Gone are the days of having to change out of your pajamas to leave the house and drive to the store for grocery shopping. Today’s consumer merely needs to click a few buttons to do all of their food shopping—sustainably produced meat included—from their computer at home. For small-scale farmers, starting your own e-commerce storefront is one way to capitalize on this shopping habit. Another way is to get involved with someone already bringing grassfed, organic or otherwise humanely produced meat to the masses online.
Particularly for busy consumers with spending power and those living in areas without farms that can supply their sustainably produced meat needs, online meat distributors are filling a niche. “Consumers are always looking to get food from farms to their tables, but they don’t all have access,” says Mike Salguero, founder of online meat retailer ButcherBox, based in Cambridge, Mass. “E-commerce distributors can play a vital role in helping consumers get back to nature while showcasing farms that are doing really great things.”
There are the Krogers and Wal-Marts of the world, offering to deliver your food order to your home, and there are also sites specializing in meats, such as ButcherBox and Blackwing Quality Meats, based in Antioch, Ill. It’s the smaller companies such as these that source directly from farmers, and they represent a new market opportunity for savvy small-scale farmers. Blackwing Quality Meats alone, for example, sources from about 50 different farms that produce organic beef, pork and poultry, plus bison, elk, venison, wild boar, goat, ostrich, pheasant, rabbit and more.
Quality & More
Some online meat distributors do have some concerns in working with small-scale farmers: It’s difficult to find a small-scale farm that can produce the quantity they need at the quality their customers demand. For ButcherBox and Blackwing Quality Meats, quantity is less of an issue, because they can work with many farmers raising small numbers of livestock—though ButcherBox looks for farmers who can produce more as their customer demand climbs.
“Because we are in a very specialized business, we must grab every opportunity we can, so we will purchase as little as five organic hogs, five organic steers or cows, maybe even three elk,” says Roger Gerber, Blackwing Quality Meats president. On the flip side, BQM might also purchase as many as 250 bison from one producer in a month.
Numbers aside, quality is the key to working with these distributors. Farmers have to demonstrate that they can provide the products that customers expect.
“We always vet [our producers],” Gerber says. “We must know everything about them: how long [they’ve been] in our industry, their feed program, acreage, etc. We always go over our requirements before we make a purchase. We are not going to purchase a pig in the poke, as the saying goes.”
Additionally, some distributors require assurances that farmers are following certain production standards.
“The animals must never be treated with antibiotics or growth hormones or confined to feedlots,” Salguero says. “We ask any new supplier to receive certification with the American Grassfed Association or be Animal Welfare Approved.”
Online consumers can’t visit a farm themselves to see that the animals are living the life they are reported to live, so certifications such as AGA, AWA and USDA Organic stand in as verification. There are many more online meat distributors that source meats produced any old way than there are those that guarantee meats that have been produced responsibly.
While farmers markets and community-supported-agriculture programs are still the first places many small-scale farmers turn for business models, there are shortcomings to putting all of your eggs—or meat, in this case—in one basket. Working with an online meat distributor offers another potential market model.
The exposure a farm can find through an e-commerce market that reaches thousands of customers can transform the business, but that’s not necessarily a good thing if the business is not set up for expansion or the farmers are just not interested in increasing production.
“Many of our growers have attempted or still sell to their neighbors, to farmers markets or even to local restaurants or retailers,” Gerber says. “In that case, we usually obtain their excess inventory. It … allows them to grow their business, knowing they have a source for their overproduction. Many usually find they like the security of a guaranteed buyer and many eventually sell us 90-plus percent of their inventory.”
Online distributors source and sell their items in different ways. ButcherBox, for example, purchases subprimal cuts and distributes them to customers from a central warehouse, meaning you could have other meats still available for marketing yourself. Blackwing Quality Meats, on the other hand, wants livestock hauled to their own processing facility so they can process meats in the way that makes the most sense to their current customer demand. In this way, farmers only need to raise the animals, not process them, and they don’t have excess inventory to move elsewhere. When considering working with a distributor, look at other marketing outlets and choose the distribution model that best fits your plan.
Part of why the CSA and farmers-market models make sense to small-scale farmers is the ability to control pricing—within the realm of local retail prices, at least. Working with larger companies, such as online distributors, could mean giving up some of the profit to be had with retail figures. It also could mean giving up the hours spent preparing for, driving to and sitting at farmers markets all weekend. Plus, Gerber maintains, “We pay a minimum of market price and quite often above market to assure our requirements are kept and [farmers] honor their agreement with us.”
As more people turn to the internet to source their food, someone has to fill the demand for quality, humane meats. Working with an online meat distributor is a market that could be worth exploring for more small-scale farms in the future.
This article originally ran in the November/December 2016 issue of Hobby Farms.