Looking to market meat directly from your farm? Better have a plan in place

Gloria Hafemeister
Kara Kasten Olson and her husband Ryan have found success marketing meat directly from their farm but they caution, “Put a plan in place first.”

WATERTOWN – In recent years, consumers have taken an interest in buying their meat directly from the farmers who produce it. It might sound simple: go to a farm, buy the meat and eliminate the middle man.

Farmers, too, frustrated with prices paid for livestock they raise and ship to the market, think about selling directly to consumers. Those who have tried it know it is not as simple as it sounds.

Ryan, Kara, Reid and Kayleigh Olson run Little Farmer Meats int Watertown. Ryan grew up on a dairy farm near Fort Atkinson while Kara was raised on a dairy farm near Richfield in Washington County. Both studied agriculture in college – Ryan at River Falls and Kara at UW-Madison. 

A new opportunity

When they married in 2008 they knew they wanted to have a family and raise their children on a farm. Neither of their families, however, had farms big enough to take over as a full time business so they searched for ways to develop a home-based farming business that would provide the opportunity for their children to enjoy farm life and develop the work ethic that they each had an opportunity to do.

Seven years ago they began raising steers, pigs and chickens as a hobby for family and friends. After receiving compliments on their meat they decided to take the next step.

Kara, whose degree is in dairy science and communications, worked for Sassy Cow Dairy for quite a few years, helping to develop the marketing plan for the milk and ice cream produced from the firm's dairy herds. 

“I learned a lot working there," Kara said. "Now I tell people that if they want to market a product from their farm, go visit others who are doing it and learn from them.”

While she was in college, Kara interned under Norm Monsen at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection business development program and subsequently had a chance to work with farmers interested in direct marketing their products. Then a couple of years ago she had the opportunity to take a job in that same department full time.

“I see Norm as my mentor," Kara said. "I've learned a lot from him.”

Kara's department will be working on a plan recently announced by Gov. Evers to develop meat talent in Wisconsin's meat industry. Through this program funding will be used to attract and provide financial support to students in meat-processing training programs. The measure will also support program development and connect the meat processing industry with potential employees.

“It’s nice to have the perspective of both the meat processors and the farmers," she said.

The state’s meat industry, like other businesses, has struggled to find enough workers.  Kara says they have been fortunate in the working relationship they have with their meat processor in Watertown.

When they first started, the Olson's obtained a license to keep meat in a designated freezer on the farm and sell individual cuts. They began taking orders and bundling packages of what the customers wanted. The couple says it was very time-consuming, though, and often found themselves up until midnight putting together orders for customers.

Now they book orders of halves or quarters of beef in March. The Olsons also book orders for pork and chickens. The number of animals they raise each year is based on filling orders.

“That can be challenging, too," Ryan said. "We need to find feeders at the right age that will be ready when we have promised the meat.”

Besides raising the livestock, Ryan also runs a custom hay-making business. Their Watertown farm is comprised of 60 acres that they keep in hay and pasture. Next door is a well-known dairy farm where Ryan milks cows and helps with other tasks on the farm.

He says his dad has been his lifetime mentor and has encouraged and helped him every step of the way. The Olson's grow their corn and raise some of their beef animals on his parents’ Fort Atkinson farm.

While their children are young Ryan and Kara say they have already taken an interest in the farm. Reid is 6 and likes building things and helping where he can outside. Four-year-old Kayleigh is described by her parents as a real animal-lover.

They're currently raising 73 beef animals including 15 beef cows along with approximately 90 pigs to fill their pork orders and as many as 400 chickens for both meat and eggs.

Both Ryan and Kara stress the importance of having a good plan in place before starting a venture like this.

“We are not organic but we maintain a good working relationship with our customers and we are transparent," Ryan said. "(Customers) can come out to see how we care for our animals and our land. We let them get to know us as a family. People like that.”

Location is important

When Ryan and Kara started their business Little Farmer Meats they lived close to Fort Atkinson. The farm they now live on is close to Watertown, which they say helps to have a population of consumers nearby.

Knowing how to price is also important. While prices of processing have gone up primarily due to the competition for workers, so far the Olsons have not raised their prices. It is necessary, however, to know the true costs of raising the animals and running the business.

Kara says in the first few years of business customers would drop by the farm to pick up their meat. When the pandemic became a realty they had to find ways to keep the business going.

People want their product quick, easy and convenient, Kara says. Due to challenges brought on by the coronavirus, customers have become accustomed to the idea of ordering online and getting products delivered to their door.

“We did a lot of meat deliveries because we wanted to make it easy for people,” she says.

While COVID has affected how people do business, Kara says it has served to make people more interested in sourcing their food locally. Once they taste it and have a good experience they generally come back for more she said.