FARGO — Standing next to her pickup truck and horse trailer in the vacant parking lot in a former retail location in south Fargo, Lacey Block is on the edge of a marketing revolution.
Block, 32, describes herself as a sixth-generation rancher who is just starting to direct-sell beef to consumers. When the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded, she was coincidentally developing her own direct-marketing business — Rancher's Rebellion LLC.
It was an effort that other producers and consumers are thinking a lot about these days.
“There’s a lot of us women: we want to be home and on the farm full-time, but we’re not adding enough value without having a job in town,” she explains. “This is kind of a nice way for me to be able to just stay home — earning my way to just stay on the farm and be with my kids and my family. But I’m able to add value to our family.”
Block grew up steeped in the livestock culture.
Her father Todd Block, 55, and mother Cindy, a nurse, live in Lake City, in the northeast corner of South Dakota. Todd has a custom spraying and hay stack moving business. Lacey Block and her younger sister spent time on the farm of their grandfather and uncle who raise cow-calf pairs.
After training as a licensed practical nurse, she returned to her ranching roots in her mid-20s.
Today, Lacey and her boyfriend, Drew Smith, 37, run a farm and ranch “15 feet into South Dakota,” but with a Havana, N.D., address. The couple’s farm includes about 2,000 acres of cash crops (wheat, soybeans and corn) and they have a 140-pair cow-calf operation, in which they breed a herd of mixed-breed beef cows to Gelbvieh bulls.
She kept a handful of calves for finishing, especially if they had cosmetic marketing defects that would make them less valuable at the sale barn. “I just bucket-fed corn,” she says.
The first ones had good carcass characteristics, so she increased her finishing to 10 head. She sold live-weight animals for finishing. She shot for a finishing weight of 1,400 to 1,500 pounds, depending on their frame.
She told potential customers she would need to get U.S. Department of Agriculture inspection to sell meat by the pound. Last November, she started working through the process with the USDA and state department of health. She contracted through Great Frontier Meats Inc., a Hecla, S.D., business with a USDA-inspected plant at Oakes, N.D., and Economy Meat Market, Inc., a state-inspected plant at Bath, S.D.
Block promotes 14-day dry aging and packaging "one animal at a time." The ground beef has "silver skin" removed and contains no organ meat.
"We also grind all our roasts and lesser-desirable steaks to make for flavor you can't beat," her brochure says.
On Feb. 3, she officially registered the business in South Dakota, helped by Sioux Falls, S.D., lawyer Jim Wiederrich. The first animals went to processing in Oakes on March 4. She started a website, allowing nationwide shipping of frozen beef through the postal service. That option was quickly abandoned for logistical reasons.
The main marketing plan was to take her meat solely through retailers — mostly convenience store freezers. She owns freezers located in service station convenience stores in Gwinner, N.D., Forman, N.D., and Britton, S.D. She later added Peever, S.D., and she plans to open at Watertown, S.D.
But as soon as the first two retail locations opened, the COVID-19 “social distancing” and “stay-at-home” rules came into play.
Suddenly, Block feared she made a huge mistake. “If you’re stuck at home, why are you going to go to a gas station? You’re going to go to a grocery store (for food). I thought, this is not going to work.”
At the beginning of April, she made a push with face-to-face drop-off sales.
The technique became popular with news of spot shortages of beef in some stores and vulnerabilities to the food supply system because of COVID-19 outbreaks in major packing plants.
“It’s caused the consumers to question what they’re buying a little bit more — not having the products available as readily anymore. Consumers are becoming aware of imports and becoming more supportive of small businesses," she says.
In addition to the gas stations, Block set up pop-up distribution events in larger towns. About 100 visited her in Fargo, N.D. She had similar turnout in Aberdeen, S.D., and Watertown, S.D., and Brookings, S.D.
Facebook exposure helped. “People are excited about the agriculture industry and learning more about it, about what COVID’s done to us,” she says.
Aaron Temple of Fargo, and his wife, Ashley, of south Fargo, stopped to pick up some pounds of beef. Aaron, a native of Rutland, N.D., works in manufacturing in Fargo. The couple bought 40 pounds of ground beef. He thought buying direct would possibly help small farmers. “Why not help a small town family friend?”
Lacey’s father, Todd Block, helping her with a distribution/sales event in Fargo, said he’s not surprised people are embracing “good, home-raised quality beef.” Todd is unclear whether today’s COVID-19 crisis will create meat spot shortages and is suspicious that it will “benefit the big people.”
Block describes her prices as “comparative to other farm-to-table products.” Her ground beef on April 30, was $4.75 per pound — the same as prior to the pandemic. Ribeyes were $16.50 per pound. Porterhouses, tenderloins, brisket, and ribs are comparably priced. She carries other specialties, including oxtail, tongue, liver, heart, soup bones and kidneys.
"I have a pretty simple amount of products I cover. Gas stations have limited space. My freezers have to be on the smaller end, so I kind of am able to fit into their locations," she says.
The name — Rancher's Rebellion — started with a friend’s suggestion. “Why don’t you have it, ‘revolution?’ That’s what you’re trying to do: ‘rebeller’s beef,’ or something like that?’” Lacey remembers. “We played around with it, and I thought, ‘Rancher’s Rebellion’ beef company: this makes sense — kind of what it is. We need some things to change and basically it’s going to take a lot of people to change it," she says.
Block doesn’t want to get endlessly large. She hopes to market 300 animals per year — about a third of which will come from her own herd.
“I’m also taking a lot of my focus to help other ranchers diversify their operations, getting them from where they are with their cattle all the way to finishing it and bringing it to a consumer’s table, just because there’s quite a few steps to get to direct-selling,” she says.
Ultimately, Block simply hopes a new marketing avenue can help her ranch continue on, so it can be “something our seventh generation is going to want to continue in.” That would make the revolution worth it.