The desire of consumers to attach a face and place to the food they buy is a significant opportunity for smaller so-called family farms.
The size of such operations is in fact a comparative advantage for these farmers. Large or foreign operations simply can't compete for consumers who want to know who grew the food, as well as where and how it was grown.
True, these farmers may only be filling relatively tiny niches within a huge marketplace. But, those niches offer the benefit of long term financial security to farmers who are willing to forge marketing relationships. A case in point can be found in Illinois. Dave Miller reports.
Armin Hesterberg is a third generation farmer who has always had an interest in animal agriculture. His latest animal venture centers on the Belgian Blue, a breed of beef cattle seldom seen domestically. From the beginning, Hesterberg was impressed with the statistics he was given for this distinctive double muscled animal. The data included higher carcass yield and relatively easy calving characteristics. Thinking they might make a good base for a seed stock business he purchased a few of the animals.
As prospective buyers came to his Gifford, Illinois, operation they asked about the flavor and texture of the meat of cross-bred animals. To satisfy everyone's curiosity, he began crossing his purebred-Blues with Limousin, Simmental or Gelbvieh cattle. The processed steaks and burger were kept on hand as samples. As word got around about the taste and tenderness of the beef, more customers showed up to purchase the meat than the seed stock.
Armin Hesterberg, Whispering Pines Natural Beef: "So, I would, just by word of mouth, try to sell a little bit. Well, then my customers were telling other people and that end of it grew rather rapidly. And I thought if I can sell that much meat without even trying, maybe I should try to sell it. And consequently we started a business then and formed a corporation, a small corporation and have pursued that end of it."
In 2000, he launched Whispering Pines Natural Beef and began supplying two sales venues almost simultaneously. One outlet was in the office of another of his businesses, the Spreader, INC., a company that fabricates devices which evenly distribute the chaff discharged by combines during harvest. At this location a full line of products were available from burger to roasts to steaks.
The other site was 25 miles away in Urbana, Illinois, at Strawberry Fields, a natural food store. Jack Wallace is the general manager.
Jack Wallace, General Manager, Strawberry Fields: "Armin came to us just out of the blue and introduced himself and explained what he was doing. And we visited the farm, looked at the cattle, looked at the conditions in which they were raised and started on a small scale bringing things in, individually paper wrapped steaks, roasts, then got into hamburgers and stew meats."
The beef is now a staple among the 10-thousand items regularly offered on the shelf. Strawberry Fields has even partnered with Whispering Pines to purchse radio and television ads so both operations benefit from the exposure.
Jack Wallace, General Manager, Strawberry Fields: "…we like to support local production and local agriculture…The processing is done locally as well at a superlative facility that many, many people in our area use."
Hesterberg also has launched an internet site so Whispering Pines Beef can be purchased via the Web. Here a two-pack of 16-ounce Porterhouse steaks sells for a little more than $25. Recently, Whispering Pines fulfilled one of its long term goals by branching out into pre-cooked meats and entrée's.
Because the meat is leaner Hesterberg includes instructions on how to properly prepare Belgian Blue steaks at all points of sale.
From the ground up, Hesterberg is careful about how his animals are raised. The herd eats pasture grasses as part of a loose rotational grazing program. At around 800 pounds, the animals are finished in a free-choice feeding arrangement where a corn ration and alfalfa hay are made available. The corn ration contains no G-M-O corn, urea based proteins or meat byproducts. And none of the animals are given antibiotics, steroids or growth hormones. Hesterberg even found that his particular custom feed recipe was cheaper than other mixes handled by the local elevator.
To keep up with demand, Whispering Pines processes between 40 and 50 animals per year. Most of the packing had been done in a state inspected facility but now all of the work is done in a federally inspected plant. This allows Hesterberg to ship the entire product line anywhere in the U.S..
If demand exceeds supply, Hesterberg seeks out other Certified Belgian Blue owners. To protect his reputation and his label, outside suppliers provide a signed affidavit that each animal was raised to the same exacting standards as the rest of Hesterberg's herd.
When Hesterberg began researching the Belgian Blue he found studies conducted by the USDA that showed the meat contained less overall fat and less cholesterol than other red meats. But even with the reduced marbling, laboratory and taste tests showed the beef was as tender as many of the mainstream cuts available on grocery store shelves.
Overall, Hesterberg has enjoyed the challenge of taking his cattle from farm gate to dinner plate.
Armin Hesterberg, Whispering Pines Natural Beef: "…there are no rules, you just have to lay all the groundwork yourself and the marketing is something that the average farmer probably is not used to doing because he just doesn't have to. And it's just been a real eye opening experience, a lot of work, a lot more than I ever anticipated. But it's been rewarding when you can talk to the customers and hear how they like your product and it's the customers that I really enjoy dealing with."
For Market to Market, I'm David Miller.