A cattle rancher built a business selling grass-fed beef in-person. When Covid hit, she had to figure out how to sell online.
Farmers’ markets and home delivery were no longer viable options. So this 62-year-old teamed up with a tech company to start an online business.
Jenny Kahrl has spent more than 20 years ranching in Harrison, Montana, where she specializes in raising grass-fed Red Devon cattle—one of the oldest beef breeds in existence, known for their hardiness and well-marbled meat. Although women have always been part of the workings of a farm or ranch, Kahrl is one of the few women running cattle on her own land. For years, she took pride in selling all of her beef within a 50-mile radius of her ranch and seeing her customers face-to-face. But when the pandemic hit, in-person sales were out and the 62-year-old single mom knew that to keep her business going, she’d need to turn to technology and develop online sales and a home delivery system to keep afloat.
I am the daughter of a college professor who taught medieval and Renaissance English literature, but we also loved the outdoors. We spent a lot of time duck hunting and fishing as kids. We always as a family talked about land and how important owning land was. So when I inherited money in my twenties, I thought, okay, I am going to buy some land. I found some about an hour southwest of Bozeman—about 500 acres, and I started with about 30 cows.
I wanted to raise cattle that could be raised right here and build a sustainable bottom to top, pasture to plate system. That led me to Devon cattle, which are a breed that was developed hundreds of years ago in the southwest part of England. Pilgrim ships came over with Devon in them, and they’re good on lower quality forages. They can get fat on a lower carbohydrate diet, and fat is crucial. I’m raising beef that is sold within 50 miles of where it was conceived, which is kind of unusual in the United States.
I also learned a lot about breeding. I sell bulls and female animals—it might be a yearling heifer or it might be an adult cow with a calf at her side. Around the West, people come to me because they’ve done their research, and it’s kind of nice—they just show up to buy breeding stock. And then I sell grass-fed beef.
So here I was producing food I knew was really good, but I couldn’t easily go to the farmers’ market [because of the pandemic]. I had children at home who I had to take care of this last year. I’m a single mom and I had to keep them on their academic program.
I was approached by a company called Barn2Door, which helps farms with online sales, and they really helped me. This was in March or April. They are based in Seattle and must have done an internet search for farmers. They took all the knowledge they had of internet marketing, and they set a price, depending on how much of the service you wanted. They were able to create a new website for me, and they helped me organize newsletters. They created a system where you can have people look on the site and click on, ‘yes, I want 20 pounds of burger,’ and they’re charged for it. And there’s a pick and pack list and I can say, ‘okay, I’m going to deliver on April 25.’ And I can see that I have 10 20-pound packages, and this is where they’ll go. I spent a good bit of time last spring when I was home, learning all of the internet systems. It’s tricky as a producer to also try to be the internet marketer. I’ve got to know a whole lot about livestock and soils and cattle management in addition to marketing. So it was very nice to have Barn2Door.
It cost a little over $1,200 to set up the new website. I got the mid-range and it was for a year of service. They had a teacher who contacted me every week and we’d work through things. ‘How are you going to price your beef, Jenny? How do we want to set up the online store?’ They’d ask me what I wanted to sell and then they’d help me set it up. It was really helpful. Because I’m a single mom, it probably took longer than some farmers.
Before this, I had built up an email list of a lot of people like myself—starting with homeschool moms who were looking for high quality foods for their kids. I would send out a notice to the group saying, ‘I’m going to the butcher in November, and I’m selling about a quarter.’ And people would meet me on a given day after the meat was processed and they pick up their quarter beef and give me a check.
In 2019, all the bulls I wanted to sell were sold. It was really exciting. And then all of a sudden, the market for cattle dropped through the floor.
I tried for a couple of years doing the farmers’ market, but that didn’t really work quite so well for me, because people don’t really want to wander around the farmers’ market with 20 pounds of melting, expensive beef. So they would buy a burger, but I had to pay somebody to cook burgers, and they buy one. Pretty much the burger sales just went into marketing because I had to pay someone to cook the burger so I could answer questions, and it just took forever.
So before, it was mainly house to house, you know, customer to customer and just doing it that way. And I had been developing a pretty good market for people buying my bulls, or telling them they can buy semen and use artificial insemination from a bull. In 2019, all the bulls I wanted to sell were sold. It was really exciting. And people were buying females and I didn’t have to take care of them anymore. And then all of a sudden, the market for cattle dropped through the floor because there was a whole lot of cattle that were supposed to head into the feedlots, and a lot of the feedlots got stuck with cattle because the processing plants closed down. You’ve only got a few weeks that you can wait between when it gets to the right butchering size and when it’s too fat. So the price of cattle just fell through the floor and all the people who were going to buy my animals so they could finish grass-fed beef on their own land and take it to the farmers’ market on their own dime said, forget it, there’s no market for this.
But people were home and needing food because they couldn’t go to a restaurant. So there I was with a whole lot of nice bulls. I had actually gone to Australia and New Zealand to get better breeding genetics and had finally had these animals on the ground. It was a five-year project and nobody wanted them. So I realized, nobody wants breeding stock, but at least they do want beef. So I castrated a lot of my good bulls and spayed a lot of my not-so-perfect heifers and said, okay, you are now infertile animals and I am going to run you as beef. I had developed a relationship with a butcher shop in Bozeman and an organic grocery store and they were buying my stuff. But I did have to pay to castrate and spay those animals and that’s $100 an animal. When you’re making $1,200 off an animal after two years of having it on your place, it takes up a lot of the margin.
So I castrated a lot of my good bulls and spayed a lot of my not-so-perfect heifers and said, okay, you are now infertile animals and I am going to run you as beef.
A lot of ranchers who sell their seed stock—meaning their live animals, their bulls and their pregnant cows—get one paycheck a year. So I am used to going long stretches of the business without getting paid much. There aren’t a lot of expenses in the spring and summer; you’re really just putting animals out and putting grass in front of them and watching them grow. My biggest expense is to buy hay, and that’s about as close to $50,000 a year.
It’s kind of a lonely life. We live 50 miles from town and there’s a small village nearby. These are people I’ve known for 25 years, and there’s not many of them. I look forward to being able to connect with more people, to just come to the farmers’ market and see other people. Last year we worked with another online company called Hipcamp, which was very successful. People can pay for a camping spot and we actually have a couple of little guest cabins on the range. So my 20-year-old son last summer, when he was stuck at home with no university to go to, he hosted from a distance different guests as they came through because we’re pretty close to Yellowstone. People like to be able to stay on a working ranch. So I have worked on developing income sources for the kids, and that was a good one. He’s doing that again this summer. I’ll probably do it on a smaller scale once the kids leave in September—it keeps me connected with people who are from all over the place.