Producers must build skills in sales, logistics, delivery
By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
Cattle producer Bette McKibben has a simple marketing strategy for approaching restaurants with her beef: She doesn't bother.
It's not that their business doesn't appeal to McKibben, who raises cattle with her husband, David, on a 400-acre ranch near Dallas, Ore.
She just doesn't think the outreach is worth the effort.
"The chefs come to me, I don't come to them,"
McKibben said. "They've got to have a desire to use my product before I walk in that door."
Chefs generally aren't very receptive to disruptions in their supply lines -- unless the change is requested by customers, she said.
For that reason, McKibben relies on loyal customers to serve as a de facto sales force.
"The end user is going to be your best advertiser," she said. "They're the ones that promote it at the restaurant or grocery store."
The phenomenon of direct marketing to consumers, stores and restaurants is becoming more mainstream, said Lauren Gwin, an Oregon State University researcher who specializes in alternative meat marketing.
Establishing a brand presence like McKibben isn't easy, however.
"Direct marketing, whether its produce or meat, is extremely challenging," said Gwin. "It helps to be especially talented at marketing."
Sales skills aren't enough, she said. Producers also need to handily manage the logistics of processing and delivering the meat.
In other words, people who just want to raise animals may find the sales and supply management aspects overwhelming.
"You really have to want to do that kind of work," said Gwin.
Some cuts of meat sell more readily than others, but producers need to find profitable outlets for all of them, said Dan Macon, a rancher who raises sheep, cows and goats northeast of Sacramento, Calif.
"You don't make any money off that animal until you've sold every last cut that came off that carcass," he said.
To optimize the demand for lamb, for instance, Macon seasonally adjusts how the carcasses are processed.
Kabobs are popular during the summer grilling season, but don't sell well during winter months, he said. During the holidays, people want bone-in lamb legs.
"Little differences like that are important," Macon said.
However, product line flexibility shouldn't come at the cost of processing efficiency, he said.
It's already hard enough for meat processors to fit small-scale producers into their operations, Macon said. Producers need to ensure the desired cuts are generated at acceptable volumes.
"The relationship with the processor takes constant management," he said. "You can't expect a processor to drop everything to cut one animal differently than all the others you brought in."
Producers need to start thinking about meat cuts long before the animal is even slaughtered, said Clarice Swanson of the Thundering Hooves ranch near Walla Walla, Wash.
Carcass characteristics -- and thus cuts -- should be studied from the pasture to the plate, she said. That way, growers can reconcile their breeding programs with their direct-marketing strategies.
"You need to be in tune with the genetics of the animal," said Swanson. "You take that feedback right back into the field."
For example, Swanson found that bigger isn't better when it comes to direct marketing.
Cattle bred for sale to feedlots tend to be heavier, since pounds equal dollars, but much of the weight comes from the bone structure, she said. Bones aren't very useful when you're just selling the meat.
Thundering Hooves is now focused on breeding smaller cattle, which tend to fatten up more quickly on grass, legumes and alfalfa.
"We're producing for that beautiful, marbled steak on grass, and it is obtainable," Swanson said.
As their production expands and becomes more efficient, growers should also be open to new marketing strategies.
Bette McKibben initially began selling beef at farmers' markets, which helped build a customer base. As word spread to independent grocery stores and restaurants, she geared her efforts toward wholesale marketing.
Now McKibben is trying to launch a program based on the community-supported agriculture system often used to sell fruits and vegetables.
Subscribers receive a mix of beef and lamb cuts from McKibben, as well as chicken, pork, eggs and honey produced by partnering growers.
"People really like that," she said. "They get variety."
Staff writer Mateusz Perkowski is based in Salem, Ore. E-mail: email@example.com.