The Meat Annuity
I left off last week stating I had invented the “Meat Annuity”. This was the first iteration of what would become Victorian Farmstead Meat Company. You see, for years people have come out to the country to fill their freezer. It works like this: City Joe calls Farmer John and says I want a cow to fill my freezer. Farmer John sells City Joe a “live cow”, and because we country folk are good-hearted, he calls the local mobile slaughter guy and arranges for said cow to be processed on his ranch and delivered to the local butcher of City Joe’s choice. Joe then pays the butcher shop to cut and wrap his year’s worth of beef and takes it home to tuck it safely in to his chest freezer. Done all the time, for decades. Totally illegal. You see, technically Farmer John can’t sell to anyone other than family unless the meat is processed in a USDA facility. At best, it is a grey area. Every couple of years, Rancher A will get into it with Rancher B next door over something stupid and turns in his neighbor for making the above transaction. You see, the USDA will only do something about this heinous crime if there is a complaint. But for the most part, everyone keeps their mouth closed and business is transacted. So, as I was trying to figure out a way to monetize this transaction, I went back to things I had done before. When I first got out of college, I was a sales rep for an insurance company. In fact, pretty much every dollar I had ever earned after college was commission based in one form or another. The beauty is that if you work on commission and get paid for renewing the initial business, it becomes an annuity. And if you’re really good, that annuity grows every year. Now, how do I take that concept and build it into agriculture???
See, the appeal of this little financial nugget is that after a time you could conceivably live off the renewals. This appeals to those of us that like the rewards without having to do all that annoying work stuff. And that’s who I was when we moved back to the farm. I wanted to work furiously for a couple of weeks and then take six months off to go golf every day. If I had spent half the energy just working instead of working on how not to work, I’d be retired by now. But I digress. It seemed to me that the flaw in the aforementioned way of buying meat was twofold. First, if you wanted any variety at all, you had to deal with multiple farmers. Not a huge deal, but a lot of logistics to arrange. Then there was the issue of storage. Most farmers don’t want to sell half an animal, and then have to find someone to take the other half. So if you wanted pork, you got a pig. You want Rib Eyes, you get 250lb of ground beef to go with it. That first juicy pork chop is fantastic. But 360 days later that pound of stew meat you’re chiseling off the floor of your chest freezer… not so much. What to do, what to do?
And so the Meat Annuity was planned out. I would meet with a potential customer and ask about 100 questions about how their family consumed beef, lamb, pork and chicken. After that I would take my hours of experience at this business and make an estimate of how much of each animal they would go through in a year. “OK, Mrs. Smith, you, your 300 pound ex-49’er of a husband, your twin teenage sons who make dad look like a punter and your daughter who has decided to eat only yellow foods that don’t have a personality will need a whole cow, two hogs, 40 chickens and no lamb (I get it, they’re too cute, you just can’t do it)”. Now here’s my secret. I divide all that by four and bring the Smith Family fresh meat every 90 days. I would even provide the SMALL chest freezer they would need to store a quarter of their annual needs. Genius, right??? I take care of all the above problems and manage the halves and quarters for the farmer. The Smith’s have only to put up with my insane interview, make room in the garage for their new chest freezer, and write me a check for less than they spend at the local mega-mart, but a little more than they would pay if they did all this management themselves. Win, win, win! Or not…
Laura and I took this genius idea on the road to the local farmers markets (and yes, those relaxed, very young looking kids are us at that first market). On a windy Thursday, armed with a few frozen steaks and chops from Stemple Creek Ranch, we set up shop. All we had to do was get a few folks to agree to meet with me and have a cup of coffee or six, and we were on our way. Now, I am not so arrogant as to not run this idea up the flag pole of a few confidants and such. It was met with resounding enthusiasm. And so, with that confidence, we set up our stall in Cotati. Counting on the steaks and chops to cover expenses, we had a beautiful display. Mom had gone out and bought a tent for us, we had new coolers, tables, flowers… we were ready to feed the masses! $19.50. That was our total take that night. The crickets asked us to keep down the racket. I got home, drank a fifth of Pepto with a fifth of whiskey chaser and reevaluated our place in the world. How could such a great idea be such a disaster??? Laura spent that entire evening filling both my glasses, spewing words of encouragement while trying not to spew anything else, and generally trying to keep both of us together. That’s really her lot in life in general, but that’s a story for another time. Somehow, she convinced me that since we begged our way into the Occidental Market the next night, we had better show up. So we loaded up and headed out again the next night. If you have never been to the Occidental Bohemian Farmers Market, do so next year. To this day it is my favorite market. Some of that may have to do with the fact that that Friday in Occidental we sold $450 of meat and saved the business we now have. Because I swear to all that is protein, I would have quit right there if we had come home with another $20 take. We were off and running….see you next week!