Winter is coming, and my deep freezer is full of beef.
It must be fall in the year of the pandemic.
A few weeks ago, my boyfriend and his neighbor went in on a whole cow — also known as a cow share — to stock up on grass-fed beef for the winter. Even when they split the 350 pounds in half and shared dozens of pounds with other family members, it’s still enough beef to last us for months, if not most of next year.
All year, we’ve been buying food in different quantities than usual. When coronavirus cases were spiking, I started getting Good Apple boxes of produce delivered and packing my grocery shopping into a once-a-month curbside order. Early in the pandemic, I bought boxes of meat and vegetables from Farm to Table, which changed its business model from entirely wholesale (selling to restaurants) to retail (selling straight to customers).
Pati Jacobs’ Bastrop Cattle Company had a similar almost-overnight transition.
"Within two weeks (in March), we went from 80% wholesale to 100% retail, and we got slammed," she says. "We were treading water to keep up."
During the first part of the pandemic, customers were buying individual cuts of meat by the box, and some of them had to wait six weeks to get their orders. That backlog of orders is gone, but as the year has worn on, cow-share sales continued to rise at a rate she’s never seen in 13 years of running her company.
"We’ve done four times as much in halves and wholes in the first seven months of the year as we did all of last year," she says.
As customers have settled into their new rhythms — and grocery stores have been consistently restocked with meat — they are still buying meat by the box, but Jacobs has been surprised to see how many want in on those cow shares.
"The shortage drove a lot of people to think about buying bigger quantities in bulk. This isn’t the average shopper, but it’s the person who says, ‘I’d really like to know where my meat comes from, and I have a freezer and the money to take care of meat for the family for six months to a year.’"
Customers have been buying about half a dozen halves a week, and that number decreased slightly ahead of the election. "People have been waiting to see what happens," she says.
To meet the sharp increase in demand, Jacobs has been processing more cows than usual all year, about 20 animals a month. She has a standing order with her slaughterhouse, which put her in a better position than ranchers who only process three or four times a year.
Those small USDA-inspected facilities can handle maybe 30 cattle a week, plus perhaps a dozen pigs, so there’s not much room to increase that capacity, Jacobs says. When the pandemic hit, those processing plants got so full that they are now scheduled well into next year.
To work around the backlog, some ranchers use custom exempt facilities, which process meat for personal consumption. This is how we recently bought our cow share, technically buying the cow from the rancher, paying the processing fees and then picking up the meat directly from the processing facility.
Each rancher charges a slightly different fee for a cow share, sometimes selling it by "live weight," which means the customer is paying for parts of the cow that they don’t actually get after processing. Some ranchers charge by the hanging weight, or how much meat is on the animal after it has been processed, which is about 60% of the live weight. Another pricing structure is built around the boxed or packaged weight, which is the amount of meat that ends up in the customer’s freezer. You can typically expect to pay $3 to $6 a pound, depending on the quality of the meat.
Jacobs’ business model is built on a quick turnaround for her cows. Her stock is exclusively grass-fed, and she pulls them off the field for processing when they are less than a year old.
It’s a system she developed, in part, after dealing with the 2011 drought, which forced farmers across the state to buy hay because their own fields couldn’t sustain the herds.
Because her cattle are on the younger side, they are a little smaller than the one we got. (We paid $650 for our half of the whole cow, which ended up being about 165 pounds of meat. Jacobs uses an all-inclusive price structure that includes the processing and delivery fees.)
One of the steps of ordering a cow share is designating the desired cuts of beef. After processing, the butchers break down the animal according to what is called a cut sheet, which is where a customer can request a certain amount of ground beef or the steaks cut to a designated thickness.
Jacobs has seen enough customers get confused by this part of the process that she goes over this sheet with them to make sure they get what they want.
Another cost to consider is the price of a freezer to store the meat, and deep freezers are hard to come by right now. "We’ve still got customers waiting to get freezers," she says.
Jacobs is the first to admit that she couldn’t have switched to online-only sales by herself.
She founded the company in 2006 with her brother, Cleveland, who died in 2013. She now has two millennial-aged employees who helped her rebuilt the website, which ended up being a critical tool for reaching customers earlier this year.
After spending every Saturday at the farmers market for almost a decade, she knows how to talk directly to customers about her product, but reaching them on the vast world of the internet is another ballgame.
"The business was headed toward direct-to-customer sales, and the pandemic really thrust us into it," she says.
Jacobs has watched a number of tech-funded companies enter the meat market in recent years, but few of them have survived more than a year or two. Customers are willing to pay more for meat, she says, and when four processors control 85% of the market, meat prices won’t be coming down anytime soon.
At least people are paying more attention to where that remaining 15% is coming from.