Wholesome Harvest Finds a Big Market For Small Farms
By Sarah Fister Gale
After the first World Trade Center attack and having just given birth to her first child, Wende Elliott made a bold life decision. She packed up her family and left the city to find a more simple life working with the earth. Leaving a job in logistics management for Fortune 500 companies in New York City, she and her husband and baby moved to the tiny town of Colo, Iowa population 700, to become organic farmers.
“Our goal for our family was to have a healthy life spiritually, physically, emotionally and mentally,” Elliott says. She thought that life in a small town growing organic foods and raising organic meat was the ticket to achieving that goal.
As beginners, she and her husband realized there was much to learn about how to effectively operate an organic farm, so they went to an organic producer conference. While there, Elliott attended a seminar on marketing for farmers, where she had an epiphany. “People in this seminar were so flustered. They didn’t know how to market their products,” she says. Elliott recognized the irony of being the least experienced producer with the most experience as a marketer and decided to take advantage of her unique position in the organic farming community. “The marketing part was no problem for me. My experience in logistics complemented their needs.”
She thought that if she could bring lots of small farmers together they could benefit from their combined strengths, greater production capacity, and a single source for marketing and managing sales. “A lot of customers want to buy from family farms but they are too remote to meet their needs,” she says. “I thought, if we could build a critical mass we could have the right amount of product to serve the larger grocery chains and restaurants while still maintaining the family farms.”
Unsure of whether it would work, she conducted a small test the first year, inviting a few local organic producers to pool their inventory of meat. The results were better than she had hoped, and the next year, in 2002, Wholesome Harvest Meats was officially incorporated.
Since its inception, Wholesome Harvest has grown into a coalition of more than 40 small family farms in Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois. The farmer coalition produces more than 80 different products made from its organic chicken, beef, pork, lamb, duck, goose and turkey, including steaks, ground beef, ground pork and lamb, sausages, lamb chops, roasts, and more. The coalition sells its premium organic certified poultry and meats to grocers, chefs and direct to consumers across the country, and the entire business is based on the simple mission: to eat well, and save the Earth and the small farms on it.
Strength in Numbers
Using a co-op model, Elliott found a way to keep the face on the farm while still managing to produce enough product to compete with other big organic meat producers. “It’s not just Farmer Joe selling his one cow,” she points out. “We bring the whole supply chain.”
Wholesome Harvest’s model benefits its customers and its members by maintaining ownership of the product from farm-to-fork. Unlike many smaller farms that sell their meat directly to processors who produce the final product and sell it under their own brands, Wholesome Harvest farmers maintain full ownership of the meat until it reaches the retailer. “Our farmers gain added value through our brand,” Elliott says. “They aren’t just getting a check for their meat, they are getting brand equity.”
Martha Galecki, owner of Morning Sun Farm in Collins, IA, agrees. She and her family have been members of the coalition for four years, raising organic chickens, turkeys, and lambs. “Being a member of Wholesome Harvest helps us be more successful because value-added products bring us a higher margin and greater returns.”
Wholesome Harvest doesn’t process the meats itself. Rather, it contracts with small family-owned processors to produce its recipes. The final products are then returned to the coalition, which markets and sells them directly to retailers and restaurants under the Wholesome Harvest brand.
“We become the customers not the vendors,” Elliott says of the processor relationship. “In America, most food brands are owned by processors, but our brand is owned by farmers.”
This business relationship has value for the smaller processors, as well, she points out, because they take on less risk in trying to constantly source enough product to meet customer demand without ending up with an overstock of inventory. “When they partner with us they can focus on what they do best—making a living as processors. It’s an interesting business model for the organic industry.”
“The meat processors who work with coalitions like Wholesome Harvest add to the transparency of the process,” adds Susan Jasper, director of marketing and communications for Wholesome Harvest. “They know that they are sustaining small family farms and a healthy rural economy. It’s all about working together.”
That distinction is key to establishing the Wholesome Harvest brand and winning greater profits for the coalition. By hiring processors, the coalition members control prices for their products, and consumers get the added value of knowing exactly where their meat comes from. The farmer-owners set the prices as a group, and they use only small family-owned local processors as part of its mission to support small businesses.
Because the meat stays in the ownership of Wholesome Harvest until it goes to the retailer or restaurant, traceability and integrity are also built into the process. “There is a connection between the food and the land,” Jasper says. “We can guarantee our meat is organic and pasture-raised. You can see pictures of the pastures where it was raised right on our website.”
Wholesome Harvest maintains control over every piece of meat, ensuring its strict standards for quality and traceability are adhered to at the farms and processing facilities; and by limiting the number of people and businesses that handle the meat before it reaches consumers. That means they can guarantee the standards under which the animal was raised, killed and processed.
“Because we are the producers we absolutely control the traceability of our product and have the freedom to choose the processors with the best practices, both for social responsibility and food safety,” Elliott says. “You are really buying direct from the farmer when you buy Wholesome Harvest, which is an option that’s hard to find in a supermarket these days.”
This business model also means that farmers, such as Galecki, don’t have to spend their valuable time trying to market their products or find direct buyers. Wholesome Harvest is a marketing company, with a staff whose job it is to oversee sales and maintain relationships with buyers. “By being a member of the coalition we don’t have to spend time going to local farmer’s markets or driving to big cities looking for customers,” Galecki says.
Quality Built into Every Step
Even though all of the farmer-owners manage and operate their own farms under their own practices, coalition members adhere to strict quality and food safety programs established by Wholesome Harvest. “Our commitment to quality extends above USDA organic standards to additionally include pasture-based production methods and no feedlots or confinement/factory farms,” Elliott says.” Low density pasture production on small family farms ensures a higher quality of life for the animals, better environmental stewardship, and added flavor and nutrition.”
Each farm is certified organic and adheres to the Wholesome Harvest quality assurance handbook. The coalition also employs a rotational pasture system for feeding, which is an important element of the Wholesome Harvest commitment to quality. “We want the animals to have the best life possible,” she says.
The rotational pasture system ensures animals are grazing on fresh land and that there is never an over-concentration of animals in any one spot, which significantly reduces the risk of animal waste in local watersheds. “In a rotational pasture system their immune systems are healthier and they are under less stress.”
The farms also undergo regular food safety and animal welfare audits conducted by third party auditor, Steritech. Having a third-party auditor helps Wholesome Harvest maintain impartiality and get continual external feedback on improving its systems.
All of the processors are certified organic and must have a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) food safety program in place to do business with the coalition. They undergo regular voluntary quality audits to verify systems are operational.
The formula seems to be working. At a time when some processors are struggling to source organic meats, Wholesome Harvest is thriving, largely because it maintains ownership of its products from farm to retail. Elliott’s team is currently looking into expanding the coalition, finding clusters of farmers and family-owned processors in other parts of the country to expand its network while maintaining its commitment to producing locally owned and processed foods.
Because there are so few small organic processors, Wholesome Harvest is actively pursuing processors around the country to partner with farmers, and it hopes to develop many of these farmer/processor relationships in the years to come. “This is what we think organic should be,” Elliott says of the company’s commitment to high quality standards and expanding the business across the country. “It means the absolute highest value, nutrition and integrity. We call it ‘organic plus’.”
Sarah Fister Gale is the editor of Organic Processing Magazine. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.