From the Farmer's Tractor
July 30, 2013
John-Scott Port, 26, raises cattle for his family’s Port Cattle Company in Clarion County, Pennsylvania. Their beef is sold under their Clarion Farms Beef brand name. Port keeps about 200 steers on feed year-round and manages about 100 acres of hay and pasture.
How did you get into farming?
My family has farmed in Clarion County for six generations, so I was born into farming. I grew up doing chores and helping Dad with different things around the farm, but I began working full time after returning from Penn State in 2009. I became a partner in the business in 2012.
How have your farming practices changed over the last 10 years?
We have changed quite a bit in the past ten years. My dad, John, and uncle, Scott, built the beef business in the 80s contracting our cattle with packers in the Eastern part of the state. I grew up working with this business model, but when I was a senior in high school in 2005 I decided for my final project to create a beef direct-marketing plan using one of our steers and the local butcher. With a lot of help from the family, I was able to sell our beef to the faculty at school; we got a lot of positive feedback and return customers, so that summer we put a chest freezer in our pool shed and I spent my time running the ‘store’ and going to a farmers’ market in town to promote and sell our beef. We still sold almost everything out East but, over the next couple years, the retail sales kept climbing from one steer every couple months to a steer every couple weeks to maybe three steers every two weeks…enough business that we started to think maybe there was something to this retail marketing idea.
About this time along came the Renewable Fuel Standard and a local ethanol plant which sky-rocketed the cost of our feed and virtually eliminated a reliable source of corn in our area, and the cattle market dropped dramatically, which created a very difficult situation for us. It basically came down to ‘go all in on our retail beef sales so we can at least control the price we get for our animals, or go out of business.’ We decided rather than selling out, we would try to capitalize on the growing ‘know your farmer’ trend, so we built a store on our farm, went to classes offered at Penn State, and put 100% of our effort into marketing our own product. It worked pretty well. Today our store is open year-round Tuesday-Saturday and we are marketing three steers every week through our on-farm store and an outlet in Pittsburgh. Our Clarion Farms Beef brand continues to gain recognition as consistent, high-quality, reasonably priced, one-source beef purchased directly from the farmers who raised it, and I see a lot of potential to continue growth. Right now we are working on developing a Clarion Farms grass-finished brand to take advantage of that particular consumer trend. So, to sum up, in the past ten years we went from a strictly wholesale operation to a specialized branded niche marketing business. Corn prices and availability due to artificial ethanol demand still make business very difficult, but it is encouraging to see such positive response and continued demand from our customer-base that will keep us around for the future.
How will farming evolve in the next five years?
Farming is awesome because it is always evolving to feed an ever-increasing population using fewer and fewer resources to produce more and more food. I think technology will continue to increase productivity, efficiency, and product quality, but where I really see the agriculture community evolving right now is in our ability to tell curious consumers how and why we do what we do to grow their food. This, in my opinion, is the five-year plan: get better at talking to the people we feed every day. America’s farmers do a great job, we have a wonderful story to tell, and consumers today want to hear it.
On a similar note, I believe the next five years hold a lot of opportunity for branded products and regional marketing. As people try to learn more about their food, they are seeking products with some kind of a story attached. It is a great opportunity for farmers to talk to people, tell the agriculture story, ensure confidence about their food, and fulfill a consumer demand.
What is your greatest challenge as a farmer?
Obviously the usual stuff is challenging: weather, markets, regulations, etc., but the greatest challenge today goes back to what I mentioned in the previous question: our consumers want to know more about their food, and they know absolutely NOTHING about modern agriculture. This is not because they are stupid, they just have never had the opportunity to learn anything about it because the average American today is three generations off the farm. When we talk to a consumer who is concerned or curious or even angry about food production practices, we need to give them three generations’ worth of an update in less than ten minutes. It’s tough to tell someone about a 30 minute TV show in that amount of time, let alone six decade’s worth of population growth, urban expansion, farm consolidation, land and water competition, genetic improvements, equipment improvements, infrastructure improvements, demand shifts, global markets… the list goes on. A lot of very opinionated special interest groups have been telling people what they should think of us for a long time, so our huge challenge today is tackling years’ worth of piled up misinformation combined with a complete lack of experience. It is a daunting task, but many of our agricultural groups have taken note of the situation and are doing a great job of moving into the front lines of the food conversation. I’m very thankful for that.
How does a farmer know what a retailer will want a year from now?
A year is forever and an instant at the same time, so it’s tough. A lot can happen on the consumer front in a year (an example would be the fine-textured beef fiasco this year; that changed the marketplace in 24 hours and I’m not sure we knew it was coming), but the flip side is that, as a farmer, you are always paying attention to the future anyway, so most of the time you can see where the trends and retailer/consumer demands are headed and position yourself to take advantage of the opportunities. I love marketing and I spend a huge amount of time talking and listening to people, watching marketing trends, and reading what is going on regionally, nationally, and globally so I have an idea what is coming down the pipeline. We market everything we raise ourselves, so we have a little easier time predicting what will be needed in a year because we are the ones who need it.
What steps are you taking toward conservation on the farm?
Conserving the soil and land are of paramount importance to us. We use rotational grazing to manage our grass and soil, a manure management plan to make sure we are not overloading our land with nutrients that will run off, minimal tillage is used when we need it to ensure soil is not disturbed too much, and responsible pesticide and herbicide applications are important to maximize effectiveness and minimize exposure to the environment. We are always working to improve in all of these categories.
What is the process of selling your products locally?
We sell all of our products locally. Every Monday, we send cattle to our USDA inspected butcher. Those guys dry-age our beef for us and do all of the cutting to our specifications, so we spend a lot of time in contact with them every week. Wednesdays, we pick up our packaged beef cuts from the butcher and re-stock our store with fresh product. It takes a lot of effort to maintain the inventory in our store for the walk-in traffic while fulfilling our restaurant orders and any special requests and/or quarters and halves we are selling. Dad manages most of that; his phone rings constantly. My uncle runs the store through the week and keeps track of what is selling and what cuts are building up; he gives that information to dad, who adjusts our butchering specifications for the next week accordingly. I do a lot of the marketing, working on advertising, setting up at various local events to talk to people, and sending out emails with farm updates and beef specials as they arrive to promote our brand and get new people through the door. Each Saturday, I go to Pittsburgh and sell beef at a market there in order to increase our exposure. Pittsburgh is an easy drive, about an hour and a half south of our farm, so we see a lot of our Pittsburgh customers making the trip north to see the farm and get the whole experience. They love making the connection between the beef they are enjoying and the farm it was raised on. My mom and sister have been working on increasing our social media presence, which, like it or not, is an excellent way to communicate with a lot of people in a hurry.
At the same time, we are managing our herd so we have enough cattle coming in and finishing to meet peak demand seasons. We do all of the cattle care ourselves, so there is a constant balancing act between managing the store and sales, and managing our herd to keep them healthy and comfortable. We stay busy, but we love it.
What kinds of reactions do you get from consumers when they meet you in person?
People love the fact that they are buying their beef from the person who actually raised it. Most of the time a new customer at the store will simply assume that we are employees paid to sell beef, and they are stunned to find out that we are, in fact, the farmers. It is a great chance to tell people about beef production and to highlight their wonderful, abundant, safe, and inexpensive food supply.