Custom processing can be a rewarding direct livestock marketing channel. The Sustainable Farming Association surveyed a comprehensive list of producers and processors throughout northeastern Minnesota and northwestern Wisconsin for 1. information that consumers need, but often do not have, about buying custom-processed meat, and 2. interest in appearing in directories for consumers. From this, the SFA developed producer and processor directories, a consumer flyer outlining the steps in buying custom-processed meat, and a series of more detailed fact sheets. Courses were given in cooking with lean meat and farm tours for English as a Second Language classes were given.
Custom processing — selling meat by the whole animal, side or (for beef) quarter — has the potential to be a rewarding direct marketing channel for livestock producers. This is especially crucial in areas like northeastern Minnesota and northwestern Wisconsin, where there are few inspected processing plants — inspection is required for sale of individual cuts of meat — and where wholesale markets are not viable for many producers.
The overall goal of this project was to identify and overcome consumers’ barriers to buying custom processed meat, in order to make it a more rewarding channel. Our original objectives were to hold meetings between producers and custom processors to determine mutual needs in the processing of direct-marketed animals (we ultimately did this via surveys and not meetings); to develop a brochure for consumers on the processing of locally raised meats (revising after one year as necessary); and to provide consumer outreach — semi-annual classes on preparation of local meats, which are leaner and need to be cooked differently than more marbled meat.
The project’s work in sum:
surveys—> outreach materials—>(outreach, evaluation, more surveys)—> revised outreach materials
During the first year, we sent surveys to livestock producers and meat processors in the region. About one-quarter of each responded, with 19 producers wishing to be listed in the producer directory, and nine processors providing information for the processor directory. In explaining the low survey response rate, informal conversations indicated that many producers do not wish to direct market, and that many processors are already at capacity. The responses, though, confirmed that there was nevertheless definite interest in the project.
Materials developed during the first year include producer and processor directories and a set of nine fact sheets (totaling 21 pages) explaining aspects of buying custom processed meat, such as giving cutting instructions to the processor, calculating costs based on hanging weight, and other consumer education issues that both producer and processor responses had suggested.
Outreach and distribution activities included mailings to producers, processors, Extension offices, and presentations at meetings of producer organizations and other events; community education classes in cooking with lean meat; and farm tours for English as a Second Language students.
Written evaluations collected during this time on the materials, and casual observation, led to a series of revisions during the second year of the project. The chief revision was the condensing of the most essential fact sheet information into a one-page brochure, to make it more user-friendly. The producer directory was expanded to include fruit, vegetable and other farm products in addition to livestock. Most fact sheets were retained for consumers seeking more detail, and the processor directory was slightly revised to update information on facilities.
Media response and the ensuing consumer response to this material has been very good. We plan continued distribution through 4-H clubs, feed stores, fairs, and other channels.
Original project objectives were:
1. Hold one meeting per year between producers and custom processors to determine mutual needs in the processing of direct-marketed animals.
2. Develop a brochure for consumers on the processing of locally raised meats; revise after one year as necessary.
3. Provide consumers with semi-annual classes on preparation of local meats.
Farming in northeastern Minnesota and northwestern Wisconsin has long taken a back seat to the more dominant mining and timber industries, and more recently tourism. The growing season is too short and much of the soil too poor for many crops. The region, though, did once have a more substantial agricultural base, characterized mainly by dairy and beef cattle, and cole and root crops. Many small towns had their own locker plants and creameries, and the cooperative movement thrived.
Much of this has disappeared with the advent of long-distance, refrigerated transportation of cheaper food grown and processed elsewhere. Dairy farmers have either gone out of business or converted to less-demanding beef operations. Only two of the 40-odd meat processing plants are inspected, and livestock producers using regional plants are limited to selling their animals custom-processed for consumers who purchase meat by the side. Agriculture is not an economic development priority in the region.
At the same time, however, there is a burgeoning interest among consumers in buying locally produced meat. There is a greater understanding of food safety problems in high-speed processing plants that compromise cleanliness for “efficiency,” and a greater understanding of the many injustices in the increase in corporate concentration of agriculture. Although few people still have the freezer space capable of holding a side or even a quarter of an animal, casual observation indicates that there is a gradual turnaround in this — people are willing to purchase or find freezer space if it allows them to buy meat whose production and processing they can more sure of.
The overall goal of this project, then was to identify and help overcome consumers’ barriers to buying custom processed meat in order to make custom processing a rewarding direct livestock marketing channel. The project’s underlying assumptions are that small-scale, locally owned farm production and processing are important components of more economically and socially sustainable communities, and leave less room for social and environmental injustice, and that there is a substantial potential market.
Producer and processor surveys
How to identify and help overcome consumers’ barriers to buying custom processed meat? Our initial plan (objective 1) had been to hold face-to-face meetings with both producers and processors to discuss these issues.
Early on in the project, though, we decided to contact producers and processors through surveys rather than hold face-to-face meetings. This decision was based on 1. surveys being a more efficient way of collecting basic information, and 2. the fact that the project team member who had planned to hold the meetings left the region, and was replaced with a team member who preferred surveys. Other experience has shown that face-to-face meetings can be very productive, but that many people are too busy to attend all the meetings they would like to. Additionally, few processors in the region were familiar enough with the Sustainable Farming Association to be likely to carve out extra time.
During each year of the project, surveys were sent to over 200 livestock producers and about 40 meat processors throughout northeastern Minnesota and northwestern Wisconsin. Surveys served to determine what kind of information these groups felt consumers needed about custom processed meat, and to collect information for producer and processor directories and consumer fact sheets.
Once the initial version of the materials was developed in fall 1999 (see next section), evaluation surveys were also included with materials as they were distributed. Remarks from these surveys were used in developing the revised materials in spring 2000.
producers interested in appearing in 1999 directory____19
processors responding to 1999 survey______________9
surveys evaluating initial version of materials_________6
producers interested in appearing in 2000 directory____15
processors responding to 2000 survey______________7
Low survey responses
Why did relatively few producers respond? Informal conversations with producers indicated the following:
• Many producers prefer wholesale markets to direct marketing.
• Some producers on the mailings lists had scaled back their operations and/or did not want to expand their markets.
• The information that some producers had submitted for the 1999 Directory had not changed from the previous year, and they assumed that it would stay the same in the next version (personal communication).
Why did relatively few processors respond?
• Many processors are at capacity, even for custom work.
• Two processors had discontinued their operations after the initial version of the directory came out.
Consumer outreach materials
Initial version: 1999 “Locally Produced Meat” series
After the initial producer and processor surveys, we developed a set of materials called “Locally Produced Meat.” In addition to information from survey responses, help was provided by a number of individuals listed in the “Farmer involvement” and “Involvement of other audiences” sections below.
Materials in the 1999 version included the following:
• Livestock producers in northeastern Minnesota and northwestern Wisconsin
• Meat processors in northeastern Minnesota and northwestern Wisconsin
1. How to buy locally produced meat: An overview
2. Placing an order with a livestock producer: The details
3. Arranging slaughter and processing: The details
4. Cuts of beef, pork and lamb: The details
5. Calculating costs: The details
6. Transporting, storing and cooking meat: The details
7. Definitions of common terms
8. State and federal regulations governing direct sale of meat
9. Tips for cooking with local lean beef
Distribution was as follows:
• They were mailed to all 12 Extension offices in the region, and to producers and processors listed in the directories.
• Troy Salzer of the Univ. of Minn. Extension Service: Carlton Co. presented them at numerous events.
• The SFA presented them at meetings of regional producer organizations.
• They were presented at the North Central Region SARE’s Alternative Marketing Conference in November 1999.
• Requests for the 1999 “Locally Produced Meat” series totaled 31 (five government or university offices, five other organizations, 14 producers, one newspaper reporter, and six consumers). Because some producers requested multiple copies, we distributed a total of 60 packets.
Survey responses and personal observation led to some revisions in the materials:
• Inclusion of fruit, vegetable and other products in addition to meat in the producer directory. Some livestock farmers produce a variety of things, and limiting the directory to meat seemed artificial. The 2000 Directory provided an extensive list of regional farm producers who direct market.
• Simplifying the fact sheets. The fact sheets in the 1999 version amounted to a 21-page instruction booklet. Few consumers are eager to invest this much time reading technical material. We created a single four-fold flyer that gave the essential information, and kept most of the other fact sheets for people looking for more detailed information.
The new, 2000 materials were:
• Northeastern Minnesota and northwestern Wisconsin Farm Products Directory 2000
• Meat processors in northeastern Minnesota and northwestern Wisconsin
Flyer: Locally Produced Meat (a concise overview)
More detailed fact sheets:
• Cuts of beef, pork and lamb
• Calculating costs
• Safe handling of meat
• Definitions of common terms
• State and federal regulations governing direct sale of meat
• Tips for cooking with local lean beef
Distribution was as follows:
• A press release sent to 36 regional newspapers and 19 radio and TV stations generated 23 requests for the materials. Materials were sent with the press release.
• Materials were displayed and available at the Carlton County Fair in Barnum, Minn., and the 7th Annual Bayfront Harvest Festival in Duluth, Minn. About 100 copies were picked up.
• They were mailed to all 12 regional Extension offices and producers and processors listed in the directories; the 25 individuals who had requested the 1999 version; 10 regional natural foods cooperatives
• The Producer Directory was mailed with the SFA newsletter, which includes Lake Superior Meats Cooperative members and goes to 310 people.
Consumer outreach activities
Knowing that pasture-raised meat is leaner than most store-bought meat, and that most people are accustomed to cooking more marbled meat, we offered several cooking classes through the public schools’ community education program. Lean meat becomes tough and dry if cooked like well-marbled meat.
The first two classes, on “Cooking with Lean Meat” in 1999, attracted a total of six students. The community education office coordinator thought that perhaps not many people found the topic unusual or engaging enough. In response, we offered a class in March 2000 on cooking with organ meat, “The Tender Taste of Tongue.” There were no registrants!
We do not consider the cooking class component of the project to be successful, although we feel that there is still potential.
Farm tours for English as a Second Language students:
The project’s second consumer outreach activity was a farm tour offered to English as a Second Language (ESL) students enrolled in the Duluth Public School’s ESL program. In October 1998 and October 1999, about 20 adults students and their teachers visited small, diversified farms in Maple, Wis., and Mahtowa, Minn. Plans for other tours fell through because of the difficulty of coordinating class schedules with the schedules of producers who work off of the farm. However, the tours are very popular and we will continue to plan them.
Follow-up conversations with producers and consumers indicate that the greatest potential impact of this project is in having concise information for consumers who are thinking of buying local meat.
• The 2000 version of the materials is much more user-friendly than the 1999 version, and response has been better. The 23 consumers who contacted us following media coverage in summer 2000 had seen articles in at least three different newspapers.
• We were encouraged that these 23 people were all “new” people – they were not people already involved with sustainable farming in the area.
• As of this writing, it is too early to tell how many of them have followed up by purchasing local meat. Two of the initial six consumers who requested the 1999 version of the materials have used it to purchase meat.
• On the other hand, many producers who list in the directories report that they have markets established and sell to consumers who are already familiar with buying meat by the side.
• One producer remarked that the materials arrived at a busy time of year (summer) and that she did not read them.
There is clearly a demand for continued distribution of the materials. Per producers’ suggestions, we still plan to pursue:
• distribution through 4-H clubs;
• visiting feed stores to set materials out;
• making direct visits to processing plants to set materials out (contact thus far as been via telephone or written survey);
• increase availability at county fairs;
• we are making plans to have them at winter meetings of producer associations and at the Minnesota State Fair in 2001 (producer directory is revised each year).
This project aimed to help producers and processors do what they are already doing, rather than change methods or systems. Estimating the number of producers that we reached is difficult. We reached at least 200 through direct mailings, with additional exposure through producer association meetings (200 is not unrealistic), 12 Extension offices, and media coverage.
Generous input in the form of information and feedback for the project’s marketing materials was provided by Minnesota producers Jane Grimsbo Jewett of Palisade, Alan Ringer of Brimson, Ken Peterson of Tamarack, Joel Rosen of Mahtowa, and Mark Thell of Wrenshall.
Involvement of other audiences
Generous information and feedback was also provided by Troy Salzer of the Univ. of Minn. Extension Service: Carlton Co., Kevin Elfering of the Minn. Department of Agriculture, and Howie Schultz of the Wis. Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.
Duluth Public Schools supported the project in the form of the Community Education cooking classes and farm tours for English as a Second Language students. About 30 people were involved in these consumer outreach efforts.
Areas needing additional study
However easier we make it for consumers to buy meat by the side, most people will still prefer to buy individual retail cuts. We provide here a list of challenges and barriers to the local marketing of locally raised meat, both custom processed and inspected. The examination of these challenges and barriers, and possible solutions to them, would make an excellent project.
• The price of meat processed at small, inspected regional plants cannot compete with the price of the large packing companies’ meat in the supermarket. In order to stay in business, small inspected plants need to charge so much that the producers using them cannot compete.
• While current regulations are grounded in a valid commitment to public safety, some of them serve more to favor large producers and processors over small ones, than they serve to protect the public – viz. contaminated hamburger incidents. The large packers have had much more influence over the development of regulations than have small processors.
• We need more research on quality and safety differences between inspected and uninspected meat. Do swab tests indicate that on-farm and/or custom processing is really less safe than at inspected facilities? Do state inspectors really do a less thorough job than USDA inspectors?
• In general, what are the regulatory barriers to local marketing of local meat, and what are possible solutions, alternatives, reforms?
• The expenses associated with on-farm freezer storage are prohibitive to many farmers who may otherwise wish to sell retail cuts.
• Creative value-added options would help the marketing of non-traditional cuts, such as those in the tougher chuck area.
• For producers wishing to custom-process, there are fewer and fewer plants – even many custom-exempt plants have not been able to afford the costs of staying in business.
• We need continue to educate people, in a positive way, about why local meat is better – and why local meat raised without added growth hormones or antibiotics is even better – without making other small producers sound bad.