March 7, 2008

Ten years ago, buying meat at one of Kentucky’s farmers’ markets would have been unusual, if not impossible. But times change. Today consumers are more interested in where their food comes from, providing Kentucky farmers with new marketing opportunities.

From the consumers’ standpoint, University of Kentucky Agricultural Economist Lee Meyer sees two types of movements occurring.

“One is an interest in noncommodity meats, better quality meats,” he said. “Consumers are also interested in naturally produced meat products.”

And from the farmer’s standpoint, Meyer says it’s a way of putting the life back into the family farm.

“There’s a sense, I think, of producing a better product and getting more connected with consumers and recognizing that we can do some things better,” he said. “The whole concept of sustainability and bringing the environmental side of things into it is part of that, too.”

Buying local meat isn’t new. Traditionally, many farmers sold beef, pork, poultry and eggs directly off the farm. But over the years consumers’ schedules grew busier, and basements, formerly the province of spacious deep freezers, gave way to crawl spaces and concrete slabs in the modern home, leaving little space to store great quantities of food. People discovered the convenience and often lower prices offered by supermarkets. But some of today’s consumers are discovering several benefits in returning to the farm.

“I think that consumers are looking for ways that they can decrease their carbon footprint,” said Janet Tietyen, UK Cooperative Extension specialist in food and nutrition, referring to the number of miles the average food travels, and consequently the amount of fossil fuel burned, before it reaches the U.S. consumer.

The conventional system of meat production that involves vast distances bothers farmers like Stan Pace and Earnest Kidd, partners in Better Beef, LLC, a Garrard County grass-fed cattle operation.

Kidd has spent his life on the farm, but in recent years he started to take notice of the great cost involved in bringing a steer to market.

“The typical way of producing beef is, I produce a 700-pound animal here, put him on a truck, ship him 2,000 miles to a feed yard, which takes diesel. Put him in a feed yard in confinement. They feed him corn, which is grown in the Midwest, which took a lot of diesel, a lot of chemicals, a lot of inputs to grow, harvest, truck back to the feed yard, and feed that calf,” Kidd said. “Then they put the animal on another truck, ship him to the plant where they process him, put him on another truck and ship him back here. The miles on that calf are tremendous. The fuel cost alone is tremendous. We’ve done away with all that fossil fuel being used to produce that corn, to truck that animal.”

Many local farmers are rethinking the value of the old system, and it’s not just fuel consumption that has them taking notice. Stewart Hughes’ Triple J Farm in Scott County handled his cattle in the conventional way for years, but didn’t think it worked out that well.

“You’re definitely at the mercy of the market, both the grain market and the fat cattle market when you’re out there, and we were having cattle fed out west,” he said. “We decided if we’re going to feed something, we want to be in complete control of it, and that if we have a good product, then we want to get all the value we can out of it, so we want to take it to the end user if at all possible.”

Nearly eight years ago, with help from the Kentucky Agricultural Development Board, he began taking his cattle from calf to harvest on his 360-acre farm, finishing them on grain he’s grown, and marketing them through farmers’ markets and festivals throughout the area.

Making the switch to local isn’t always easy. There’s a learning curve for both consumers and farmers.

Hughes understands that educational process first hand. He engaged his son Jeremy to market his product. Through farmers’ markets and local festivals, the younger Hughes’ job is to introduce the consumer to the benefits in buying local beef. Over the years he’s noticed customers becoming better educated about the subject and asking more specific questions.

“They ask questions like, how do you feed them, is it grain-fed or grass-fed? We try to educate the customer and talk about inner cell marbling, for example, and the marbling you get from grain-fed beef,” he said.

Some consumers, when looking at the price difference between grocery store and locally-raised meats, may have another question and that concerns value.

“We’re trying to sell a high-end product, and you’re comparing that to the low-cost chains,” Stewart Hughes said. “You know, we can guarantee where our cattle come from and what they were fed, and that’s a plus. But you have to translate that into the difference in price, and that’s sometimes hard for people to understand.”

Kidd agrees, saying trust and accountability are important to the value of a locally raised product.

“When you sit down at your table to eat a steak or a hamburger or a roast, we want you to know that cow came from Better Beef out on Frog Branch Road, and that’s in Garrard County,” he said. “And if you want to go out anytime to check out the facilities, you just have to drive up, get out and knock on the door, and we’ll show you anything that’s here. I think there’s some trust involved when you do that, because you know that when you’re sitting down to eat, you’re eating good product.”

Are consumers willing to take the chance? More and more are, Pace said.

“That’s been one of the things that’s been really good here, because we’ve got a lot of young people in Berea and Lexington who care. They’re educated, and they know that it’s not good for us, some of the things we’re getting (in our food).”

That’s one of the things that drew the former Mississippi agriculture extension agent to Kentucky to start a grass-fed cattle operation.

“One of the reasons I moved to Kentucky was, in the state of Mississippi we had 26 farmers’ markets,” he said. “I looked it up. In the state of Kentucky, you had 126. To me, that tended to say there are more people here percentage-wise who care what they’re getting. That, combined with the climate and some other things, it’s possible to grow a great product here and be local.”

Eating healthier, building a trust within a community, and saving the family farm are all benefits that can come from choosing a local product according to these Kentucky farmers.

“We’re trying to do our part by being grass farmers and marketing beef locally,” Pace said. “We think we can do our part. We can do a lot to help the environment. We can do a lot to help people. And that’s why we’re here, that’s what we’re trying to do – provide a better life for our kids and our families. That’s why we do it.”

To find sources for locally produced meat and produce, visit your local farmers’ market, contact your local Cooperative Extension office or visit the , Kentucky MarketMaker Web site.

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