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Market Melancholy

This article also appeared in my Substack blog In the Dirt, which is part of the Iowa Writers Collaborative.


Late fall is the season when things slow down on the farm, when the mad morning rush to move animals finally ebbs. The paddocks grow in size and the animals remain on the land longer—the cold weather means we don’t need to be so worried about protecting the delicate plants. Hay becomes a featured menu item in the diets of goats and cattle, and everyone grows a bit grumpy about it.


Mama and baby

The calves calved successfully this fall (Hallelujah!) and everyone is healthy. The buck Bucky completed his fertility mission in a quick three weeks, hopefully impregnating all of the mama does. (On a side note—we are holding a Writing on the Farm class next spring to coincide with goat birthing time—come see the baby goats and write the story/book/article you’ve been wanting to work on!).


But while we welcome new calves in the fall on our farm, this is also the time of year when many of our animals leave. Cattle and goats both went off to market, a difficult concept for city slickers like myself. I struggle with the irony of taking care of animals—investing so much energy in making them healthy and “happy”—and then sending them off to their likely demise. It feels unnatural, and yet—now that I know Mother Nature far better having lived on a farm—I understand that it is perhaps the most natural act of all.


Sending animals off to market is also challenging because it is when the curtain pulls back to expose how valuable the outside world thinks our animals really are.


We sell many of our animals directly to customers who care a whole lot about how their meat is raised and want to support farms like ours. But direct sales are a lot of work—work that does not fall under the category of “farming” like marketing, setting up locker times for the animals to be processed, talking with customers about how they want their beef cut, and often, delivering to them too.


So it is good to have other avenues to sell animals, places where we can sell a bunch all at once. But for cattle ranchers, there are an excruciatingly small number of places to sell livestock.



In the US, four companies slaughter 85% of the steaks, roasts, and other cuts you buy in the grocery store: Cargill (a privately owned company based in Minneapolis that controls much of the food system), Tyson (of chicken fame), National Beef (Brazilian owned) and JBS (also Brazilian owned).



JBS brands I put together from their website https://jbsfoodsgroup.com/our-brands

This means that almost every farmer or rancher in America ultimately sells their cattle to one of these companies, often for too-low prices, a situation the Biden Administration and the National Farmers Union (I am on the board of the Iowa Farmers Union) have been attempting to fight via anti-trust laws.


Luckily for us, John and I raise animals bought and sold outside of that system. Our animals are not considered commodity beef and thankfully are not heaped in with cattle raised in feedlots and processed by the companies listed above.


Which is both a blessing and a struggle. On the one hand, we end up working with smaller companies who specialize in truly “regeneratively grown animals, rotated on pasture every day or two, and raised without antibiotics or other chemicals. These companies pay better rates than the Tysons and JBSs, and many care about the land and people as much as we do.


But it is a tough business for these small companies to be able to compete with the big guys. Margins in food are tight, and doing things differently from the mainstream can be a long and somewhat painful game. It can take many years of working against the system before a return on investment might be made.


Which is a game very few people with money want to play. Sadly, it’s a story John and I have personally witnessed several times in our combined chef/reporter/butcher/farmer years: a Silicon Valley-type investor steps in to “disrupt” the food system, invests some (but not all) of the capital needed to give a start-up meat company a go at it, then gets disenchanted by the inevitably slow return on investment. They lose interest and pull out of the deal, leaving farmers and ranchers with nowhere other than the Big Four as buyer options (and who will dock our prices because we don’t raise the desired “standard” cattle).


Our cattle, still out on pasture

Or perhaps even worse, the company starts out with good intentions, selling “locally grown” products and paying higher prices to the farmers who supply them, until the investors arrive and demand the company use less expensive products, often from overseas to spike profits.


This fall, our contract with a forward-thinking company was canceled when investors got cold feet and pulled out. The company was left on the rocks and uncertain of its future as the entrepreneurs continued to struggle to find a way forward. We ended up selling to someone else who markets grass-finished beef and who gave us a decent price for it. But the animals had to travel all the way to Utah, and the payment for them will not come for almost a month. Certainly not ideal.


We still dream of the day when a company can make it on a promise to sell all grass-finished, chemical-free animals from Iowa. And to find the investors who will be in the game for the long haul, the kind really needed to change this system.


 

Whippoorwill Creek Farm is offering gift certificates this holiday season, redeemable for beef, classes, vegetable boxes, and overnight stays. Contact us at whippoorwillcreekfarmiowa@gmail.com to get one or to inquire about spending the night or enrolling in our summer veggie box program.


Schedule of classes:

January 27


February 10


February 17


March 16


April 13

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