Many consumers want to know the story behind the food they eat, whether they are grilling hamburgers in the backyard or dining at a steakhouse. According to a 2021 Innova Consumer Survey, 85% of consumers are interested in what goes into their food, and 59% want to know where their food comes from and how it is made.
Ames, Iowa, entrepreneur Ray Schmidt started Farm Story Meats in 2018 to offer quality meat and poultry products directly to consumers. The name reflects his mission to share the story of the farmers who supply his products. It’s also a nod to Story County, where the business is located.
“Essentially, it's about telling the farmer story because I think a lot of consumers don't know where their food comes from. Some people think it comes from the grocery store, but there's actually a farmer behind it—and every farmer has a story on how they got started or how they raised their animals,” Schmidt said.
“Really, we're just striving to share the farmer story and help bridge that gap between consumer and farmer.”
Schmidt grew up on a farm in Williamsburg, Iowa, where his dad, Randy Schmidt, raises Chester White pigs, a heritage breed that produces quality pork.
“Growing up on the farm, I learned hard work and responsibility at an early age,” Schmidt said. “I had 4-H and FFA projects, mostly showing pigs.” Although he studied business, marketing and management at Iowa State University, he remained interested and engaged in the agriculture industry, also serving as a state FFA officer while an undergraduate student.
He explained Farm Story Meats “started with my dad working really hard to perfect our pigs’ genetics, only to have them go to a local commodity market and end up who knows where. Likewise, at the end of the supply chain the customer would pick up a pork chop or steak in a grocery store and have no idea where it came from—oftentimes, it was impossible to tell.”
He said his dad took some of their pigs to a local meat locker, but the costs of buying and processing meat from a whole animal—plus the added storage requirements—made it challenging for customers to buy meat directly from the Schmidt Farm. Sometimes they also had problems getting paid for the pork in a timely manner.
Schmidt founded Farm Story Meats to make the process of buying meat easier for farmers and consumers. He started selling Chester White pork supplied by his dad and has added other meat varieties since then.
Ron and Kristine VanDenBroeke, Up a Creek Farm, Hubbard, Iowa, provide pasture-raised poultry. Trevor and Bailey Smith, Marengo, Iowa, raise grass-fed beef. The Schultz Farm, Lake View, Iowa, provides Black Angus beef. The Loehr Pride Farm, Springville, Iowa, offers heritage breed lamb.
“It’s kind of a one-stop shop,” Schmidt said. Customers visit the virtual meat shop at farmstorymeats.com/meat-shop and select which types and cuts of meat or poultry they want to order. They can select specific cuts and control the quantity so they know they will have enough freezer space. Customers may also opt to order meat bundles, which include an assortment of meat cuts at different price levels. Unlike some of his direct-to-consumer competitors, Schmidt does not require subscriptions, though subscription boxes are also available.
He works with two meat lockers that are also small businesses. “I make the cut instructions on what we're doing, and then I pick up the meat and store it until the customer buys it.”
Schmidt delivers weekly to customers in Ames, Ankeny and Des Moines, Iowa, and surrounding areas in Farm Story-branded, insulated tote bags. He also ships orders nationwide using packaging materials that are recyclable or reusable, as the company aims to be as environmentally conscious and sustainable as possible.
Schmidt shares the stories of the local farmers who supply Farm Story’s products on his website and social media pages so that his customers can get to know them better.
Up a Creek Farm
Ron VanDenBroeke, of Up a Creek Farm, said he and his family began raising their own poultry and eggs because of store-bought items’ comparatively poor taste, nutritional value and quality.
“We knew where our food came from and how it was raised, and I think mainly it was taste and nutrition that got us started in it,” he said.
They were impressed by the flavor of the eggs their first layer hens produced. “The eggs were so much different from what we got in the store. The ones in the store seemed to taste like Styrofoam, and the ones we have on the farm were always rich and full of flavor, with a nice dark color and nice hard shells. And that just made all the difference in everything from a couple of eggs for breakfast to eggs for cooking,” VanDenBroeke said.
They also found a remarkable difference in the flavor and quality of their farm-raised chicken. “It's almost like eating gourmet compared to the off-the-shelf brand. That's how much difference there is between something that's been free range, pasture raised on our farm compared to buying it out of the local supermarket,” he said.
When friends and neighbors expressed interest in their poultry and eggs, the VanDenBroekes decided to expand their flock and start selling off the farm. Sustainability is important to them and influenced their poultry raising practices as they expanded. “We wanted to make sure that we were leaving things better than what we found them,” he said.
He said they raise as many as 500 birds at a time on pasture, using mobile chicken tractors and ElectroNet fencing to protect them from predators. In cold weather, the birds are fenced to the brooder house.
“They have access to the building, but they still have about a half-acre plot that they can roam on. As it gets grazed down then we'll move that pasture, and that allows us good manure management and good forage for them. That all adds to the quality of the meat and to our ability to be sustainable,” he said. The manure is composted so they can use it in their garden.
Up a Creek Farm has an online farm store at upacreekfarmstore.com and sells products at local farmers markets in the summer. Partnering with Farm Story Meats enabled them to ship nationwide and grow their business.
“Ray is very conscientious about who he brings into the business and wants to know exactly where that product is coming from and how it’s raised to make sure that it's all done humanely but sustainably as well. That way he can provide a top quality product to his customers,” VanDenBroeke said.
He emphasized Up a Creek Farm’s “ability to raise quality products for families so people know where their food is coming from and how it’s raised. And I think that's the main emphasis of what Ray is trying to accomplish as well.”
Growing as an entrepreneur
Schmidt’s entrepreneurial endeavors have grown considerably since he started selling items out of his home as a child. “When I was a kid, I used to have a pillow fort and sell coloring book pages,” he said.
The idea for Schmidt’s first business sprouted in his dorm room at Iowa State. “Patches O Pumpkins was a business I started in my sophomore year of college just to get my feet wet and learn the ins and outs of what it's like to run a business. So that was really the predecessor to Farm Story Meats, and it's still operational,” he said.
Schmidt also credits his 4-H and FFA involvement for contributing to his success as an entrepreneur. “A lot of the skill sets I have that I learned in those organizations were not necessarily livestock related. With 4-H I did a lot of visual art projects that got me interested in graphic design.” He does all the branding, website building and graphic design for Farm Story Meats, and he built the website for Up a Creek Farm as well.
In FFA, he got public speaking and leadership experience and developed soft skills while working in a collaborative environment.
Schmidt was recently selected for CyStarters, a competitive entrepreneurship incubator program at Iowa State that enabled him to hire an employee, Jessica Vlastaras, and continue building his business this year. He is working on his master’s degree in business administration at Iowa State and works full time on campus.
Farm Story Meats won third place in Iowa Farm Bureau’s 2021 Grow Your Future award competition. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-IA, and Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig met with him earlier this year to learn more about the business he continues to build.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a considerable challenge to entrepreneurs and small businesses around the globe. As consumers looked to buy more locally sourced meat when the pandemic began, Schmidt was ready. The systems he had in place helped him respond to consumers’ demand to buy directly from producers.
“In March (2020) when nobody wanted to go out in public, I was able to hit the ground running, and that really accelerated my business because people were looking for alternative solutions.” Business during the pandemic has ebbed and flowed, he said, adding, “I think everybody can agree that the convenience of having quality protein dropped off right on your doorstep is a good thing.”
For more information about Farm Story Meats and the farmers whose products are sold in the online shop, visit farmstorymeats.com.
Shauna Rumbaugh can be reached at 620-227-1805 or firstname.lastname@example.org.