Posted: Thursday, December 03, 2009 11:00 AM
Lauren Gwin, a meat marketing extension specialist at Oregon State University, checks out a selection of meet products at the Emmons Meat Market in Corvallis, Ore., on Nov. 19. Small-scale butcher shops are important for niche meat markets, said Gwin.
By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
Selling meat directly to the public sounds like pretty straightforward concept, but it's typically much more complex in practice.
Farmers are exploring various channels for direct marketing, with each technique subject to intricacies and caveats.
On the hoof
Sales of livestock to groups of friends or buying clubs who then pay to have the animals slaughtered and processed can cut the expense of direct marketing, said Lauren Gwin, a meat marketing research associate at Oregon State University.
"They don't have the distribution charge or the delivery cost," said Gwin.
The arrangement also prevents growers from being stuck with unsold product, since some cuts of meat are less sought after and difficult to sell for a premium, she said.
"You really have to move the whole animal," Gwin said.
However, shifting the processing and distribution burdens to the clients can negatively impact demand, she said.
"It takes a consumer who's really willing to do that, and those are sometimes hard to find," Gwin said.
On-the-hoof sales are also exempt from the requirement that livestock be slaughtered at a USDA-inspected plant, which is mandated for meat sales.
However, growers need to be sure they follow state and federal regulations in how the livestock is advertised and how the processing arrangement is handled.
In community-supported agriculture, growers sell "shares" of a farm's vegetable and fruit crops, and the same concept can be applied to beef, pork and poultry.
The strategy allows growers to sell a mix of cuts, said Gwin. "That's a way to move the entire animal as well."
However, growers who want to sell the meat itself must have the livestock slaughtered at a USDA-inspected facility. Hauling the animals to the plant and then distributing the meat to consumers can present transportation hurdles.
USDA inspection is also a must for farmers' markets, as is on-site refrigeration.
Many consumers aren't accustomed to buying meat in the context of an open-air market, so growers may come against marketing challenges in some circumstances, Gwin said.
"People are very squeamish about food safety," she said, adding that some consumers don't realize meat at farmers' markets is subject to the same processing and temperature requirements as that sold in grocery stores.
It may also be difficult for producers to carve a niche in well-established markets, such as those near large urban areas, said cattle producer Bette McKibben of Dallas, Ore.
Direct-marketing consumers are generally very loyal, but that's a sword that cuts both ways, she said. Once they've found a trusted meat supplier, consumers tend not to stray -- which can hinder new direct marketers from finding clients.
"They're connected with that producer, and they're going to support that producer," McKibben said. "They want to connect to the person who is raising and harvesting that living, breathing animal."
The producer's temperament is very relevant to the success of farmers' market ventures, said Dan Macon, a rancher based east of Sacramento, Calif.
"You've got to be a people person to do this," he said. "Unless you like talking to the public and answering the same questions again and again and again, it can be frustrating."
The regulatory obligations for selling to restaurants are the same as for farmers' markets. Selling the entire animal -- rather than just the most popular cuts -- is also a challenge.
"It's not as easy to charge a higher price for hamburger," said Gwin.
In some areas, market saturation can discourage direct sales, so growers may need to look for chefs who haven't already established relationships with growers, she said.
"Everybody can't be targeting the same restaurants in Portland," Gwin said.
Supermarket chains are unlikely direct-sales channels, since they need a constant, large-scale source of meat to keep grocery shelves stocked, said Gwin. "It's not easy for a small-scale producer to supply."
Such chain stores often charge for shelf space, which isn't an option when producers are competing against large suppliers, said McKibben.
For that reason, it's better to target independent or family-owned grocery stores that share a similar small-scale philosophy, she said.