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Like ‘Etsy for meat,’ Iowa’s ChopLocal connects farmers and butchers with customers online
Company wins $15K innovation award from American Farm Bureau
LONE TREE — Chad Yoder has enough on his plate with a full-time job as an animal health consultant, a sideline of raising Duroc pigs and a family that includes three boys under age 10.
That’s why Yoder Family Farms, of Lone Tree, hired ChopLocal to market and sell the farm’s pork online.
“Managing inventory, setting up the sales, collecting money,” Yoder said. “These are big things that are pretty time-consuming.”
ChopLocal.com, an Iowa-based online market created in 2020 to connect small meat producers with customers, now is helping 45 farms and butcher shops in 12 states sell their products directly to consumers.
The site has everything from steaks, chops and chicken breasts to unusual items like beef tallow, smoked turkey legs and Boston Butt (if you know, you know).
ChopLocal co-founder Katie Olthoff, who lives north of Ames, describes the website as “Etsy for meat,” referring to the popular site for handmade crafts.
Americans bought more than $80 billion in meat in 2021, up 3 percent from 2020, according to the Power of Meat report from the Food Industry Association and the North American Meat Institute.
The share of shoppers who bought meat online more than doubled from 14 percent in 2019 to 35 percent in 2021.
“We want to make sure farmers and small processors in Iowa and other rural areas can grab a chunk of that,” Olthoff said of online sales.
How it started
The COVID-19 pandemic threw off the normal demand for meat and temporarily shuttered some meatpacking plants.
“Our meat went to sandwich chains, but when restaurants closed and people stopped commuting, our meat couldn’t go anywhere,” said Olthoff, who married into a family of turkey producers.
ChopLocal co-founder and CEO Jared Achen, a Wayland turkey and grain farmer, had the idea for the company and brought Olthoff aboard. They launched the site just before Thanksgiving 2020, adding vendors and building a customer base.
Farms or butcher shops pay a fee to ChopLocal, which helps them set up their online stores with appealing photos and product descriptions. ChopLocal markets the meat and handles online sales. About 60 percent of meat products sold on ChopLocal are picked up at the farms and 40 percent is shipped directly to customers.
Most of the ChopLocal producers have kept their businesses small to focus on quality.
“Almost all of them are controlling the entire process from genetics and birth to the very end when they choose which processor they want to work with,” Olthoff said.
ChopLocal sells meat from animals that are grain-fed and grass-fed and has two producers who raise organic meat, which means the feed and the processor must be certified organic.
One of the site’s rules is there is no disparaging marketing of other agricultural practices.
One producer’s experience
When Yoder was working on his Ph.D. in swine genetics, he was involved in a research project about Duroc pigs. These pigs, an older breed known for red coloring, droopy ears and mild temperament, could be bred to produce high-quality meat, he said.
Most pigs raised in Iowa have Duroc fathers, but not mothers, Yoder said. That’s because Duroc sows only have eight to 10 piglets. Other breeds have much larger litters.
“We are selecting animals on mom’s side and dad’s side with a focus on high-quality meat,” Yoder said. “We try to breed the best of the best so every generation has a better pig.”
As a consultant for an animal health company, Yoder is mindful of what he feeds his pigs. Sows get a mix of ground corn and soybean meal with specific vitamins and minerals.
Pigs just weaned from their moms get a different feed mix, as do the older pigs. Yoder works with Terra Products, of Iowa City, to get the mixes just right.
Yoder Family Farms has about 20 sows who farrow every 2 1/2 months, 10 at a time. Yoder raises about 150 to 200 pigs a year to sell to the meat locker. Yoder started selling pork products, including chops, bratwurst and shoulder roast, on ChopLocal last summer.
“It went way better than we expected,” he said. “We should be fully restocked in four to six weeks.”
ChopLocal won $15,000 in January as one of four finalists at the American Farm Bureau Federation’s 2023 Ag Innovation Challenge held at the group’s convention in Puerto Rico.
Olthoff and Achen are using that money to invest in developing new tools for the website, such as a new easier-to-use invoicing system, Olthoff said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture also awarded ChopLocal a three-year $356,000 grant last year that focuses on providing education for livestock farmers, ranchers and seafood producers about how to market and sell their products online. ChopLocal will provide training and technical assistance to 500 producers through a blog, webinar series and online course.
That grant allowed ChopLocal to hire another employee — for a total of four. All work remotely.
Olthoff knows online meat sales will never replace going to the grocery store.
“But there are also people who really enjoy getting to know the farmer,” she said. “This just makes it so much more convenient for them to do that.”
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