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Where’s the grass-fed beef?

by Cory Carman 

Over the past few decades, a dichotomy has emerged in American agriculture. On one hand, large agribusinesses and their highly efficient processing and distribution systems bring affordable food to every corner of the country. On the other, small-scale farmers provide healthy, local food to an increasing number of consumers who value it. Our ranch in northeast Oregon lies somewhere in the middle.

The Carman family ranch is the same type of midsized farm that the USDA recently called “the disappearing middle.” The high transaction costs of selling directly to consumers make it difficult for producers like us to sell everything we produce to niche markets. At the same time, we can’t begin to compete with the efficiencies enjoyed by large corporate farms. Add to the mix a dependence on an increasingly volatile commodity market, and it’s no surprise that 150,000 midsized farmers have recently hung up their hats.

Despite these odds, my husband and I are beating the statistics. For nearly 10 years, we’ve been selling high-quality, grass-fed beef (free of hormones and antibiotics) to a growing number of Oregon families, restaurants, and businesses. In the process, we’ve found a way to combine profitability with sustainability. The key to our recent success has come from looking beyond the typical business plan of a small-scale farmer.

For several years, the Carman Ranch divided its sales channels between conventional commodity sales and direct marketing of grass-fed beef to individual consumers. Following the lead of small farmers, we made personal connections with our customers. Their support allowed us to develop production practices that not only made a positive impact on the landscape but also yielded exceptional beef. But in order to continue these practices, we needed a premium price for our product. We couldn’t accomplish this by selling a few steaks at a time, so we looked beyond home kitchens and found customers who cooked in much larger venues.

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