Illinois Meat CSA Sparks Consumer Interest
In 2006, Jody and Beth Osmund received an NCR-SARE Farmer Rancher grant that helped them purchase a market trailer and a cold plate refrigeration unit as the foundation of their meat CSA and farmers market sales at Cedar Valley Farm.
Today, Cedar Valley Sustainable Farm CSA has made a new life and new business for themselves raising and selling first vegetables and then antibiotic-free and additive-free beef, chicken, pork, and eggs.
Source: AgriNews, Jeannine Otto
Jody and Beth Osmund don’t expect the sale of Smithfield Foods to Shuanghui International to bring a mass exodus of concerned carnivores to their farm gate for the naturally-raised, antibiotic-free meat they raise and sell.
They’ll be happy if the deal just gets consumers thinking about the food on their tables and in their grocery carts — and if that brings those concerned carnivores calling.
“In a nutshell, I want people to care about where their food comes from,” said Beth Osmund, who markets Cedar Valley Sustainable Farm’s meat community-supported agriculture program to audiences.
“If this deal goes through, it won’t actually change that much, but if it brings that to peoples’ attention, if it brings it to the forefront, that can only help us and other farms like us. Anything that makes people think a little bit more about where their food is coming from is good for us.”
The Osmunds have made a new life and new business for themselves raising and selling first vegetables and then naturally-raised, antibiotic-free and additive-free beef, chicken, pork and eggs.
They have more than 200 customers at their year-round meat CSA, one of only a handful in the region, and they also sell their meat and eggs at farmers markets, including one in Logan Square in Chicago and in Joliet.
As they add new markets for their products, the Osmunds are seeing a growing interest in the CSA style of food buying.
“The more that people are aware of it and the more that CSA becomes the norm, it’s not the thing that only your hippie-dippy neighbor does, then that’s good for everybody,” Beth Osmund said.
“It’s moving into the mainstream. When I do marketing events, my opening line is, ‘Are you familiar with a CSA? Do you know what a CSA is?’ And more and more people are saying, ‘Yes, I’ve heard of it before,’ which is good,” she said. “It’s not the hippies, and it’s not the foodies. It’s mainstream America getting used to cooking again with real ingredients.”
She added that the Smithfield Foods sale also brings into focus more questions about the U.S. food system in general.
“Do we want three or four companies controlling all the hogs in this country? Forget China — even if they are all American-owned, really, is that a good idea? Is it ever a good idea to have things that concentrated, and I would argue, no, our food system needs diversity,” she said.
The Osmunds are no strangers to drastic change in lifestyle. They moved to the farm owned by Jody’s parents, which they now own, in 2002, after Beth lost her job at Arthur Andersen in Chicago when Enron crashed and burned.
Jody’s job had been a victim of the bursting of the tech bubble, and his parents had recently remodeled the farmhouse on the 80-acre parcel in rural Ottawa.. The couple had talked about starting a small home-based business before.
“My wife and I had always talked about doing some sort of small business. In 2002, I was considering a change, so the farm opportunity kind of lined up,” Jody Osmund said.
They had two young children — middle son Duncan, now 11, was a baby.
“We decided if we waited until we thought we were ready, the kids would be pretty comfortable in suburban lives and they would not want to be uprooted and come to the farm,” Osmund said.
He grew up on a diversified livestock and grain farm about nine miles north of where the family lives today. But when the family moved to the farm, in the summer of 2002, they knew that raising a commodity crop wasn’t in the cards.
“We knew we were not going to be grain farmers. We didn’t have the land or the giant bags of capital needed to get that started,” he said.
Instead, they decided to go the cow-sow-hen route with a few alterations.
“One of our very first purchases when we moved to the farm was a dairy cow. Chickens followed that the next spring,” Osmund said.
Beth’s job as a special education teacher supported the family during the first five years on the farm.
They started their farm with a vegetable CSA in 2003. Cedar Valley, along with Marseilles-based Growing Home Farm, were the first two CSAs in La Salle County.
“Especially around here, it was an unknown,” Jody Osmund said.
Jody and Beth themselves didn’t know about CSAs until a city friend gifted them a copy of Eliot Coleman’s famous book, “The New Organic Grower.”
The vegetable CSA worked well until logistical challenges made the Osmunds rethink their plan.
“Our first couple of seasons, we had over 50 members right off the bat. That went pretty well, although in our exuberance, we were adding drop-offs for members, and we found that we spent as much time or more in our delivery vehicle as we actually did farming, so we kind of pulled back from that,” Jody Osmund said.
The meat business started in 2007.
With the help of a U.S. Department of Agriculture Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Grant, the Osmunds purchased a market trailer and a cold plate refrigeration unit as the foundation of their meat CSA and farmers market sales.
Today, Cedar Valley raises its own chicken, pork and beef and also purchases both breeding stock and market animals from a local Angus breeder and a local pork producer who raises Hampshire and Duroc hogs on grass and in the organic style that Cedar Valley customers expect.
“We raise some of it here and we buy some of it as fat animals,” Osmund said.
In fact, the Osmunds have helped their pork supplier develop markets for their pastured pork that is drug-free, antibiotic-free and ractopamine-free.
“They have developed a wholesale market where they are selling to some of the top restaurants in the city,” Osmund said. “Since they started working with us, they’ve put up hog pastures, and they have their hogs moving outside. They’ve been moving a lot more toward how we do things, which is something we are really excited about.”
The Osmunds welcome competition. In fact, they help grow it.
“No one farm wants to or can serve everybody. We want there to be hundreds of farms like us, and that’s why we go to conferences, that’s why we teach other farmers and why we encourage more people. We try to build our own competition,” Beth Osmund said.
Jody Osmund said one of the primary concepts behind local farming is that producers, because they are face to face with their customers on a regular basis, can be held to a higher standard.
“When you do direct marketing and farmers markets and CSA, you are rewarded for excellence and you are punished for lower quality,” he said.
Cedar Valley is not a USDA-certified organic farm, but the meat is processed at two facilities which do organic processing — the chickens at Central Illinois Poultry Processing LLC in Arthur, the state’s only organic chicken processor, and the beef and pork at Bittner’s Eureka Locker in Eureka.
Osmund said processing costs — it costs the couple about $2.30 a bird to have its chicken processed versus less than a dollar for large-scale processing facilities, and labor costs make up a lot of the price differential between naturally-raised meat and conventionally-raised meat.
“We’re able to pass that cost along to our customer and our members, and they expect it,” he said.
Raising animals the way that Cedar Valley does also is more labor-intensive.
Jody and Beth, their three sons, Richard, 14, Duncan and Jack, 7, as well as a part-time teenage employee make up the farm’s labor force.
“It’s a lot more labor-intensive. For instance, with the chickens, today I moved the birds to fresh grass, fed and watered them and then just went back to water them again,” Jody Osmund said.
But the efforts pay off. While business dropped a bit in 2010 and 2011 as the full force of the economic downturn hit across all economic groups, he said business has been picking up and growing again.
“It’s been ticking up again. We’ve added several new drop-off locations in the past year,” he said.
Among them is the Midtown Athletic Club in Chicago.
“They contacted us. They were adding the drop-off location as a service to their club members, to be a CSA drop off for vegetables with another farm. They wanted to do a meat CSA, so they came to us because they knew who was doing it right,” Osmund said.
He said he sees doors opening for CSAs. He is involved with a CSA marketing coalition that hopes to spread the word about CSAs to health maintenance organizations, such as the FairShare CSA Coalition did in Wisconsin.
Osmund said that local farms are taking advantage of an increased demand by American consumers to know where their food comes from and how it is being raised.
“I think farms like ours and the pork breeder that we’re working with have already seen that opportunity as people get more aware of food and are asking where it’s coming from,” he said.
Even as they work to open new markets and introduce new consumers to their products, Jody and Beth Osmund let their products do the talking — and the tasting.
“One of the highest compliments we get at the farmers markets or from CSA customers is, ‘Your chicken tastes like chicken.’ Our customers can bake it just with salt and pepper, and the flavor is incredible. One of our CSA members was at a recent pick up that included pork chops. She came in completely excited, ‘Oh, there’s pork chops! I didn’t want to miss this pick up!’ She said eating our pork chops was a life-changing experience,” Jody Osmund said.
For more information on Cedar Valley Sustainable Farm, visit their website.
Want more information? See the related SARE grant(s) FNC06-611, Bringing the Retail Dollar Home- Increasing Profitability of Small Scale Meat Production Through Direct Marketing.