If farmers are known for their independent streak, four women in Yolo County, California are challenging the assumption that going at it alone is always better. Starting this summer they will join forces to offer customers premium pastured meats through the new Capay Valley Meat Co-op.
The women, who all farm about a mile from one another with their husbands, will use the co-op to buy supplies in bulk and carpool their animals to the slaughterhouse. Alexis Robertson from Skyelark Ranch, Rachel de Rosa from Casa Rosa Farm, Lisa Leonard from Windancer Ranch and Katy Vigil from Creekside Ranch will take turns selling at markets so that they can spend more time on their farms with their families. It’s a model that if successful could have major benefits for other small-scale livestock growers.
Across the country, meat farmers are seeing the value of team play in solving some of their most difficult challenges, like branding and distribution. A standout example, the Pudget Sound Meat Cooperative in Washington organized its 60 members to buy a 40-foot long trailer, which they converted to a USDA-certified mobile slaughtering unit. Today, the group processes animals directly on the farm, before the truck delivers the meat to a cut-and-pack facility to be finished for sale. Joint efforts like that save farmers time and money, which is why the federal government funds a 5.3 million dollar Rural Cooperative Development Grant program. There’s value in coming together.
“We are teaming up to empower a rural food system instead of competing against each other for market share and farmers’ market space,” says de Rosa, who raises grass-fed beef and lamb. Most farmers’ market managers cap the number of producers of any one product (i.e., meat), forcing farmers with similar items to vie for limited vendor spots.
“The way things are now, small farmers are forced to compete at the farmers’ market for whoever is the cutest or who has the cutest baby animals,” says de Rosa, only half-joking. “And we can’t access wholesale customers unless we grow so much that we lose the personal connection that made us get into this business in the first place. But with the co-op, we can come together to offer our customers more variety and a more consistent product.”
The idea to collaborate started out of exhaustion and short supplies. Like so many other farmers, the four women and their husbands were spending hours hauling livestock to the slaughterhouse and hours more driving to urban farmers’ markets. Whole days were used up in the car or behind a table in customer service mode when there were animals (and small children) to be taken care of at home.
As much as they were low on energy, the women were also short on inventory. They would run out of popular meat cuts, because they were processing just a few animals at a time, instead of hundreds or thousands like larger operations. But to keep their stand at the market, farmers have to show up each weekend, whether or not they have enough to sell.
Now the women are pooling their resources to make sure that they have ample product on hand. Their husbands are in support, but it’s the wives who are masterminding the co-op’s logistics of delivery and marketing. In an industry where just 14 percent of principle farm operators are female, it’s significant that these women are taking the lead.
To start, they’ve staggered the breeding cycle of their sheep so that between their four farms, they’ll have lamb—the one product that they have in common—available year round. To help people differentiate their meat, the women created a breed chart, showcasing the unique flavor profiles and wool qualities of the species they each raise and customers can choose their favorite.
The four farms will keep their profits separate, but collectively they’ll have far more inventory to offer, going beyond meat to olive oil, stone fruit, eggs, and almonds, which they also grow. As a co-op, the women can give customers more of the one-stop-shopping experience of a grocery store that they’re used to.
“If you don’t have everything, a lot of people won’t buy anything,” says de Rosa.
Nowhere is the demand for high volume and variety more difficult for small farmers than in the wholesale market, but the women hope that the co-op model could open doors there as well.
“At first glance it might appear that our farms are competitors,” says Leonard, who specializes in heritage breeds like the Navajo-Churro sheep. “But I believe a co-op is a way for a small farm to make inroads into distribution outlets without having to grow beyond the “small farm” size. A small farm might only have a portion of the supply a restaurant is looking for, but working together we could cover their needs. It’s a way to reach the market in a principled manner.”
Robertson, a lamb and poultry farmer, argues that apart from creating an economy of scale, the Capay Valley Meat Co-op will help their four farms to control competition. “I want someone I know to sell meat at my market. Now with all four of us there my market manager has no reason to bring in another producer,” she says.
The co-op label might also comfort customers who suspect that buying meat directly from the farm isn’t as safe as it is coming from a butcher counter, despite the fact that all farmers have to slaughter their animals in a USDA-certified processing site and are hardly cutting up lamb chops in a dirty barn. The women have already noticed that selling as a co-op seems to earn them more legitimacy and relieve fears, however unjustified, about the meat in their coolers.
Leonard, de Rosa, Vigil, and Robertson hope their group status will make it clear that their farms aren’t a fly-by-night agrarian dream. They’ll be back next season and the season after that, because they aren’t afraid to innovate.
“I think some of our success is that we’re women doing this together. We’re able to coordinate and communicate in a way that might be harder for men,” says de Rosa.
Perhaps the old way in farming was every man for himself, but the Capay Valley Meat Co-op could well show the strength of every woman together.
You can find follow the Capay Valley Meat Co-op on their Facebook page. Beginning in July, they will be at two California locations: Oakland’s Jack London Square Farmers’ Market and Vacaville Farmers’ Market.