the “Results” section.
Farmer Adoption Actions
We are encouraged that we found a version of a farmer-focused butcher shop that is economically sustainable – and that it can build farmers’ social sustainability. We feel prepared to create this cut and wrap facility. Thanks to our SARE project, we have a floor plan, an equipment list, a cash flow analysis, a business plan, an understanding of regulatory requirements, and contacts nationwide. We also learned what questions to ask, and how a group might need to learn together and process together if they are considering opening a butcher shop. We have included this more qualitative information in our handouts as well.
We hope that other farmers and ranchers interested in opening butcher shops will utilize these resources in their decision-making as they consider how to improve their economic and social sustainability.
Now that we have completed our SARE project, our next major task is to decide who wants to open it, and how. We are in the beginning stages of considering things like zoning approval and potential grants and loans.
- Create a “shovel-ready” plan for a farmer-to-farmer butcher shop, so that we are ready to begin creating our butcher shop – scheduling construction, ordering materials, scheduling processing, etc. Plan will include:
- Business plan, including budget and cash-flow analysis
- Resources for meeting regulatory requirements
- Resources for meeting food safety and HACCP planning needs
- Site plan and list of equipment needed
- Gather livestock farmers in Indiana to learn together about butchering options that accommodate farms selling in local and regional markets. Share our plans via our in-person workshops and via our website.
- Partner with Indiana University to conduct a meat processing survey. The survey will gauge farmers’ sense of processing problems and opportunities in the state. Thanks to IU’s number-crunching capacity, we will be able to share the results of this survey in an academically rigorous way, and share this data with decision-makers in the state. The results should help guide future conversations and progress on meat processing in Indiana.
Conducting the Feasibility Study
Our group (five farmers and one chef) met monthly to plan out a farmer-to-farmer butcher shop. Our feasibility study involved two consultants and significant farmer time researching what our facility might include, price points, food safety regulations, and more. The monthly meetings (and a color-coded spreadsheet) have kept us moving forward and accountable to one another. At the meetings, we talked through detailed questions about the facility, divvied homework needed for the next steps, looked at any new info from our consultants, and reported in what we had learned or accomplished since the last meeting. Along the way, we documented what questions took up significant conversation time, as we would also want other farmers in our shoes to consider these issues as well. We included these questions in our outreach materials.
Another key piece of learning was visiting existing processors. We travelled to multiple processors that seemed to be aligned with our vision, so that we could be in their space and get a sense of their scale, products, customers, and prospects. This was fun and critical, because it let us ground-truth our ideas, as if we were Gold-i-locks. We can see something that looks good on paper (or on the web) but in person feels impersonal, or dirty, or fancy…or just right!
Working with Consultants
We hired two consultants to help make this feasibility study faster and more rigorous, so that it was valid and useful enough to share with other farmers. Everything they produced for us is shown on the Nightfall Farm website, open source for farmers to utilize (some materials are already posted!). If we didn’t have a SARE grant, I’m sure I would not have hired consultants – and I’m sure it would have taken much longer and been much more daunting to compile the cash flow, equipment list, etc. Hopefully, other farmers can adapt the open source materials from this project, and save time, money, and stress.
Our consultants were:
Adam Moody is a farmer and meat processor here in Indiana. He has a working knowledge of the regulations, finances, and realities of small-scale meat processing in our state, which was invaluable. He drafted our equipment lists and floor plans, and provided financial numbers for our business consultant.
Nathan Boone is a farmer and business consultant here in Indiana. He created our cash flow projections, and challenged us to articulate our goals (How would this facility really fit into our lives? What does it need to look like and produce to be successful?).
Outreach – Surveying Other Farmers
We completed a statewide survey of livestock farmers, addressing processing challenges and opportunities. We started with twelve questions that we thought we would distribute via Google forms. After drafting these questions, we asked three researchers at Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs to provide feedback (so that the survey wouldn’t be too leading). The researchers were interested in some of the same data. They offered to help us make the survey more robust in order to capture all desired information and to provide well-respected, valid findings for decision-makers in the state. Also, they ran it through their university ethics board. We also sought input for the survey from the Niche Meat Processors Assistance Network. They connected us with researchers and processors in other states that had completed similar surveys, so that we could learn from their questions and layout. This was invaluable! We distributed the survey via eight farmer organizations and service provider organizations (i.e. Extension, Young Farmers Coalition, etc.).
The Feasibility Study
This process has been invaluable. We’ve honed in on our business model (cut-and-wrap plus value added, but no slaughter) and scale (4.5 person is too big for us; 1-person might be just right). We’ve begun to really understand what equipment is necessary (and what would be nice), how we’ll lay out our floor plan, what regulations we must meet, and how much capital we’ll need to get started. All of this is available at www.nightfallfarm.com/processing.
Outreach – Survey
The survey results were fascinating! The following are results from the report created by Jodee Ellet at Indiana University, about the survey results. For full details, see the handout. An info-graphic rich version of this handout is pending and will be posted to the Nightfall Farm website.
Eighty farmers from 30 Indiana counties responded to the survey. A bit about their operations:
- Their average annual gross sales of meat from 2018 was $68,000 (range = $1,000 to $650,000). Most respondents (63%) sold direct to consumers.
- These farms raised and butchered more than 180,000 animals in 2018.
- The majority of respondents raised beef cattle for sale (61%); followed by swine (36%); meat chickens (30%) and lamb (18%). 40 out of 78 raised more than one type of animal (51%).
- 45% indicate that sales of meat comprise the majority of their farm income.
Nearly every respondent (88%) cited their processing situation as a barrier to expanding their farm business:
- More than 70% of respondents pass by processors closer to home to get better service.
- When asked about factors contributing to their decision to seek out a new processor, farmers ranked proximity to farm and cost as less important than factors such as ease of scheduling, processor not returning all of the farmer’s meat, and uncertainty that meat was from their animals.
- Farmers reported having to schedule their animals for slaughter an average of 107 days (3½ months) in advance, with the range of responses from 14 to 365 days.
- Ideally, farmers would like to book their processor 29 days in advance, according to respondents.
Educational & Outreach Activities
We are sharing the results of our SARE grant in every way possible, including print and online resources as well as in-person events.
Written materials (self-published):
- A handout that details the resources we have compiled, and helps others in our position (livestock producers who are considering opening their own farmer-focused butcher shop) think through what their ideal butcher shop might look like.
- A web presence for this same basic material (from #1, above) but with links to resources we have compiled as well as resources available online. We feel like this site is a treasure trove that could have saved us months of work. It has been incredibly useful to compile these resources for our own butcher shop planning purposes – and we hope that the website will save other farmers time! Website is www.nightfallfarm.com/processing
We hosted two in-person outreach events:
- A tour of butcher shops in the Indianapolis area, as part of the 2019 Indiana Small Farms Conference. The tour included two successful inspected meat processing facilities in the Indianapolis area, including one farmer-run processor. At lunch, a panel of farmers (who also opened meat processing facilities!) shared with our group about their experiences. Tricia, one of our team members, also shared about our feasibility study and the resources we had gathered for other farmers to utilize. We promoted the event via Purdue Extension, the Hoosier Young Farmers Coalition, and other allies in the state, as well as word-of-mouth.
- Presentation at the 2020 Indiana Uplands Winter Farming Conference. The goal of this presentation was to make sure other farmers knew about the resources we had gathered and the feasibility study. We hope others can utilize this info to make informed decisions about their own butchering options, especially if they are interested in opening their own farmer-to-farmer butcher shops.
After participating in these outreach events, farmers reported increased understanding of both regulatory and financial realities for existing and potential butcher shops. The majority said that after the presentation, they had a moderate understanding of: the range of products that could be processed; opportunities and hurdles for livestock farmers as well as meat processors; food safety regulations; and resources available. Over 80% said the information was very useful. Over 90% said they would share the information they learned with others.
We learned something new almost every month. A few highlights:
- This feasibility study has taken far more work than we anticipated! There have definitely been times when we wondered why we weren’t outside, working on existing challenges on the farm (rather than at the computer or on the phone trying to project future realities). But then we would remember just how stressful it is not to have a reliable, farmer-focused meat processing option, and we’d regain focus! I would advise others to build in more labor cost for the farmers’ research and less for paying consultants.
- Working together with other farmers has been incredibly stimulating and rewarding. We’ve enjoyed the chance to spend time together and learn together. It was critical that we had built trust and friendship before this project, and before we consider opening the butcher shop that we have now researched.
- Many farmers still don’t know what SARE is all about, or feel equipped to apply for SARE grants. We absolutely recommend that other farmers utilize SARE grants for innovative projects. We are telling everyone we know to apply for this incredible resource.
- There are endless resources available online and many are necessarily quite broad. The SARE grant gave us the chance dig into available resources and tailor them to our realities.
We are very excited about the new collaboration with Indiana University researchers (for the survey). They have been adamant that our views and needs as farmers must shine through the survey, and eager to add their expertise (with survey design, data assessment, report writing, outreach, etc.). We hope that the results of the survey are useful to other farmers, and we hope to keep building our working relationship with the team at IU.