‘Meet your meat’ e-store features farms of all sizes to help farms sell direct to consumers
Jalapeno-flavored bacon, case-less beef brats and shrimp grown in an abandoned mall are some of the unique products offered for sale on a website that bills itself as the “Etsy” of meat.
Chop Local was designed to create a marketplace for conventional farmers ready to experiment with product innovation and market differentiation, but needing support to do it, according to the Iowa entrepreneurs who started it.
Jared Achen and Katie Olthoff, who both live on multigenerational conventional turkey farms, pooled their talents to create the new site.
The two shared their story during the recent Animal Ag Alliance virtual summit, which attracted nearly 600 attendees, a new high water mark. How to encourage innovation and turn negatives into positives were two big themes during the conference.
For Achen, the incentive to create something new came when the coronavirus pandemic threw him a curve ball.
Ever since returning to the family farm, he’d been working to increase revenue per acre by looking for ways to add value to both crops and livestock, all while working within the constraints of a modern conventionally sized Midwestern farming operation.
He owns a regional feed mill, while his father built a turkey processing plant that is now managed by his brother.
Things were going well. A local processor was buying his livestock to make deli meats. Then COVID struck. All of those products had been going to restaurants that were now shuttered.
In an instant, it drove home to Achen how the modern meat industry is highly efficient but also fragile. He became convinced direct-to-consumer marketing offers the best solution.
He takes inspiration from how people buy cars today. By going online, they can select makes and models and compare prices across the nation. The potential buyer can also download and read a full report detailing the entire history of a particular car.
In general, consumers are starting to have less brand loyalty, but as a result, it’s also easier to launch new products or grow a following, he noted.
“I feel like the meat industry has been slow to stay ahead of this,” he said. “I think we will see a transformation in the meat industry toward becoming more transparent.”
To connect directly to the customer, however, mid-to-large sized farmers need help with marketing, social media and affordable cold chain shipping to be competitive, he added.
“We are set up to offer them a lot of different tools, walk them through the requirements for doing direct-to-consumer marketing, and help get shipping costs down,” Olthoff explained. “It’s easy to get on our site and start selling today, to where someone can pick up the product or have it shipped to their door.”
Previously Olthoff worked as communications director for the Iowa Cattlemen’s Association and published several agriculturally themed children’s books. She noted that new trends were emerging even before the pandemic.
“Modern meat eaters want convenience,” she said. “They are used to being able to order anything they want at the click of a button and have it delivered to their door.”
After a year of spending more time at home, they are also looking to experiment with more premium cuts.
Direct marketing provides transparency and trust, by allowing consumers to get to know one particular farm and its practices.
“The only way to give them that is selling direct-to-consumers by farmers and butchers,” she said. “We know we can’t compete on price. Our differentiation is we are a different supply chain than you can get with a regular retailer.”
Allowing customers to ‘meet their meat’
So far, Chop Local is working with producers in Kansas and South Dakota as well as Iowa, although the vast majority of their customers are Iowans. In fact, 52% are what they call “hyper-local,” meaning they are a short drive from the farm they are purchasing from. More than 50% are using the pick-up option rather than having products shipped.
The founders have used low-cost highly targeted Facebook ads to promote the business.
Olthoff anticipates a bright future for meat shipments. The coronavirus vaccination campaign required shippers like FedEx and UPS to invest more in cold chain handling and both are now doing a better job of delivering frozen items in a timely fashion, she said. State and federal governments have also thrown their support behind expansion of custom meat processing capacity and allowing meat to be sold across state lines.
“What’s frustrating to us right now in a nutshell is on the regulatory side. State to state it is so different,” she said. “And some of the agencies contradict each other in what they are telling us.”
That’s one of the keys to the site: the founders work on all of these aspects behind the scenes so their 20 regional farmer-vendors can focus on running their farms. They also offer tips on things like how to create a farm website with a buy-button that is brightly colored, prominent and easy to find.
The founders won’t permit any use of disparaging marketing on the platform.
“You can promote your own product but you can’t put down other farmers and their production methods. We support all types of production methods,” Olthoff said.
Bierman Bacon, their very first client-vendor, has been wildly popular with uniquely flavored products made from pork raised in a modern production system. Other products include Kansas-raised Wagyu, rabbits raised by Amish farmers and multiple offerings from a small town craft butcher.
“We are trying to make it easier (to go direct to the costumer) without pitting one segment of agriculture against another,” Achen said.
To stay ahead of plant-based and other alternative proteins, livestock producers need to take a page out of the Silicon Valley playbook, by encouraging and supporting a start-up culture within the industry, Achen said.
“As a profession, we need to support start-ups,” he said. “We need to ask ourselves how can we build this so that it is based in agriculture, and for agriculture, and support each other?”