Wholly Cow Market is setting a trend on Main Street: Raising happy animals and selling lots of Kansas-made products
JOHNSON CITY — Two years ago, Matt and Michelle Canny had a realization. They needed to change what they were doing or they would sink.
Like other ranchers across the country, including in Kansas, the Cannys, who own Bear Creek Farms, realized if they could sell directly to the customer they could make a larger profit. The issue was marketing - and demand.
"There's more money in this than in selling through the sale barn," Michelle Canny said.
A different type of meat
Matt Canny is a fifth-generation southwest Kansas farmer. In 1885, his great-great-grandfather Henry Bearman of Ohio boarded a train to Syracuse, Kansas, eventually settling in Johnson City.
Each generation worked hard at raising both crops and livestock. Bearman tried his hand at corn, millet, rice and wheat - with mixed results. Until 2005, Canny and his ancestors did what other farmers in the area did - they tilled the soil after each harvest and left the ground dormant during non-growing seasons.
A little less than two decades ago, the Cannys changed their ways. They stopped tilling the land, let the cattle graze their pastures and kept a living root in the ground at all times.
"Moving to regenerative (farming) is kind of like abandoning everything you know," Michelle Canny said. "It's intimidating, but it's healthy for the animals."
The Cannys realized they were doing something special - raising cattle and lamb on grass and allowing their free roaming chickens to help improve the soil and eat the insects.
Because it takes the grass-fed animal longer to mature and fatten up, the overhead of raising pure grass-fed animals (from being weaned to slaughter) is higher. The couple was apprehensive because their meats were costlier they thought they would not sell as well.
According to Michelle Canny, the fat on grass fed cattle is yellow and there is less marbling.
"It contains more omega-3 fatty acids," she said. "It tastes better, and it's more nutritious."
In 2018, they brought some of their butchered meat back from the processor and sold halves, quarters and wholes from their farm's freezer. And to their surprise, it sold.
Two years ago, the Cannys ordered retail cuts and started visiting farmers markets in Garden City, Ulysses, Wichita and Colorado. Soon after, they customized a pick up truck and bought a semi. They secured drop off locations in Ulysses, Great Bend, Manhattan, Topeka and Wichita. Although they ship their products across the U.S., many customers prefer it dropped off.
As sales increased, so did their need for storage. Last year, Michelle Canny quit her job and opened up a market in downtown Johnson City - Wholly Cow Market.
"Matt said 'I'll produce it; you sell it,'" Michelle Canny said. "That's when we decided to focus on my husband's passion."
Along with Bear Creek Farms' grass-fed beef, chicken and lamb cuts, the unique store sells Kansas-made products, including flours, grains, goat soaps, tea, cheese, honey and beans, in addition to freshly laid eggs - straight from their farm. They also sell pork products from a southwest Kansas farmer who raises pigs in the pasture as well.
The Cannys, once again, are pleasantly surprised that the customers they gained through COVID-19, those who wanted to know where their meat came from, are sticking with them. And for the ones who aren't, new ones have replaced them.
"When COVID hit we had the highest sales," Michelle Canny said. "Sales went up 500%. We couldn't provide enough product."
COVID-19 gives consumers a taste of farm to table
Like the Cannys, Chad and Cassondra Basinger of Basinger's Beef in Pretty Prairie recently started a ranch to consumer business. They too raise their cattle on regenerative land, allowing the cattle to graze on grass.
"We're in the growing mode still," said Basinger.
What has changed for the Basingers is the amount of shipping. The couple ships meat to homes less than 50 miles away in Wichita.
"It's (sales) definitely increased as far as the people wanting to buy local," Chad Basinger said.
In addition to purchasing Basinger's meat straight from the farm or having it shipped, Happy Hallow Gift Shop in Moundridge carries their grass-fed products.
More:From farm to table
Doug and Stephanie David of Bow Creek Ranch in Lenora saw the same growth in their farm to table market. Like Wholly Cow and Basinger Beef, they also ship their grass-fed beef, pork and yak products nationwide.
When it was perceived that meat was scarce when COVID-19 hit, the Davids ramped up their production.
"It's slowed down a little, but we've still been pretty steady," Stephanie David said. "Our customer base has stayed loyal."
Issues with processing when the pandemic started
When the pandemic started, customers turned to ranchers like the Cannys, Basingers and Davids to provide them with meat products. As the demand increased, so did the wait at the local processing plants. Soon dates were hard to come by, and ranchers had to wait longer than usual.
Since then, small to medium processers have lessoned their wait lines by just a little, some have expanded, like Yoder Meats in Yoder and Krehbiels Meats in McPherson, while a few new ones are springing up.
About a dozen new licenses were issued to small meatpackers this year.
Carol Klema, the executive director of the Kansas Meat Processors Association said there was a large increase in the number of plants that opened this year. This increase includes those that changed ownership. The KMPA has 43 members.
Plants have opened or are under new ownership in Abilene and Niotaze and in small cities in Harper and McPherson counties. Although plants also opened in Meade and Plainville, most of the smaller plants in Kansas are on the state's eastern side. In more evenly populated states, like Missouri and Wisconsin, there are more processing plants, spread out more evenly than in Kansas.
Michelle Canny said using regenerative farming makes Bear Creek Farm more sustainable and environmentally friendly.
"It's the way nature intended the soil, animals and insects to work together," she said. "On our farm, cattle are exposed to nature's salad bar. They eat many different grasses and all kinds of cover crops like peas, turnips, radishes and safflower."
The cattle, sheep and chickens naturally fertilize the soil, making it healthier and allowing water to soak into the ground, creating a more permeable surface.
"We're still building. It's a slow process," Michelle Canny said. "Our goal is to bloom where we've planted. We want to bless people and pass it on."