March 04, 2024

Supply chain work focuses on increasing profits for farmers

ELIZABETH, Ill. — Developing the supply chain is an important part of adding value to products sold by farmers to consumers.

“We are working in five geographic areas located in Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota for the Grassland 2.0 project,” said Sarah Lloyd, supply chain specialist for Grassland 2.0.

“You could do something individually on your farm, but if we’re going to move the needle on water quality, carbon and community vitality issues, we need to do this together,” said Lloyd during the Working Towards Regenerative Agriculture workshop hosted by University of Illinois Extension, University of Wisconsin Extension and the Grassland 2.0 project.

“Part of the work is connecting people and figuring out together where we want to be in our watersheds, communities and on the land,” she said.

“We know this costs money and you have to make money doing it, so we need to design supply chains and economic enterprises so that they work.”

Financial and capital needs are an important part of the project.

“There’s a lot of money flowing around trying to find places to support regenerative agriculture,” Lloyd said. “We need to de-risk the transition for farmers and processors.”

In the area around Wausau, Wisconsin, Lloyd is working with a custom heifer grazing supply chain.

“We are helping people figure out how to get their heifers on grass, who they are raising heifers for and how the relationship is built,” she said.

Another area of interest is grassfed beef.

“We envision a grassfed meat supply chain for the entire four-state driftless area,” Lloyd said. “We have similar topography so people are dealing with the same kind of land challenges and opportunities.”

There is the potential to build a regional identity.

“Driftless has a geographic indicator for grapes, so what if we had driftless beef?” Lloyd asked. “Maybe there’s a way for us to come together, hold onto things unique to this area and get a value out of that name.”

The idea is to rebuild some density in the supply chain, Lloyd said, and the driftless area is the perfect place to do it.

“We’re in the right place at the right time,” she said.

“The problem in the Upper Midwest is we have a lot of people selling their products into commodity, low-value markets,” said Lloyd, whose family operates a 450-cow dairy operation.

One option is for farmers to direct market their products to consumers.

“That works for a lot of people, but I can’t take my 450 cows’ worth of milk to the farmers market because it is illegal in Wisconsin to sell raw milk and it would be a hassle,” Lloyd said.

“We need to create collaborative, cooperative enterprises that have multiple sellers in an alliance with processors to work together to build a better system where people can make money and get value out of those qualities we care about that include our land, water and communities,” she said. “We have to do it together.”

With collaborative aggregation in the supply chain, Lloyd said, some of the middlemen can be minimized.

Lloyd works with a group of vegetable growers that founded the Wisconsin Food Hub Cooperative that owns a warehouse and delivery trucks.

“The farmers were running into each other at the backs of grocery stores delivering bins of vegetables,” she said. “So, they got together, hired a sales manager and now they dispatch trucks so they don’t all have to do it separately.”

Many consumers care about water quality, soil erosion, grassland birds and pollinators, Lloyd said, and more food brands are also getting involved.

“Brands are making all sorts of claims and Grassland 2.0 wants to bring science to the table to help people make legitimate claims about these different qualities,” Lloyd said.

“We’re working to aggregate the information in a watershed so people can tell the story of all the good things they’re doing on their land.”

The idea is to get market access and higher value because of the way a farmer is grazing or raising their animals.

“Managed grazing is the gold standard and the best way to get to these outputs,” Lloyd said.

While working on supply chain development, Lloyd has found bottlenecks with slaughter, butcher and frozen storage capacity.

“There is a mismatch of timing when animals go to slaughter and plants have capacity,” she said. “There are also labor issues and there’s a need for capital financing to support existing businesses and start-ups.”

Another issue is developing markets and infrastructure for using the full carcass including hides, offal and bones.

“We need to build better connections for the local production to go to institutional and retail buyers in our region,” Lloyd said. “Why aren’t schools serving grassfed beef from our watershed?”

Part of the strategy, she said, is to build a tighter farmer-eater link.

“Imagine a system of movement of meat in the region that takes advantage of the great conservation work that farmers are doing,” she said. “We want to capture that value through telling the story of people and their land.”

Martha Blum

Martha Blum

Field Editor