Editor’s note: With concerns about COVID-related food shortages and the consolidation of the beef packing industry, there is renewed interest in expanding local beef processing and marketing. This is the second of three stories this week highlighting new beef marketing initiatives in Michigan and Pennsylvania.
What began as a research project to study the effects of integrating no-till, cover crops and grazing on soil health led to the formation of a grass-fed cattle cooperative in western Pennsylvania.
Earlier this summer, the Allegheny Grass Fed Cooperative held its first produce sale at a small grocery store in Shippenville, Pennsylvania. It was a big moment for the small, five-member co-op, which was officially incorporated last July and last August held its first board election.
The co-op sold its first labeled cuts of meat at O’Neill’s Quality Foods at an event attended by several people, including Pennsylvania Secretary of Agriculture Russell Redding.
Meat sold through the co-op must come from 100% grass-fed animals — only Red Devons and Red and Black Angus, for now — with no GMOs added. It’s not a 100% grazing program – hay can be fed in the winter – but producers are encouraged to keep their animals on pasture for as long as possible, which co-op coordinator Peter Zimmer says is approximately 300 days for western Pennsylvania. .
He says the limited number of cattle breeds is to ensure the co-op’s nutrition and quality standards are met.
From soil health to beef
According to the Allegheny Grass Fed website, the cooperative’s beginnings date back to the mid-2010s, when famed rancher Russ Wilson and Penn State soil management professor Sjoerd Duiker teamed up for a study of effects of various crop management practices on soil health. .
After seeing that Wilson wasn’t getting a bounty for his grass-fed beef and that direct marketing was taking too long, Duiker, according to the website, asked Wilson if he was interested in forming a “community grass-fed beef. to market their product.
But according to AJ O’Neill, a board member and producer involved in the later stages of the co-op’s development, the initial idea fell through after disagreements over what the co-op should look like.
“A lot of us are independent,” says O’Neill. “We’re so used to doing things on our own and building our own thing and having our own customers that the idea of sharing all that information, sometimes farmers are reluctant to give it up.”
In early 2020, a new steering committee was formed. A partnership with Keystone Development Center to pursue a formal cooperative model was agreed upon, and Duiker, according to the website, applied for and received a grant from the USDA Farmer Market and Local Food Promotion Program to help the cooperative get started.
Zimmer, who was hired part-time by the co-op in April and has a background in food aggregation and community development, says many things need to be developed, including streamlining the onboarding of new members and ensuring that production standards are met.
Currently, all farm inspections and quality checks are done on a voluntary basis by the five members of the farm’s board of directors.
Council farms range in operation from 50 head to over 250 head. But not all board members sell their beef through the co-op yet.
offer a market
O’Neill, who raises 49 heads of Red Devons on 70 acres that he leases from his parents and other landowners, is also the head butcher of his family’s grocery store, O’Neill’s Quality Foods.
He does not sell his beef to the cooperative. Rather, he buys from the cooperative to fill a need in his store. It’s been so backlogged for orders for existing customers, he says, that it hasn’t been able to offer a separate line of grass-fed cuts of beef.
“So it gave me the opportunity to offer this line all the time,” he says.
Although the grass-fed product is not as tender, hearty or “melt-in-your-mouth” as grain-finished beef, he says he prefers the flavor of the grass and knowing the animals were raised on a strictly grass-based diet. .
Grass-fed beef fetches a premium of $1 a pound over other beef products he sells. “And it sells,” O’Neill says, adding that it offers steaks, roasts, flavored burgers and even grass-fed beef hot dogs. “And we can offer it fresh. So the idea of bringing in individuals and being able to do a cut to order, I think, gives us a niche, makes us unique.
Fill the pieces
But a lot of pieces need to be filled in if this small co-op will have an impact for growers outside of its small area, which sits between Erie and Pittsburgh.
Animals are slaughtered at Whiting Family Foods, a small USDA-certified plant in New Wilmington. Due to its small capacity, the lack of cold rooms and the fact that sales channels are still being developed, Zimmer explains that the cooperative only slaughters one or two animals at a time.
The cooperative manages the cutting list, as well as packaging, labeling and distribution. Each tag has a line on the package telling customers where the animal was raised. Zimmer says outlets are eager to get products, but labeling has been the biggest issue so far.
Any label changes must go through a USDA approval process to ensure that what is advertised is accurate. It’s been difficult, he says, because each tag has a different farm address, and that’s where things can slow down.
“It’s pretty slow, and it’s pretty clunky,” Zimmer said. “Every time something changes or is wrong, you have to go through a cumbersome process to correct it, and it’s very unclear. It’s kind of like this very long iterative process, and it’s been a struggle.
Finding a processor wasn’t easy either. Some have been out for six months or more, and each processor cuts the meat differently. “So we have to be very specific about cuts, portions, size, and that can be hard to do,” Zimmer says. “It’s really important from a consumer perspective to have clear expectations of what you’re going to get, especially when we’re talking about online marketplaces.”
All board members already sell their own beef through other channels, which begs the question: what is the incentive to promote and push this cooperative model? For Zimmer, more outlets is better.
“It’s both a way to access new markets and potentially increase sales for someone in their herd,” he says. “So if you’re someone who…has 50 heads but maybe enough land for 75 or 100, but you haven’t reached that ROI and price threshold on that expansion cost, c is probably a good opportunity because all of the outlets are somehow integrated into the cooperative.
“The other angle is to build a community of like-minded people. These different growers all embrace the philosophies and ideas of grass-fed and regenerative agriculture, like the small local food movement. So being a part of that community and supporting each other is also an incentive and being able to download some of the ground work of marketing, sales, inventory, distribution and really relying on the co-op to do that work, so that farmers can get back to growing and raising food, and be able to step in from that day-to-day business management component.”
preserve the farm
O’Neill wants the co-op to succeed for another reason: succession.
His farm has been in his family since the 1940s; his grandfather milked dairy cows until the end of the 1980s.
For 15 years the farm land was leased to neighboring farmers who cut the hay. Then O’Neill started rotational grazing in the 2010s, looking to raise cattle for the family store.
He mainly sells his animals for breeding and frozen beef; the former is making more money right now.
O’Neill says he is looking forward to buying more beef from the co-op for his store and developing a local beef market that can support young farmers.
“That’s really where a lot of us on the board see this, it’s for the next generation,” he says. “We want to have opportunities for these next kids who are…even the kids who are graduating from high school right now.”
If successful, Zimmer says the co-op could eventually expand to include five or six more producers and make the area a local hub for grass-fed beef production. The COVID pandemic, he says, has highlighted problems in the beef industry, especially on the packaging and processing side.
“It was a testing exercise for what might happen,” he says. “And now producers are taking steps to improve that.”
“The sky’s the limit for this, honestly,” O’Neill says of the co-op. “We start small and make sure to establish good markets.”