COVID-19 spurs direct marketing growth

Consumer desire to source local food a cash-cow for on-farm direct marketing businesses

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Consumers took a more active role in sourcing locally produce protein when COVID-19 exposed challenges in the food supply chain.

Why it matters: The pandemic has accelerated the interest in local food, creating opportunities for farmers.

Mike Dougherty, along with his mom Suzy and brother Doug had been steadily growing their 50-acre grass-fed and finished beef operation on Wild Meadows Farm since 2018.

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They were doing well expanding their pasture-raised beef, pork and chicken operation year over year, he told attendees of the Grey Bruce Farmers’ Week Beef Day, but the pandemic helped them hit new heights.

“Just before COVID hit in February we launched a new website, pretty good timing on that, pretty customer-friendly online ordering platform, inventory and all that stuff,” he said. “We’re very happy with that.”

It was shortly after that Wild Meadows Farm began using a delivery service for their door-to-door program because it was getting to be too time-consuming.

Dougherty said the system is working well for them and the farm saw 500 per cent growth in 2020 over 2019.

Dougherty said it made sense as a small farm to focus their livestock direct marketing strategy towards grass-fed and finished beef, which commands a premium price and fills a growing consumer trend.

Dougherty said ideally if someone picks up their product from a local retailer it will drive more business to their website.

“Recently we started getting our own bone broth made with a local soup company,” he said. “That’s another thing we can upsell, make use of the bones and get it into local stores.”

There is a market right at our doorstep, he said, and companies like truLocal, Niku, and Butcher Box are opening doors, talking to people about higher-end meats, door-to-door service and building a good market.

People want to deal directly with the farmer and learn how the animals are raised and where they come from, and farmers can offer that connection, he said.

Farmers as information provider

Joan Craig and her husband Elgin run Blue Sky Farm, a Speckle Park cow-calf operation near Arthur and they have also found a desire among customers to know farmers.

Craig said the Saskatchewan-bred cows were chosen for their cold hardiness, strong fertility, vigorous calves, easy temperament and their easy fleshing on grass.

“We finish about 10 head a year for direct marketing for the freezer beef,” she said.

Before launching their own direct marketing the Craig’s invested a lot of time visiting butcher shops, grocery stores and other direct marketers to gather information on what worked, what didn’t and if it was a good fit for them.

In 2018 they created a chalkboard with two box specials and information about their beef and reached out to family, friends and work colleagues and the orders came in.

“It was exciting. And I won’t forget that incredible feeling of putting food that you helped raise into people’s hands for their meals, which obviously is a clear difference from finishing beef for the packer,” she said.

Craig said as the business took off she noted three things about their customers:

  • They were as interested in pre-selected boxes as they were with custom cuts.
  • They were genuinely interested in the farm and how the food was produced.
  • They wanted to talk about cooking the beef.

“For social media, we use Instagram and Facebook,” she said. “Instagram is my preferred platform, because of the strong use of visual appeal.

Business plan valued

Ethan and Julie Higginson are high school sweethearts who married in 2017, and graduated from the University of Guelph Ridgetown Campus in 2018 and 2019 before launching Higginson Farms outside of Meaford.

The couple have a 65-head cow-calf operation of red and black Angus and some Simmental on 550 acres of pasture and hay with 55 cropped acres.

They had begun discussing if a direct marketing freezer beef business would add value to their farm operation as Ethan was finishing a business course at Ridgetown.

One of his assignments required him to mock-up a business plan so he focused on their burgeoning direct marketing business.

Not only did he get a good grade on the assignment, the couple felt more confident when they went for a loan and were able to present a comprehensive business plan.

In 2020 the Higginson’s butchered more than 35 cattle, doubling their yearly goal of 15 animals.

“That was pretty crazy,” said Julie. “We would have liked to butcher more beef animals, but with COVID-19 our butcher got very busy fast.”

The Higginson’s used word-of-mouth and social marketing to push traffic to their website and sell by telling their own story.

“The gap between farmers and regular consumers is very large so as farmers we feel we need to focus our efforts on building that bridge,” she said.

Get to know your butcher

All the panellists agreed one of the most important relationships you want to cultivate is with your local butcher.

“Getting to know your butcher is extremely important and securing butcher dates,” said Dougherty, adding his dates are secured for 2021 already. “We’re booked in for everything just because last year was a little sketchy that way.”

“You have to know your costs,” said Dougherty, adding it’s fine to look at what others are charging for reference. “That’s a great starting point, but every system is different, every farm is different so you need to know what you need to charge.”

About the author

Reporter

Diana Martin

Diana Martin has spent more than two decades in the media sector, first as a photojournalist and then evolving into a multi-media journalist. Five years ago she left mainstream media and brought her skills to the agriculture sector. She owns a small farm in Amaranth, Ont.

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