Great Farmers and Ranchers . . . Terrible Salespeople!

Lately, there has been lots of talk about the need for local/sustainable ranchers and farmers to find more customers, make more sales, engage the public and have the public support the local/sustainable seen.

This is all exactly true ---- and false.

Yes, it is important that on this path to a more sustainable world, we all travel together.  More people need to raise and grow local/sustainable/organic food and animals.  At the same time, more people need to commit to buying and supporting local/sustainable/organic product if the market is to grow and be viable.

However, this doesn’t take the “real world” into account.  I realize that while the saying,

“Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a pathway to your door”, is inspirational, it’s also pretty much antiquated!

There are plenty of other people building the “better mousetrap”, but the world would rather shop at HEB than have to travel out to my ranch and open and close two gates before they get to the house to buy beef!

This brings us to the real reason it is so hard to move the dial forward on the local/sustainable movement in Texas.  We all love the better, high quality product that local/sustainable can supply.  We just wish it was easier to buy it and it cost less.

I’ll talk about the second issue later, but let me address the first, first!

Farmers Markets are nice.  I love meeting all my customers every week and talking about the product.  Ranch events are great – it gives me a chance to show how I raise cattle and how I take care of soil nutrition.  The trouble is, neither happens every day at the time and place convenient to the most people to put out the least amount of energy to buy what they need in the fastest way possible to fit into otherwise overly busy schedules.  WOW.

Hey.  I shop at HEB (don’t shop at Walmart, ever, but that’s another article!).  I like zipping in and zipping out.  I like the prices and I like the wide diversity of choices.

I should shop at Bastrop Producers Market.

I try to buy all my veggies and olive oils and other stuff at the Farmers Market on Saturdays.  But I don’t always succeed.  Either I don’t grab eggs before they disappear or I don’t have the money or I don’t think about it until one of the veggies I want is gone.

HEB represents a quick fix – I need dog food.  I need toilet paper.  I need beer.  BPM has two out of three, but it’s twice as far up the road, and I still have to go to HEB for the beer.

I get it.

So, how does a local/sustainable farmer or rancher deal with this?

Well, first of all admit the problem.  I have.  I am just as guilty as what I say you are.  I understand and know that it’s a really busy world and we all have limited time, and patience, and money.

But if you are going to survive and thrive as a businessperson, you have to deal with “what is”, not “what you want it to be”.

So, I sell at the Farmers Market (I do one – that’s all I can handle).

Can Farmers Markets be a raging success?  Well, they have been for Richardson Farms and Johnsons Backyard.  But these guys do multiple markets AND they couple those markets with other marketing techniques.

BCC does wholesale – and in a big way.  Roughly 80 percent of our sales is from wholesale – grocery stores, restaurants, delivery services.  The margins are smaller, but it’s made up with volume.

BCC does on-line sales.  Our web sales accounts for about 5% of gross sales every year.

And BCC does retail.  But let me be blunt, if we depended on only doing retail, I’d be selling one carcass a week, not five or six.  I figured out a long time ago if I wanted to sell beef as a full time job, I had to do a whole lot more than one carcass a week!

And did I mention we SELL, SELL, SELL.  You can dress this up and call it marketing or promotion or public relations, but it comes down to one thing – hard work, on the phone every day firming up sales, finding new accounts, and getting out and knocking on doors and taking samples by to chefs.  And figuring out what is my break point and what can I charge and still make a decent profit.

This is the real world.  There are chefs in Austin who don’t answer my text or phone calls anymore.  I’m pushy.  They don’t like it – and usually, they don’t want to admit they aren’t really buying local!

But then, there are the ones who buy from me every week.  Like Johnsons and Richardsons, BCC is dependable.  We make deliveries.  We work closely with the butchers and chefs who buy from us.  We constantly look for ways to help them afford our beef.  When someone has a crisis and realizes they didn’t order enough beef, we make special deliveries.

And like Richardsons and Johnsons, I figured out a long time ago that volume really does matter.  Yes, I am local and yes, I have a ranch and raise cattle for sale.  However, if I ONLY sold cattle off of my ranch, I’d need a day job to pay the bills.  I’m in this to make a living, and that requires enough volume (read carcasses) sold to cover overhead and go beyond breaking even.

This is where we come to the price thing.  This is the dirty little secret that local/sustainable doesn’t want to talk about.  Every business has overhead, and it doesn’t matter whether you sell one (one tomato, one head of lettuce, one t-bone, one egg) product or a thousand of the one product – the overhead is the price you start out with for getting in the game.  Now I can load all the price on the one product (ha! Bet you wouldn’t buy that!), or I spread it across every one of the products I sell.  The more I sell, the less overhead is billed to each unit.

I can process 200 carcasses a year and break even.  I can process 250 carcasses a year and halve the overhead per unit and make a profit.  Of course, if I process 250 carcasses, I have to sell 250 carcasses.  But you get my point.

Small may be beautiful, but it doesn’t pay the bills.  Every rancher and farmer, and every customer looking at that sticker on the tomato or t-bone needs to understand that like the laws of physics the laws of economics are set in stone.  If I can’t pay my property tax and the electricity – and Brandon’s draw, I don’t stay in business – no matter how great the beef tastes.

Farms and ranches must be run as businesses and they must generate enough volume of whatever they are growing or raising to cover their overhead (including salaries!) and make a profit.  If they don’t want to do the work to sell directly to push up those volumes, then they need to find ways to work through middlemen (yes, I am a middleman), or salespeople or cooperatives or whatever to help them accomplish the “breakpoint”.

That means that we must all realize (like every other product or service), that we as ranchers and farmers SELL to the consumer.  And that to do so means embracing “what is” not “what we want it to be”.  If the local/sustainable movement can’t grasp this, then it really is doomed.

We need to "Get Serious" about "Local"

Local is now suddenly “the rage”.  Everyone wants to put it on their menus and in their grocery stores.  However, Central Texas, in my opinion is nowhere nearer to really embracing local/sustainable than it was three years ago.

Why the brutal assessment?

After all we have many more farmers markets in and around Austin today than three years ago.  Major grocery store chains are advertising their sales of organic, and local vegetables, fruits and meats.  Many restaurants state right on their menus that they use “local”.  There are more places than ever for the consciences consumer to buy organic, natural, free-range, grass-fed, and gmo-free.

Well, maybe.  Look more closely at the label and suddenly “local” doesn’t look so local.

Very often, grocery stores and restaurants carry only a token amount of vegetable, fruits and meats that are actually “local”.   By local, I mean within a 200 mile range of the metropolitan area in which the restaurant or grocery store is located.  Now, one can make the argument that Texas is a big state, why discount something coming from the Valley or from the Panhandle just because it’s more than 200 miles away?  And I’m not saying that!

However, the Central Texas area that runs along the IH. 35 corridor and to the east from Victoria to Waco and over to College Station holds some of the best grazing and farming land not just in the state but in the country.  Surely, with the exception of citrus and some other fruits and vegetables that grow best in the Valley, you can find plenty of crops in this area of Texas to carry in local grocery stores and restaurants – but look closely – you won’t.

It is the same with beef, pork, lamb and chicken.

Why is this?  Well, you might say it’s a chicken and egg, or calf and cow issue (sorry, just couldn’t help myself!).

Large grocery store chains don’t want to work with 20 different suppliers of the same vegetable or fruit.  They want to work with one – volumes mean better prices, frequent and reliable deliveries, and just less paperwork.  Many of the farms that are now selling organic and natural vegetables and fruits were “conventional” farms just a few years ago.  They found it easier to go into the “organic/natural/sustainable” market because they already had the land and capital necessary to expand into this new market.  I don’t begrudge them.  Any and all farming is hard work!

However, while the growth of organic/natural/sustainable anywhere is commendable, it should not be passed off as local.  Small, local farmers are left out when grocery stores set the bar so high that small suppliers can’t even get in the front door.

Well, but they can sell at the farmers markets, you say.  And that is true for someone starting out.  That is the whole idea of farmers markets.  It’s a great place to start, but farmers markets have both physical and psychological (not to mention marketing) limits.

A few farmers in Austin and Central Texas have successfully grown both with and out of the farmers markets.  They’ve done it with grit, lots of work and capital.  Some farmers would prefer to stay small.  Some would prefer to just sell at the markets.  Some would like to grow, but for most, the infrastructure just isn’t there.

For meat providers, it’s even more difficult.  I can’t speak personally for lamb, pork and chicken, but for beef it is a real trial.  Farmers Markets are a good place to start, but doing so means razor thin profit margins.  Here’s why.  Take Austin.  While there are many Farmers Markets, they all have several variables in common.

Annual memberships (in Austin, most are over $100 a year)

Stall fees paid every time you have a booth (ranging from $35 to $65 each time)

Permits required by local health department for each market meat provider is in ($400 to $600 annually).

And since there are no ranches either inside Austin or close by add transportation costs for trips averaging 60 miles are more round trip.

To cover this, a meat provider needs to sell at least $1,000 per market (and I’m being conservative!).

Now, there is one more thing.  If you are killing less than 200 calves (and selling all the beef) annually, you cannot make a living running your own private label.  You better have a day job.

Right now, due to the drought and the above issues, most of the Austin Farmers Markets are having a tough time keeping meat providers in their markets on a regular bases.

Bastrop Cattle Company only does the Bastrop 1832 Farmers Market.  I only have a 10 mile round trip every Saturday.  The market is enclosed and covered, so I don’t have to do a complete set up and tear down every week (did I mention what a headache – and the weather – most Farmers Markets are?!).  Bastrop also has lower membership and stall fees.  And, for right now, the county isn’t requiring any permits for meat providers.

But I digress!

You can’t sell 200 carcasses just through Farmers Markets.  And believe me, after eight years of being in the business and crunching numbers, 200 carcasses is the break even point!  To sell this much beef (think 100,000 pounds of beef!), I need to sell to retail customers direct, grocery stores, restaurants, delivery services, off the web and yes, even at the farmers market  -  you name it, I need the outlet.

We sell to a little bit of each of these.  Several of you buy from me at the Farmers Market, through our shopping cart on the web, and through direct order.  Many more of you buy our products at Wheatsville Coop and Royal Blue, and through Greenling and Farmhouse Delivery.

The first two – grocery stores (and there are a few others – In.gredients, Peoples Pharmacy, etc.) – make it a point to buy from small providers.  They will work through the headaches of smaller deliveries, more paperwork and payments.  But they are the exception not the rule.

The bigger chains work with large providers.  And, I do commend HEB, Whole Foods, and Krogers for carrying organic/natural/grass fed – but it is not local.  Not one of these large chains is carrying a label of meat (beef, pork, lamb, goat, or chicken) raised in the Central Texas area.  To some extent they can be forgiven as their reach is state wide – HEB is carrying a large Texas rancher for its “local” beef line.  Whole Foods works with the Grassfed Alliance of Texas to carry Texas and regional grassfed, and Kroger carries Nolan Ryan (though NR sources all their beef out of Iowa!).

And I understand that while 100,000 pounds of beef sounds big, there is no way I could work with these chains as anything other than a specialty brand (but I’d sure like the chance to try!!).

So, if small providers can’t get into the big grocery stores until they have enough volume, what is the next level up to get them to the next level up?

Distributors – there has been some success with this – but remember – distributors need volume and reliability, and a price point low enough for them to be able to put in their profit margin.  Also, distributors don’t carry anything that there is not a demand for – and here is the second conundrum.

Most restaurants want to buy from distributors – for the same reasons that grocery stores want to buy from one supplier – convenience, volume price point, consistency, and reliability.  And unless they are insistent on “local/sustainable” there is no reason for the distributor to offer it.

Well, why you ask, don’t the restaurants ask for local/sustainable?  Or why can’t they work directly with the farmers and ranchers?  A few do – too few.  Running a restaurant is a full time job, and many don’t succeed.  If something can make your already busy day a little less hectic, then why go looking for more work?

Ask the restaurants that do local – they’ve usually developed close relationships, but at the beginning it was time consuming and hard.  Additionally, local/sustainable is (in my opinion) not valued enough by the general public (or paid for by the general public) to offset the added cost to the restaurant.  The restaurants that use local/sustainable should really be applauded.

So where does this put us in Central Texas?

Well, pretty far behind where the East and West Coasts are in regard to the promotion and use of local/sustainable foods.  Many of the restaurants – and the lead does have to come from them – in and around, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, New York, Boston, Phillie, DC – embrace local.  They build their menus around seasonal foods.  Talk about it with their customers.  Go out to the rural areas to meet the farmers and ranchers.

We are not anywhere near our chefs in Central Texas doing this.

(And as complicated as this all sounds, I haven’t even mentioned other parts of the infrastructure that are missing – labeling, packing, shipping, marketing, promotion, transportation, training, not to mention skill sets – another whole blog!)

We have two groups of players that seldom talk with each other.  The ranchers and farmers have conferences and talk about sustainability, soil nutrition, enhanced genetics, productivity yields, non-gmo crops, and organic certification.

The chefs have conferences and talk about the women entering the chef ranks, the growing consumer demand for diversity in cuisine, the increased need for chefs to understand finance, and management, and the increasing skill levels of the new chefs entering the Central Texas market.

All important topics, but where do these two groups meet, and how about the consumer?  It would all be mildly humorous, except the stakes are becoming higher.

The drought and the recession have pretty much cleaned out the farmers and ranchers who just weren’t going to make it.  Folks, we’re down to “bone” at this point.  The best and brightest are hanging on.  If we don’t want Central Texas to become one large subdivision dotted with hobby farms and ranches owned by the rich and bored, we better start taking agriculture and regional food seriously.

And right now, it looks like it may be up to you, the food consumer to push the cause, because unless the above groups “get enlightened” and figure out how to talk with each other, we’re headed down a path of no return as good land gets paved over.

Buying Beef In Bulk

Bastrop Cattle Company sells quite a few half and whole carcasses to private customers.  This is a great way to save money on beef, but you very much need to know how the procedure works to avoid being surprised by end results.

Bear with me here – it’s probably going to get a little graphic – but it’s worth it if you are thinking about purchasing beef in bulk.

When a calf steps into a kill box it is what we call “live weight”.  This is the weight that if it stepped on your bathroom scales it would register.  For our purposes, let’s say this particular calf weighs 750 pounds (and right now you’re seeing a calf in your bathroom standing on his back hooves on your scales thinking how fat he looks!).

Now he moves along to calf heaven real quick.  (OK! You’re feeling bad because just a moment ago, he was standing on your bathroom scales).  He’s gone, we’re looking at a carcass now.

The carcass is hoisted up by its back legs and moved over to a bleeding area.  I’m not going to go into detail here.  Let’s just say, the carcass is bled out as thoroughly as possible.

It will then be moved to another area of the kill floor where it will be “field dressed”.  Guts, hide, head, lower legs, etc. are removed.

After inspection, washing, antiseptic, and generally being cleaned up, it will be weighed again.  This is the “hanging weight”.  This is the weight that will be registered on the carcass as it goes into the chill down cooler.

The difference between the live weight and the hanging weight can be several hundred pounds.  All that stuff that was drained out, cut off, stripped away weighs quite a bit.  It can represent anywhere from 40 percent to 50 percent of the whole animal.

Wow!  You say.  So say I.  BCC is obsessed with that loss – it represents a large portion, and since we pay by hanging weight, the less lost is both good for the rancher and for us.

Grass-finished animals – the ones that are weaned and then fattened on grass until they weight about 1,100 pounds will lose anywhere from 45 percent to 50 percent of the live weight.  Corn finished cattle coming out of feed lots weighing 1,400 pounds come in losing between 35 percent and 40 percent.  Our grass-fed lose between 41 percent and 44 percent.

Why the difference you ask - well mainly fat.  Fat throughout the muscles and around the organs and lining the inner wall of the carcass will increase the hanging weight.  Corn finished cattle are loaded with fat.  Grass finished animals are leaner and thus end up weighing less.  Ours (which are still suckling a little) are right in between.  Milk puts on muscle and fat.

Now I won’t go into the merits or demerits of any of these carcasses (we know which is best!).  This is a discussion about where the weight goes.

In our terminology, the ratio of hanging weight to live weight represents the productivity yield.  The more carcass left on the hanging hook when it leaves the kill floor the higher the productivity yield better for everybody.  Our ranchers make more, and we have more meat to sell.

So our 750 pound steer has left the floor weighing about 420 pounds.

It is often here where confusion sets in with private buyers.  Whenever you buy a half or a whole you are quoted “hanging weight”.

But this is not the final weight of the meat you are buying.  Here’s why.

Often, on carcasses that people are buying privately, the carcass will cool down in the chilling cooler for forty-eight hours.  This is so when it is moved to the holding cooler it will not disrupt the ambient air temperature in the holding cooler, and thus not affect the other carcasses that may already be hanging in the holding cooler.

The holding cooler is where the carcass will do a preliminary “dry age”.  Depending on the weight of the carcass, this period can be anywhere from 5 to 7 days to a whole month.  Dry aging “sets” the meat.  It allows it do dehydrate a little (so it is easier to handle when the butcher starts cutting it up), it also allows the flavor of the meat to concentrate into the meat itself by allowing the evaporation of fluids out of the meat.

This type of dry aging will result in a loss of anywhere from 2 percent to 10 percent of the weight of the carcass.  This is not an issue for the big processor who process corn finished beef (unless they are doing a premium product and are dry aging – very expensive), because most of their meat will be “wet aged”.  The beef is cut up right out of the chill cooler, wrapped in shrink wrap and shipped out very cold to the grocery stores.

For small processors, this is common practice (dry aging of the whole carcass).

So now that 420 pound carcass is about 10 pounds lighter when it comes out of the holding cooler to be cut up (our carcasses usually hang 5 to 7 days, perfect for this size carcass).

Now, here come the cut instructions.  How you have this carcass cut will determine how much beef you walk away with – 20 to 30 percent loss is not uncommon.  Every bone you have removed will reduce the final weight.  Every cut you have ground will reduce your final weight.  If you want lots of hamburger, and stew and no soup bones or bone-in roasts, the final weight could be 284 pounds.

This is not the processor’s fault.  It is just the nature of the beast (oh! sorry!).

When I work with people buying from us, I encourage them to strongly think about which cuts they want and why.  I also recommend that they take back as much bone as possible – for broths, soups, and for their dogs.

Bones for dogs can represent as much as 20 pounds of the final weight that you walk out the door with – so walk out the door with it!

If you take all you can take, you can reduce the “shrinkage” (the part that may otherwise get discarded) to 18 percent.

You may ask, “Why don’t you just charge me for what I finally buy?”  Well, because the processor is charging us by hanging weight and I have no control over how you want your carcass cut up.  I have no idea how much to charge you if I can’t control what you decide to throw away.  And even if I could price taking into account what ends up being cut up, my price would vary for each customer.

It is just less confusing to charge by hanging weight (taken from a certified scale under an inspector’s watchful eye), then to try to weigh every piece and assign a price per cut before all your meat is delivered.  Remember, when you buy in bulk, like this, you are paying the same price per pound whether its hamburger or ribeye.

So how do you figure your cost for this meat.

Take your hanging weight x 25 % (right in between 20 and 30 percent shrinkage and including that 2 percent in the holding cooler).  Subtract that from your hanging weight and then divide the full amount of what you paid by that number to determine how much your actual cost per pound is.

In our case:

420 hanging weight x $6.65 = $2,793 for a whole calf

420 x 25 % = 105 lbs.     420 – 105 = 315 pounds

2,793 ÷ 315 = $8.86/lb.  (remember this is an estimate)

Now, if you work with me to retrieve as much of that shrinkage as possible, I can get you down to 18 percent – thus $8.10/lb.

You’re paying $8.10/lb. for hamburger, and $8.10/lb. for fillet mignon.  And, you are going to have plenty of chef bones, marrow bones, soup bones (with lots of meat), some rump roasts, and chuck roasts (bone in) that are going to be yummy.  And Fido is going to be really happy.

I think this is a great buy. But I want you to really understand how much it is costing you and how much meat you are getting. 

Hope this was helpful!           PS.  Figure 1 cubic foot of freezer space for every 30 lbs. of beef!

A Cow is a Cow

I have many people come up to me and ask, if our cows are only eating grass why isn't our meat less expensive than the grocery store meat.

The first, most important reason is that because we want our ranchers raising great cattle - no hormones, antibiotics, chemical fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides - Bastrop Cattle Co. pays above market.  My philosophy is that ranchers need to make a living being ranchers.  I grew up on a ranch watching my parents struggle to make a living.  Back in the 1970's the beef market crashed.  In one week, the price of live cattle went from .78 cents a pound to .28 cents.  It didn't come back for years.

The ranchers that I work with – who are part of the Bastrop Cattle Co. program – are dedicated, family ranchers.  Several of these ranches have been in their families for a couple of generations.  They have kids who want to continue to be in the business.  And as many of you have heard from me over the years, ranching is not particularly easy work!  Like any job that you are passionate about, it has its ups and downs.

Another reason grass fed is not less expensive even though grass is “free”, is that grass isn’t “FREE”.  Just like the ranchers, big and small, corporate or family owned, our ranchers, to be successful, must be grass farmers first.  This also takes a lot of work, and money.

Traditional ranching done right requires lots of fertilizer, herbicides, pesticides, hormone implants, fence building and repairing, feeding, haying, predator control, veterinarian calls, and all the things that keep ranching operations going.

So do grass-fed operations – we just do it with different tools!

My fertilizer bill is for compost tea, fish emulsion, and seaweed extract.  Organic fertilizer is not cheap (and it hasn’t gone down in recent years, but chemical fertilizer has gone up!  Which allows me to tell ranchers they should switch to the less expensive, better product!).

Instead of dousing my fields with herbicides and pesticides, I shred.  I point out to people that it costs the same whether the tracker pulls a sprayer or a shredder across the same acreage – and actually, with the cost of chemical herbicides and pesticides going up, I can now shred three times a year for the same price!  We shred just before the weeds start to seed.  If we’re lucky, they stop coming back in about two years.  Plus, I get free compost to help the grass.

Of course no hormones and antibiotics does save money (hormone implants are about $10 a calf).  But right now, I’m going through a fence repair and re-building phase.  And to increase our carrying capacity on the ranch, we are gradually cutting the whole ranch into 12 acre paddocks so we can do intensive rotation and mob grazing.  This by itself will cost over $20,000. And that’s not including the piping to make sure each paddock has water.

None of the cattle on our ranches eat grain, but during the winter when there is no grass, cattle still have to eat.  Hay is expensive.  If we’re lucky we can cut our own fields, but the last few years have seen us “unlucky”.  No rain, no grass, and no hay.  This year is looking better.  I’m cutting hay right now.  Still an expensive proposition, but it’s my hay and I know what’s in it and on it.  And I know what I’m feeding my own cows come winter.

My point in all of this is that whether a calf goes the feedlot route or the grass fed route, the costs are pretty much the same for the rancher that raises them.

Seen Any Good "Beef" Ads Lately?

I bet you haven't!  But the ranchers of Texas - and by extension you - paid $11 million dollars last year to promote beef to you the consumer.  That is the amount of money the Beef Board and the USDA collected just from Texas ranchers in 2013 to promote beef and conduct research on beef for the industry - a dollar a head every time an animal was sold.  Now the state of Texas itself wants to dip its nose in the trough.

For the past twenty years, the Beef Board and the USDA have been collecting this “fee” every time a beef animal was sold.  It was challenged, and it even went up to the Supreme Court.  The Supreme Court ruled that it was “not” a free speech issue and that the government had a right to collect such fees (they do it with many agricultural commodities) for use in “government speech”.

But, of course, the government speech must be generic.  They can’t promote a particular producer or a particular state.  This is naturally to the advantage of the big agro-industry producers, and not to the small family producers.  Look at this as a subsidy through the Beef Board and the USDA handed out to the big associations like the Cattlemens Association to promote the sale of big industries’ commodity product – where ever it comes from.  That means that those dollars collected from Texas ranchers are going to promote beef brought in from Mexico and Uruguay.   After all, the big associations and the industry have fought tooth and nail not to implement the “Country of Origin” label that is the law and is should be on all beef.

Now, here comes the state of Texas who would like to promote Texas beef.  So, the “powers that be”; The Texas Department of Agriculture, the Texas Beef Council, and the Beef Promotion and Research Council of Texas, along with all the major beef associations and big agro-industry producers suddenly hear a ground swell of demand from small family ranches to get out there and promote Texas Beef.

Funny, I didn’t feel a ground swell under my ranch or from any of the ranchers who are the back bone of Bastrop Cattle Company.   Hum, must have missed it!

Here is the logic behind the new fee.  Due to inflation the dollar that is now taken on each animal is only worth about 44 cents.  And since we’ve had a drought and fewer ranchers are in business, and food prices are so high, and the consumption of beef is down – we need to take another $1.00 out of the ranchers pocket to promote beef to the American consumer and to overseas consumers to encourage them to buy more beef.  In this case, Texas beef.  (FYI, the State of Texas already gets half of the $11 million collected last year just for this purpose!).

Now let’s look at this logic.  The numbers of ranchers are down.  The number of cattle in the national herd (and the Texas herd) are down.  No one is having any trouble selling beef because there is a very high demand (despite the fact that prices are soaring).  In fact, there is so much demand for cattle and beef (both in the US and abroad – think China!), that prices are still going up.  And while consumption of beef percentage wise is down, overall numbers are up.

However, there is one problem.  The increased consumption is in the area of grass-fed/natural/ organic, not in the traditional beef market.

Oh, and did I mention that if you check out the promotional material now being circulated by the Beef Board and the USDA (that is if you can find it!), it will tell you that all beef is good, and that there is “no difference” between grass-fed/natural/organic and the traditional corn finished, feed lot beef!

So, let’s see, will the “powers that be” in Texas be taking a different stance and using my money to push grass-fed/natural/organic beef?

Well what do you think, given that both the Texas Beef Council and the Beef Promotion and Research Council of Texas have directors that represent the major industries, the major feed lots, and the traditional associations.  Oh, and no one that represents the grass-fed people?

But we will have a referendum and the ranchers will get a chance to vote.  Right?

Talk about trying to make sure you get your way.  Here are the rules to vote.

You must be in the cattle business for the last year.

You must cast your vote between June 2nd and June 6th.

You must cast your vote physically at any Ag. Extension office.

If you sell cattle in Texas, but don’t live in Texas, you can vote.

If you can’t get to an Ag. Extension office you can mail in a ballot, but you must request a ballot between May 19th and June 2nd, and it must be mailed and post marked no later than June 2nd.

Oh, and by the way, these people who think it is so necessary to promote Texas Beef and are telling us that they know how (did I mention that the Texas Beef Council and the Beef Promotion and Research Council of Texas will be the ones administering the money?), can’t seem to launch any advertising campaign to let ranchers know about the referendum.

I found out about it when a journalist called me for comment three days ago.

Hum.  This basically sounds like the people who have everything to gain from getting more money (to promote their product, to hire another outside advertising agency, to add more people on to their association payrolls, to get back some of the lobbying money they put out to the politicians who helped them put this idea forward) have found a way to take the money from the people who have no say or control in how it will be used.

Wow, talk about a closed loop of self-interest.  And I thought the only thing bull shit was good for was compost!

Do me a favor please, tell anyone you know who is a family rancher to vote “no”.

Then call your state representative and tell them that you don’t need money taken from hard working ranching families turned over to a bunch of big ag guys to be used to tell you to buy more beef.  Would you do that for me please?  Thank you.

Ranches do more than raise cows

I was listening to Michael Pollan this morning on the radio.  He was, as usual, talking about healthy eating.  I was very happy to hear him extoll grass fed beef as part of a healthy diet.  When the interviewer asked him about whether or not beef added to the increase in global warming, though, he quite strongly said "no".  Unlike the feed lot cattle that emit large amounts of methane and carbon dioxide in concentrated amounts, grass fed beef actually assist the land in sequestering carbon dioxide.

Of course he was talking about farming in general and beef in particular.  Farming, when it uses plowing releases carbon dioxide that is in the soil into the atmosphere (not a good thing).  Additionally, the use of chemical fertilizers add even more greenhouse gases.   But there are ways of farming that can substantially reduce or eliminate the harm.

First, newer forms of plowing, such as shallow till, cause less disruption and less release.  The planting of cover crops that both hold the soil in place and add nutrients to the soil also allow the soil to capture carbon.  The use of natural fertilizers and non-use of herbicides enhances the fertility of the soil and increases the depth of the plant roots.

And here is where grass fed beef really help.  By allowing grasses to remain on the land and adding nutrients through both cattle manure and natural fertilizers such as compost tea, fish emulsion, sea weed extracts, among others, the soil takes in carbon dioxide to feed the biological life that is found in healthy soil.  Ranches that conserve grasses and native species are actually carbon sinks.

I’m glad to know that – my front field is just one big sink!

Is the Food Industry in Crisis?

Agro-industry likes to brag that American consumers eat the best in the world at the lowest prices in the world.  Apparently, not many of these guys go to the local grocery store to do their own shopping!  The food business in this country is in a state of crisis.  Prices are headed up. The practices that the industry have used in both farming and animal husbandry are in questions.  Even the quality and healthfulness of our food is up for speculation.

 

How did we get to this point?  And how are we going to move beyond it to something better?

 

First, how did we get to the point?  Forgive me for a bit of simplification, but basically it all pretty much started after WWII.  A lot of munitions companies knew that much of the chemicals they used to make weapons could also be used to jump start crops.  Many of the big chemical companies switched from making weapons to making fertilizer, and herbicides and pesticides.  And everyone was really happy.  It seemed like a real win-win situation.  After all, employment stayed up, and food prices started to go down.  With more money in their pockets, the American consumer could now buy houses, and cars, and lots of stuff.

I am being neither sarcastic nor judgmental.  At the time, it looked great, and it propelled the US economy into a top position.  There was no conspiracy involved, and no one could foresee the unintended consequences.  In fact, it all looked pretty good.  Soon the pharmaceutical companies were on the band wagon.  If you could make crops grow faster, why not animals.

 

The problem was bugs became resistant to pesticides, weeds to herbicides, bacteria to antibiotics.  And there are natural limits to everything.  More fertilizer didn’t mean more crops, it meant runoff.  More hormones and steroids didn’t mean more meat, it meant animals hitting their physical limits and suffering from abscesses and abnormal behavior.

It was all done with the best of intentions – at least in the beginning.  Now, it’s a question of economics, and capital investment.  Big may NOT be better, but it cost a lot to get big and you don’t “downsize” or try another way without a pretty big loss.

So here we are with a food system that is addicted to “cheap” and “economy of scale” and “fast”, and the whole system is starting to crack.  The big players – Tyson, Monsanto, ADM, Cargill, - they will tell you all is fine, but if that’s the case, why are they acquiring organic companies and buying land in Uruguay to raise grass fed beef.

If the Green Revolution and Round Up were such a success, then why are we now genetically modifying corn genes yet again to be able to ward off the latest natural assault of herbicide resistant weeds?

Last year, I attended a grass-fed conference where a CEO from a major grass fed company (oh yes, we do have major national players in grass fed!), stood up and warned all the participants that the “Big Boys are coming”.  Even while the agro-industry is scoffing at local/sustainable and telling everyone that “Big” is needed to continue to feed the world, they are opening up their wallets to imitate Local/Sustainable on a “Big” scale.

This is what they know.  Economy of scale, mass production, assembly line precision.  The problem is that they still don’t get it.  This is what everyone is rebelling against.

Their “Big” has morphed from the best of intentions into actuarial tables where you can figure out how many people you can afford to get sick from your product before litigation cuts into your bottom line.

So here we sit, on the edge of the abyss wondering what comes next.

Well, it’s already growing out of the ground.  (Every pun intended!) It’s organic, and messy and very confusing (just try and figure out what labels means and then tell me you’re not confused!).  It is re-inventing distribution systems and transportation systems that fit small, local/sustainable ranchers and farmers – and training people on skills hammered into non-existence over the last 40 years when big industry decided to make “cheap” labor the cornerstone of its “cheap” food industry.

But this answer to big, agro-industry is growing – at about thirty percent a year.  That is reflected in both the numbers of farmers markets being started and in their sales.  It is reflected in the fact that the USDA is now actually trying to track this emerging food market.  And it is reflected in the fact that every big grocery chain now has an “organic” or “local” section – and that they are all touting it in their marketing and advertisements.  They will tell you they are just catering to a niche market.  Well “niche” markets don’t grow at thirty percent a year – even while the country is in recession.

But what is this market?  Well, don’t expect any pat answers here!  This market is still forming – it’s CSAs, and farmers markets, and local delivery, and new butcher shops and more gardens going into people’s back yards.  It’s all kinds of new ways for consumers/participants to change their eating habits.  And from here, it looks decidedly American – where else would you get “local/sustainable fast food outlets”!  The infrastructure to support it is just starting to be put back in place.

And it’s fighting a rearguard action all the way!  Big agro-industry for all their talk of not being threatened by this niche market is launching attacks through regulation, lobbyist and public relations campaign to simultaneously squish it, coop it and take it over!

The baby is just born – so get out to your local farmers market, buy some carrots and help it learn how to walk!

Good versus Cheap

It is the beginning of the year, and there is always a sharp rise in beef prices at the auction ring.  Sometimes it's just a "burp" and over the remainder of the month, prices stabilize.

Unfortunately, I don't think that will happen this year.  I think we are in for a bumpy ride that will see meat prices in general and beef prices in particular go up substantially this year.  BCC has already raised prices that we pay to our ranchers twice in the last year.  And we will be doing so again next week.

That means that our retail and wholesale prices will also be inching up, though I will do my best to do as little as possible - mainly to cover our costs.

The thing is though, how much can the consumer take - and how much are you willing to pay for the better meats, raised humanely by local farmers and ranchers?

Let me say that prices are going up for the grocery store meats - just as fast.  However, my concern is that while you may stretch for the top end cuts - for a special occasion, or celebration - will you continue to resist the "specials" on the lower cuts.

I was in the grocery store the other day and looked over at the meat market.  They were selling hamburger (in 10 lbs. tubes) for $2.50/lb.  This is really tempting.  Now, I know that the grocery store is taking a loss on this.  How do I know?  Well, young cattle - the ones that the agroindustry is sending into the stocker ranches and feed lots are selling for $1.75 to $2.10 a pound live weight.  That translates into $3.50 to $4.20 a pound hanging or butchered weights.  Given that grocery stores mark up about 50% you can see where there is really no way that they are making any money.

Hamburger has always been a "loss leader".  It's a way of getting people into the meat section to buy ground and then look at some of the other cuts.  But with prices rising, ground beef becomes the main source of protein for many people.  Very often, the lowest priced hamburger is also taken from the worst carcasses - usually old dairy cattle, and older beef cattle.  The meat is really only good for grinding up. 

Of course, these are also the meats that have had the most exposure to hormones and antibiotics and chemicals. 

At the other end - the natural, grass-fed, no hormones and no antibiotics - people look at even a lower cut and cringe!  I know, I'm still having trouble getting my head around $7.00 to $9.00 a pound for hamburger.  I had a discussion with a woman the other day where she stated that people on fixed incomes couldn't afford to "eat healthy".   I disagreed.  But I also admitted that to make "eating healthy" affordable, one had to cook.

Eating healthy is time consuming and it requires a certain commitment to making it work.

As the prices go up, I fear that many people will find it easier to just not read the label or worry about the long term health issues.

Please, don't give in!  Please don't let cheap beat up on good.