Website clicks with farmers, consumers
Tendergrass Farms sells grass-fed Virginia meat and ships it all over the U.S.
Wednesday, October 31, 2012
FLOYD COUNTY — My visit to a farm last week inspired the same sentimental feelings those trips always do.
As I scratched a pig’s back and laughed at the ornery turkeys pecking a hole in a feed bag, I thought about how neat it would be to live on a farm.
But then I yanked my thoughts back to reality, because I know farming is one of the most difficult, dangerous and least profitable jobs — especially livestock farming, which brings with it prohibitive processing laws and high feed costs.
That reality gives me great respect for what Floyd County resident David Maren is trying to do with Tendergrass Farms , a new online store that sells grass-fed Virginia meat and ships it all over the country.
“What Tendergrass Farms is offering is convenience for both sides,” said Maren, 23. “We’re trying to do the legwork so it isn’t hard to be the farmer or hard to be the consumer.”
Maren, the general manager of Tendergrass Farms, married into a farming family — his wife, Ann, 24, is the oldest child of the Houston family, which owns Sweet Providence Farm in Floyd County. Maren is also a farmer himself; he currently has about 900 turkeys foraging in a field behind his house.
As such, he is familiar with the conflict that faces producers who want to raise small-batch, high-quality meats and sell them directly to consumers. Most farmers go into the business because they have an interest in animal husbandry, not because they always dreamed of setting up websites and sitting at the farmers market on Saturdays.
For example, Renee and Ken Brodin of Moneta are home builders who raise pastured Icelandic sheep on the side. They have found it difficult to manage the sale of their lambs because they don’t have time to sell individual lamb parts and most customers don’t want to buy a whole animal.
“Most people don’t know what to do with the whole lamb,” Ken Brodin said. “They have heard of lamb chops or leg of lamb and they just kind of stall right there.”
When the Brodins recently had a bunch of lambs they needed to sell, they contacted Maren. Maren purchased more than a dozen lambs from the Brodins and picked them up himself, then took them to be slaughtered and inspected.
“The service that he offered was very beneficial to the farmer,” Renee Brodin said. “We were able to move a large portion of our livestock to one person, which took a lot of the marketing pressure off of us.”
Lamb is not always available through Tendergrass Farms, but beef, chicken, turkey and pork are regularly stocked. Tendergrass Farms also sells some unusual parts such as chicken hearts and feet, beef tallow and pork lard.
Some of the Tendergrass meat is raised by the Houstons and by Maren himself; some comes from other Virginia farms, including Polyface Inc. in Swoope . If that name sounds familiar, it’s because owner Joel Salatin has written several books and was featured in the 2008 documentary “Food, Inc.”
Salatin is a proponent of environmentally sustainable farming practices and a vocal opponent of industrialized farming. Maren looks for the same ideology in all the farmers who sell to Tendergrass. He conducts on-site visits to make sure the animals are not given hormones or antibiotics, and that they are pasture-raised instead of being fattened on grain.
“ Ruminant animals are able to get all the nutrition they need from foraging,” he said. “They do not need any grain to supplement their diet.”
After Maren takes the animals to one of three federally inspected facilities in Virginia and North Carolina, the packaged meat is frozen and stored in Greensboro, N.C., until there is enough to justify a tractor-trailer trip to Nebraska. The meat is shipped from there because packages can usually reach all of the lower 48 states within three days, an important consideration when shipping frozen food, Maren said.
What customers will notice immediately when they visit Tendergrass Farms is that the prices are much higher than grocery store prices. For example, a 2-lb. chuck roast is $19.99 and a 12-oz. package of chicken breasts is $13.99. The flat shipping rate is $19.99 unless you buy $199 worth of meat or more, in which case shipping is free.
Maren attributed the high prices in part to the fact that it costs more to raise small numbers of pastured animals. The price of slaughtering is also a factor — he said it costs almost as much to have a pig processed as it does to raise it.
“As much as we do know it isn’t easy for some folks to afford the tip-top quality that we provide, it is definitely worth it,” Maren said.
The prices don’t seem to be deterring customers, because Maren said he can barely keep ground beef, chicken breasts and filet mignon in stock. Reviews on the website are favorable.
“This beef is so flavourful, I opted to eat it neat with only a sprinkling of salt,” wrote customer Gwyneth Cann on Oct. 23. “Condiments were a distraction.”
“We realized that convenience is just really valuable to people,” Maren said. “They really put a premium on being able to access grass-fed meats.”
Find Tendergrass Farms on the web at Grassfedbeef.org.
On the blog
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