Carolina Meat Conference
8 Lessons learned from a gathering focused on pasture-raised meat
In October, Meghan Filbert, livestock program manager, and Celize Christy, swine and poultry coordinator, attended the Carolina Meat Conference, an event focused on bringing together farmers, chefs, butchers and industry leaders in the pasture-raised meat business.
Together we learned and networked with a community of people committed to advancing market opportunities and increasing consumer access to pasture-based meats. Our takeaways:
1. North Carolina takes small farms and local food systems seriously! We were impressed by NC Choices, an initiative of the Center for Environmental Farming Systems in collaboration with NC Cooperative Extension that promotes the local, niche and pasture-based meat supply chain. Another program funded by North Carolina State and the North Carolina Department of Agriculture is Amazing Grazing, a pasture-based livestock education program. We noted how the North Carolina Pork Council, Farm Bureau and Cattlemen’s Association sponsored this conference. These organizations have united to create a vibrant and thriving local food economy.
2. Scale up by working together. Models from around the country are showing that group marketing and cooperation works. The following groups are worth looking up:
- Grass Roots Farmers’ Cooperative – Arkansas
- Wisconsin Meadows – Wisconsin
- Painted Hills Natural Beef – Oregon
- Sweet Grass Cooperative – Colorado and New Mexico
- Grassfed Livestock Alliance – Texas
- Heart of the Valley Cooperative –Oregon
3. An agricultural cooperative has a defined legal structure based on each member having one share and one vote. If you’re interested in forming a cooperative, consider these key questions:
- Are you comfortable sharing decision-making with other co-op members?
- Are you willing to give up some control of the business to others?
- Does everyone involved have common goals?
- Are you willing to put sweat equity into growing the business before seeing a financial return?
4. Cooperatives can provide services other than marketing. The Island Grown Farmers Cooperative, in Washington’s San Juan Islands, provides USDA-inspected mobile animal slaughter services to its members. Members sell their own products, but they collectively funded a mobile slaughter unit because processing was their biggest barrier. The co-op has been operating for 18 years and has 85 members.
5. Explore alternative marketing channels. Rebecca Thistlethwaite, director of the Niche Meat Processors Assistance Network, suggests partnering with different groups or clubs, such as those that follow the paleo, keto or autoimmune protocol (AIP) diet or CrossFit gyms. Churches or large workplaces – wherever people aggregate – are potential markets. Approach the human resources director or wellness program manager and explain the health benefits of your product. Give a talk and feature your products at a special event, then invite their employees to order from you. More often, universities, hospitals and K-12 schools are sourcing local food. These places could be outlets to sell low-value cuts such as trim, grind and roast.
6. Explore alternative funding opportunities. Crowdfunding has become popular, but the hype might be waning as people are saturated with requests. A lesser-known form of crowdfunding is an equity partnership, where investors provide capital to farms and receive returns from harvests. Check out Harvest Returns’ website. Some states allow direct public offerings and have economic opportunity zone programs where tax incentives for investments are offered. In terms of investing in infrastructure, lease-to-own, lines of credit, pre-paid service agreements and value-added producer grants may be options.
7. Find your low-hanging fruit. Jon Jackson, owner of Comfort Farms in Georgia, works with dairy farmers who were getting paid close to nothing for their culled cows and steer calves. Jon invited chefs to try dairy steaks; one chef said it was the best ribeye he’s ever eaten. This led to “antique cattle” and ethically raised rose veal as menu options in Atlanta’s highest-end restaurants. He also sells old sows to restaurants that turn them into charcuterie. Jon says, “Don’t do anything without getting chefs involved!”
8. Grow what is in your DNA. We heard this phrase repeated several times and think it’s worth contemplating. A farmer from Georgia grows cowpeas and white corn, like his ancestors did, to talk to consumers about the relationship between food and ancestry. “Grow food that has a history, and grow stuff that means something to you,” Jon says. Not only does the act of producing these foods become more meaningful, but in sharing them with others, we can all sit at a table together. Food has a beautiful way of breaking down barriers and bringing people together.