Friday, August 6, 2010

So tell me…how should I differentiate myself? and other off topic ramblings :)

Those who know me well know that I’m passionate about my neighbor farmer friends and creating something truly special with them. There are so many untapped resources in this area. They should have the opportunity to be found, tapped, and rejoiced. I’d love nothing more than to take these small cattle farms from price takers on the national market to price makers in their own market. In fact, that’s how I measure my success. Regional food systems are my weapon of choice. But, now well….I’m struggling. I’m struggling with our identity. What are we to call this unique value chain?

Local was the initial thought. It made sense. Everything we do is local. The farmers are local to me; their livestock is local to me. Heck, I drive past their fields nearly every day or at least every week. They are all livestock processing customers of mine and have been for decades. All processes needed to turn the livestock into meat are done right here. So, local made sense. Until….

Localwashing by corporations has taken advantage of the term local and in many ways has changed the perceived definition of local. I mean, you know, they don’t have enough sales. Lord forbid if they allow the smaller mom & pops and/or farms a teensy piece of the pie. That just wouldn’t be right, now would it? It’s a biz savvy trend that has certainly taken hold in corporate America. Want to see it in action? Just head on down to your favorite national chain supermarket, it’s likely you’ll see a bit of it. Heck, we’re even putting Farmers Market in our business name now. Heck yeah!

As if corporate America making things more difficult for us wasn’t enough…cue the farmers.

Just log onto twitter or facebook any given day of the week and you’re likely to see some article, Op-Ed, or blog post liked, shared, tweeted & re-tweeted & re-tweeted (oh, you get the idea) about how local food is bad for the environment, less efficient, too expensive, can’t “feed the world”, isn’t safer, and my favorite is that it’s actually “less safe”. I’m fairly certain that buying locally produced goods is also responsible for the inevitable apocalypse. In all honesty, I have yet to see that tweet but I’m certain it’s coming. In their defense, I will say those articles, Op-Eds, or blog posts will ultimately have a one or two liner about how great it is to have choices and supporting a local farmer through direct purchase is a nice feel good option, yadda yadda ya… Give me a break! Perspective people! Seriously, how many dollars am I taking out of your pocket by selling locally raised, slaughtered, and processed meats in my home town or home state? Will your crops take a hit because I sold a beef to my neighbor? Since I’m a farmer too, I’m well aware that you have more important things to worry about so how ‘bout putting your energy into that. Oh and in case you haven’t heard yet, us “local lovers” are just a bunch of hobby farmers. We have pretend farms, with pretend cows grazing on pretend pastures next to pretend creeks and streams. Still waiting on my pretend farm hands to come and help me tend those imaginary critters. Or wait? Did they come already and I just missed them? Invisible cloak and all….

Don’t even get me started on some beef advocates spewing factoid snippets about meat production. Beef is safe, wholesome, and nutritious you know. Let’s not forget affordable. Don’t tell me you haven’t heard that yet? At this point, it has been engrained in my memory for all of eternity. Folks, I make my living at making meat not only in the field but also in the slaughterhouse, equally important. I would argue more important on a food safety standpoint. My slaughterhouse is left with the challenges of controlling microbial contamination in meat, residues from irresponsible farmers, and BSE assumed risk. I work our food safety system 5 days per week, 52 weeks per year. I speak the language. HACCP, BSE, SRM, CCPs, SSOP, Pre-Req’s, Ecoli, STEC, Interventions, Deviations, Corrective Actions, Validation, Records Review, Adulterated, Microbial Sampling, Lethality, GRAS, OPEER, NOIE, EIAO, DO, FLS, IIC, PHV, OFO, NRP, residues, STOP, FAST, KIS, RVIS, Notice, Directives, CMPAF…just to name a few are regular terminology in my vocabulary. I don’t have to google it or read about in an industry handbook. I live it. I see 1000’s of carcasses of various species and qualities every year. With that, I see areas on a nationwide scale in the meat industry that need some work. Sliding them under the rug isn’t helping anyone. Perhaps a better method would be talking about your own cattle operation. Maybe share some recipes. Tell folks what you are having for dinner and how great it tastes. Yes, I know. I’ve taken the MBA too. I know what they tell you to say. Truth is, we as cattle farmers don’t have all the answers. We don’t know everything there is to know about the meat industry. Some of us don’t even know where the actual beef cuts come from. Why then would an industry choose to have us educate the public on its safety? Boggles my brain really. The majority of cattle farmers are not meat processors, meat scientists, microbiologists, or nutritionists. So why are we asking them to educate as if they were?

It seems I swayed a bit off topic. That MBA really gets my blood pumping. Now where was I?

Oh yes, how to differentiate. Why not set our meats apart with family farmer. Family farmers are what these folks are. All small farms, as most are in my area. Less than 100 head of cattle and most commonly less than 50 head. All of our livestock comes from small family farmers. So, makes sense to differentiate in that way. But no no, hold on! Can’t do that. It offends other family farmers who don’t sell into local or regional systems. Wait, I’m a family farmer too. Yes, you are. Fair enough.

Worse yet, there was a fairly recent meat launch in this state that stirred up a big ol fashioned ‘tucky rukus. You can read more about that here or here, and here. They chose to use the local and family farmer terminology as the marketing driving force and well, its vastly different from what we do here. “Locally raised in the fields of Kentucky” and “support local farm families and local economies” was their mantra of choice. That sounds warm and fuzzy doesn’t it? I feel all ooey gooey inside just typing it. It would be great if it was factual. Sadly, things are not always as they seem. It’s even partly distributed by a company in my own county. This being the same distributor that had zero interest of moving a more local meat prior to a Minnesota company dropping some bugs in their ears. Oh, but just ask them now! It’s great to support “local family farmers”! Doing a little good for the neighbor must give them the warm and fuzzies too.

Okay, so local and family farmer are a wash. What’s next?

Well, our state has a branding program. Kentucky Proud was originally intended to help promote Kentucky products. That should work right? Wrong. That meat launch I mentioned earlier also gets to use that label and the livestock used travels from Kentucky auction barns to Iowa feedlots to Minnesota packers and then back to Kentucky as boxed beef. Hmm, that doesn’t describe my product at all. Some would say that the Kentucky Proud branding has been hijacked by a few notable companies and some members of the Kentucky Department of Agriculture themselves. It is campaigning time you know and well, food politics are alive and well in the Bluegrass!

So now what? We’ve lost local, can’t use family farmers or Kentucky Proud. I avoid the term sustainability like the plague. What’s left? How can I differentiate my products?

Side Note:

To the naysayers: You don’t live on my street. You don’t walk among some of the best farmers in my state, the hard working men and women that I’m honored to call friends. You don’t see the farmland going to auction. Cattle herds being dwindled, pig farmers becoming an endangered species, grazing land being tied up into CREP or CRP. You don’t see the sweat, regret, and outright fear in their eyes. You don’t see the changing landscape of my farming community, generations of history of farmers going by the wayside. You see stats, numbers, and figures on a computer screen. I see people, farmers, and friends.

So just continue to brush it under the rug, pretend these counties that supply this state with the majority of its cattle don’t matter. You just go ahead and keep the facade up to get your elected positions secured. Oh, and when you lay down at night, just before you shut your eyes after watching the media coverage of your gaining leads in the polls….I hope you see a glimpse of what I see every day and remember that you got elected on the backs of these farmers. Good luck to you. Karma bites.

You might say to yourself; Amy, you seem to be angry. Well, I’d agree. It has become increasingly clear to me that I have become jaded. I’ve lost my balance. I’ve lost my patience and I fear my passion is next. I’m taking some time off to rethink, refresh, regroup, and hopefully come back as my more productive fun loving self. I’m beaten. I’m battered but I’m not broken just yet.

If you have any suggestions on how I can differentiate, I’d love for you to share them with me.  I'm off to follow age old mother's advice. "If you can't say anything nice, then don't say anything at all."  Fair warning:  I may have some trouble with this.....  :-)