By Andrew French
Raising pigs on pasture is wonderfully rewarding work, but it will not lead to a viable farm enterprise unless we take the time to develop our marketing program for effectively selling pastured pork. In this article I share some key points and tips I have gleaned in five years of pork production.
Before you start marketing your pork to potential customers, it may be worth your time to go through the logistic hurdles that ensure that your pork can be USDA approved: the time, energy and money you invest in this can give you access to the entire U.S. market. This was the first hurdle that I tackled this spring in order to open up my market to every direct consumer interested in buying my pork.
To be honest, I would rather be harvesting my pigs on my farm, as I believe that on-farm slaughter leads to a more humane and peaceful ending for my pigs. The problem with this method is that it doesn’t allow you to legally sell cuts of meat to off-farm customers, such as restaurants, grocery stores or families wanting certain cuts of pork.
The process is not too difficult. I began by cleaning up a corner of our old farmhouse and installing a used freezer with the capacity to hold three to five pigs’ worth of various cuts. I applied for and received an on-farm meat distributing license from my state (Wisconsin). This allowed me to sell cuts of pork to consumers in my state; either on-farm or shipped directly to them. In order to cross state lines, I needed to bring my pigs to a USDA-inspected processing plant.
After many discussions with my local meat processor Mike (who is absolutely the best at what he does), and with the input of other pig farmers in the area, Mike decided to go through the process of becoming a USDA-inspected facility for processing pigs.
This was a lucky turn of events for me, as his facility is located about 20 miles from my farm. In order to fulfill the requirements of the USDA, Mike had to build a restraining device for the slaughtering process as well as a holding pen and chute. After a few months of work he had fulfilled the USDA’s requirements for slaughter and processing, and now a USDA inspector is on-site certain days for processing pork.
The other piece of the puzzle for me was to figure out how I would bring the pigs to the slaughterhouse. I had an old horse trailer being used to shelter my pastured poultry, and it became obvious to me that using what I had was far cheaper than trying to find anything bigger or better.
The trailer was in good enough shape to travel the 20 miles to the processing facility. I didn’t have a working truck that could safely haul the weight of that trailer, so I enlisted the help of a friend, borrowing her truck for a few days of the year in exchange for some pork.
Raising, transporting, slaughtering and processing are all parts of the whole farm system. Selling your pork, although it almost seems like an afterthought, is just as important as these other aspects of farming — to become a good marketer is key to a healthy cash flow. Marketing in the traditional sense of trying to sell a product to a customer can feel strange and awkward in the beginning stages of a farm enterprise. It can feel out of place in our farm lifestyles that are full of practical tasks and tending to our animals and growing crops. But we don’t need to sell out or become slick; we just need to be passionate about why we do what we do, how we do what we do, and we especially need to feel proud of the quality and flavor of our product.
We need to tend to and grow our tribe of pork customers. And as I’ve learned over the past five years, being open and honest about your practices and keeping all lines of communication open is the best way to do that. Your enthusiasm for your product is contagious.
On the flip side, if you are desperate to sell 100 pounds of pork to pay for your processing costs, most customers will feel that negative energy.
We simply have to work at communicating our story and our passion to the customer, and then have faith that once they try our pork they will be hooked for the rest of their lives!
I have customers who are truly addicted to the pork I raise because it is the best of the best, and they know all about my farm and how I raise my pigs. In order to connect with our customers we need to focus our efforts on communicating our passion for the pork we produce.
Selling Pastured Pork: Methods of Sale
There are many ways to sell your pork: direct sales to the customer and wholesale to grocery stores or other businesses being the two main avenues. I concentrate on direct sales as that is what I am most familiar with, and I also believe it to be the most beneficial to farmer and consumer.
Having complete quality control over my product is very important to me as well. It is important, I believe, to get the most return on your investments in the first few years of a farm business, which translates to getting the best profit margin that you can.
This may mean a lot of legwork in the beginning, but if you are up for it, it can be very rewarding — I love delivering pork directly to a customer’s house and letting them know I stand behind it 100 percent, and that I think it is the best pork on the planet.
Another option is to join a group of other pork producers in order to pool marketing, delivery and storage efforts to sell larger quantities of pork to wholesale accounts. This could be a very good option for farmers that are extremely averse to marketing. If you are reading this article that probably isn’t you.
As a beginning small farmer, I choose to grow my own brand and develop a loyal following.
I believe that the future of permaculture pig farming, and the marketing and sales logistics of all regenerative agriculture in general, will probably involve cooperative ventures as the scale of what will be needed to move a significant amount of product through the marketplace will surpass the level of individual farm capacities.
A subcategory of direct sales is creating a CSA program. In a CSA program you can sell half or whole hogs to individuals in numerous ways — it is a great way to make sure all your pork gets sold.
Requiring a deposit helps offset the operating costs of raising the hogs, and when they are processed you charge a set price for the hanging weight or processed weight and collect the remainder of that income at the time of pick-up or delivery. This is a good way to start out raising a few hogs, but there is a limit to how many folks are around that want to have half a hog in their freezer, or have the funds to pay top dollar for a half of pastured pork all at once.
A friend of mine parcels out the shares and payments over a period of a few months, and that sounds like a wise plan if you have the freezer space. In general, though, the vast majority of folks out there would like to buy the specific pork products they want when they want them. If we can help fulfill that desire, we can build sales.
Communicating a Passion for Pork
As a small farmer with a very unique story, method and attitude, I already have a unique brand ready to be developed, as do you. We can begin our marketing efforts with the story of how we got into raising pigs in the first place. For me, it was when my ex-wife and I were starting to date.
We did a lot of farm dating, which included dreaming about our future farm and all that we would do. We decided one day that it was time to purchase two pigs to raise up to butcher in the fall — we had pig-raising fever.
It was a brand-new endeavor for both of us, and with thoughts of happy pigs nestled in piles of hay and succulent pork chops dancing in our heads, we went to work. We rapidly scanned classifieds to find some “feeder” pigs in the area — sadly it was the time when 4-H kids were buying up every good pig around for top dollar. We finally found a guy with a couple of feeder pigs available for a good price up the road a ways, and we went immediately over to his farm and purchased them.
We were thrilled, and the piglets were very aromatic in the back of the Subaru. That story is told in more detail in my essay “Two Pigs and True Love” in the Greenhorns book, “50 Dispatches from the New Farmer’s Movement.”
So, a simple and exciting impulse in a romantic circumstance led me down this porcine path into the world of pig-raising and now breeding, marketing and selling my pork. It has become my passion as a farmer, and part of my passion is to share what I’ve learned.
The school of hard knocks has been endlessly edifying, and the more we share our knowledge, the better permaculture pig farmers we become.
In terms of marketing, you get to pick the level of information that you share with your customer tribe on a regular basis. It has been my experience that most folks are interested in the general picture, but not the nitty-gritty details. That said, maybe your tribe is. Follow your heart to find out what your farm brand is all about.
Developing a unique voice, the one you use for all of your farm brands marketing efforts, is part of the work of cultivating your tribe of die hard customers who absolutely love your products.
Know Thy Customers
How do we communicate our story to our customers? Probably the best and most effective way, if you are at all social and have passion for your product, is face-to-face communication.
People will pick up on your passion, and even if you are shy you can tell them a bit about your products and hand them a sample. A sample is worth a thousand words, but it takes a lot of energy and time to get samples of your pork into consumers’ mouths.
If you can meet with people and give them a sample; that is the best possible marketing. Another direct-to-consumer aspect of marketing involves social media, which most people partake of in some quantity every day.
Using a combination of Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram and a farm website in a cohesive manner is an effective way to put your farm presence out into the world.
A well-designed website with information about you, your farm, your farm products and regular updates on your activities provides a professional backbone to the rest of your Internet presence. I highly recommend updating your website’s blog at least once a week — it is hard to do that in the busy seasons, but it will grow content for your website that otherwise would become a static and boring page that is not often visited by even your most loyal fans.
Keep the look of your website updated, and streamline the information and features so that people can easily find what they are seeking.
You can never go wrong with a post that includes baby animal pictures. DIY ideas are very sought after, as well as cooking ideas for your products. In fact, including cooking ideas and pictures of your product is one of the most important aspects of your web presence — the more delicious ideas for your products that you can share, the better the odds are a potential customer will buy your products to try them out for themselves.
Post, Pin, Tweet, Snap
Facebook is a great tool to keep your presence vibrant on the web. Facebook is both dynamic and static, in that you need to post at least once if not thrice a day to maintain a certain level of engagement, and static in that everything you post creates a longer narrative of your farm’s existence, trials and tribulations, inspirations and efforts.
The Facebook page is there to reach out and engage in conversation with customers, colleagues and even friends of your farm business.
A Twitter account is totally dynamic in that you post a tweet and it essentially disappears within hours. Tweeting can help with very dynamic events like sales, deliveries and updates on everything from moving pigs to new products. Instagram gives your farm a face and an illustrated story of your farm life that appears in the feeds of those who use Instagram often.
Pinterest can be a great repository for recipes and pork ideas, as well as other things your farm brand is interested in and loves. Attraction toward like minds is a huge part of being a social animal, and all of these platforms help solidify what you are all about as a farm and farmer.
By spending 30-45 minutes on the Internet every day, you can start to build a farm tribe from the ground up.
Out and About
Being featured at a special event is another way to highlight your unique brand in the crowd of other farms that may offer similar products. Unlike a farmers’ market, which can attract bargain shoppers, an event can highlight you and your products in a way that creates interest in a very focused demographic.
Following up on all of this interest is the job of the salesperson with plenty of samples and information. That is the area where I think a lot of us farmers tend to backslide, as this follow-up demoing is difficult to arrange if we don’t make it a priority.
If the passion is there, though, the conversations we have with potential customers will be relaxed and open, and selling your pork will be like giving a gift to a friend, if that is truly what you believe it is.
A good farm brand logo or graphic will help show customers that you are a serious business and not just a fly-by-night operation. Your attitude and story should strongly influence all aspects of labeling, or other print media that you end up producing.
For instance, it took me a long time to select the right font for our farm logo, as I believe a font can convey an overall feeling for your brand that can last a long time. Sharing a snippet of your philosophy and story on all your printed materials is beneficial.
Choosing your image to reflect who you are is a big part of the marketing process. Are you laid back? Are you focused and technical? Are you community-oriented and open to the public? These are some things to be honest about and share throughout your media communications.
After initial marketing efforts pay off and you are selling some product and getting accolades from consumers, you may end up getting some press, whether it is Internet blog posts, newspaper articles, radio interviews, etc.
It is your job and duty to share your unique and interesting story and your passion for your product.
The official venue of the press reflects that you are a real farmer and farm business, and new folks outside of your network will want to know why they should switch from their current product to yours. An accolade from a respected food writer is a very valuable thing — and they will only praise your product if it is really of the highest quality and you sing its praises as well.
Tips for Marketing and Selling Your Pork
- Begin by making sure you have all your bases covered in regards to rules and regulations.
- Get your pig transportation and pork delivery methods set up, or at least have an idea and a plan of how you will go about solving these critical logistics.
- Create the backbone of your Internet presence — your website — with the help of web-savvy friends, business partners, or pay for professional web design services.
- Begin your social media campaign immediately, and spend time every day updating it all.
- Go out into the world and sample the heck out of your product.
- Work with event people to be showcased at relevant gatherings.
- Make sure your pork ordering webpage is clear and attractive. Include information on payment, shipping costs and delivery schedule.
- Set up your inventory system so that you have a general idea of what you have on hand at any given time. You should be ready to fulfill orders when you add an email link or phone number for customers to submit orders and begin to advertise your pork and request orders on your social media or any other marketing materials you produce.
- When a customer emails you or calls you with an order you can now create an invoice in Paypal or other format. Utilizing online invoicing or a simple invoice pad and cash/check system is up to your preference, but definitely keep an ear open and listen to what your customers want. After you receive your orders for the week, it is time to map out your delivery route. Your invoices become your packing list.
- Deliver your products on the correct date and time with a smile.
So now after your thoughtful marketing efforts have paid off, you have customers waiting on the sidelines to regularly purchase your pork. To make that an easy process for them is my current goal and challenge — what is the system that works best for small farmers to get their products directly to the customer? How do we price and sell our pork via the Internet?
Pricing is complex, but in my days as a chef and food service manager I found that there is definitely a sweet spot where the product is priced within an acceptable range to the customer, and if the product stands out in quality and is what the customer wants then you’ve found the correct price point. As farmers we must do a little research to find the average price of similar cuts of meat in our area markets, either online or by visiting retail stores, in order to establish the norm in our foodshed, and then go from there to establish our own pricing.
To establish margins, we need to have a good accounting method set up so we can deduct our costs from our sales in order to see what the gross profit margin may be. Subtracting our other expenses, including labor and overhead, will give us a better idea of our net profit at the end of the year, and then we can project our figures into the future to predict income and cash flow numbers. With this information, we can adjust our pricing to reflect the kind of profits our farms need in order to stay economically healthy.
You could begin by selling your products at a lower price point in order to jumpstart the growth of your sales, or you could stick to the margins that you need in order to grow the business and work harder at marketing.
Your freezer is kind of like a bank — you have a bunch of potential sales tied up in your products, and it is essential to have a sense of your inventory.
The invoice we receive from the butcher has the processed weights of the pig, and I make estimates on the different cuts and total weight. I write this down to have a basic inventory on hand, and you could go further and do a detailed inventory for a much more accurate picture of how much pork is on hand. Knowing our inventory, we can request sales orders from our customers and begin to create invoices for delivery.
In this age of one-day delivery, we expect to buy our products with a click of a button and have them conveniently shipped to our door. I’m convinced this is the way of the future for small farms, because the more convenient it is to buy something, the more likely it will be bought.
Technology has leveled the playing field in the world of commerce — everyone can easily sell anything online these days from handmade chocolate to car parts. If it is easier for a customer to buy directly from the farmer than it would be to go to the grocery store, perhaps the existing paradigm of middleman may shift. Paypal and other credit processing services make it somewhat easy to set up online payment systems, although selling different cuts of meat online is not a simple process, with many different price points and various weights. The logistics are a bit complicated, as you must deal with your inventory and shipping costs and other aspects of accounting and banking that can quickly become overwhelming.
A potentially straightforward way to sell meat online is to utilize the Online Invoice option in Paypal. The variables in your day-to-day inventory of meat cuts and their various price points make it difficult to create static ordering forms.
Utilizing Online Invoicing, I can simply take orders from my customer for what they would like to receive, take inventory of what I actually have on hand, and then create an invoice that they can pay via credit card or Paypal; if they would like to change something about their order, it is easily accomplished. For the customer, this is a little more involved than simple pointing and clicking on an order form, but I believe it has potential to be a great initial payment system. Another easy way to sell pork online or by phone is to take the order by email or phone, and then simply invoice the customer at the delivery site, who then pays when they receive the products with cash or check, or you can utilize a credit card reader on your smart phone if that is something that appeals to you or your customer base.
After some deliberation I have concluded that the only sensible way for me to ship my products frozen directly to my customers in my area is to do it myself in coolers or a reefer truck. As my pork is USDA certified, as long as I keep it frozen and handle it correctly, it can be shipped by me or utilizing UPS, insulated packaging and dry ice across state lines directly to customers.
Another shipping option is to pool resources with other meat producers in order to purchase a reefer truck to consolidate delivery efforts. Even if each farm has its own customer base, the benefit of a shared reefer truck and driver/delivery organizer is that there is a consolidation of delivery time, a decreased cost in ownership of a reefer truck and an increased ability to move product. A warehouse with freezer space, essentially a jointly owned meat locker, could also be a great cooperative venture if farms are close enough together to make this logistically possible.
These are some cooperative ideas that could lend themselves to future development as small farmers together face the real-world obstacles of getting product from the farm to the customer efficiently.
If we focus our efforts on direct sales, we are working hard to organize our sales and deliveries but maximizing our potential profits. If we focus more on wholesale, we are moving more product but getting less profit. It is up to you to see your way forward, as I see pros and cons in both approaches. For me at this point it makes sense to work harder at growing a customer base through direct sales and maximizing profits that are already very slim after all costs are accounted for, than to take on wholesale accounts to move more product and make slimmer profits.
Increasing production at this point increases my costs all around. In the beginning stages of a farm enterprise keeping those costs down is key to financial flexibility. A few positive aspects of getting into wholesale sales is the regularity of sales for the farmer, decreased time in developing a customer base, as well as decreased complications and time in ordering and delivering. Again, you have to find what fits your farm enterprise.
This article appeared in the October 2015 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine.
Andrew French is a livestock farmer and permaculture designer based in western Wisconsin working on developing a viable model of regenerative pig farming from farrow to finish using a whole-systems design approach. He also offers online permaculture coaching services.