Until recently, farmers selling meat directly to customers typically offered “on the hoof” sales. Live animals, sold pre-slaughter, can be processed under custom slaughter and butchering regulations, without U.S. Department of Agriculture certification. This freezer meat trade in beef, pork and lamb served a select customer base – those who wanted to stock the freezer and had the means to pay for a whole, half or quarter animal share; those who were open to cooking with all cuts of meat; or customers who wanted a whole animal for holiday celebrations.
But many consumers are comfortable only with precut, prepackaged meats from the grocery store shelf. No longer familiar with using the whole animal, and seeking only the cuts – the leg of lamb, the pork loin or the sirloin steak, for examples – these customers benefit from the growing number of farmers seeking to have their livestock processed under USDA certification, enabling them to sell these desired retail cuts individually, by the package. But retail cut pricing can be difficult to swallow for budget-conscious consumers and is often another barrier to purchasing meat locally.
Another method of meat sales growing in popularity is Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares. Combining a discounted price with an upfront commitment to purchase product, meat CSAs offer reciprocal advantages to buyer and seller.
Meat memberships modified
The bottom line of a CSA arrangement is the consumer buy-in to the farm, which provides operating income for the upcoming season. In return, the shareholders receive a portion of the farm’s harvest. Today, CSAs can take many forms beyond the once-standard box share of vegetables.
“My CSA is not your typical CSA where you pay a certain amount and get a box of goodies each week,” said Jenn Grant of Findview Farm in Gorham, Maine. “We opted to model our CSA like a few others that we heard of where for every $100 that you prepay, you get extra $10 to spend. The way it works is that instead of getting a weekly box of food, you can use it like a gift card, purchasing what you would like, when you want it. Members can spend their $110 however they want, whenever – as fast or as slow as they want. They can use the CSA to purchase any of the products that we offer.”
CSA members at Findview Farm can purchase multiple CSA shares in $100 increments for additional savings. The farm grows seasonal produce; offers eggs; raises beef, pork and lamb and has added Thanksgiving turkeys and broilers. Customers in the CSA plan can use their prepaid dollars on any of the products.
The beef herd of registered Belted Galloways, registered Shorthorns and some crosses is raised like a dairy herd: calving year-round. This way, animals are ready for market on a regular basis and slaughtering is done monthly. Twenty-four beef cattle, 14 pigs and 16 lambs are slaughtered annually. Meat is available throughout the year.
“We started the CSA option of our farmstand a few years ago in hopes that it might generate some extra income in the spring,” Grant said. “Spring seems to be the time on our farm when expenses outweigh the income for a bit. We had numerous inquiries about whether or not we offered a CSA and finally decided one year that we would try it.”
Like Findview Farm, many farmers have begun to customize the CSA experience, offering flexible spending plans that allow customers to forego products they don’t want or skip the weekly “box” of products altogether. Others customize the weekly box with à la carte selections or have tailored the box contents to better meet various customer needs.
Just a Few Acres Farm in Groton, New York, has established a more typical CSA packaged box model for its meat sales. This model, however, is not a standard one-size-fits-all allotment and offers options designed to better fit varied customer needs. Peter Larson began his farming business by using the 45 acres of farmland that have been in his family for generations to raise a variety of pasture-based meats. He knew he wanted to feed the local community and that a CSA would help to achieve his goals financially and philosophically.
“Around here, big dairies and crop farms are dominant, and we have lost a lot of the community connection that the many small family farms used to have, providing their products directly to the community. We want to show our community that a family can still make a living from a 45-acre farm. We want them to learn that you can grow an astounding amount of livestock on that much land, using pasture as the primary food source if you are smart about managing the animals and the grass and that you can improve the soil at the same time, so it can support even more livestock,” Larson said. “The CSA’s cash flow method fit our need for up-front capital for the fencing, shelter, freezers and livestock needed to begin the pastured meat operation.”
Just a Few Acres Farm offers three CSA shares – the Grazer, the Family Plan and the Colonel Sanders – each of which can be purchased for either a six-month or annual share. The difference between plans is the amount of meat offered each week. Each plan includes weekly shares of chicken, eggs and a Thanksgiving turkey. Members of each plan can add a monthly pork allotment to their share for an additional fee.
“The standard model for a vegetable CSA is that you get a box of whatever the farm is harvesting each week through the growing season. Sometimes you get things you don’t like,” Larson said. “With meats it’s much different. Everyone is different and it would be an expensive waste to do what the produce CSAs do, which is to give members a little bit of everything they’re growing. People are particular about the types of meat they eat; some eat a pork chop every week, others eat chicken breast three times a week. So we have found that with meat CSAs, much more customer-specific customization of the share is necessary.”
Selling meat via box shares can be difficult logistically. Balancing shares sold with the availability of animals ready for harvest, and keeping the supply available for year-round CSA members, takes planning.
“One of the selling points of our CSA is we provide a year-round share, and this is where it can be difficult,” Larson said. “First of all, we offer the same products year-round. The only thing that varies seasonally is whether the product is fresh or frozen. Our layer chickens taper off egg production starting in October and don’t pick up again until February. We only grow broiler chickens on pasture from April through October. We used to only grow pigs on pasture, but as demand rose we started growing winter batches as well. In the fall, we have to make sure our freezers are stocked with enough chicken to serve the shares we have committed to providing.”
Turkeys, too – which are raised from poults and have to be ordered from the hatchery prior to CSA commitments coming in each season – can cause a dilemma. And raising them to each CSA customer’s ideal weight is challenging.
“We try to hit the customer’s requested turkey size within a pound or two, so we have to keep good track of the size of the birds in the pasture and butcher them in size groups,” Larson explained.
Just a Few Acres Farm also sells its meat at the Ithaca, New York Farmers Market and the East Hill Farmers Market, as well as directly at the farm. CSA membership options currently account for 25 percent of the farm’s business, with roughly 70 CSA memberships sold each year.
Tide Mill Organic Farm, also in Maine, offers a diversity of products, all available through its CSA, as well as through wholesale and resale outlets, farmers markets and their farmstand.
“Our CSA model allows people to get a discount on certified organic, Maine-raised meat without buying a large amount at one time. They can buy just what they like to eat, whether that is boneless breasts, bacon, ground beef or thighs,” co-owner Carly DelSignore said.
The CSA at Tide Mill Organic Farm works just as it does at Findview Farm: pay upfront and receive additional value for those dollars. Here, an initial $275 investment yields CSA members $300 to spend on any of the farm’s products. Vegetables and fruits; pasture-raised chicken, turkey, beef and pork; whole raw milk; eggs and Tide Mill Creamery’s yogurt and cheeses are available to CSA customers.
Meats need a lot of marketing, even in this era of growing demand for local foods, DelSignore said. Selling retail directly to consumers keeps more of the profit in the farmer’s hand. But connecting with those consumers who want local meat requires promoting the benefits of locally raised meats, and finding a way to gain brand loyalty.
“The benefits to buying a meat CSA [are] that it makes it easy for people to make that pledge and buy better meat,” she said. “The other benefit is that it establishes a relationship between the person that wants to eat good food free of antibiotics, preservatives and GMOs and the farmer raising those animals. Knowing and trusting where our food comes from is an important piece of healthy communities and food security.”
Larson also believes that those selling meat directly to retail need to gain consumer confidence in the farm’s brand. Having additional non-CSA sales outlets serves as a safety net, as well as a selling tool, for the farm’s CSA. Expanding production doesn’t have to wait for increasing CSA enrollment when there are other direct sales outlets. And, if CSA enrollment numbers aren’t quite where they need to be, having a variety of more flexible sales outlets diminishes risk and provides further opportunity to market the CSA.
“The farmers markets are how people get to know us and our products. Especially with meat, people have to trust their grower and get to know how they treat their animals,” he said. “Most of our CSA members are people who began as regular customers at the farmers market, then decided to commit to a share.”
Findview Farm’s CSA model isn’t as successful as Grant had hoped and may need some tweaking, she said. Grant is exploring ways to convert more of her farmstand and farmers market customers to the CSA plan, such as increasing incentives, particularly for those willing to put several hundred dollars upfront.
She is also considering offering CSA packages, similar to Just a Few Acres Farm, but is concerned with establishing the right mix of products to meet as many customer needs as possible.
“I hate to be pushy, but I probably need to do more marketing of what I offer,” she said. “We mainly sell through our farmstand, but I do one farmers market in our town to do a bit of advertising of our business. As a general rule, people don’t just drive down our road, so I have needed to find ways to get them to come off the main route.”
But it is also a bit puzzling to her as to why her regular farmstand customers – those that return to the farm repeatedly and year-round to purchase meat – don’t sign up for the CSA.
“I find it funny on my end that more people do not take advantage of the CSA that I offer, especially those that buy meat throughout the winter. Those people are the ones who come out and stock up. When stocking up, they are spending close to $100 at one time, and the CSA offers more bang for your buck,” Grant said.
“To me, this is a great way to save money when you don’t have the space for a side of beef, but want to eat and support local.”
Larson’s advice is to brand your farm and to use the farm’s identity, philosophy and mission to more strongly connect with consumers. As consumers connect, becoming a CSA member is the next logical step.
“By offering something unique or growing it in a healthier or more environmentally conscious way, you can carve out your own niche in a competitive market,” Larson said.
Efforts to educate consumers about farm-direct meat sales have helped many move beyond buying local produce to including local meat in their diets. Consumers are increasingly willing to fork out their meat money now and reap the rewards throughout the season. Farmers continue to think of ways to market their meats, in and outside of the CSA box share.