SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. — A group of farmers in northwestern Pennsylvania have put competition and ego aside to join forces to market their beef together.
Allegheny Grass Fed is a new cooperative that markets grass fed meat to retail customers throughout the region. The cooperative opened sales with an event on July 28 at O’Neil’s Quality Foods, in Shippenville, Pennsylvania, that was attended by Pennsylvania Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding.
Selling beef together is just the start for this group. The future could bring marketing other grass fed meats and other types of collaboration.
“All five board members that are on here now are driving it out of passion,” said A.J. O’Neil, president of the cooperative. “It’s not for us to help our businesses, but how can it help the community? How can it help the next generation? How can it help our children?”
To sell meat through the cooperative, farmers must meet several criteria. Stock cannot be fed grain or grass that’s gone to seed, said Peter Zimmer, coordinator for the cooperative. No synthetic inputs on pastures. There are also requirements for animal handling, welfare and traceability. Before a new member is accepted in, the cooperative will visit the farm to do an audit.
Members must also be doing managed grazing with the intention of increasing soil health. There isn’t an exact term or label for the type of grazing, but Zimmer calls it “agro-ecological beef production.”
“We’re more interested in sharing the production practices than labeling it a certain way,” Zimmer said.
The cooperative will pay farmers for the animals at an indexed price when the cattle are delivered to the processor. Then, at the end of the year, farmer members will be paid a dividend based on profits from the meat sold through the co-op.
The idea for the cooperative started in a field at a farm in Forest County in 2016. Sjoerd Duiker, an associate professor of soil management at Penn State University, was at Russ Wilson’s Tionesta farm as part of a case study on the effects of no-tillage crop production, cover crops and grazing on soil management. Wilson raises beef cattle using adaptive grazing management and markets his beef as grass-fed and finished.
Duiker was impressed by the impact Wilson’s management practices had on the soil health. He was also surprised to find that Wilson was not commanding a premium for his regeneratively raised beef and that direct marketing was a huge time suck.
It gave Duiker an idea, one he admits now was more romantic than realistic. He wanted farmers in the northern corner of the state to work collaboratively and market their products together. A formal cooperative agreement could lead to sharing of other resources and services as well, bringing benefits to everyone involved.
Duiker applied for and received a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to create a grass fed meat marketing community. A steering committee of farmers and an advisory board of extension agents, Penn State employees and USDA Natural Resource Conservation Services members were formed.
“It turns out it was harder to get a bunch of farmers together than I thought,” Duiker said, particularly farmers living in a remote part of the state who are used to working independently and being self-reliant.
In fact, the first steering committee brought together for Allegheny Grass Fed dissolved after the group could not compromise on the details about production protocols and goals for the group.
Another steering committee was formed later on. This time, things clicked. With the help of the Keystone Development Center, a non-profit that provides technical assistance to cooperatives, Allegheny Grass Fed set up a governance structure and laid out its guiding principles.
The cooperative was formally incorporated in July 2021. The first board election was held August 2021, with A.J. O’Neil elected president. Charles Mowery was elected vice president, and Ron Kriess was elected to be secretary and treasurer. Audrene Burns and Michael Kovach are member farmers.
Right now, Allegheny Grass Fed beef is being sold at O’Neil’s Quality Foods, A.J. O’Neil’s family business, but Zimmer is working to get sales online and at other retailers as well.
Customers get transparency in knowing where their food comes from and how it was raised from buying Allegheny Grass Fed labeled meat. The cooperative members get a guaranteed buyer for their meat and share the burden in marketing.
“We’re really starting at the ground and talking to folks and building it, but the first step is getting the farmers involved and interested and getting the product to sell,” Zimmer said.
The road to get to this point has been long, and Duiker is excited to see his brainchild finally come to life. As a soil scientist, he was an unlikely cheerleader for the meat marketing cooperative.
“This gives me more satisfaction than any research paper,” he said. “It’s human,” he said of the cooperative. “It’s a living, breathing thing. We have really prayed about this initiative.”
O’Neil, too, is excited to have the cooperative off the ground. Working collaboratively could build small businesses faster or provide the stability for new farmers to enter the field.
“I’d like for my kids to see farming as a career. I work two jobs to support my farm. My wife works full time. Everyone just runs,” O’Neil said. “If this co-op is able to help people market beef, that’s where it is. I can definitely see this expanding to include different things. You’ve got to have a strong platform for people to get into it. You’ve got to start somewhere.”
More information on the cooperative can be found at alleghenygrassfed.coop.
(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be reached at 724-201-1544 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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