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.