This post is one of a series of essays written for the New Amsterdam Market. Each essay stems from a conversation between the author and a vendor who participated in the New Amsterdam Market of June 29th. The essays seek to address each vendor’s (food-related) enterprise, to highlight the reality behind their commitment to sustainability, and to convey the voice and personality that they bring to their work.
Jake Dickson matched my expectations in appearance and style. Meat guys don’t have the lanky, longhaired look of gardeners or foragers. Jake’s short ruddy curls and friendly, freckled stature fit his profession. His frank, good-natured, manner shifted easily between small talk and sales, of steaks and chops, roasts and ribs, beef and bacon. Still, I’d underestimated the wealth of knowledge that plays foundation to his recently launched business. After we spoke for an hour over breakfast, just before the Sunday market in Park Slope, it was obvious to me that Jake could have kept talking all day. He may have grown up in Princeton, attended Cornell, and worked in marketing for American Express. But now, the man knows meat.
Dickson’s Farmstand Meats is currently a fixture at two weekly markets, in Morningside on Saturday and in Park Slope on Sunday. Offering various cuts of beef, lamb, and pork, Jake knows where each piece of meat came from, how the animal was raised, and the slaughterhouse where it was processed. He buys whole animals from specific farms, and works with two small slaughterhouses. If you’re interested, he’ll tell you everything there is to know about your protein.
The baseline requirements of meats sold through Dickson’s Farmstand are the following: between farm, slaughterhouse, and point of sale, there are less than 400 miles; the animals are given neither antibiotics nor animal-based feed; the animals have never spent any time on CAFOs or feedlots. Traceability is a priority for Jake, and the meat he sells has a lot number which will tell you the exact animal it came from, and how, where, and by whom it was raised. All of the farms Jake currently works with are in New York State: the cows and pigs are raised at Herondale Farm in Ancramdale, Wrighteous Organics in Schoharie, The Pigs Place in Fort Edward, and Sarmarlynn Farm in Vernon; the sheep, at Woolley Sheep Farm in Rutland.
Jake set his local radius with the confidence that there’s enough quality meat raised within 400 miles of New York City to feed a healthy business. In fact, “it’s slaughter houses that are my most important relationship,” he said. “Fifty to seventy-five percent of slaughterhouses are untrustworthy.” Jake works with Nichols Meat Processing in Altamont, New York, and Leona Meat Plant in Troy, Pennsylvania. Both are locations where “a busy day means slaughtering about ten animals,” and where he can trust the butchers to follow his exact specifications. Jake spent three months working at Nichols last year, respects the skill and experience demonstrated at both locations, and has built up a strong relationship with the individuals who run them.
Jake’s three months at Nichols Meat Processing rounded out eight months he dedicated to research before opening Dickson’s Farmstand. Last spring, having previously worked in marketing for several years, Jake knew he wanted to start his own business, was interested in meat, and recognized the need to really understand the industry before attempting a business plan. He worked for three months at Cornell University, literally living with about 700 cows, before moving on to work at a butcher shop for about a month. He left the butcher shop to work part-time at Nichols and part-time at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture. He learned what he could, and then set about creating his business.
Unique in the meat industry, Jake ensures that each of the products he sells is labeled with the name of the farm it came from. “We take traceability to the extreme. If you have all these great farms, why not highlight them?” he reasoned. “If I put everything under my name, I’d be cheapening the product, removing the local flair. Why not highlight the inconsistency – of what cuts are available, from what farms – as a differentiating factor, instead of a liability?” Of course, the business is still young, and Jake can only predict his reasoning will turn the requisite profit. “It all sounds good,” he said, “but it’s still an experiment. Ninety percent of our customers don’t care about the details of their meat source at all. Eight percent are interested, but really just want to know the name of the farm. It’s only about two percent that actually look into the details that I provide.”
The farms Jake works with all meet his baseline criteria, but vary otherwise. Some of the meat is organic, some isn’t, and most of his beef comes from Wrighteous Organics, where the cows are fed on grain (not grass). “Most people aren’t interested in grass-fed,” Jake said. “Grass-fed beef isn’t nearly as fatty, or marbled. It doesn’t look as good in the package. I buy less of it because it sells less.” For the moment, Jake also sells only frozen meats, although he hopes to be selling fresh in the fall.
Neither nostalgic nor necessarily innovative, Jake referred several times to the mix of old school and new school practices in his work. “It’s most important to be authentic,” he said, “to preserve the local flair.” Sometimes that means recognizing the history of our regional meat industry, the old-fashioned butcher shops and neighborhood relationships, and sometimes it means encouraging the local and creative, the entrepreneurial. One might call his small-scale slaughterhouses old-fashioned, Jake mentioned, but then “rotational grazing is great, and that’s more of a new thing.”
Jake’s prices are surprisingly affordable, an advantage he attributes to the structure of his supply chain: farmers — slaughterhouses – Farmstand — consumer. Acting as middleman between producer and consumer, Jake runs his business such that prices stay reasonable, and yet maintains a personal relationship with his sources that he can convey to his customers. Jake explained that his farmers don’t necessarily have the time to spend a day in the city, but that their relationship with Dickson’s enables them to reach urban consumers.
While he can sell high-end cuts at the markets in the city, Jake mentioned the importance of being able to sell every part of each animal. Working out of a butcher shop would enable him to produce more added value products, like sausage made with fresh ingredients, so he might achieve true nose to tail sales (and eating).
Of course, Jake hopes his business will take off, and scale up. He rattled of the system he has ready to make this growth possible. “We have a custom-built database prepared,” he said. “Eventually, if we grow enough, the meat will be scanned in at the slaughterhouse [to maintain traceability], and then sold online through direct marketing and direct delivery. We’ll sell steer-by-steer. Customers will be able to see which parts of an animal are available, and will be able to buy only those parts left, until the whole animal has been sold.”
Jake is currently working on the renovation and revitalization of a small butcher shop in Nolita in Manhattan. “The owner is the great uncle of a girl I knew in high school,” he explained. “His mom ran the shop till she passed away ten years ago, when she was ninety years old.” There’s a lot of work to be done on the shop, Jake said, but “the hooks are still hanging from the ceiling, from when animals were slaughtered just outside in the alley, and then butchered in the shop. You can’t recreate that.” Of course, there’s also a lot he’ll have to change. Instead of following the butcher shop family’s tradition of buying from a West side meatpacker, Jake hopes to recreate the shop as a destination for local, sustainable meats. “It really will be a case of old school meets new school.”