As summer heats up, so do the backyard grills. More and more, that sizzling steak or burger was purchased at a local farmers’ market, where the popularity of locally-sourced beef is continually increasing. The demand for beef raised locally and available at farmers markets or select retailers connects the consumer with the ranchers who raised the animals and cared for the land – a connection that is lost as generations become further removed from the farm.
Farmers markets bring together local farmers and ranchers to connect and converse with consumers. Over the past few years, California has experienced a growing “buy local” market trend, which encourages communities to purchase products from ranchers at farmers markets, community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs and grocery stores and restaurants.
As the high season for barbequing picks up, California Rangeland Trust reached out to Jack Rice, a northern California rancher from Davis, and California Rangeland Trust director to ask him what this trends means to the beef industry. Rice’s family are long time ranchers in the Humboldt County, area which has witnessed a strong locally-sourced agriculture trend. The area stretching down the Northern Coast of California is abundant with farmers’ markets, CSA’s and grocery stores and restaurants the feature local products
The demand for locally-grown food and a connection to the producer is prevalent. As Rice puts it, “People increasingly care about where their food comes from and how it is produced.”
For the agriculture industry in general, the demand for locally-sourced food is creating a shift in production, opening up niche markets like grass-fed, organic and all natural products. These markets are growing rapidly. According to a study conducted by UC Davis, Grass-fed beef alone accounted for 100,000 head of cattle in 2007, an increase from 65,000 head in 2006.
“It is important to recognize that the local, organic, grass fed and other niche beef markets are a complimentary part of the livestock industry and are not a substitute for conventional production,” Rice points out. “Niche markets offer producers the opportunity to increase profitability while also providing consumers the opportunity to gain a better understanding of where their food comes from and how it is produced. These niche markets build upon existing conventional livestock production which is the bedrock of both the livestock industry and the safest and most affordable beef supply in the world.”
From 2010 to 2011, the number of farmers’ markets operating in the United States rose 17 percent from 6,132 to 7,175. According to the United States Department of Agriculture study of local food system, in 2008, the direct marketed food industry, including farmers’ markets and sales from producer to restaurants and grocers, reached $4.8 billion and is expected to continue growing.
Within the umbrella of the direct marketed food industry is a growing segment of the locally-sourced beef industry. The USDA study of local food systems also found that from 2002 to 2007 the value of beef marketed directly to the consumer grew 84 percent from $77 million to $141 million.
“Most people want to know where their beef comes from and how it is raised. As an industry we need to recognize that these are shifts in demand and seek to take from them the lessons they contain. I believe the recent growth in local, organic and grass-fed markets provide useful information about consumer trends for both niche and conventional producers,” Rice observes.
As the population continues to increase and urban areas continue to spread to prime rangeland, it brings to light the need to conserve rangeland.
“As for consumer outreach, we benefit greatly from consumers understanding that healthy beef (commercial or organic) depends upon the sustainable use of our rangelands. This is a great message for California Rangeland Trust, the beef industry and all of agriculture to take to our consumers and our neighbors,” says Rice.
Farmers markets and direct farmer-to-consumer marketing gives producers and consumers a chance to interact with one another. This creates an opportunity for the consumer to learn about food production from the producers themselves. It provides producers a chance to tell their story and educate consumers about the necessity of productive rangelands not only for beef production, but for essentials like fresh air and clean water provided by these working ranches.
Ultimately, whether it is the family barbeque, the ranching culture or the working rangelands, they all represent important American traditions. The opportunity to share these values with consumers is as great as it has ever been. California ranchers are proud to share their stories and promote this heritage. The Rangeland Trust is doing its part to ensure that the essential rangelands needed for livestock production to meet this increasing demand are conserved for future generations.