Farming Magazine - August, 2009

COLUMNS

Farm Marketing: The Unique Challenges of Direct-Marketing Meat

By Diane Baedeker Petit

Marketing fruits, vegetables and flowers directly to consumers through farmstands, farmers’ markets and pick-your-own has been a profitable marketing strategy for a long time. Direct-marketing meat, while not new, is certainly less common, probably because of the unique challenges associated with it.

Chief among those challenges is surely the fact that most consumers today are not accustomed to buying meat anywhere other than a supermarket. Even butcher shops are few and far between nowadays. Though they make a special trip to a farmstand or farmers’ market for fresh produce and baked goods, shoppers are still likely to stop at the grocery store for other staples like meat, milk, orange juice, cereal, paper goods and health and beauty aids.

Just like small fruit and veggie growers who don’t produce the volume to supply large distributors, small grass-fed livestock farms must rely on alternative marketing models.

Through a grant from the Iowa State University’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, two nonprofit organizations—Practical Farmers of Iowa and Food Alliance Midwest—collaborated several years ago to help farmers with grass-fed operations better market their products. The project included a feasibility study of marketing sustainable meat products through cooperative buying clubs and CSAs, workshops on direct marketing for farmers and processors in northeast and southwest Iowa, and case studies of three Iowa farms.

Consumer focus groups in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa, as well as experiences of farmer participants, played into the development of marketing materials for grass-based beef and lamb producers. In the process, investigators considered consumer reaction to terms such as “free-range,” “pasture-raised,” “grass-fed” and “natural.”

The research showed that health and nutrition were the most important factors in consumer food-buying decisions, followed by taste and whether the food was locally raised. Environmental benefits ranked lower than other factors.

Focus group participants felt that they knew what free-range meant, but were unsure about grass-fed. The term natural is overused and therefore meaningless, according to participants.

Among the perceived barriers to pasture-raised meat products:

  • Lack of trust in unknown sources, particularly those seen as unregulated or lacking standards.
  • Expect pasture-raised products will cost more, which means they expect more.
  • Concerns about effect on taste.
  • Need for convenience.
  • Resistance to buying in larger volumes.

To address these barriers and take advantage of the positive consumer attitudes revealed in the focus groups, the study made the following recommendations:

  • Focus on direct benefits like better taste and healthy attributes.
  • Promote these and other key benefits (antibiotic and hormone-free, environmentally friendly, animal well-being, etc.) using simple terms and phrases.
  • Find ways to address concerns ex-pressed about the taste and tenderness of grass-fed meats.
  • Address price issues.
  • Address food safety concerns head on.
  • Address convenience issues with easy ordering and better access to product.

A presentation on the research results, the case studies and training materials are available on the Leopold Center’s Web site at www.leopold.iastate.edu/research/marketing_files/grassfed.htm.

Of course, marketing meat is much more complicated than marketing fruits and vegetables because of the federal and state regulations involved. The Kansas Rural Center offers a fact sheet on “Marketing Grass-fed Beef” that covers not only consumer attitudes, but also packaging, labeling, grading, pricing and regulatory considerations. It is worth noting that the fact sheet, www.kansasruralcenter.org/publications/grassfedbeef.pdf, is 10 years old, so you might want to verify whether there have been any changes to the regulations it references.

One of the chief recommendations of the Iowa study was to develop a strong brand identity for your farm, which can help with trust issues and foster loyalty. It’s also appropriate, given the term’s ranching origins. Seems things have come full circle in meat marketing.

The author, a freelance writer, is public affairs specialist for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service in Amherst, Mass., and was previously director of communications at the Mass. Dept. of Food & Agriculture.