Last month, I had the privilege to stay with the Port family in Clarion, PA, while I was in town to speak at a Farm Bureau meeting and an FFA fundraiser. The Ports own and operate Clarion Farms Beef Barn -- a farm-to-fork beef business. They feed and finish Holstein steers, the cuts of which they market through an on-farm retail store, as well as a weekly farmers market in Pittsburgh. While visiting with the Ports, I was fascinated by their stories of the interesting and oftentimes pointed questions that consumers ask them.
The retail side of their beef business started as a senior project in high school for John-Scott Port, age 26, who realized that if he wanted to return home to his family farm, they needed to diversify. The result of his project was the Clarion Farms Beef brand, and a growing demand for the beef he raised.
So, what are the top two questions consumers ask at the meat counter or the farmers market?
“There are two categories of questions that we hear all the time -- those about animal welfare and care, and those about beef cuts and preparation,” Port says.
Seems simple enough to have answers to those two questions, but not so fast. It’s harder than it looks to answer some of consumers’ most pointed questions.
Talking Animal Welfare
“The animal welfare/care type questions are always about what we feed our cattle (corn), do we treat them humanely (obviously), do we use growth hormones (no), do we use antibiotics (yes), is the corn we feed GMO (yes), do they get to spend time on pasture (no), does my family actually raise them or do we buy them from someone else and resell (we raise them all), etc.
“For me, these are the most frustrating questions because I know the only reason the topic comes up is people read crazy stuff on the Internet and reflexively ask pointed questions based on what they have read.
“What I have learned from answering these questions a million times is this -- a vast majority of people are not really concerned with animal nutrition, average daily gains in cattle, herd health, livestock handling techniques, modern crop genetics, barn design and manure handling, or the lineage of your family. The underlying question once you brush away all the trash is, ‘Is this food safe for my family?’ Once I figured out that is what I am actually answering, I became much better at disarming uneasy consumers,” explains Port.
Choosing The Best Cuts And Recipes
Port admits that, “The beef cuts and preparation questions are a lot more fun to answer. People know ground beef, ribeye, and filet, but they honestly don’t know too much else about all the different cuts of beef. A surprising number of our customers actually get overwhelmed if they are presented with too many different selections. They want something in their price range that will taste good but they don’t have any idea what to even ask for, and they are afraid to spend the money on something they might ruin and have to throw away.
“I really like to cook – especially beef – so I use this as an opportunity to regularly sample every cut we offer. By trying different recipes, I can figure out which cooking techniques work best for which cuts; this helps sell product because I can suggest a specific cut and a proven recipe for that cut to a customer looking for dinner. It is rewarding to see someone return to the store beaming with pride after a successful first attempt at preparing something previously unfamiliar.”
Port adds that, for the most part, consumers genuinely are excited and eager to learn more about beef. Although dealing with the skeptics is part of the job description, Port’s passion for the beef business and love of working with people has helped him be successful in his meat store and at the farmers markets.
From The Cow-Calf To The Feeder, Everyone Should Get Involved In Retail
“I really think everyone in the beef industry – from the cow-calf operations, to the feeders, to the packers – should immerse themselves in retail once a year. Learning how to sell your product to someone who doesn’t know a thing about it hones your skills in a hurry,” Port advises.
“Consumer outreach is everything. There is some nasty stuff floating around out there about beef production and the people involved with it, and the only reason those types of things get started is because most consumers don’t associate actual people with food production anymore.
“Interaction with consumers is the only way to make that connection again. If people have that opportunity to discover that it is indeed other people producing their beef, I think many of those horrendous assumptions about beef production would disappear,” Port says.
What is the most interesting, naive or pointed question a consumer has ever asked you about cattle production and the beef business? How did your respond? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.
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