By Roger Blobaum
A direct linkup between farmers and consumers at Madison, Wis., the last two years has made plenty of lean organically-grown beef available below supermarket prices to thousands of food co-op members.
The meat comes from calves raised by family farmers and fattened without stilbestrol, antibiotics, and other chemicals put in feeding rations in big feedlots where most of the nation’s fed beef is produced.
A typical supplier is Gerald Koster of Waunakee, an organic farmer who coordinates livestock bargaining in the area for the National Farmers Organization (NFO). He procures the fed cattle through NFO’s livestock facility at Windsor under an arrangement with Common Market Co-op in Madison.
He brings his own Holstein steers up to around 500 pounds on roughage, mostly pasture, plus a little grain. Then they go on full feed to put on the weight that will take them to a grade of high good or low choice. This, he said, provides good lean meat with just enough marbling to be tender and tasty.
“These cattle are fed a natural mineral and get soybean oil meal for protein,” he explained. “They also get corn and hay or silage raised right here on the farm.”
Coordinating beef procurement at the consumer end is Elaine Nesterick, Common Market Co-op’s manager, who said the members prefer meat that comes from young animals. She makes this naturally-fed beef available through Common Market, which has about 1,900 members, to other food co-ops in Madison and Milwaukee.
Nesterick, who grew up on a Wisconsin dairy farm and majored in zoology, said the cattle are usually slaughtered at 950 to 1,000 pounds. Although the farmers involved usually feed out Holstein steers, she said, Angus crosses and other beef-type animals sometimes are included.
“There hasn’t been any difference as far as the members are concerned and they have really been praising the quality of the beef we carry on a regular basis,” she said. “They say it is very lean and very tender.”
The beef has developed such a good reputation that co-op members buy it frozen and wrapped in white paper and don’t see it until after it is thawed. Few would be willing to take that chance at a supermarket meat counter.
“As opposed to the deception that occurs in commercial marketing of beef, we can be assured that the arrangements made with both farmer and butcher will be honestly carried out,” Nesterick said. “We don’t get a cow instead of a steer or an overly-fat animal instead of a lean one.”
The animals have been slaughtered the last two years at Blau’s Meat Market, a small town plant inspected by the Department of Agriculture. Farmers deliver the animals to the plant where they are slaughtered, hung in a cooler to age for about seven days, cut up according to specifications, and packaged in sizes to serve two to four people.
“The cuts are packaged in white freezer paper, stamped with date of freezing, and fast frozen at a very low temperature,” she explained. “This low temperature fast freezing extends frozen storage life and results in a fresh taste upon thawing.”
The beef arrangement is a recent addition to Common Market’s direct buying, launched in 1971 with ads placed in small town newspapers. They listed what the co-op wanted to buy, suggested how this might be done, and invited area farmers in to discuss it. About 15 showed up for a late winter meeting and all took home orders for fresh produce.
“Although we were thinking of meat at the time, we didn’t have the freezers and other facilities needed to handle it and concentrated that first session on buying produce,” Nesterick recalled. “It seemed to be the most manageable because we could begin immediately buying direct from farmers.”
It worked so well that Common Market a year later was coordinating produce buying for all the Madison area co-ops and farmers who had been involved in the first session were delighted to find they had a growing and well-coordinated market.
“Under the system we developed, farmers call in one or two days during the week and we have an order ready for them, a specific day for delivery, and a location where they can unload quickly and head back to the farm,” she said.
The first year most of the farmers were from the Madison area. Buy this year, Nesterick said, the list showed many attending the pre-planting meeting had come from 25 miles or more out in the state.
“Since the start-up of a farmers market in downtown Madison, and because close-in farmers have always had little difficulty finding local outlets for produce, we found we were attracting more producers from much farther away,” she said.
“They are much more interested in contracting ahead for their production so they know that, after traveling up to 60 miles one way, they’ll have a market for everything they bring into the city.”
Nesterick explained that Common Market now makes verbal agreements with farmers for produce, writing up a description of contract terms and specifying how much is to be delivered and when. She said both producers and the co-op have lived up to these agreements without any difficulty.
“On some items that involve a lot more volume, and that we acquire on behalf of a large number of co-ops in the region, we started writing formal contracts last year,” she added. “This includes onions, potatoes, and most grains.”
Common Market members also are looking for farmers who can supply organically-produced hogs, lamb, and poultry.
“We’ve managed to locate some organic pork and lamb but we haven’t carried it on a continuing basis or worked out the type of arrangement we have with beef,” she said. “Our next step will be to incorporate pork and lamb into our buying and to begin distributing it to other co-ops as we have with beef.”
Finding organically-grown chickens has been much more difficult. Nearly all the chicken marketed through co-op restaurants and grocery stores in the area now come from standard provisoners.
“That is a prime product that co-ops are really interested in getting locally and organically because of the knowledge of what’s going on in the broiler industry,” Nesterick said. “However I’ve talked to farmers who raise chickens in other areas and they say it is difficult to do organically at a competitive price.”
She said the tremendous difference in taste between frying chickens fed organically and those raised in broiler setups will have to be stressed with co-op members. Many who have eaten organic chicken, she said, won’t buy normal chicken anymore.
“We get a lot of comments from people who remember what chickens used to taste like and who complain about the tastelessness of the present produce,” she added. “If we do find a source, and we’re actively looking for one, we’re really going to get into that and stress it with our consumer education effort.”
One of the most interesting features of the Common Market approach is the effort made to get input from the farmers who supply vegetables, meat, and other products. The main opportunity comes at a winter meeting, held before they buy seed, where things like delivery and ordering arrangements, organic standards, and transportation fees are worked out.
“The farmers have as much, or more, input into those terms as the co-op and its members, and we really encourage that,” Nesterick said. “In fact the meetings we’ve held with farmers have been some of the most exciting meetings I have ever attended.
She said the co-op’s long term objective is trying to stabilize food costs by paying farmers a price that reflects cost of production plus a profit. But local supermarket prices also must be considered, she said, because people concerned about food costs shop around.
“So we do regular price comparisons with the three major chains here in Madison,” she said. “I did one on beef three weeks ago, and another about six weeks before that, and both times we were selling most of the cuts between 15 and 20 percent cheaper than the supermarkets.”
The price the co-op pays farmers for beef is tied directly to current market prices under the present arrangement and, in recent months, most cattle feeders have had diffuclty even breaking even. Nesterick said it is easy to pay farmers more when prices are down and there is a lot of margin between what the farmers get and what the supermarkets charge for meat.
“Most times when the price drops at the farm level, it is not reflected at the retail level at all. So we’ve got leeway in between and can pay a farmer a better price and still sell at a competitive, or even lower price, than the big chain stores,” she explained.
“But when the market goes up, which is the case right now, what usually happens is that we pay the farmer more and there’s little difference between our price and the price at the supermarket.”
These prices also are reflected in Common Market’s quotations to other co-ops that buy meat from an order sheet of available cuts. These quotations usually include a handling and delivery charge although the Madison area co-ops generally pick up their own orders.
“The co-ops that buy meat from us from other areas, mainly Milwaukee, have it delivered by Inter-Community Cooperative, which is a Madison-based trucking and wholesaling co-op that makes regular runs to Milwaukee, “Chicago, and points in between,” she explained. “So we get meat orders in here by both phone and mail and we put them up and see that they are delivered.”
Organically-grown food is promoted at Common Market when it is available and the co-op’s educationa program includes reports on taste tests of these fresh products. “It’s really important to relate things like taste to method of growing,” Nesterick emphasized. “That’s really the important linkup.”
If the price is roughtly the same, the organically-grown product is the only one offered on the co-op’s food lists. “On those tiems where there’s a sizeable price differential,” she said, “we carry both products so people can make a choice based on all the information we can give them about how and where it’s grown and who grows it.”