Farmers find diverse CSA packages popular way to market meat
By Jody Padgham, MOSES
The Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model has become familiar in most communities and among direct-market farmers. In this marketing model, the customer generally pays an up-front fee and receives a pre-arranged quantity of product to be picked up or delivered on a regular schedule. Customers (or share members) are encouraged to make a personal connection to the farm, with communications via newsletters and, sometimes, farm visits or events.
Familiarity with the CSA model among both consumers and farmers has created opportunity for expansion beyond the original vegetable mix into new commodity areas. Numerous farms throughout the Midwest and the U.S. have applied the model to diversified livestock operations, and like the result.
Harry and Gwen Carr started Mint Creek Farm 80 miles southwest of Chicago in 1992. Currently managing 220 certified organic acres, they raise sheep, goats, beef, pigs, turkeys, ducks, and both laying and broiler chickens with the help of several family members and paid employees.
Mint Creek does a steady business selling meat through 12 farmers’ markets in the city of Chicago and surrounding suburbs each week in the summer season, as well as to restaurants and wholesale, but say that their 100-member meat CSA is the segment of their market they are most eager to grow.
“People really support the CSA option,” daughter Raya Carr explained in a workshop about their operation at the 2016 MOSES Organic Farming Conference. “It allows us as farmers to have flexibility in the products we provide, which is a huge benefit.”
CSA box options range from a monthly 10-pound mix of various organic-fed, grass-fed meats all from their farm to a weekly delivery of a pound of their farm’s meat with a half dozen of their farm’s eggs and a half gallon of milk from a neighboring farm.
“We are committed to a service-oriented CSA, where anyone can get what they want,” Raya said. “We have designed our offerings so we never have to turn a potential customer down if we can help it.”
Certified organic, the Carrs work in partnership with a nearby farm, Kilgus Farmstead, producing fluid non-homogenized, Jersey cow milk. They also partner with another local farm, Three Plaid Farmers, offering an heirloom vegetable CSA. “The partnerships with other farms help us by allowing us to cross-promote to each other’s members, as well as offer a wider diversity of products to those we are serving directly,” Raya said. “It creates a market synergy.”
Sandhill Family Farms, with 45 acres in Brodhead, Wis., also offers a meat and egg CSA, as well as a broad diversity of other market options, including a vegetable CSA and sales at a Chicago-area farmers’ market. Also selling into the Chicago and Madison, Wis., markets, Peg and Matt Sheaffer have one primary partner, Riemer Family Farm in Brodhead, as well as several other farms, which help to grow some of the meat animals.
“By working together, we’ve been able to expand production without compromising our commitment to quality, to our customers, and most importantly, to our young children,” the Sheaffers explained.
Sandhill and Mint Creek have slightly different approaches to the meat CSA model. At Mint Creek, customers sign up online for a broad diversity of monthly meat box types, including lamb/goat, pork/chicken, a weekly mixed box, and “old world,” which includes obscure and economical cuts such as soup bones and necks. Although their least popular option, the old world box is great for those on a budget who still want to enjoy quality meat.
The price varies depending on the volume of product chosen, and if the box includes dairy or eggs. The members set up their monthly or weekly selection, which then stays constant throughout their entire membership, which is anywhere from 4 weeks to a year. Base prices range from $124 for 4 weeks for a small selection to $698 for 6 months of a 10-pound mixed share.
The Carrs deliver into Chicago twice a week sometimes on their way to and from their weekly farmers’ markets. Farmers’ market CSA pickup is free, but home delivery adds a weekly delivery fee. The year-round CSA has a rolling membership sign up, and will send renewal reminders if a membership will soon expire.
Raya Carr explained that the meat CSA is a great way to utilize a broad diversity of meat cuts. “Wherever you sell meat, you will always have an excess of certain cuts.” The CSA allows them to include a variety of cuts to make up the designated weight for each box. “We give a mix of humble braising or ground meat cuts and premium meat cuts, such as chops, loins and steaks.” They’ll also occasionally include rustic sausages and organically smoked and cured bacon.
“We are marketing the CSA value,” Raya added, “not the specific cuts.” An average box might range in what it offers, but the customers can always expect the same poundage of meat. She estimates that the average box saves the customer 10 percent cost on the same per-piece purchase. “Our customers support us, they want the farm to succeed,” she added.
The meat at Mint Creek is currently being stored in “lots of” chest freezers, but a walk-in freezer is on the wish list. Delivery relies on a refrigerated sprinter van which “makes all the difference,” Raya said. Drop-offs are made using insulated bags, coolers and cold packs, which the farm supplies and customers return.
Approximately 12 head of hoofed livestock are driven two hours to a certified organic butcher each week in the summer, and every two to three weeks in the winter. The poultry get butchered less frequently in bigger batches at a couple of poultry butchers in Illinois & Indiana, averaging about one trip per month.
At Sandhill Family Farms shares are offered in 10- pound boxes of mixed meats for different lengths of times. Providing “familiar, easy to prepare meats,” a sample box might be 1-5 pound chicken, 1 pound of breakfast sausage links, 1-3 pound beef roast, 1 pound of bacon and 1 pound of ground beef. Cut selections will change with the season.
Shares are $160 for two boxes (fall or winter) or $480 for six boxes, and can be picked up at the farm or at several drop off points in the Chicago and Madison areas on specifically selected days at targeted times. A 20-pound lamb share is also available for $198. The meat is raised at Sandhill or at nearby family farms, and is GMO-free but not certified organic.
Both farms emphasize the way their animals are raised in their marketing materials. Harry Carr is particularly passionate about the value that his diversified livestock operation is giving back to the environment.
Beef and lamb at Mint Creek Farm is 100 percent grass fed and finished, and fed certified organic hay in the winter. Pigs and poultry are also out on pasture, supplemented with certified organic soy-free grain mixes as appropriate to their species. Mint Creek uses a progressive rotational grazing system. One rotation starts with goats utilizing moveable pasture shelters, followed by turkeys and then the 200 egg-laying ducks.
“This rotation is needs-based,” laughed Harry. “We were having trouble finding the duck eggs in the tall grass. Now they are in shorter, grazed pasture, and easier to find.”
Harry said they let the animals harvest the grass. “It takes a lot of care and nutrition to raise animals ethically and naturally,” he explained. “Our production practices benefit the environment, reduce carbon emissions and topsoil runoff, and offer health benefits to the eaters.”
“The CSA model makes wide diversity of production possible, which solves a lot of big problems we see in agriculture,” he added. These include pollution, species extinction, and loss of biodiversity, which can be counteracted with the rebuilding of natural ecosystems, conservation and a focus on nutrient density.
Managing the meat CSA since 2009, the Carrs plan to expand this part of their marketing in the future. “The CSA is good for the customers, and the land and environment,” Harry said. “It works very well for all of us.”
Jody Padgham is the finance director for MOSES and co-author of Fearless Farm Finances, now available in an updated edition at mosesorganic.net.
From the March | April 2017 Issue