Even as the demand for local food grows, sourcing meat raised nearby can be daunting. Even impossible.
But, when supermarkets can find a high-quality, reliable and safe source for meat and poultry that they can legitimately call “local,” it's worth it to offer the local product, even if it's in small quantities, retailers say.
“It'll always be a niche product. That's to be expected, and that's fine. It gives us a leg up on the competition,” said one Midwest retailer.
Even in small quantities, the products spur consumer demand that outstrips the supply in some areas.
“The market segment for local meat is growing so fast, retailers can't keep up,” Diana Endicott, founder of Good Natured Family Farms, Kansas City, Kan., told SN.
Endicott and her husband, Gary, founded a cooperative of local farms that supplies all 29 of Balls Price Chopper and Hen House Markets, Kansas City, with locally grown or raised product, including beef. Even so, the percentage of total meat that's local in those Balls Food Stores banners is small, no more than 10%. David Ball, president of the 29-unit chain, told SN in an earlier interview.
He and other supermarket retailers will always need the commodity products, which make up the bulk of the meat case.
When it comes to local, grass-fed beef, it's unlikely that sources will be easy to find near highly populated areas. Unlike produce, a bumper crop of which can be grown on very little land, beef cattle require pastureland and/or feedlots, as well as a nearby USDA- and state-inspected processing facility.
In addition to that, availability, quality and consistency are necessities.
“For example, in the summertime, everybody wants steaks, so it's difficult to merchandise the other cuts the supplier needs to sell,” Endicott said. “But David Ball, for one, does a good job of merchandising all the cuts all year long.”
Endicott's cooperative Good Natured Family Farms supplies Balls stores with 30 to 40 head of cattle a week. All are raised under sustainable conditions, without growth hormones or antibiotics.
It is the all-natural quality that consumers are most interested in, at least in his area, a West Coast retailer told SN. Well, all-natural and “local” rival each other as priorities with his customers, he said.
“Local is a big thing for us,” Tanney Staffenson, advisor to five-unit Lamb's Thriftway, Portland, Ore., told SN.
“It helps that we're members of Unified [Grocers, Lamb's wholesaler],” he said. “They find local suppliers for us, and source to our specs. They have the buying power to do that.
“We offer 100% local, natural pork from an Oregon producer. Most of our chickens come from within 100 miles, in Oregon, and most of our seafood is off the Oregon Coast.”
His customers seek local products for several reasons, Staffenson said.
“It's knowing where their product comes from and that traceability is possible, and they're interested in sustainability. But just as important to them is that money is going back into the local economy,” he said. “Being local and buying local are things the big chains can't compete with you on.”
Like Lamb's, Dayton, Ohio-based Dorothy Lane Market puts a lot of value on natural, even as it looks for additional local sources.
At this point in time, 99% of meat and poultry at Dorothy Lane is all-natural and most is certified humane.
“All our pork is natural, but it comes from Canada,” said Jack Gridley, meat/seafood director at three-unit Dorothy Lane.
It's raised to his specifications, but travels a ways to get to the retailer. “Local” products sometimes have quite a trip ahead of them, too.
“Officially, ‘local’ to us means within 250 miles, but we get a lot of our products from no more than 50 miles away,” said Gridley. “All my turkeys and young roasting chickens are pasture-raised locally, and I get all natural, ground bison in chubs from a rancher nearby. Fresh rabbits, too.”
Gridley told SN that he's currently at work on a program to greatly expand the local meat/poultry offerings at DLM.
“We'll use several different ranchers and farmers to do it. They'll raise beef hormone-free and grass-fed. The way it'll work is they'll do the raising and slaughtering and then provide us with primal cuts.”
Then DLM's butchers will cut and package the product under its own label.
“We're also going to be working with aqua farms here in the state. We'll be able to offer local trout, catfish, tilapia, even shrimp.”
SN talked to other retailers who have sought out small- to medium-sized meat processors who will raise animals and slaughter them to the retailer's specifications. The smallness, the active communication between vendor and retailer, and the ease of traceability give those retailers many of the benefits locally raised product could, retailers point out.
Like Gridley's bringing natural pork in from Canada, Stauffers of Kissel Hill, Lititz, Pa., has a similar arrangement with a beef packer in Canada.
“When I was looking for a supplier of beef that better suited our needs, I went to a Toronto packer, a small company,” said John Gerlach, meat buyer for the three-unit independent. “He's eight hours away from our loading dock but we get what we want and still the miles traveled are less than if we bought from the big Midwest packers.”
Personal contact, dedication to SKH's specs and close communication all add up to the benefits some retailers get from buying local, Gerlach said.
“I have the packer choose the heads [of cattle] based on quality and size and other specs we give him, and he runs a dedicated line for us. Now, we get well over 90% of our beef from him.
“He's small enough to run a dedicated program for us, and yet big enough to provide the quality and quantity we want. It's a customized program that gives us an edge.”
Before hearing about the Toronto packer, Gerlach had tried to find a local source of beef but was unsuccessful.
“We thought we'd found one here but he couldn't give us the quantity we wanted to sell, and he also didn't trim the way we wanted the meat trimmed.”
A Midwest retailer told SN he's going all the way to the state of Washington for beef that meets his specifications. That's far from local in the geographic sense, but this gives him a product he's happy to present to his customers, he said.
“We'd love for it to come from closer by, but first there are the safety and quality and quantity we want. This part of the Midwest is not exactly the mega-center of cattle production,” the retailer said. “Most [ranchers and processors] in this immediate area are too small to meet our needs.
The Washington state processor raises the cattle, grows and makes the feed, and does all the processing.
“They control the process from A to Z. That's the coup de grace for me,” the retailer said. “We took all our meat managers out there to tour the operation, to see how it works, and we're in touch with the company's people several times a week.”
Consumers often have their own expectations of what “local” means. For instance, one idea is that the product raised or grown nearby is superior or fresher. But that may not always be so. In fact, one farm operator, Gail Stevens Shourds, co-owner of Mulberry Creek Farms near Dayton, Ohio, put it this way:
“We find that a lot of people think that if something is produced locally, it means it's produced differently,” she said. “Honestly, what difference does it make if your conventionally produced steak comes from across the country or across the street? The only difference is that it didn't have to travel on a truck and it might be a tiny bit fresher, but not necessarily.”
She considers quality, taste, natural, sustainable and traceable qualities more to the point.
“For us, it's not just about providing local food, although that's a piece of it, certainly. People want to know where their food comes from,” said Stevens Shourds, who with her husband, Glenn, operates Community Supported Agriculture groups, and has an affiliation through one of them with Dorothy Lane Market.
They practice sustainable farming, using no chemicals, growth hormones or antibiotics.
“More than just providing locally raised food, we want to provide food that's healthier and better tasting. We do that by the farming methods we use and the breeds and varieties we produce,” Stevens Shourds said.
Consumers in metropolitan areas often are the ones who put a high priority on “local,” and those areas of the country may have the hardest time finding suitable local suppliers.
Ironically, United Supermarkets, Lubbock, Texas, in the heart of cattle-raising territory, doesn't find “local” meat to be a big attraction for customers. Maybe they take it for granted.
“We really do not source anything ‘locally’ as far as fresh meat goes,” said Scott Nettles, meat/seafood director for United. “We do sell much of the beef that is raised in this area, but that is more of a product of being in the middle of cattle country and not so much about trying to source locally.”
There's no doubt about the interest in other parts of the country in locally grown products. Indeed, the National Restaurant Association puts locally grown items in its Top 10 menu trends for 2010.
Technomic, meanwhile, in its predictions for the coming year points out that interest in locally grown and raised products, including heirloom breeds, will get a lot of attention.
“Fascination with heirloom farm products — from tomatoes to pork — will continue,” Technomic researchers wrote in a recent report.
Such research and predictions underscore the fact that the market for local products is not yet mature, and therefore presents opportunity for retailers, industry sources said.
“I believe that using locally produced products creates a real opportunity to differentiate your brand, which is becoming more important in these economic times,” said consultant John Pazahanick, partner in Merchandising By Design/The Design Associates, Carrollton, Texas.