The direct option for marketing ethical beef

At first, direct marketing gave Dylan and Colleen Biggs hope to save the farm. Now it’s driving robust expansion

They told me I would fail,” says Colleen Biggs, remembering the phone call she made soon after taking over sales and marketing on the home ranch. It was 1995, and with no room to cut costs any deeper, she had called the Alberta Ag Ministry to find out more about direct marketing, thinking their way forward had to be to add value.

Conventional wisdom said it couldn’t work, especially in a province dominated by a powerhouse commercial beef sector. But what other choice was there?

Biggs had already ruled out working off farm to help keep their dream afloat. With three young children, the minimum-wage jobs nearby wouldn’t cover childcare, and a better-paying job in her field would mean working over three hours away in Calgary.

“In the beginning I had an old half-ton truck with two freezers and a generator in the back, and three car seats in the cab,” Biggs recalls. While her husband, Dylan, managed his family’s ranch, she took the girls with her on the road selling meat.

I’m glad to have finally had a chance to talk to Biggs, who by the way is no relation to me. She had had to reschedule our first interview because of unplanned tractor duties. After almost 20 years, it seems, the ranch still keeps her on her toes. “Unfortunately that is the nature of the family farm. If one person can’t make it for work, someone else (usually me) gets pulled into the tractor to help,” she says.

Biggs doesn’t seem too worried by the last-minute change, though. It’s because she seeks out change that she’s still on the ranch.

TK Ranch

TK Ranch in the northern fescue grasslands of east-central Alberta was founded by Dylan’s grandparents in the 1950s.

Colleen met Dylan in 1990 at one of his talks on holistic management. She had been raised in Edmonton but had spent many summers on her aunt’s farm and her family was no stranger to agriculture.

Today, she and Dylan own the ranch that they made into the first registered ethical farm in Western Canada, and the first registered ethical beef operation in the country.

Everything they sell is under their TK Ranch Ethical By Nature brand, and even the local Hutterite Colony that grows poultry specifically for them, and the three beef producers who supply weaned calves had to become Animal Welfare Approved.

On 9,300 acres today they have some 1,200 cattle, and they also raise lamb, hogs, and a few laying hens.

“We have very clearly differentiated roles within our ranching enterprise,” Biggs says. “My husband manages all of our animals right to the kill.” After slaughter, she looks after everything until the meat reaches consumers.

Three of their five daughters are on the farm at the moment. Jocelyn, the eldest, assists with the meat side of the business. Their second daughter, Julia, helps Dylan on the ranch, and while their third and fourth daughters (Maria and Tiffany) are away at school, Hannah, the youngest, who is in Grade 11, looks after the laying hens.

farm family

The TK Ranch family.
photo: Supplied

Their online store allows customers to buy bulk (halves, quarters, and eighths) or individual cuts, and the orders are coming in. Biggs has 140 retail and consumer orders to deliver to Edmonton — 350 km away — the weekend following our interview. On alternate weekends, she delivers to Calgary, 300 km away.

The first customers

That first year of direct marketing, Biggs started calling on restaurants. “Cold calling was kind of a reality then,” she says, talking about how she connected with chefs. Because she was selling dry-aged meat (as opposed to the regular “wet-aged”), her calls piqued the interest of many chefs. The problem was getting them to make a change and buy her product.

So she allowed six chefs to order cuts for free, on the understanding they would compare TK’s dry-aged against their best conventional suppliers. Those comparisons resulted in her first customers. Word soon spread within the small community of high-end chefs in the province. “We had so many chefs calling us,” she remembers.

Pleased with her success selling to chefs, Biggs now had another problem: Most chefs want only high-end cuts. Needing to sell the other cuts — and hoping to build a customer base outside of the restaurant industry — Biggs visited health food stores. “They quickly showed me the door,” she notes with a laugh. “They weren’t interested in selling any ‘dead animal’ protein in their stores.”

That left her with the 3,000 pounds of ground beef. “I had it all stored on the front deck of my house. Spring was coming and I was starting to get a little nervous,” she says. She continued calling on health food stores, and with effort she found buyers. The ground beef was gone by spring thaw.

“I’m quite persistent,” she says, and then she tells me what might be her most important message for farmers hoping to get into direct marketing. It takes attitude, not just aptitude, Biggs says. “You have to be very sure of what you’re doing and be very determined, and not let someone closing the door on you dampen your enthusiasm to go back and talk to them again.”

Talking to customers, Biggs is articulate and warm over the phone, but she is no newcomer to communications.  She knows how to be clear. She joined the Canadian military while still in her teens, and rose to become one of the first women to teach in battle school.

Their own brand

pigs in the grassColleen and Dylan branded their meat business Ethical By Nature, based on their strong personal beliefs about animal welfare, but the branding decision wasn’t as simple as it might sound, Biggs says. “First you have to figure out who you are and where you’re going.” They thought deeply about their farm and their product, and how they could be differentiated from other farms and other product in the industry. “We were very meticulous to figure out what we were marketing,” she says.

“I could see that it wasn’t good enough to sell a product with just one differentiating feature,” she says. Thinking about what they do, where they live, and what might make them and their products interesting to consumers, she realized that the story of the grasslands was important.

“We have this beautiful piece of land that has most of the species at risk for Alberta located on it. Lots of consumers are very concerned about species loss,” she says, listing species such as loggerhead shrikes and burrowing owls. It was a case of telling consumers the story of shared values.

“When you buy TK Ranch products, you’re not just buying a package of ground beef. You’re buying the fact that we’ve taken care of that animal from birth to slaughter in a way that doesn’t confine it in a feedlot and is using low-stress handling techniques and ethical practices,” she explains. “I’m also taking care of this endangered ecosystem that we’re raising these animals on.”

Market awareness

“I am constantly monitoring our inventory and uptake,” says Biggs, adding, “Last year I couldn’t keep ground beef in stock for love nor money.” It was a good thing, but it left her with unsold high-end cuts in the freezer — and they’re too valuable to grind. Her solution was to raise prices on the ground beef to balance sales with those of other cuts.

“Part of the marketing process is figuring out who your target market is,” says Biggs. The toll-free line, 888-TKRanch, has helped her know her target market. (Today, the website has largely replaced the telephone line as the conduit for inquiries.) “Our toll-free number allowed us to see emerging trends in the marketplace,” she says as she talks about consumer interest in antibiotic use, organics, grass feeding, and animal welfare.

Challenges

When 9/11 occurred, Biggs’ sales to high-end restaurants came to a screeching halt. “That was the biggest bump we hit in the beginning,” she says, talking about thousands of room cancellations in the Calgary-Banff corridor. Room cancellations meant cancelled restaurant orders too. “I didn’t anticipate the fallout,” she concedes.

To make matters worse, by this time she was selling pork, lamb, chicken, yogurt, and cheese contracted from other producers. She bought the products on contract, but it took months to move that entire inventory. “We got through it and were able to sell all of the products,” she says.

The volatility of the restaurant sector was an eye-opener that made her shy of restaurants. With a growing retail network, she dropped them. “I never went back,” she says.

Another challenge was the BSE crisis. “All of a sudden our cattle were worth nothing, except for those that we were marketing through our meat business,” she says. As commodity beef prices collapsed, more farmers started direct marketing meat, shrinking profits in that part of the business too. This time around, it was an off-farm income that kept them afloat. Since 1995, Dylan had taught low-stress livestock handling across Canada and the northern U.S. “That is how we survived the post-BSE year,” she says.

The business of  direct marketing

cow and calf

When I ask Biggs where she learned business skills, she replies, “For me it was a huge learning curve.” To understand how to price meat, she set up a spreadsheet listing all of the different muscle groups in the animal, tracking the percentage weight of each. This was a critical step, she says, in knowing how to price products.

The other key aspect of the business of direct marketing is generating return customers. “It’s one thing to sell a grass-finished animal, it’s another thing to sell one that people will buy twice,” she says. If customers don’t have a very good eating experience with grass-fed beef, they won’t return. And that’s not an uncommon thing, she says, because grass-fed animals are slower than feedlot-raised animals to develop intramuscular marbling. Slaughtered too soon, they can be gamey and tough.

Biggs feels success with direct marketing requires listening to consumers. She says producers are often afraid consumers will tell them how to raise their animals. For her, that discussion is an opportunity. “If people can be proactive and listen to what consumers want and meet those needs, there is a tremendous opportunity,” she says.

Mortgaging the farm

With the business doing well, they are taking a giant step. “We have mortgaged the ranch and everything we own to build our own on-farm abattoir this spring,” says Biggs. They are also building a cutting-processing facility near Calgary, where it will be easier to hire help. “We start construction within a week or so,” she says.

Biggs stops to reflect on the high price of commodity beef today. She could do well selling to the conventional market. Raising her voice, she says, “What goes up will come down.” She’s not interested in the roller-coaster price ride.

Business is good. They are hiring a ranch manager. “Our meat business has grown exponentially the last five years,” says Biggs. All of their animals (except any treated with antibiotics, on average about two per cent) are for direct marketing. Far from a failure, direct marketing has allowed her to stay on the farm with no off-farm job. Right in Alberta beef country.

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