Debrief Da Beef
I was a little nervous the day I went to pick up the beef from the locker, the logistics a bit overwhelming and the fact that I had never been a delivery driver before - it turned out - a bigger issue than I had imagined. It was the final leg of our first beef escapade, the part where we actually got the cuts into customer's freezers, and it was all up to me to do it right.
The problem really was a lack of experience. I didn't know the importance of checking and rechecking my inventory and really taking my time to count everything - even if someone was standing out in the hot sun holding up heavy trays of frozen meat in the parking lot - to make sure I had every single steak before I left. I hadn't considered how hard it would be to meet new customers and chit chat while also making sure they had exactly what they ordered. And I didn't think to label each cooler with the customers's name whose meat was inside (and to make sure that each held only the meat for one customer), instead convincing myself that, with only two orders in the car, it would be obvious which was which. It turns out it wasn't.
Luckily, many of our first customers were friends and family, also known as "those who will cut you some slack when their tenderloins end up in someone else's freezer a few blocks away." After sitting awake all night, trying to recall in my mind how and when I packed each cooler (finally telling myself out loud, "Beth, it is only a missing brisket. Stop freaking out."), a meat shuffle ensued. A few days later all was straightened out and my knowledge of how to be a delivery driver had increased ten-fold.
There were other hiccups. Selling quarters and halves of beef directly to consumers is a complicated affair. First it requires that you coordinate with a meat locker every step of the way, making sure each customer has the exact cuts they want. It is also confusing that the cost of each animal is not known at the time a customer places an order - it is based on an animal's "hanging weight" which is sent to us weeks after the animal has left the farm and has been processed. And because of government regulations, each package is then wrapped in paper and labeled with the processor's - not the farm's - information and logo, which means our beef is branded as the locker's, not our farm's. (We did give each customer got a really cool Whippoorwill Creek t-shirt though). There were a lot of phone calls and emails with both buyers and the locker, and the problems with my delivery (in)experience made it all even more challenging.
So the question is, was it all worth it? What were the pros and cons of selling to people directly? And perhaps more importantly, how much more did we make this way?
On the cons side (in our opinion), there was a lot of math involved with direct sales (neither of us is very fond of math). And while none of it was calculus, it did involve many variables and it was hard for people like us - farmers who prefer to be outside doing things with our hands - to get ourselves to actually sit down and calculate. There were a lot of moving parts to keep track of, and with organization another skill at which neither of us excel (as was demonstrated in my delivery job) things got a bit messy. The minor mess ups took us even more time, and having 14 different invoices (instead of one if we had sold wholesale) we ran a higher risk of screwing up our calculations and ending up with pissed off customers.
But we enjoyed talking to people and highlighting John's knowledge as a farmer, chef and butcher. It felt like we got to use more of the wisdom we have acquired over the years. It also felt reassuring to have multiple revenue streams, to not sell everything we had in just one way (what might 2021 and beyond bring for farmers??). And above all, we are now relishing in the accolades we are hearing about our beef. "I think that was the best steak I've ever had," one customer told us. "Better than any grain finished, dry aged tenderloin." Another wrote to us saying "They were the best ribeyes we've had outside of a steakhouse, they are so incredibly tender. Loved them!"
In the end, this year (during the pandemic when demand for local beef was high) we made $3.25 a pound hanging weight when we sold our animals to a meat company. Direct to customer sales averaged $3.68 a pound, totaling $1200 more for the 4 animals (or $300 more a piece). If together we worked an extra 60 hours on the logistics, we then made $20 an hour. In the game of farming, that's not too shabby,
We will sell again to customers this fall, perhaps fewer animals at once so that we can create a more streamlined process for ourselves. It would be better to handle only 5-7 customers at a time - half as many as we juggled this time - and to continue to learn as we go.