Content ID

327536

Local, direct meat sales take off online

“During COVID, Subway restaurants closed, and we had nowhere to send our turkey,” recalls Katie Olthoff, Iowa turkey farmer and cofounder of ChopLocal, an online marketplace that connects farmers, butchers, and consumers.

At the time, Olthoff was working for the Iowa Cattlemen’s Association and she saw the pressure for all livestock producers in addition to the strain she and her husband, Bart, felt in the turkey industry.

“We saw cattle backed up that were losing money every day on feed because there was nowhere to send them. We saw our friends with hogs frantically trying to sell direct to consumers or face euthanasia. It was a nightmare,” she says.

At the same time, consumers raced to find food, often turning to their communities for more accessible supply and the desire to “support local.”

Those challenges triggered everyone to look at the meat supply chain and figure out what to do to become more resilient.

Since then, investments have been made in small processors and lockers. Also, solutions such as ChopLocal, for which Olthoff is also chief operating officer, are taking off.

Bart and Katie Olthoff

Bart Olthoff is a third-generation turkey farmer, but because his family farm wasn’t big enough to support another generation, he and wife Katie struck out on their own. The couple built barns in Hamilton County, Iowa, in 2009 through a financing opportunity from a local farmer and West Liberty Foods meat processing company, which was seeking to attract young turkey growers.

The Olthoffs raise 100,000 turkeys a year and are owner-growers for West Liberty Foods, which supplies turkey meat to Subway restaurants.

E-commerce Solutions

The familiarity of navigating a website, filling a virtual cart, and getting boxes delivered to the doorstep was already increasing before COVID-19, but the pandemic accelerated it. 

According to a Midan Marketing consumer survey, 33% of meat consumers have purchased meat or chicken online for the first time since the pandemic began. That was an increase from 20% in April 2020.

“The concept of ChopLocal is the Etsy of meat,” Olthoff says. “Jared Achen, the cofounder, was looking for a way to support producers during the pandemic. His idea is a website for small meat suppliers, whether they are processors, butcher shops, or farmers, to sell their meat with their label and distribute it from their farm.”

ChopLocal alleviates time-consuming and expensive administrative and marketing work for producers. Each vendor signs up for a “micro store” after paying a start-up fee. ChopLocal assists in creating a landing page, uploading product information, and providing shipping and distribution education.

Vendors with retail cuts, butcher shops, and lockers are allowed and so is any production method. ChopLocal charges a monthly fee to maintain each micro store and a 1.5% transaction fee. By cutting out some middlemen, this model increases the farmer’s share of the food dollar.

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ChopLocal vendors often use the site as a way to diversify their income. Many also work with a major packer and do not sell all their inventory on the site, but producers can capture a premium for some of their product with this method and keep growing, Olthoff says.

For consumers, the company’s alternative meat supply chain offers convenience, increased transparency, and the choice to support local growers.

“We joke that our meat is perfect for a vegan’s cheat day because we can offer more information about where it comes from and give them the peace of mind they crave,” Olthoff says.

ChopLocal's Appeal

There’s still a chunk of the population that is perfectly satisfied with what they get at the retailer, and that is totally fine,” says Katie Olthoff. “ChopLocal isn’t trying to eliminate the large packers in the system. There will always be a place for them, and as commercial farmers ourselves, we understand that well. But there are people looking for something different, and they come to ChopLocal for it.”

ChopLocal offers niche products such as flavored bacon. The company has even created a version of a “Butcher Box” for a customer that was cheaper than the national delivery service and was locally sourced.

Consumers can buy from farmers in California, Georgia, Virginia, and all over the Midwest. About 50% of ChopLocal’s main points of contact are women. The company is onboarding new vendors and interested farmers, butcher shops, and lockers. Visit choplocal.com/ become-a-seller to learn more.

Capitalizing on Opportunities

Just as ChopLocal was founded to solve an immediate problem, so was Denise and Jake Meier’s direct sales business in Wisconsin, Meier Meat Co.

“My husband and I are farm kids at heart. I grew up on a 300-cow dairy farm, and Jake grew up on a cow-calf operation with hogs,” Denise Meier says. “We love agriculture and had the chance to buy a small hobby farm in 2018.”

The Meiers, with their two children, set up the farm to start breeding show pigs, but they quickly learned it wasn’t cost-effective enough to sustain.

On top of that, Jake broke his leg in two places before they were able to breed for the 2020 show pig season. To cover some medical expenses and use the hogs that weren’t bred, the Meiers began marketing their pork directly to consumers.

“After we started direct marketing, COVID came, and we hit the ground running and didn’t look back,” Meier says.

During the initial crunch when meat lockers were overloaded and unable to take more hogs, the Meiers purchased them from neighbors and started doing retail cuts themselves.

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“We purchased a Schwan’s truck body box as our freezer, which was more cost-effective to buy than a regular chest freezer. That is our ‘showroom,’ and we now have a trailer with more freezers, which has made us mobile,” Meier says.

Meier Meat Co. kept growing and supporting local producers.

“We began buying cattle from Jake’s dad and other area producers, which we’ve also increased. We’ve invested in more infrastructure in the last six months and now do farrow to finish,” she adds.

The Meiers are located about 45 minutes east of the Twin Cities. About half their business consists of consumers coming from the Minneapolis-St. Paul area to pick up products on the farm.

“We provide that real experience of knowing where your food comes from,” Meier says. “We have the iconic red barn, chickens are running around, the hogs are making a ruckus, and it’s a joy to see families come out to experience it.”

Last spring, Meier was able to leave her full-time job with the local co-op to run Meier Meat Co.

While the company has primarily operated with in-person pick-ups, the website will be ready for online orders and shipping this summer.

The Meiers anticipate even more business, especially on the beef side, this year, and they are planning to ramp up their presence at farmers markets and vendor events locally.

“A lot more producers are selling direct now than ever before because of the pandemic,” says Meier. “Bare store shelves scared a lot of people, and the public is also wanting to know how their food gets to their table. We don’t know what the next six months is going to be like, but we can be a solution.

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