The Mid Atlantic Beef and Dairy Farmer a supplement to the Delmarva Farmer

Local farmers dream of online profit as website debuts in region

Associate Editor

BEAVERDAM, Va. (June 27, 2017) — Over a decade, Bruce Johnson has built Dragonfly Farms into 400 acres of rolling pastures that support an all-natural, grass-fed beef operation selling up to 35 steers a year mostly at farmers’ markets around the Richmond area.
“That’s a lot of work,” said Johnson last week as he piloted his pickup along rural side roads between his fields. “That’s a lot of hustle to move that much.”
It requires long weeks raising the beef and long weekends marketing it. But he’s hoping he’s found a better way.
Enter Crowd Cow. It’s a new Seattle-based online company that launched about two years so consumers could buy choice cuts of sustainable meat from farms across the country. A cow is featured on the site for several days and customers can order cuts with the click of a mouse — everything from tri-tips to flank steaks, burger patties to tongue. The customer is charged when the cow sells out, and then it’s vacuum-packed in dry ice and shipped directly to their home.
It’s kind of like Kickstarter for cows.
“I think we can continue to grow our numbers without the labor increasing too much more. Without the marketing going crazy,” Johnson said.
The site launched this month in the Washington, D.C., area, joining forces with two farms: Dragonfly and Cottonwood Ranch in Front Royal, Va. It was started by Joe Heitzeberg, a Seattle entrepreneur with a background in venture capital and tech startups, and his partner Ethan Lowry, and it offers a new tech-savvy solution to beef producers looking for new customers.
During an interview last week, for instance, Heitzeberg said his mind was on the historic heat wave scorching the Southwest — the kind of weather that can influence Crowd Cow’s delivery outcomes. One of their solutions: proprietary computer software that looks at a delivery’s destination and considers the weather forecast when evaluating, for example, how much dry ice to pack with the meat.
He said his sees Crowd Cow as a logical continuation of the Internet’s takeover of consumer purchasing.
“It sounds like it might be a radical idea, and yet it’s not. It happened with coffee and with beer,” he said.
The company establishes relationships with butchers and also employs regional workers in warehouses to ship product, he said. Still, the company has only 12 employees. That hasn’t stopped it from growing, however. In Crowd Cow’s first six months, it brought in $60,000 in business. In 2016: more than $1 million.
Generally, Johnson said he’s taken his steers to the butcher an hour away and picked up the processed meat days later. He takes that meat to a farmers’ market, sells what he can, freezes what he can’t and sells that at other markets. The meat is moved and handled a lot. With Crowd Cow, it’s more simple. He takes the steers to the butcher, and it’s handled from there.
He said Crowd Cow recruited him as they looked to expand into the Washington region, and one of the company’s employees visited his farm.
“I asked him, farms like me that were going to farmers’ markets and then started selling to (Crowd Cow), you know, how did that pan out? And he said those farms similar to me now sell their whole herd through Crowd Cow,” Johnson said.
They stopped going to farmers’ markets.
“Part of that sounds attractive to me,” he said. “It’s a lot of time and work.”