Many of us who eat meat buy it at the grocery store. We don’t know exactly where it comes from or how the animals were raised. And local farmers who are using more humane and sustainable practices don’t know how to reach customers who care. With Walden Local Meat — a meat CSA — Charley Cummings set out to connect customers and farmers. Kate Chess and Gary Goodman talked to him about how his business works.
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Everyday grocery store items like bananas, chocolate, coffee — these are global commodities. They pass through a lot of people’s hands on their way from the fields to your grocery cart. This is The Stories Behind Or Food podcast, the podcast where expert guests share insider knowledge about every step along the process. I’m Danielle Robidoux — and I’m Kate Chess — we’re your hosts.
This is Kate Chess and we’re recording today from Billerica, Massachusetts from Walden Local Meat headquarters. I’m here with Charley Cummings, the founder and CEO — and our producer Gary Goodman is here with me taking over some hosting duties today.
Nice to be here.
And Charley, thanks for taking the time to talk to us.
Super excited to have you guys.
So Charley, how does grass fed beef work in the middle of the winter? Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Great question. and it’s a beautiful day in New England out there right now looking out the window. so essentially it’s there are a couple of different things that can happen. So All of our beef are still a hundred percent grass fed and finished even in the winter months. So the way it works in the winter is you can actually graze in the pastures on a day like today where you don’t have a lot of snow cover, assuming, farmers have left that second or third cut of hay in the fields. And cattle can actually, in most cases even graze through a few inches of snow. I’m again assuming that nutrition has been locked in the field, and then outside of that, in this sort of harsher winter months, typically those animals are put on what’s called sacrifice pasture, that you’re not too worried about it trampling the mud and such, and fed cut hay. So it’s essentially the same diet. sometimes that hay is in the form of what’s called haylage, which is sort of partially fermented. But the same core product, it just gives it a little bit, a slightly higher energy value for the, the winter months. But that’s the short story.
Does a certain kind of hard winter make this more challenging? Or does that system that you described work all the time, every winter?
it’s a good question. It’s, it’s actually, it’s more difficult to get cattle to, gain weight, particularly on a grass based diet in the summer months than it is in the winter months. So it’s the heat that actually causes them to, not perform well. They’re sort of more tolerant of the cold, at least the breeds we’re talking about, which are typically like an Angus cross.
I would not have guessed that. That’s really interesting.
So you’re speaking about this very knowledgeably. Do you have a farming background yourself?
No. A couple of years back, gosh, now, like six years ago, my wife and I– well, let me go back a little further. So my then-girlfriend and I moved across the country, lived in San Francisco for a couple years, spent a lot of time in California’s Central Valley. I was in — at the time in the composting business. So that’s really where I got to know the agriculture, agriculture, world.
America’s salad bowl.
Yeah. So if you guys have ever looked at a satellite map of the U S there’s like this beautiful bright green neon Crescent in the Central Valley, and this is like the Grapes of Wrath. What was once the dust bowl? But it’s now one of the most agriculturally productive areas in the whole world and produces like, actually I was just reading the other day, it’s 99% of the world’s almonds. 80 — not almonds, I’m sorry. walnuts and about 80% of the almonds and then 40, 50% of pretty much you name the sort of cash crop category like tomatoes and specialty, produce and stuff.
Strawberries out there, right?
Strawberries, raspberries, yet and yet, It is sort of teetering on the edge of failure. So somebody turns the water off and that whole Valley becomes the Dustbowl again. And someone turning the water off is not just a, a figure of speech. I mean the water rights out there, really, really big problem. So anyway, I just found it really fascinating to be out there. I spent a lot of time with folks that had composting businesses there. And that was really my, first exposure to the industrial agriculture world. Of course, there’s a lot of protein produced in the Valley too. so a lot of cattle feed lots, a lot of, commodity pig farms. And if you’ve ever driven by one of these things, just like, the stench, I can’t imagine living within, you know, few miles of them. So that was really my entree into, into agriculture. so we ended up, we moved back East, New England is sort of home for both of us. We got married, she, two of us read a few books together that, maybe romanticize small scale New England farmering a little too much. and she decided she was going to work on a farm that summer after we moved back. And it was just, you know, going to be just this summer. And that just this summer sort of turned into, five years or so.
And this was both of you or just her at that point?
Just her, I still had a normal job. but, she was very much inspiring in that way. So That was really where Walden was born out of is seeing a lot of folks and meeting a lot of folks, by virtue of my wife who are in New England farming that seem to be doing everything right from the sustainability and animal welfare and a soil health perspective. But weren’t really in a position to start selling their products to the sort of main line distributor or anywhere else. so there was sort of a missing link there. so that was really, that was really the Genesis.
Yeah. And I think there’s an inherent irony. You have “Local” right in your name and you’re working with local farmers. And so if someone is to be a local farmer, they can’t expand too far or they won’t be local anymore. They’re going to be huge. So it’s like putting together lots of pieces for a lot of different farms.
Yeah, totally. I mean, I hope that that’s the one — well not the one. Hopefully that’s one of many things we’re doing that are valuable. but that feels like the primary one is like, you’ve got this really big complicated, fragmented supply chain of individual, family farmers. so I was just looking at these statistics the other day. We work with about 75 different partner farms. and the average size of those farms, is something like 250 acres. The largest of which is, maybe 2000 acres. And there’s, there’s only a couple that are over a thousand acres. So it’s, it’s really difficult to find contiguous acreage much larger than a thousand acres in the area.
Yeah. What is local? How do you define local?
Yeah. we talk about it as, States. So we work in New York and New England and we really don’t get to the Western half of New York, but that for us has felt like the most meaningful thing, to consumers as opposed to some sort of arbitrary. You know, radius. Just thinking about like, this is from my state or my region.
Yeah. That makes sense.
I realize I didn’t like really explain what we do or what the —
Yeah, tell us about your model!
So we work with, area farms that produce 100 percent grass fed beef, pasture-raised pork, chicken and lamb. we do a handful of other things like grass fed butter, eggs, and some ancillary products too. and we take those products to our member families that live from central New Jersey all the way up to Portland, Maine. And we sort of handle everything in between. So we sell our products in what we call a share program. So if you’re familiar with, like a vegetable CSA, we’re very much modeled on a similar type model. So we buy exclusively whole animals and then Break them down into the, into parts and pieces that are distributed amongst our member families in the form of a share. So you sort of get a different mix of cuts each month. Ah, so we do once a month deliveries and then there’s opportunity to add cuts as you like to your core share. Does that make sense?
That’s the short story.
But it’s a little different than like a traditional CSA, right? Because you are shipping it to doors, where a lot of times the CSA is, people might come and pick it up? I guess sometimes people get them shipped too…
Yeah. So when we, that’s actually, that’s a great point. So when we first started, my wife and I were in another meat CSA, in an adjacent farm to the one that she was working at and the experience was just ah, tough. Like we found it, for example, incredibly challenging to arrive between, I think it was like 10:00 AM and noon every other Saturday or something for the pickup. And I mean, we didn’t have kids at the time. We weren’t even that busy and it was just like impossibly difficult for us to remember to do that at that time. So it felt like a delivery was a really big deal to getting over that barrier. There were also a lot of issues we had with not just the convenience aspect of it, but the consistency of the product or the quality of the product. The cutting. And so it felt like there was, a need there because we had all these farmers that, would love to get their product out to more people, but for them, the marketing and distribution and inventory management and the customer service and all this stuff that we try to do, it’s typically not an area of interest amongst our partner firms and, and not really a core skill set either. So hence where we come in.
Yeah. Scale. It makes sense.
I mean, what would you say makes, like if you were to talk to the audience, what makes this better then like going into a supermarket and just picking up a steak? Like Stop and Shop or something?
Yeah, great question. So know I think, I think we’re trying to align around the idea that we are just trying to sell the absolute highest quality product you can buy. And to us that means it’sconsistent in terms of flavor and taste and, cut quality and all of that. And what allows us to make that promise is this direct relationship with local farms that are committed to the same ideals of sustainability and and, regenerative agricultural methods. so things like rotating animals through the pasture on a daily basis, being committed to the health and fertility of the soil. 100% grass fed and finished beef. So they’re not — no grain feed of any kind. There’s no manure lagoons at our pig farmers’ —
Good to know!
There’s no, there’s no, you know, waste disposal issues when you’re raising animals out in the pasture. So all of those things sort of add up to, a product that has a different nutritional profile, a different taste. And we think overall just sort of flat out a higher quality than a product you could find in the, in the grocery store.
And presumably like this is better for the farmer as well. Right? Like, working with you guys.
It’s definitely better than for the farmer. So, by way of comparison, the average farmer takes home about 10 or 11 cents of the retail dollar. And, and our farmers and butchers together take about 55 cents of the retail dollar, With the farmer being the lion’s share of that. And so it’s definitely better for the farmer. Our farmers too, they have restaurateurs all the time coming to them and saying, Hey, I’ll buy all of your sirloin steaks or all of your strip loins, you know, name your price. For the smart farmer, that’s sort of like a fool’s errand because they don’t, they don’t sell strip loins, they sell cows or pigs.
Right. What happens to the rest of the animal?
Exactly. So I mean that’s our whole business. We talk about sort of operationally, we’re whole animal in whole animal out. So the whole animal comes in one door and the whole has got to go out the other door. So we make a lot of effort to balance the whole carcass and do things like raw dog food and dog treats and different organ blends and such. and, you know, really try to maximize the value of all the parts and pieces and that helps to deliver more value to a farmers who in our view are again, really doing everything right from a sustainability and animal welfare perspective.
Do you think there’s a complete correlation between sustainability practices that are the best for the animals and the taste of the meat?
Oh yeah, totally. Okay. I mean, just anecdotally, I wish I could show you some pictures while we’re sitting here, but, I typically show them to people when they first join the company of like what an industrial pig facility looks like. For example, it’s sort of the equivalent of like, imagine what your health outcomes would be if you were basically just sort of couldn’t sit up from your couch and were fed potato chips all day. And so if you don’t think that’s the right sort of healthy environment for you to be in, why you would think that you would get good health outcomes from eating an animal that was raised in those conditions, is, yeah. Is is sort of anecdotal way to think about it. I think more, more sort of quantitatively, there’s a lot of good research out there, particularly on there carbon aspect of that. So White Oak Pastures is a, farm down in Georgia that is, sort of amongst the leaders in this sort of whole regenerative movement and they you know, recently did a super interesting third party study demonstrating that, when you raise animals regeneratively in this way, you actually from a carbon impact perspective, it’s not just better than conventional beef for example. It’s also better than all the sort of fake meat alternatives out there. And beyond that it’s sort of beyond this idea of, doing less harm. It actually has a net negative carbon impact. So these are activities that — that’s why we use and more people are starting to use the word “regenerative” because it’s not, it’s not the sort of old environmental axiom of doing less harm. It’s actually a net positive benefit.
Where does the net positive carbon come from?
Yeah, yeah. Good question. So, it’s in the carbon sequestration in the soil itself. So yeah, when you re when you raise beef in a feed lot, you need to feed them and they’re so, confined in a concentrated area that there’s no way you could grow enough food in the area that they’re standing to feed them. So you have to import feed from somewhere else. You also have to fertilize that, feed with something because we tend to grow it in monoculture. It’s corn and soy we’re talking about. So you’ve got to apply synthetic fertilizers. Herbicides and pesticides too. Make the yields make sense. So you’ve got a feed problem and then a fertility problem. And then also in these tremendously concentrated conditions have this waste disposal problem. So that’s where you get these manure lagoons that, you know, following Hurricane Florence for example, North Carolina is a big pig production state. These things overflow. Now you’ve got like — I mean, floods really suck, but toxic floods are like, great. Yeah. That’s like really bad news. so these things overflow. It’s a problem. So in a traditiona — I shouldn’t even say traditional because that’s giving it too much credit. In the industrial commoditized world, in a feedlot setting, you’ve got these three distinct problems that we look at and solve them each individually. We’re going to import the feed somewhere else to grow the feed. We’re going to use these artificial fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and to dispose of the waste, we’re going to develop our own really, really bad septic system right next to this feedlot. Compare that to grass fed, where you have an animal out in the pasture. So the feed problem is the pasture itself. They’re eating the feed, it’s available to them in the pasture. There’s no manure lagoon because the waste that they’re creating is immediately trampled back into the soil. And it’s what provides the fertility for the pasture, which is the food that they’re eating. So there’s no three distinct problems. There’s one sort of symbiotic cycle. And what breaks that cycle is when you keep the cattle on the same ground for too long. So it’s rotation through the pasture. Typically they’re moved every single day. That is sequestering the carbon in the form of the waste that they’re trampling back into the soil. Now where you get a huge benefit is where you put chickens in cows on the same pasture. Chicken waste is very heavy nitrogen. Cattle waste is very heavy carbon. That’s where you get this nitrogen fixing in the soil. And that’s where the, that sort of doubles the carbon sequestration impact. So we have a handful of farms that do multi-species like that and we’re trying to encourage more folks to do more of that. Whew. That was probably more than you guys wanted …,
No, it’s really interesting. I think that’s beautiful. What’s the — is there like — so you’re talking about whole animals in and whole animals out and that’s really great. Are there — I was interested when you talked about chefs approaching farmers and saying, we just want your sirloins. What’s the hardest part of the animal to deal with? Is there a learning curve for customers? Do you give them weird stuff they may not initially know how to appreciate that they have to figure out?
Yeah. Great question. So organs are typically — not typically are always excluded from the share. So there are folks that want that sort of stuff and they, they buy them separately. So it’s really on us to balance that sort of stuff. There’s also, another way to think about it as I’m on a typical beef carcass, that carcass is about 45% ground beef. People don’t realize it. It’s like half is hamburger. And our shares are not half hamburger. So we have a lot of interesting food service, like university partners that are big buyers of ground beef. That’s typically the challenge most people would say in the industry is, is the trim. And the reason is because the dairy industry, almost all of the ground beef you’re eating in the supermarket is from dairy cows.
Something I didn’t know.
Yeah, that’s a …
Fun fact. and so as a result, there is sort of theoretically more ground beef out there in the market then there should be, which means that I can get out the chalkboard and walk through the math if you really want to get into it. But it means that the ground beef on an average beef carcass sells at a price that is typically below the weighted average cost of the whole thing. So put differently, the middle meats pay for the whole operation. And you know, we’re not too dissimilar to … from that.
That makes sense. Yeah. Yeah. So you don’t fob this stuff off on your customers. You have other customers separate from your shareholders who take the organs off your hands and who buy the ground beef. You’re not going, you’re not going to have a situation similar to the vegetable CSA where you just get rutabagas for months.
Definitely not. Definitely not. That was something, you know, we really wanted to solve early on was how do you figure out a balance that, you know, sort of optimizes the whole carcass while meeting everyone’s preferences and such. And interestingly enough, I don’t know that I believed this was going to be true, but it’s largely true for, for every person that, you know, hates chicken breasts, there’s another person that loves them. Chicken breasts are an easy example.
Can you tell us a little bit about the actual operation itself. So the, the butchering and the packing and the delivery and how you get it to customers. And just a little bit about that process foryou guys.
Yeah. So, Typically we’ll have sort of rolling contracts. so we have a commitment for a certain number of animals per month. From what, you know, an active farm. We helped to coordinate the logistics of getting those animals to the slaughterhouse at the appointed time. And just to give you a sense of scale, so, a typical industrial slaughterhouse for beef for example, Might do anywhere from 10 -20,000 head in a single day.
Do they run 24 hours?
Typically they would, they’ll do two, they’ll do three shifts. So they’ll do two distinct shift in that cleaning shift. so yeah, a lot of those plants are, they’re not slaughtering 24 hours a day, but it’s open 24 hours.
Something’s happening 24 hours a day.
Relative to, you know, our local comparison, you know, our partner processors will max out at anywhere from, 20-50 head in a day. So just like a totally different order of magnitude.
Off by a thousand.
Yeah. Very different scale. Yeah. So that allows for quite a bit more individual attention for the animal, which we think leads to different animal welfare outcomes. And it also yields differences in cut quality. So typically in an industrial slaughterhouse you wouldn’t be breaking things all the way down to retail cuts. So it’d be shipped in primals and such. But there’s still a lot of messiness that can occur, right at that level that affects the quality of the final product. But essentially, you know, things are broken down. Our specifications brought back here to our fulfillment center. We sort of pick and pack out of here and then run our own delivery trucks out of here to all of our member families. The pick and pack side of that is crazy complicated in terms of, how the animal is balanced. So we have a handful of algorithms trying to balance th — you know, what comes in a carcass against everyone’s preferences and what they’ve gotten historically and all of that. so that’s, something we’ve developed over a long period of time that I think is like on the technical side of the things we do, one of the more interesting, and it’s because like I said, that the, if the core equation is whole animal and whole animal out, we got to get really good at that for a good customer experience basically. Yeah. So for example, if you got, I mean the idea of is working properly is if you got flank steak this month, you don’t get it next month and somebody who hasn’t had flank steak for a while is more likely to get it.
At what point did you need that? You started in 2014. Is that right?
We did a small pilot program of like 50 families in November and December the year before. But yeah, we opened at the public in 2014.
I’m just trying to imagine how this would work at a smaller scale than what you’re currently, so it makes sense to me now. But I’m trying to imagine you starting out and making all of this work.
Yeah. So I got this really smart idea that it didn’t make sense to pack the shares beforehand and I was just going to pack them in the back of the van. So I had this refrigerated van and then I would drive to these people’s houses and in their driveway or in some cases in like a inappropriate parking spot, blocking traffic. I would get into the back of the van and then sift through these boxes …
Trying to remember who had flank steak last week!
Yeah, exactly. And it’s all sort of written on wet paper that’s like, ripping. And I didn’t have a digital scale. I had like an analog fish scale with a hook. And so it would like you, you put, I would put the stuff in the bag and then hang it on the fish scale and then you’ve got to wait like 10 seconds until it settles on a weight. And then it’s like, Aw man, I’m half a pound over. I gotta start all over again. And it was literally like 20 minutes while I’m sitting in the back of this van. And so people would come out of the house, like knock on the door, like, is everything okay in there? And I’m like, yeah, it’s fine! Stay outside. I’ll be right out. So yeah, there was some mishaps, misdirection along the way.
Like, you’re not butchering it in the back of the bed. Right?
I mean, there was maybe a point at which I considered that too, but, you know, missteps along the way, I guess.
Where would you like to see the meat industry in 10 years since you’re a business that depends upon being local. I don’t imagine that you want to take over the whole country, you, but like, what do you think would be a good thing that could happen?
That’s a great question. I’d like to see, I’d like to see people eating less meat, But feel really great about the meat that they’re eating. And so in some cases, that does mean spending a little bit more, on a per unit basis. But keeping your sort of overall meat budget the same. And I think your dollar goes further, certainly from the farmer perspective and from the ecological environmental welfare perspective, if thought about in that way. So, the way we think about that in the region is maybe a little bit more ambiguous of just contributing to this agricultural Renaissance that’s going on in the region. I say this all the time. But the average age of farmers is declining in the region. The size of farms is declining.
Which yeah. In case people don’t know, in general, we’re hearing always about a trend of farmers getting older and older.
Totally, everywhere else in the country. That’s, that’s the case. And the number of farms is increasing. So this is the only region in the country where all those indicators are going in what I see to be there, right direction. So, you know, our, our vision is just to continue to build on this community of people that want to contribute to that. So, we think that this region of the country is uniquely suited to do that for the reasons I talked about in terms of the soil suitability and climactic suitability. And then you’ve also got this massive group of people that live in the surrounding metropolitan areas, that seem to be moving along the spectrum towards more local, more whole real foods. and so combining those two that’s sort of continues to be our vision of a more sustainably fed region. And then beyond the sort of medium term, there is definitely the potential for the Northeast to feed itself from a protein perspective. And so if we had to align around any sort of longer term grandiose vision, that would probably be it. It’s like, can, can this region actually produce enough protein to support, you know, the entire greater Boston area, the entire New York city, greater Metro area. Because we, we definitely think the answer’s yes.
I mean, is there anything else? I guess the only other parting thing is, is there anything else you want to talk about or say or any story you want to tell?
I think one, one area I didn’t touch on is just, yeah, one of the problems with the industrialized food system is that when you use your food dollars at the grocery store, the impact of those choices are somewhere else and on someone else. And they’re sort of out of sight and out of mind. And that disconnect causes a lot of problems, a lot of environmental problems, a lot of ecological problems. And frankly, regardless of your politics, a lot of political problems. Because in the absolute, you go too far down this spectrum and you end up with something that looks like Hunger Games, where you’ve got these rural sectors sort of toiling on behalf of this urban sector that, and there’s very few paths between them. And so that’s a core part of what we do is trying to better connect rural and urban. Because when you have that connection and you see the impact of your food dollars and the stories of the farmers that are working every day to produce the highest quality food that they can, you tend to make choices that better support the surrounding ecological environment. You tend to make choices that result in better outcomes from an animal welfare perspective. And it’s maybe to boil it down like you don’t, it was about, I don’t want to use a a bad word, but you know, you don’t, uh …
This is an R-rated podcast, we’re all adults here.
Okay. Well you typically don’t just, you know, go to the bathroom in your backyard. And so it’s the same situation of like, if it’s within your own community and there’s people you have a sort of, a sense of who they are, the impacts are just much closer to home and you sort of take care of it.
Yeah. You you feel like you have a stake.
Totally. And not to mention the fact that like, I think this is a really special part of the world. Attachment to place has always been really, really important to me and I’m sort of like a New Englander through and through and that makes it, all the more special for me to like try to build a business that’s impactful in the region. And I would love for people to share that appreciation for, you know, what, what this region is about and why it’s special relative to every other region in the world. And there’s a lot of things we do that I think that support that vision of, of New England’s future.
Thanks so much for spending this time with us sharing your expertise.
Appreciate it. Thank you very much.
Thank you guys for coming. Really nice to meet you.
Thanks for listening to The Stories Behind Our Food podcast by Equal Exchange, a worker owned cooperative. Love this episode? Please subscribe, rate and leave a review. Be sure to visit equalexchange.coop to join the conversation, purchase products and learn more about small scale farmers and the global supply chain. This episode is produced by Gary Goodman with hosts, Kate chess and Danielle Robidoux. Join us next time for another edition of the Stories Behind Our Food.
In this update from Eunice Jijon Jarquin and Alyssa Melendez, learn about Equal Exchange’…24 January 2020