The challenges and hardships encountered by the pioneers in the short grass prairie of central Alberta are difficult for us in modern day agriculture to fathom. But the direct marketing storyline for Dylan and Colleen Biggs of TK Ranch near Coronation, Alta., has distinct parallels. Overcoming adversity, challenges beyond one’s control and constant change are just some of them.
“Tenacity is a really, really important part of direct marketing,” says Biggs.
The ranch is located in the northern fescue grasslands of east central Alberta. It was started by Dylan’s father, Tom, in 1956. Tom passed away last year, but today Colleen and Dylan’s daughter, Jocelyn, and her husband are also on the ranch and manage the outdoor pigs and laying hens. Their other daughter, Julia, manages the abattoir.
The market crash of ’94 was a rude awakening for the couple. The ranch’s equity was cut in half and the bank was calling about debt servicing. Biggs was not raised in agriculture but she has an environmental sciences degree and brought an outside perspective. The couple, with three little kids, knew they had to make some changes. Direct marketing was something they had been tossing around but nobody else was doing it.
Before the age of internet and cell phones, Biggs started cold-calling food stores. There was no interest in Edmonton and health food stores in Calgary did not want to supply “dead animal protein.”
Someone suggested high-end restaurants. So with product to give away and taste comparisons with other meat they were serving, she found some inroads and the business was launched. The chef community was interested and supportive but the learning curve to marketing meat was steep. The chefs really only wanted 15 per cent of the higher-end cuts, leaving the couple with a lot of excess.
Biggs recalls having 4,000 pounds of ground beef stored on the deck that winter. She now laughs about it. “You don’t know what you don’t know.” But the first year they slaughtered 24 head, not exactly starting with small steps.
“I just kept calling people and if someone said no, I would try again in three weeks,” says Biggs. They managed to get product into a couple of stores and some hotels and restaurants, including some Canadian Pacific Railway hotels.
“It was an interesting time. The foodie movement was starting and we were also brokering for other producers,” she says. “By 2000, things were going very well for us. But then 9/11 hit and it all came to a screeching halt.”
The tourist area of the Calgary-Banff corridor saw massive cancellations and many of their contracts were cancelled overnight. They changed direction from the high-end restaurants and health food stores to getting product into retail stores.
When the BSE wreck of 2003 happened, TK Ranch was selling 30 per cent of their ranch production through retail. As many cattle producers looked for other marketing options, they faced an increase in competition. To get animals marketed, many ranch families were offering discounted prices.
“We held on through that trying time by Dylan going off the ranch and teaching livestock handling courses,” Biggs recalls. Dylan is well known in North America for his low-stress livestock handling techniques, along the lines of the Bud Williams approach.
The couple was looking to create multiple streams of income. They were observing some of the trends in Europe such as not feeding animal byproducts, antibiotic use, organics, grass finishing and animal welfare. With direct marketing, they felt it was important to connect with the consumer.
The evolution of the internet in the mid-2000s boosted their success. In 2004 and 2005 they developed their first website, another significant learning curve.
“Since that first one, we have had four or five,” Biggs says. She now talks about the importance of search engine optimization and getting to the top of a Google search.
All that time, the animals were being slaughtered at a small provincial processor. The arrangement worked well but bringing the product back to the ranch for storage and distribution and then delivering to Calgary and Edmonton was difficult. They were putting on 2,000 kilometres per week and it was taking a toll on them personally. In 2011, they launched the formal component of the online store and with it sales increased.
“By 2013, my daughter and I were completely worn out,” Biggs says. “We were at a crossroads.”
They were selling all their beef production and had branched out into pigs, sheep, chicken and eggs to help stabilize their income. They had outgrown the processor and had a lot of capital tied up in trucks and freezers.
To complete the vertical integration, they decided to build an on-farm slaughter facility and a separate processing and retail store closer to their target market of Calgary. By 2014 they had bought land 20 minutes east of Calgary, two kilometres north of Highway 1. They wanted to be close to the urban market but also far enough out to be able to create the farm experience, yet still access labour.
Construction started in 2015 and they opened in March 2016, right in line with the Alberta recession.
“We had been at 27 per cent growth but in 2015 and 2016 sales flattened,” Biggs recalls. To prepare for the transition from the other processor, they had banked a lot of inventory. In 2017, growth was at four per cent. Larger retailers wanted too many concessions, so those sales were reduced. TK Ranch was fortunate to have loyal customers who stayed with them but their purchases dropped in half. Fortunately, new customers helped fill the void. Custom processing was added to help diversify.
Social media has led to 83 per cent of online store sales, becoming an essential part of the business model.
“I initially hated social media, but have come to appreciate it,” Biggs says. She uses social media as a tool to tell positive stories about agriculture and connect with consumers.
“We are trying to educate consumers about the importance of beef production to the environment,” she adds. They have also added third-party verification to their product through A Greener World.
Another initiative they are proud to be part of is Open Farm Days, led by the Alberta government. It is an opportunity to connect with consumers and ask them what they want. At their first event last year, with terrible weather, 400 people still came out.
As the couple continued to look down the road, they realized the next step was to expand beyond provincial borders. That meant becoming a federally inspected plant to have national market access. Again, going through the process to meet all the requirements, which differ from the provincial ones, was no easy feat.
“Not unlike the oil industry, we are land-locked, and need access to more market,” she says. “It has been extremely difficult to meet this huge bureaucratic hurdle. The federal system is designed for large operations. We are the first provincially inspected meat facility to go through the Safe Food for Canadians process and are dealing with four levels of government.”
“No matter how big or small, you have to meet the standards and figure out how to apply them. But here we are and you don’t say ‘Whoa’ in the middle of a mud hole,” Biggs says laughing. Definitely ironic as they are experiencing the third year of drought on the ranch and have had to alter their strategy to deal with it.
The Biggs family is drawing on their tenacity as they work on getting to the next stage with their niche product, raising livestock for their own program and providing opportunities to other producers. Interesting times as they go into their 25th year of direct marketing and continue breaking trail.
Kelly Sidoryk ranches with her family just west of Lloydminster, Alta. She consults in a number of areas including succession planning and holistic management.