Niche meat needs a market – Working with a 20-C license

by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

It doesn’t matter if you raise the best quality meat around if you lack the market to sell it. That quandary was addressed by “Finding a Niche Market for Your Meat,” a session presented by Courtney Grimes-Sutton of Mace Chasm Farm at the recent NOFA-NY conference.

Mace Chasm Farm is an on-farm, nose-to-tail 20-C butcher shop in Keeseville, NY. Grimes-Sutton said because of the farm’s rural location and the farm store’s limited size and scope, the store operates on a self-serve basis.

“Some are familiar and are in and out; others want to stop and talk,” she said. “It’s grab-and-go instead of a fresh case model … We prefer to separate customer service time from processing time.”

The operation includes a licensed chicken processing area with a poultry permit license for processing broilers and turkeys. “We do some niche work with our poultry,” Grimes-Sutton said. “We parcel out the parts and make broth with feet and bones and make chicken sausages with the trim.” She added that with a nose-to-tail operation, “you have to develop products that use all the animal.”

This kind of operation allows her to develop unique recipes, use fresh ingredients of her choice, control the appearance and quality of the packaging, offer nicer cuts and grinds by performing her own trimming (tougher parts go into the appropriate products), prepare special selections for holidays, tweak products for the season, use the whole animal effectively, create more on-farm jobs, provide fresh (not frozen) products, fill custom orders and avoid the need for space at a USDA facility or maintaining a smokehouse.

“Doing your own processing enables you to have unique stuff and that’s been key to our survival,” Grimes-Sutton said. “We have a big garden of herbs and use our own ingredients.”

Anything that’s not used is composted. Once a week, she contacts a farmer to pick up the compost piles. “I love this part of the cycle,” she said.

She believes the quality of the livestock is foundational for a quality meat product. Organizing the processing also matters. “We usually start with pork in the beginning of the cutting week,” Grimes-Sutton said. “It takes up the most room. If we’re doing lamb, we start with that as it doesn’t take as long.”

The farm sells at a weekend farmers market and during winter, customers can pick up pre-ordered goods through curbside markets. Grimes-Sutton is glad to have the winter market, both for the cash flow and because “it’s hard to connect with customers for direct marketing during cold months.” The year-round contact with customers helps the farm stay in touch so it is easier to ramp up sales during the busy summer grilling months.

Every Monday, the farm drops off animals at the USDA slaughterhouse and picks up last week’s aged carcasses to transport back to the farm. They process weekly one cow, eight to 10 lambs and four pigs. Plus, there’s periodic poultry harvests. Offering a variety of goods has helped her farm reach a broad customer base. Some of the niche items include bone broth, sandwich meat, salami, taco meat, smoked sausage, smoked hocks, fresh sausage, roasts, hip steaks, cooking fat and salve made with tallow.

Grimes-Sutton said that she decided to go with the 20-C model (no slaughter onsite, but further processing – their slaughterhouse is Maple Ridge Meats in Benson, VT) when the operation was smaller because “we were a pretty undercapitalized business.” The workload was smaller and she saved a lot of money by performing the work herself. She also wanted to retain more creative control of her products. She also likes that she doesn’t have to make appointments for a packing house. The scheduled processes are easy to obtain when she wants to develop a new product. She does not have to deal with scheduling inspectors for her site and the paperwork is doable.

While she is overall happy with her decision, she pointed out a few disadvantages of a 20-C license versus a USDA license or using a packing house. “You’re really locked into a direct marketing model,” she said. “You cannot sell them to a store for resale. In our rural area, that is a real struggle. But we’ve figured it out more or less.”

It also requires her to farm less and manage and produce while inside more. “A lot of farmers don’t want to be inside and that’s not untrue of me either,” she admitted. She must drive to the USDA facility weekly, which takes her off the farm.

She hopes to gain a better handle on her workweek. “I’m processing four days a week; I’d love to do it two days a week,” Grimes-Sutton said. “Maybe go into this with a group of people who will share this type of work. I’m a farmer before I’m a butcher.” Yet, she does enjoy creating a product in which she feels pride and working in a comfortable work environment.

She said that the in-house operations include $28,000 for shop supplies, $50,000 for hired labor, $38,000 for herself and $3,000 for utilities. The total with paying herself is $119,000; a packinghouse bill would have been about $118,000. Weekly hauling, not included in the previous figures, is $3,000. The capital investment in the shop is about $125,000.

“Develop your flagship product and it has to use most of what’s on the rail so you can make a lot of it – bring it every time,” Grimes-Sutton said. “People are there to get what they know and love but may try something else because they trust your quality.”

While farming well is essential, farmers must effectively market their products. “If you’re getting this going, maybe marketing is a distinct part of your operation,” Grimes-Sutton said. “Maybe hire someone who is not a farmer or processor.”

Since she wants to employ butchers year-round, she developed a processing schedule to ensure the farm has work each month of the year and that the farm’s output matches customer demands. From January through March, she focuses on custom halves and wholes, pre-packaged items for the winter market and the farm store. April and May are all about stockpiling meat for summer markets, continuing to fill the winter market’s pre-package orders and the farm store. From June through October, the farm focuses on the farmers market and farm store. In November and December, it’s back to the winter markets and also the farm store, along with holiday turkeys and other holiday items.

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