Alternative Meat Marketing Strategies: A Small Farms Conference Session Summary

Author: Lauren Gwin

Publish Date: Spring 2010

As if breed selection, forage management, grazing strategies, and humane animal handling weren’t complex enough, livestock producers aiming to sell into niche markets also have to learn about the other side of the farm-gate. How does your high-quality meat get to your customer’s plate?

Marketing strategies – including supply chain challenges processing and distribution – were the subject of our Small Farms Conference panel, “Alternative Meat Marketing Strategies.” Three Oregon livestock producers with years of experience selling their meats into niche markets shared their stories, strategies, and lessons learned.

John Neumeister, of Cattail Creek Lamb in Junction City (www.cattailcreeklamb.com), started moving away from commodity markets in the 1980s. A niche marketing pioneer, his timing was perfect: his first restaurant customer not only found him but was quite a pioneer herself: Alice Waters of the famed Chez Panisse in Berkeley, CA. Over the decades, John has added many high-end restaurants and wineries to his customer list, as well as retailers, including First Alternative Co-op in Corvallis. He has also partnered with another lamb producer so he could shift entirely to marketing and supply chain management, a full time job.

Bette McKibben, of McK Ranch in Dallas (www.mckranch.com), sells her grass-fed beef to restaurants, retail stores, and, beginning this year, through a CSA-style buying club. After years of selling at farmers’ markets – nearly exhausting herself in the process – Bette finally felt her market presence and customer base were strong enough to let her shift gears. This year, she will do only one farmers’ market, in Dallas, and will focus her direct sales through the CSA, partnering with a produce farm.

Cory Carman, of Carman Ranch in Wallowa (www.carmanranch.com), sells most of her grass-fed beef to individuals on an “on the hoof” basis, as sides and quarters, but also by the cut at farmers’ markets, to high-end Portland restaurants, and most recently to Bon Appetit, a leader in bringing sustainable food to “institutional” food service settings like colleges and corporate campuses. While her profit margins may vary by market channel, the mix of customer types allows her to sell the whole animal, from tenderloin to chuck roast.

All three emphasized the critical importance of establishing a good working relationship with a meat processor, even putting on an apron and hairnet to work with them as they get used to your product. John spent 6 months working side by side with his processor, with excellent results. Cory, like other Eastern Oregon producers, has found processing to be a real challenge and currently works with two small facilities. This may change if she expands production.

Those are just a few highlights: our 90 minute session could have lasted a full day. Next year, we hope to offer more sessions on alternative meats, including production techniques, the risks and opportunities of different niche market channels, how to put together and maintain a functional supply chain, and a hands-on workshop on carcass breakdown and utilization.