Since the invention of money, farmers have sold extra meat to friends and neighbors.
But even this most traditional of farming pursuits has changed, and those changes can be illustrated by two Indiana operations who market their meat directly to consumers.
Matt Schafer of Schafer Farms in La Crosse, Indiana, has taken the traditional route of selling freezer beef, which is popular with consumers because it's the most accessible way to purchase meat in bulk direct from a farmer. Most customers live right around La Crosse, but he also has customers in the Indianapolis and Chicago areas, and a few are even more far-flung than that, coming from Wisconsin and Kentucky.
Smith Family Farms of Pendleton and Shuter Sunset Farms of Frankton also sell freezer beef, but nearly two years ago, they made the jump into retail, forming a partnership with Maddie Moo’s Custom Meats (a local meat processor) and opening a dedicated store/butcher shop right in the middle of Pendleton.
Local food fans & social media
It was Matt Schafer’s grandfather, Harold, who first started selling beef direct to consumers. But by the time Matt graduated from college in 2001, freezer beef sales were on the decline. In 2002, the farm sold 15 head of freezer beef, down from around 20 the previous decade. Schafer said that he thought it was a “dying venture.”
But then business gradually started to turn around.
“I can't quite put my finger on the year it started, but it did start to be this swell of people,” he explained. The original customers were his dad’s age or older, but then their kids and other families started getting interested in where their food came from.
In 2013, the number of head sold rose to 24—and last year it jumped to 42.
Schafer Farms customers buy their halves (that is, the meat from one half of a steer), quarters and even a few eighths directly from Schafer but they pick it up and pay for it at one of two local meat processors.
Promotion is mostly through word-of-mouth, but Schafer said he is experimenting with an ad in a local foods magazine “just to test the water,” a Facebook ad, and an appearance at the Northwest Indiana Food Council’s food expo.
Aside from the local foods movement, the big change in his operation has been social media. Existing customers get a letter that lists the available slaughter dates, but the dates are also posted on the farm’s website and Facebook page.
Social media also serves to introduce potential customers to the farm. “It's opened up an avenue to have a lot of other conversations too about food and things having to do with food,” such as GMOs, grass-fed vs. grain-fed and hormones, he said.
“Most people just want that kind of stuff explained to them,” he added. “They've heard things, they just don't necessarily know what to make of it. Having that producer talk to them and give them some assurances and just explain it, they feel more comfortable.”
Open for business
Like Schafer Farms, Smith Family Farms and Shuter Sunset Farms have been selling freezer beef for many years.
“While we were milking cows, we would feed out a lot of our own dairy steers,” said Neal Smith.
But there was a problem: Because the Smiths’ farm is only a mile from the SR 38-I69 interchange, the main thing growing up around them was housing, which made expanding the dairy seem risky.
“The last 20 years, what's driven us to look at some of these (niche marketing opportunities) and diversify a little bit is because we lose farm ground every year to some kind of housing or commercial development,” Smith explained. “We didn't want the barn and the facilities to go to waste, we didn't really want to milk twice a day every day on a small scale with outdated equipment, and so we kind of converted it over and started using it for beef cattle.”
What followed were several farm business ventures, including expanding the freezer beef operation to farmers markets, turning their farmstead into a fall agritourism destination with a pumpkin patch and corn maze, and converting one of their barns into a party barn.
Meanwhile, the Shuters, who are long-time beef producers, were also feeling some pressure to diversify – not as much pressure as the Smiths, Brian Shuter said, “But we've had to diversify and look for retail opportunities.”
Smith Family Farms Market came about after Shuter and Smith had for several years tossed around the idea of opening a retail store to sell fresh meat. An additional impetus was that Neal’s wife, Jennifer, was looking for a change from teaching school.
“So we decided to maybe try something different, and this, I think, was the natural choice,” Jennifer said.
The consensus was that Pendleton was the place to be. They set their hearts on one of the busiest intersections in Madison County, the intersection of State Street and SR 36/38. When an old diner in the desired area closed and the building went up for sale, they snatched it up before the “For Sale” sign was even posted.
The store opened in 2015, and in addition to fresh and frozen beef from both the Shuter and Smith farms, it sells fresh and frozen local pork, as well as other meats, eggs, cheeses, baked goods and sauces.
“I think (the customers) really, really appreciate knowing the farmer that actually grew the meat,” Jennifer Smith said. “I think it puts them at ease.”
Owners: Myron and Joan Schafer, Vern and Sherrie Schafer, and Matt and Kristen Schafer. In addition to beef, the Schafers’ operation consists largely of irrigated acres growing corn, soybeans, waxy corn, seed corn, cucumbers and green beans. The cow herd has been developed using only replacement heifers from within the herd and using high-quality bull genetics to produce crossbred cattle with Hereford, Angus, and Simmental influence.
Smith Family Farms Market
Owners: Brian and Sarah Shuter and Patrick and Sara Shuter of Shuter Sunset Farms, Frankton (www.shutersunsetfarms.com; Shuter Sunset Farms Facebook). This fourth-generation family farm raises row crops, cattle and hogs.
Neal and Jennifer Smith, Smith Family Farms, Pendleton (www.smithfamilyfarms.com; Smith Family Farms Facebook). The Smiths, who have just brought the seventh generation into the operation, are primarily grain farmers, renting acreage in three counties (Hancock, Henry and Madison). They also have a pumpkin patch, corn maze and party barn.
Kevin and Corie Marsh, Maddie Moo’s Custom Meats, Mechanicsburg (Maddie Moo's Custom Meats Facebook).
The market, located at 609 E. State St., Pendleton, is open Tuesday-Saturday. For hours, directions, available products and other information, visit the website, www.smithsthemarket.com.
Like many cattle producers, the Schafer family has been selling freezer beef for a long time, but the local food movement, combined with the power of social media, has reinvigorated a business that Matt Schafer (above) considered to be on the decline. The family sells full carcasses, halves, quarters and some eighths (all dry-aged for two or three weeks) through a couple of local meat processors. All of the beef comes from Schafer Farms, and all of the cattle sold this way “can trace its lineage literally back to the original cows back in the ’50s when my grandpa started,” Schafer said. “People seem to get a kick out of that.”
Jennifer and Neal Smith and Brian Shuter (group photo) pose inside their Pendleton, Indiana, market. The Smiths and the Shuters are primarily grain and livestock farmers, but they decided to build on their long-time experience selling freezer beef to open a full-service butcher shop. The big seller in the shop is beef, all of which is produced by the Smiths and the Shuters and is dry-aged at least two weeks, and it’s sold both fresh and frozen. Pork is also sold both fresh and frozen, and in its freezer case, the shop offers a variety of more unusual meats, such as rabbit, quail and bison. “We’re selling local, high-quality fresh product, but…the big thing they want to know is, you know, where it came from, who raised it,” Neal Smith said.