VERGAS, Minn. — Duwayne Ditterich considers himself a second-generation farmer once removed. Both sets of his grandparents farmed, but neither his parents nor any of his many aunts and uncles went into the business.
“I’m the only cousin who farms, probably out of a hundred people,” he said. “So if you think about it, agriculture’s 1 to 2% of the population, and there’s a perfect fact for it right there that out of 100 of us, I’m the only one.”
Maybe that close connection to consumers is what has allowed Duwayne and his family to find their niche in agriculture, raising beef to sell directly to consumers and to a local restaurant.
Duwayne and his wife Jennifer started farming in 2007 after finding a farm for rent down the road from them. They started on 135 rented acres, primarily focused on some row crops and hay. When row crop prices went up in 2012, they moved in that direction, but when they went back down they moved almost primarily to hay.
“We've changed and adapted to . . . what needed to be done to keep the farm going the right direction,” he said.
“I was worried about safety aspects. I was worried about being able to go if we needed to go, like, take a family trip or something,” she said. “But he's been talking about it for a long time, and seems like whenever he has an idea and something is really niggling at him it's always the right move.”
They started with four head in 2013, mostly to provide for their own meat needs. They sold some for meat for friends and family, too, and their customers encouraged them to raise more.
“Everyone said whatever you're doing you know we'll start buying more from you,” he said.
“You haven't hit a clinker yet,” Jennifer told him. “It turned into something bigger than we expected.”
Duwayne said there is a mindset switch that comes with transitioning from crops to cattle. Partly, that has involved understanding that with row crops and hay, the sales windows are pretty defined, as are the times when expenses accrue. With raising cattle and selling meat, the income is more steady throughout the year, but so are the expenses, he said.
Now the Ditteriches run anywhere from 80 to 125 head per year, sourced from Duwayne’s friend in Bismarck, from a ranch down the road or from the Ditteriches’ own herd. During 2020, Duwayne figures he could have sold twice as many to local consumers as COVID-19 affected meat pricing and availability.
“I'm very fussy on where I get my cattle,” Duwayne said.
“We do a corn finish with free choice hay as a feed and we put them on full corn at 800 pounds. Most of our beef will finish out at 1,500 to 1,650 pounds, with an average hanging weight or a range of hanging weights between 850 pounds and 1,000 pounds,” he said. “We try to truly finish the beef so you can get that marbling effect in the meat.”
Being able to tell the story of the meat to customers is part of the appeal of local sales, he said.
Jennifer, who does graphic design for the Ditterich Family Farm signs, price sheets and posters, said the ability to market directly to consumers has allowed them to have more control over their prices than they had previously.
“We've been really supported by the community and surrounding areas, and it's been really a wonderful experience,” she said.
Despite its remote location, people have found the store and frequent a food truck the Ditteriches started selling cooked products from in their driveway. And it’s through avenues like the food truck that Duwayne sees them expanding, rather than through added acres. While they might slightly increase the number of cattle they raise, the focus will be on “marketing more of our cattle in different ways.” The food truck allows people to sample the meat and also gives the Ditteriches a place to tell their story of raising cattle from “birth to table.”
Along with the food truck, another new avenue of sales for Ditterich Family Farm is selling meat to Blackboard, a restaurant right down the road. Housed in the former District 166 schoolhouse where Duwayne’s father went to school, the restaurant that opened last year during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic features local products, for which beef raised down the road is a good fit.
For other producers contemplating diversifying their operation into livestock or selling directly to consumers, Duwayne advises starting small and focusing on organic growth.
“It's better than a growth that just happens because you're really good at advertising,” he said. “Get people to do your advertising for you by word of mouth.”
(Check back next week for a story about Blackboard Restaurant and how they're sourcing local ingredients and serving a rural location.)