It’s Saturday afternoon, and Sam the Turkey is proudly strutting around the gravel parking lot of Sho-Me Farms Market, greeting customers with a blue and red wattled smile and a puff of his feathers.
“(My husband) says he’s our mascot,” store owner Marylou Mayse said as she gently guided him out from behind a red truck so a customer could leave.
Although he originally belonged to a neighbor, Sam has taken up residence with the Mayses in front of their store, which opened in November.
Perhaps the attraction is all the attention from customers and the food handouts. Or maybe he just knows that he’s safe. After all, at Sho-Me Farms, it’s all about beef.
With years of experience managing a variety of businesses, including a scuba diving center and several pawn shops, Don and Marylou Mayse are finally living their dream: raising cattle and directly selling their beef to customers in Boone County.
“We want it to be a relatively close-to-town source of meat, eggs and produce,” Don Mayse said.
Raising cattle has been Don Mayse’s lifelong love. He began by selling calves in 4-H as a boy, and now he has 160 brood cows and approximately 100 steers at any given time.
His cattle are processed at Jennings Premium Meats in New Franklin under federal inspection. The meat is frozen immediately, which results in lower microbial growth when compared to fresh meat in a grocery store.
Along with the meat, the store features a variety of produce. This winter the Mayses began growing lettuce. Spinach and radishes will also be available for most of the winter, along with farm-raised chicken eggs, greenhouse tomatoes from Versailles and produce from vendors who cycle through the store every two weeks.
Columbia resident V.K. Ganjam and his wife, Irene Ganjam, were pleased to find sausage, lamb, fresh lettuce, tomatoes and even goat cheese during their first visit to the store.
“I always like to get away to the country,” V.K. Ganjam said. “I get this wonderful feeling at a farmer’s market and in getting away from the urban madness.”
Unlike some places in the city, work at Sho-Me Farms begins early. Don Mayse’s day begins around 5 a.m. He starts by feeding the cattle and then gears up for a full day of activities ranging from meat deliveries to fence repairs. Feeding begins again at 4 p.m. Then it’s time to clean up and eat supper.
Even then, the cattle are not far away. The Mayses have a magnet of their breed, the Shorthorn, on the refrigerator. They selected the breed after researching for a breed with superior meat tenderness.
Eric Berg, assistant professor in MU’s meat animal science department, has worked with Don Mayse to put the meat’s tenderness to the test. By cooking a steak, cooling it to room temperature, and then shearing through a core sample of the meat, it is possible to determine exactly how many pounds of force it takes to bite into the steak.
“He is selling tender meat,” Berg said. “Our tests confirm this.”
The Mayses believe selling a high-quality product directly to the people of Columbia is what gives them an edge. They have found that people in Columbia are concerned about quality and can afford to pay for it.
“He’s kind of a visionary,” Berg said. “It’s difficult to get in these niche markets, and he’s done that by providing products they can’t get elsewhere.”
But the Mayses are not alone in direct marketing their products to consumers.
Swiss Meat & Sausage Co. near Hermann is a third-generation family business that directly sells more than 140 sausage and bacon products, its own hams, and exotic meats, such as bison and elk. President Mike Sloan said that though the family used to raise its own meat, it now buys its livestock from local farmers. Farmers can also have their meat processed at the company under their own private label.
Sloan said more farmers are now direct marketing their own products and coming to places like Swiss Meat & Sausage for processing and packaging before selling the products themselves.
Sharon Fennewald, Sloan’s sister, is a part-owner in the family business. Fennewald said she sees direct marketing as a way for farmers to gain a little more clout.
“With the way the traditional market works, farmers have little control over their prices,” Fennewald said. “With direct marketing, you can get more out of the products you raise.”
For Swiss Meat & Sausage, this has meant keeping up with changing trends to provide customers with products that interest them.
“We have become much more diversified over the years,” Fennewald said. “As the demands change, you have to change your business. For example, we’re now doing more prepared foods, like chili and lasagna.”
In Boone County, Bonne Femme Farm sells fresh broiler chickens, farm chicken eggs and vegetables, including 43 varieties of tomatoes from 11 different countries, as well as around 20 varieties of sweet and hot peppers. Customers drive out to the farm to buy the products.
Mark and Karla Uthlaut of M&K Ranch in Montgomery City sell goat and lamb products at Sho-Me Farms Market and at the Columbia Farmers’ Market. Their lamb is also served as an entrée at Columbia restaurants Chris McD’s and Sophia’s.
According to Mark Uthlaut, although direct marketing cuts out the middle man, the farmer has to take into account the true cost of the product in order to experience a boost in profit.
“You try to gain what the would make,” Mark Uthlaut said. “But it’s easy to underprice your product. You have to figure out the costs, the amount of time you’ve put into it. You really have to be careful.”
While the financial benefits to the farmers are obvious, consumers can also benefit from direct-marketing practices. When customers shop at a place like Sho-Me Beef, they know where their beef is being produced and that they are supporting a local business. The beef is hormone free and antibiotics are only used to treat a sick animal. By keeping close records, the Mayses can ensure that customers can request and receive meat completely free of antibiotics. For Liz Graznak, who hopes to have a Community Supported Agriculture farm in the future, knowing the farmer who raises the beef is one of her requirements for eating beef in the first place.
“My rationale is that the cattle are grass fed, they’re healthy, I know the farmer and there needs to be community-based reasoning,” Graznak said. “In other words, I want to spend my money locally instead of on beef that is shipped in from Brazil.”
Even with the success and support they have experienced so far, the Mayses say marketing is the key to the future of the business. In a time when many small farms are failing, unable to compete with large-scale farm corporations, the Mayses are fighting against the tide.
“At this point in time, we’re trying to get it to where it can make a living,” Don Mayse said. “In agriculture, it takes a long time to develop a farm operation that makes money. You’ve got to buy the cows, the barn, the equipment, and until you get all those things paid for, you don’t have cash flow. That’s what makes farming so difficult.”
This makes marketing all the more important, the Mayses said.
“It is actually a way of life,” Marylou Mayse said. “Everything we do is toward marketing our beef. It’s a constant challenge every day.”
According to Don Mayse, Americans want and have come to expect cheap food, and consequently American farmers have paid the price.
“When I was a boy, you could have 160 acres, farm it and make a living,” said Don Mayse, who now farms approximately 500 acres in Boone County. “You couldn’t even think about that now.”
Don Mayse attributes this change to the widespread belief that all fat is bad. He believes this is largely the result of marketing techniques of food companies selling carbohydrate-based products.
But the Mayses are working to change beef’s bad reputation as a health hazard. Through a close relationship with their customers, the Mayses are hoping to change opinions, one person at a time. Handshakes and smiles are always in supply at Sho-Me Farms Market.
Sho-Me Farms Market is open from 2 to 6 p.m. Fridays and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays, or whenever you can find someone to unlock the door. The store is located about seven miles south of the U.S. 63 and Interstate 70 interchange. Customers take U.S. 63 south to Route AB, turn left and arrive at Sho-Me Farms Market about a mile and a half later.