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Small producers in this country often face a tough choice: send their cattle off the auction yard for a cut-rate price, or raise the animals to maturity and take on the often overwhelming expense of marketing, logistics and support to sell their beef directly to eaters.
The lure of selling direct is great: farmers could earn a higher price per pound for their meat than what they earn through auction.
But there are several challenges for a farmer who wants to sell direct:
Marketing challenges. Marketing to customers -- most of whom are in big cities far from farms -- is expensive and time-consuming. Think: giving up weekends to haul beef in coolers to the nearest farmers market (assuming it's open for the season), just to have customers buy only a few cuts. You're left with most of the animal unsold and a several-hours-long drive back to the farm, your Saturday gone.
Lack of access to USDA processing. Most of the slaughterhouses in the country are the big guns that process thousands of cattle a day. They refuse to work with the little guys who only want to bring through a couple animals each week -- it's too complicated. So small-scale farmers are left to search for the few-and-far-between small slaughterhouses that are willing to work with them. Their slaughter calendars are really, really hard to get on, because demand is high.
Challenges selling all the cuts and trim. About 12% of the cow is popular in America -- the rib steaks, tenderloins, and strip steaks. But the farmer invested in raising the whole animal, and needs to sell the whole thing to make ends meet. It's common for small-scale farmers to end up with 88% of the cow (X many cows) stored in their freezer, unsold.
These reasons are why lots of talented farmers raising delicious beef with a high ethical standard are forced to sell into the commodity market. When that happens, they become commodity "price-takers" any are not given credit for any unique or differentiated qualities or practices (the industrial beef system is anonymous and untraceable), and they never get feedback on the "eating quality" of their meat, which would influence their animal husbandry decisions for the next season.
Challenges for the consumer merit a separate blog post, but suffice it to say that it's also difficult to buy high-quality beef directly from a farm. How do you find and contact a farm? How do you know if the beef will be any good? Can you really deal with half a cow in a chest freezer and the long drive that's needed to pick it up?
Today, Crowd Cow is the only service in the world where a consumer can directly access high-quality beef from a wide range of independent and family-owned farms across the country. Producers featured on Crowd Cow have the chance to be seen by a fast-growing, loyal customer base spanning the nation. Our unique supply chain includes relationships with regional USDA processors and digital fulfillment.
Case Study: As the country's first grass-finished purebred Wagyu, Sweet Grass Farm of Lopez island has one of the most unique and rare beef offerings in the country. But because of its remote location, twice-per-year slaughter and a lack of farmers markets of significant scale nearby, selling out its product each year was a challenge. But thanks to Crowd Cow's ability to market and fulfill this unique beef to customers in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and cities even further afield, Sweet Grass Farm is now able to sell out its entire production.
By showcasing each farm and explaining the unique qualities of their program -- including the breed, the method of raising the animals, the feed and the environment -- Crowd Cow celebrates the fact that not all beef is created equal (though commodity beef probably tried to convince you it is!). Steaks of many flavors are something to be joyful over, and we use media (blogs, email, videos, photography) to explain and invite exploration of everything from cooking methods to ranchers stories. Working with Crowd Cow is an opportunity to be part of a small community associated with the highest-quality producers and the most enthusiastic beef connoisseurs.
Example: For the typical American beef lover, the word "Wagyu" is an intriguing and not well-understood term. By demystifying the term -- including sourcing Wagyu directly from small farms in Japan -- we make it easier to understand, appreciate, and access Wagyu, and therefore increase demand for domestic Wagyu well beyond the niche of buyers already in the know.
Giving up weekends to haul beef in coolers to farmers markets, and spending countless hours on the phone working out cut plans or coordinating pick-up logistics is valuable time away from the farm and means less time with loved ones. With Crowd Cow, it's possible to establish predictable sales and eliminate the cost and labor associated with marketing, logistics and support.
For producers with seasonal production, Crowd Cow represents an audience that is hungry to explore something new and excited to get in on something with limited availability.
Every farm has a unique story, and Crowd Cow is proud to shine the spotlight on the traditions and families behind each steak. Every cut of beef that goes through Crowd Cow is literally labeled with the name of the farmer who raised it, because we believe in honoring the ranch and empowering the consumer with direct access and transparency. It's not our job to tell farmers how to farm, or eaters what to eat. We're just interested in surfacing high-quality producers and making the buying process transparent for consumers.
For example, when we first met the Gebbers family at Gebbers Cattle in Eastern Washington, they were the first grain-finished farm we had talked to. Up until then we'd only worked with grass-finished farms in Western Washington. Customers, by that point, were asking us to get on finding "grain-finished beef done right," and we had a suspicion we'd found it in Gebbers ranch.
But one question was bothering us, so we asked Cass Gebbers: "Why not produce grass-finished beef? It commands a higher price!" His answer: "Well I guess we could, but we'd have to truck in grass over the mountain pass. It doesn't grow very well out here." That and many other conversations have taught us how complex and landscape-specific farming in the U.S. is.
Nothing is black and white. That's why we approach every conversation with farmers with humility.
We work to provide access to data on yield, carcass quality, meat taste and tenderness back to each farm so they may improve the quality of their meat over the season and across breeding generations. Ultimately, data and feedback from slaughter, processor and customers forms a closed-loop that benefits everyone -- data that is nearly impossible to get when cattle are sold at auction.
Shipping the exact cuts to the right customer at the right time, and ensuring that everything travels efficiently and remains food-safe is a critical aspect of Crowd Cow's platform. Whether it is digitally barcoding every cut of beef, or using 24/7 weather data to compute the optimal amount of coolant per shipment, or working at a larger scale with freight companies to ship more cost-effectively, getting shipping right iss our top priority.
We make it easy and fun for customers to select the exact cuts they want, to learn about things they might not have tried before, and to access recipes for everything they order.
These days, online consumers expect to be able to search for content, click to view the status of an order and to email in a question and to receive a quick response. They also expect to receive a text message when their package is out for delivery and to be able to reply to it and ask a question. So we do that, too.
We're passionate about delighting customers. Just read through our reviews or ask a Crowd Cow customer what we mean to them and why they keep them coming back for more.
Every farm working with Crowd Cow gets an instant boost for their presence online and the likelihood they'll be discovered on Google search. We regularly feature the ranches we work with on our blog and give each producer a dedicated home page on our site. We also regularly promote our ranches via email and on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other social media channels.
By selling through Crowd Cow, producers are not only given an alternative to the auction house, but join a curated set of the highest-quality producers to connect with people who care about where their beef comes from and how it was raised, together forming an online community that is together is changing the food system for the better.