Northwood Farm Sustainably Raised Beef

Final Report for FNC96-149

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 1996: $5,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/1997
Region: North Central
State: Wisconsin
Project Coordinator:
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Project Information


Northwood Farm is a diversified family run transitional organic dairy farm. The farm has been in our family for 99 years and is currently run by me and my brother, Francis. We currently own 400 acres and rent another 90 acres of cropland. In addition, we rotationally graze heifers and steers on about 60 rented acres. We currently raise legume and mixed hay, corn, oats, barley, rye, soybeans, pasture and sustainably managed woodlots. Crop rotation generally consists of corn, oats, hay or pasture. We only grow enough corn and soybeans for our own use, so a short rotations cycle is maintained. Rye is fall seeded as a weed deterrent and green manure crop for the following year’s corn or beans. Since our farm is organic, no herbicides or pesticides are used. Conventional tillage is used, but we have never believed in overworking the soil so, in effect some tillage may qualify as minimum. Weeds are controlled with cover crops, rotary hoe and cultivators (conventional and flame). Our dairy herd is pastured using an intensive system receiving fresh grass twice daily. Replacement cattle and steers are also pastured using both rotational and permanent pasture systems. This past summer we had roughly 75% of our total livestock on pasture from newborns through the milking herd.

We had begun the switch to organic farming before receiving this grant, and were constantly trying to make our farm more sustainable and less reliant on purchased inputs. We began to drastically reduce chemical use on our crops in 1993, and since 1995 we started to use alternatives to conventional drug use on our animals (more vaccinations, homeopathy, acupuncture, more preventative care and better nutrition). We implemented contour strip cropping with help from SCS personnel over the past 6 to 8 years and started to plant trees on some highly erodable land. One highly erodable field was planted to Big Bluestem to evaluate the possibility of a warm season grass as a supplement to traditional cool season grasses in intensive rotational grazing as well as a source for biomass for electricity production. We have also been outspoken advocates of sustainable agriculture for many years and have done considerable outreach activity over the years.

The goal of this project was to further develop a direct market for sustainably raised beef. As the project developed we realized that in addition to increasing our beef sales we were being looked upon as a source of information about sustainable agriculture and direct marketing. Despite the fact that this was not a preliminary goal, it became as time consuming as our marketing efforts since we decided that education of consumers was one of the most important parts of our project. Another goal was to get more of our animals on pasture, whether in a permanent pasture or on a rotational system.

Process and People:
Although we had a plan n mind when we began, much of our project changed as we learned more about our customers, our products and working within the network of the sustainable agriculture community.

Our first decision, although it was made long before the actual project began, was the decision to raise Holstein steers. We made this decision because we did not wish to expand our diary herd in order to keep ahead of falling milk prices. Holstein steers were the logical choice sine neighboring farms could provide an inexpensive and convenient supply. When we decided to direct market our steers we faced the question of whether or not dairy beef would be as acceptable to consumers as meat from traditional beef breads. Our rational was that although our forage fed steers would be older and possibly not as tender as conventional steers, the flavor would be better, the meat leaner and we were offering an organically raised product that would appeal to many.

Initially we intended to target families as potential customers, with the idea of selling meat by quarters of halves. I received help on pricing animals in these portions from Dr. Dennis Buege Extension Meat Specialist at the University of Wisconsin. The problem that we found in this approach was that very few people wanted this quantity of meat at any given time, due to the fact that freezer space was limited or that they simply did not eat much meat. Most people wanted to buy enough meat for a month or two, so we decided to sell by the cut. Now a new pricing system was needed, so by surveying grocery stores we priced our meat at a similar figure to the stores, assuming this retail price would cover our processing and delivery costs. We contacted friends, friends of friends, advertised in newspapers and called people others suggested to us. We sold through a nearby Community Supported Agriculture Farm (CSA) that did not offer meat. We were encouraged by the positive response to the flavor and leanness, problems of portion size and trimming needed to be worked out with our processor.

I knew some chefs and restaurant people in the Madison area through their involvement in sustainable agriculture activities. Odessa Piper, owner of L’Etoile Restaurant was one of the founders of the Dane County Farmers Market, and an outspoken advocate of local food systems. She had stopped serving beef because she had no supply of locally grown sustainably raised beef. She was eager to try out beef, however due to the nature of her menu tenderloins were the only cut she could utilize. Due to the small scale of our operation we were only able to supply her intermittently, but since her menu changed weekly this was not a problem. Customer acceptance was exceptional. I talked to the staff explaining the differences in sustainably raised beef which they passed on to the customers when describing the dish. The customers loved the meat for its quality and flavor and liked the idea of supporting local farmers. Odessa plans to hold a meal featuring foods from her local growers as a forum for her customers to meet and talk with the farmers while they eat.

Another restaurant owner Brian Boehm of Deb and Lola’s in Madison became a customer in the true sense of sustainability. He uses a variety of cuts and his wait staff does an excellent job of explaining the meaning and importance of sustainability. A few problems of excess fat or perhaps cutting a few more steaks which should have gone into a roast did arise. Careful instructions to the processor usually eliminated the problem, and a price adjustment on the next order kept the customer or restaurant happy.

We conducted a limited survey of our customers when the received their first order by putting addressed and stamped post card with questions relating to flavor, tenderness, portion size, delivery and overall satisfaction on the back. We used the results as well as verbal comments to slightly change some processing practices and slightly adjust prices. This process is of course ongoing. A larger survey was conducted by Healthy Meats! A joint marketing group we helped form in conjunction with Michael Fields Agricultural Institute in East Troy WI. The survey took a much closer look at reasons why people are interested in sustainability and local direct marketing. Results should be available in December.

In early spring of 1997 I started the initiative to open a Farmers Market in our home town of Hillsboro WI. City Manager Ed Emerson made the arrangements with advice from me and several organic vegetable growers. I knew people would probably not come for meat alone, we needed produce and flowers to draw them in. we learned more about what cuts and quantities people wanted since the market environment provided the chance for one on one talk. We picked up more customers and were further able to focus in on different cuts that people were interested in. Dr. Dan Gee professor of Animal Science at South Dakota State University gave me several ideas for cuts we weren’t offering and some ideas for better presentation. Our local market did not present the opportunity for large volume sales as a market in a large metropolitan area would, but it was close to home and allowed us to educate consumers about sustainability as well as talk to farmers who stopped and were curious as to what we were doing. We were able to relate to their situations, since they were neighbors and often planted the seed of the logic of moving into a more sustainable system in their minds.

From the beginning we wanted to keep our project as local as possible. Richland Locker Co. in Richland Center WI is a small family owned business that we felt comfortable working with since owner Carl Huth was very willing to work with us. We spent many hours with Carl and his staff explaining what cuts we needed and listening to their suggestions as to what cuts sold better at certain times of the year, labeling requirements for our own label, price etc. When we were asked to supply burgers for the Chefs Collaborative 2000 at the Taste of Madison (food fair), Carl rearranged and made 3000 burgers for us on very short notice. The plant is state inspected (which limited us to in state sales, and later turned out to be a problem), and although very understanding of our needs certain problems arose. For example, deer hunting season limits processing for two weeks in late November to deer only; necessitating lots of planning ahead (a walk in freezer at our farm was essential to meet situations like this). Most small plants seem to have a certain way of processing that they have used for years, and it is critical and not always easy to change old habits. We found people wanted smaller cuts, leaner cuts and unfortunately more steaks than an animal could provide. Selling more burger was and continues to be a limiting factor in numbers of animals we can sell direct.

Rob Meyers, Director Sustainable Agriculture Programs USDA, was helpful in directing me to USDA staff people on several occasions when I had questions in regard to Federal restrictions on meat sales, and in sending me information on USDA research projects in sustainable agriculture. He also gave me assurance that at least some people in Washington were trying to promote sustainable agricultural values similar to mine.

Margaret Krome and Laurie Greenberg, Michael Fields Agricultural Institute were instrumental in helping us form Healthy Meats! To jointly promote sustainably raised meats with other producers. Targeting the Madison area, we are seeing sales pick up and we are exploring sales possibilities in Milwaukee. Joint advertising and promotion seems to offer advantages of providing a more stable supply of meat and having a larger group of like minded people to educate consumers.

Bill Wenzel, Wisconsin Rural Development Center was one of our first supporters and customers. He gave me the information and application form for the SARE producer grant and wrote a letter of recommendation for our project. He has been involved with the promotion of sustainable agriculture in Wisconsin and continues to refer people to our project as an example of direct marketing that could be applied to many Wisconsin farms.

Neil Sanders Wisconsin Department of Ag, Trade and Consumer Protection, attended one of our Healthy Meats! Meetings and discussed all of the requirements we needed to comply with to be licensed as retail food establishments. I think it is very important for any producer thinking of direct marketing to learn all of the requirements before they begin their marketing. Requirements in different states may prompt a need to revaluate some ideas and plans such as storage, inspection and transportation. Requirements for meat are stricter than other produce and must be complied with.

Results and Discussion:
We did meet our goal of increasing our direct sales. In 1997 we sold approximately 7 animals direct compared with about 3 in 1996. We also, as I pointed out earlier placed many more animals on pasture, and did a great deal more intensive rotational grazing. Much of this would have occurred without our receiving the SARE grant, however the grant enabled us to purchase equipment (walk in freezer, transport freezer and fencing equipment), hire help (fencing and chores), develop our own label (time and lots of phone calls), pay for travel to meetings, workshops, panel discussions and promotional events. We were not sure how many animals we would market at the time we submitted our grant proposal. I have been told it takes seven years to establish a successful direct market, and I would estimate that is probably right. We knew that selling burger was the limiting factor in number of animals sold. If we could sell meat across state lines we could move enough burger through a food coop to greatly increase our market, however that would require a change in federal law or force us to change to a USDA inspected plant (this would require us to haul live animals and processed meat about 80 miles instead of 25, and abandon our local processor). I know local markets exist for burger and I am also looking into alternative to burger (brats, sausage, cube steak and different roast alternatives). I would say that yes, results were pretty much what we expected. One component of the project that I didn’t expect was the extent of the educational aspect. I found myself spending more time and traveling more to do educational efforts than I did in actual marketing (discussed further in outreach section). If I were to make changes in my plans I would try to contact more successful direct marketers and try to solve the problem of moving burger. One must realize however that I probably took a rather unique approach to my direct marketing, in that I was determined to reach people with an idea, a concept of sustainable agriculture and convince them that they should buy the meat not only because it was lean and had good flavor, but because by doing so they were making a difference. I did loose some customers who were looking mostly at price and saw no reason to commit themselves to sustainability. I never intended to approach this from the standpoint of selling more meat only, I was selling an idea as well, and so standard marketing practices might not necessarily have applied. I think through workshops, class lectures, farm visits and other educational system must occur. Education of consumers will eventually, I think, increase the demand for sustainably raised and locally grown foods and that is after all, what we are after.

During the course of this project I realized how little the average person know about food and agriculture. People are so far removed from the production of food many of them only know what they see in supermarkets or can associate to the farms viewed from the highway. Consumers have little concept of how their food choices impact the lives of farmers or the environment. Many do not realize that they can make a difference by choosing locally grown, sustainable or organic foods. I found that once you give people a sense of why sustainably raised food is different, why it is important to the environment and to the survival of small farms and local economies; they usually see that as a value added and are glad for the chance to buy it.

Another lesson learned was that direct marketing can be a double edged sword, when a farmer conventionally markets his products he gets no negative feedback if the consumer is dissatisfied. He more or less kisses it good bye at the farm gate. When direct marketing however, if there is a problem, you hear about it. In my case I was told if the meat was tough or improperly cut. I was blamed when the rolled rib roast was fatty (even though by nature they are). I was responsible for any dissatisfaction even if it was due solely to the customers ignorance. I did find that people are very forgiving when you explain and make the mistake right with credit or a replacement. I also found that direct marketing has benefits most farmers have never known – people appreciate your work. A satisfied customer can almost embarrass you with praise, and it does tend to grow on you and make your work better. A satisfied customer is the best advertising you can buy and the cheapest. The appreciation I feel when I made a delivery, or the thanks I get after talking to a group and really connecting with them makes it all worthwhile. This is how marketing is supposed to work.

I think our project may have involved a bit more risk since we are using Holstein steers rather than traditional beef steers. Holsteins have traditionally been discriminated against at the market. The better cuts of meat have generally been taken from beef animals while Holsteins have been “fast food” animals. With increased use of growth promotants and “hot” rations many feeders now are using Holsteins rather commonly. In operation such as ours where animals are fed very little grain and often reach 30 to 36 months of age at slaughter, the baby beef aspect is gone and the meat may not be as “melt in your mouth” tender as some people may expect. Also since some of our cattle are purchased as calves from different herds, there is often great variation in size and finish of the animal at slaughter since finished weights may run from 1400 to 1650 pounds. I try to pick the animals that look like they have the best eating qualities for their age at slaughter, and these are direct marketed. I have had very few complaints, most of which could be traced back to trying to cut that one extra steak off the end of the sirloin. There has been the problem of the customer that wants only rib eye steaks and really makes it difficult to get rid of an entire animal. Or my restaurant customers both wanting all of the tenderloins. Basically I have found that people who are concerned to buy directly understand most of my problems and are very willing to make allowances and work with me. Many of my customers know I often sell at a lower price to someone who is obviously financially pressed to afford more, it is my prerogative, and they support me.

This direct marketing project taken as a whole, with all of the changes we have made towards sustainability, has convinced me that despite what the experts say, the small family farm can survive. I and my customers know there is more to food than a cheap price; it is more than a commodity as are the farmers and farm workers that grow it. People with a sense of ethics will always provide a market for farmers with ethics. The practice of sustainable methods of farming has made us more committed to the system. It would be difficult to estimate all of the impacts of this direct marketing project, but it seems to me that it encompasses most aspects of sustainable farming. We raise our excess bull calves and provide a good market for our neighbors (we pay what the calves are worth, not what they could get at the sale barn), we feed a variety of home grown feeds which is good for the animals and the environment, we sell locally which cuts transportation costs and supports a local community, we provide healthy nutritious food, we support ourselves at a profession where our family can work together and we enjoy our work! Sounds almost utopian, but when you focus on people and future generations (as a sustainable system does) rather than making your entire focus profit, great things happen.

As I stated earlier outreach or communications in general became the real focus of our project. We determined from the very beginning that we needed to inform people about sustainably raised beef and why buying it or any sustainably raised product was important. When I attended the NCRSARE Marketing Roundtable in April we all agreed that if we could create the demand farmers would try to fill it. The $300,000 Marketing Initiative Fund was set up for this purpose.

As for my individual efforts to market our beef I initially tried to get involved in groups that were undertaking similar efforts. I talked with the Wisconsin Farmland Trust and the Coulee Region Organic Produce Pool who were both involved in establishing a market for organic beef in the Twin Cities area. They both required meat to be from certified organic farms, which at this point we are some time away from. However, this could be a good outlet in time especially for our cull dairy cows and could help find a market for burger. I was also involved in exploring the formation of a local marketing/joint advertising group, Driftless Area Resource Network which died for a variety of reasons, but I did meet people who I eventually did work with on marketing issues. Homegrown Wisconsin is another marketing group that started to sell sustainable/organic produce into the Madison area. It has become very successful as it also moved into the Chicago market. Due to liability concerns and some resistance from some board members to the idea of meat in general, they have never marketed meat, only vegetables. Several people from the University of Wisconsin are working with the group and I think in time, meat may be sold through Homegrown.
Healthy Meats! Was formed by about eight meat producers with help from Michael Fields Agricultural Institute to market sustainably raise meat in the Madison area. I have picked up several customers through the group and we have affiliations with the UW Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems. Several people in Wisconsin Citizen Action are interested in establishing a direct market for meat in the Milwaukee area, and I am currently working with them to establish a market. Early this spring I started the initiative to form a farmers market in our hometown of Hillsboro. The market was quite successful, perhaps to a larger extent for the vegetable growers who included some Amish farmers. We were able to explain the concept of sustainability to many people and several who became customers said they could never buy meat in the store after tasting our meat. Many farmers also stopped and asked about our success, methods, the SARE grant, etc. It was in many ways surprising to see how the farmers market became the focal point for several community based activities throughout the summer. I have been involved to a limited extent with the Midwest Sustainable Agriculture Working Group ant The Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture.

On July 23, 1996 we hosted a pasture walk at our farm to share information and discuss our intensive rotational grazing system. I also gave a brief rundown of the SARE program and the grant we received. Roughly 25 people attended a good number for a good hay drying day in July. We have hosted farm visits of customers, families, students and last fall we hosted a MacArthur Fellow from Portugal. People area always interested in our farming methods and in most cases wonder why we choose a method that most would say is more risky and less profitable than conventional farming. It’s always nice to be able to educate people and perhaps change the status quo.

During the course of the past two years I have written many letters to the editor of local and state papers discussing sustainable agriculture in response to state or federal policies etc., that were currently in the news. Several letters also went to the national press including; NY Times, SF Chronicle, Chicago Tribune, The Progressive, In These Times and the Farm Journal. I always feel the since the letters to the editor are the most read part of the paper, they are a valuable free forum to get ideas out. I have written or been interviewed for articles about our operation or sustainable agriculture in general that appeared in the Minnesota Sustainable Farming Association News, Pasture Talk, Metroland Magazine (Albany New York), Chefs Collaborative 2000 Newsletter, Re:Action (Union of Concerned Scientists Newsletter) and I wrote a policy statement on agriculture for the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington DC. Although no television exposure has developed yet, Healthy Meats is working on an appearance on Public Television (and Public Radio). I was interviewed for local radio and did an interview on Radio Pacifica and The Great Plains Radio Network. Wisconsin Public Radio has a dairy series of call in radio shows which often have an agricultural subject as a topic, often with a very non sustainable point of view. I have always tried to give the viewpoint of sustainable agriculture equal time.

Since policy both in Wisconsin state government and Washington DC have a great influence on SARE funding and research projects, I have been active in legislative contacts, testimony at county, state and federal government hearings on agricultural issues. I have commented on food labeling and safety issues, local zoning and land use, made comments to USDA on its Sustainable Agriculture programs, sent comments to USDA/Foreign Agricultural Service on formulating a US Action Plan on Food Security and sent comments to Richard Lugar’s Senate Ag Committee on agriculture research funding. I was an informal agriculture advisor to Paul Soglin, 2nd congressional district candidate for US congress in 1996. Since his experience in agricultural areas was somewhat limited, I went to several press conferences and meetings with him to lend support and the voice of a farmer. Through out grant funding we were able to give free or reduced price samples of our beef to about 20 restaurants and food cooperatives, our local church and hospital fund raisers and Public Radio and Television fund raising auctions. We were also very fortunate to be asked to supply the burgers for the Wisconsin Audubon Society Prairie Field Day, The Madison Chapter of Chefs Collaborative 2000 fall Picnic and booth at “A Taste of Madison” Food Fair (both very high profile well attended events) and the annual meeting of The Agriculture Food and Human Values Society held at the UW Madison. The AFHVS picnic provided national exposure for locally grown food prepared by the UW food service with instruction and assistance from Madison chefs. The UW food service was so impressed that they decided to prepare several yearly meals for the students using locally grown foods, including our meat. All meat purchased by the UW must be federally inspected, and since ours is state inspected we are working to resolve this problem. In an effort to talk directly to potential customers or just to educate I have done a number of workshops and lectures on our operation and sustainable agriculture. I have given workshops at the Midwest Renewable Energy Fair in Amhurst WI for the past two years, sat on panel discussions on sustainable agriculture at the Diocese of LaCrosse Rural Life Committee and the Madison Chefs Collaborative. I was also on a panel on industrialized agriculture for the UW Greens and will be on a panel on Renewable Energy from sustainable agriculture at the UW Madison. I have also lectured to a veterinary student organization at UW Madison, classes at Edgewood College and Western Wisconsin Technical College. I have also talked and answered many, many questions for restaurant staff people.

I plan to continue the efforts we started through Healthy Meats as this seems to be a very promising means of advertising and education. We will continue to explore the Milwaukee area and our customer contacts in Madison continue to grow through this group. I think our educational message has been successful so far, if not in increased sales, at least in increasing consumer knowledge and awareness of sustainable agriculture. Speaking and workshop requests continue to come in so people seem to be growing in awareness of, and desire for more information about sustainable agriculture. Overall I would say our grant was a success both for our individual operation and for giving me the time and resources to educate and communicate the message of sustainable agriculture.


Participation Summary
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.