Beef Farmers Look To Cooperative Model To Meet Demand

Jul 12, 2017

Vermont grass-fed beef is in high demand, and if the market wants to continue to grow, there will have to be better collaboration in the industry.

Marc Cesario raises about 300 beef cows on his farm Meeting Place Pastures in Cornwall.

Cesario got into this business just like a lot of young farmers do: He got some beef cows and sold them directly to restaurants and at farmers' markets all over Vermont.

For a long time, the marketing end of the business kept him away from the farm a lot of the time.

"People would put in orders and I would make deliveries and sometimes those would take us to Massachusetts, or even down to New Jersey," Cesario says. "I would say when we were doing that about 50 percent of our time was spent dealing with the direct marketing side of this business: whether it was dealing with inventory control and sales and driving and trucking and hauling and deliveries, and packaging and all that stuff."

It was tough work, and it made it tough to sell a few extra steaks on the weekend to help grow the business.

So about three years ago, Cesario joined Adirondack Grazers, a meat cooperative that pools meat from small and mid-scale beef farms to distribute to a regional market.
 

The Cesarios raise about 300 beef cows in the lush Champlain Valley.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR

The cooperative includes about 80 members who raise grass-fed beef from Vermont, New York, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania.

Farming cooperatives are not new to Vermont. Milk has been transported and mixed in silver trucks for decades so it can be sold more widely.

But meat cooperatives are a newer concept, and they're proving to be a pretty good model.

Cesario has tripled his production since joining the cooperative and now most his time is spent out here moving his cows among the grassy fields of the Champlain Valley.

"I would say when we were doing [our own marketing] about 50 percent of our time was spent dealing with inventory control and sales and driving and trucking and hauling and deliveries, and packaging and all that stuff." — Marc Cesario, co-owner Meeting Place Pastures Farm

"One of our biggest challenges early on was keeping consistent cash flow," he says. "Producers who are trying to direct market in this state, have to deal with inventory control and carcass balancing. That all takes time and that's what we tried to move away from."

Livestock still represents a tiny sliver of the animals on Vermont's farms, but the locavore movement has created a growing market for locally raised grass-fed meat.

And across Vermont there are farmers just like Cesario who are trying to come up with innovative ways to meet that demand.

Chelsea Lewis is with the Agency of Agriculture, and she says there is no shortage of high-priced, quality steaks and even local ground beef. But not many farmers are working together to produce on a larger scale.

There are still institutions like hospitals and schools that are looking for these products, and Lewis says the markets in Boston and New York are practically limitless, if Northeast farmers can find a way to work together to provide product that's consistent and available year round.

"We are still fairly fragmented," Lewis says. "There's a lot of opportunity for the industry to mature, in terms of getting to some of the larger scale markets, but it's going to take a greater level of collaboration or even more formal cooperatives, who are bringing people together creating a more consistent product for the marketplace, year round, at a bigger scale."

But it won't be easy.

Northeast farmers face some serious obstacles as they try to grow local meat production.

The growing season is short, and there's only so much grazing area among the region's hilly and rocky landscape.

And when winter comes on everyone wants to process their animals at the same time, which challenges the state's limited capacity, according to Arion Thiboumery, co-owner of Vermont Packinghouse, which is the state's largest slaughterhouse.

"If somebody in September or October decides that they want to slaughter their animals next week, they're going to be in a very tough position," he says. "But I think quickly they'll also learn to plan a little better. And that that's not unreasonable."
 

Arion Thiboumery is co-owner of Vermont Packinghouse, the state's largest slaughterhouse.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR

Thiboumery says if there's more collaboration among farmers and processing facilities the region can provide much more meat into the market.

That might mean delivering animals in the winter, when they're thinner and don't bring in as much cash, but he says he's willing to do his work at a discount to keep his machines and employees busy.

"Another thing that's really been key to the development of the whole sector, is farmers becoming increasingly cognizant of the seasonality of the business," he says. "And so people from my perspective are starting to do a better job scheduling 'cause,  we've got staff here and they're looking for year-round full-time work. You know we have bills to pay on our building every single month."

When Vermont Packinghouse opened in North Springfield about three years ago Thiboumery had three employees and they slaughtered about 10 animals the first week.

Now, the facility handles about 300 animals a week and 50 people work there.

The packaging floor at Vermont Packinghouse in North Springfield.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR

Thiboumery has had his own issues to face. USDA, and the state, cited Vermont Packinghouse for inhumane treatment after some cows and pigs weren't properly stunned.

Thiboumery says the issues were partially due to the rapid growth of his business.

"We have seen just tremendous growth in our customers," says Thiboumery. "We've seen pretty steady growth in smaller farms who are doing a lot of direct marketing. And those people who are working with groups of farmers and taking it to more distributed channels, wholesale channels. Those customers seem to be growing exponentially."

Thiboumery says locally raised meat requires a whole level of labeling and tracking that isn't important to consumers who buy the commercial product.

And he says greater communication and collaboration, throughout the chain of production, is vital to meeting the growing demand.

Vermont Farms: A Shifting Landscape explores Vermont's agricultural economy with the people who wake up early every day to try to make their living of the land. Click here to explore the continuing series.