Probably just about a year ago now I received an e-mail from a guy named Jake Dickson of Dicksons Farmstand Meats, which at the time was Jake’s meat sales business that was based primarily out of a few of the community markets in and around Manhattan, but which is now a full service butcher shop that recently opened in Chelsea Market in the Chelsea neighborhood in Manhattan.
Jake e-mailed me because he had seen some of my messages to various listserves we are both subscribed to and liked my approach to farming and my ideas about local-regional and farm and food systems. He said that I was the type of farmer that he would like to buy animals from, and he wondered if I wouldn’t be interested in selling to him. We e-mailed back and forth a bit, and our relationship began.
I have wanted to write about Jake and the relationship he and I are cultivating for a while, but the post just hasn’t appeared. However, since I wrote the Business Supported Agriculture post the other day, I have been thinking about writing this post because BSA is not some theory about farming that I have that might work. Jake and I are actually in a BSA relationship. While I might have formalized and described that relationship in the BSA post, and while I am perhaps a little more forward than most farmers in terms of my honesty about the finances, costs, and challenges, of farming, which might have helped open the door to creating this special relationship between Jake and me, it has been Jake’s initiatives and responses to my needs that have situated us in the relationship. Jake was doing BSA without even knowing it.
Not too long after Jake and I started e-mailing and talking on the telephone he came out to visit the farm. He was on his way to make a pick up at one of the slaughterhouses in the area, so he was driving his meat truck, which was a short straight box freezer truck. There were 8.5 x 11 sheets of white paper well taped to the driver’s and passenger’s door that simply said “Dickson’s Farmstand Meats” with the Department of Transportation number on it. At first I worried these makeshift bits of paper were a sign of a lack of professionalism, but after four hours of wandering around the farm and talking about meat, livestock farming, and local-regionalism, and his and my plans for our respective businesses over coffee at my kitchen table I realized that they were not a mark of unprofessionalism at all. Those two home printed signs in simple black and white letters were a sign of the coming unfolding of Jake’s vision. His need for the freezer truck was temporary because his marketing of frozen meat out of an insulated stainless steel display case with a 1/2″ plexiglass top at various community markets in and around Manhattan was temporary. It was a way to get the business off the ground, not a symbol of the identity and future of the business itself. Jake had bigger plans, and those plans were in the works. He was in the process of opening a full-service butcher shop somewhere in Manhattan, and it would be open relatively soon. The freezer truck would soon be replaced with a refrigerator truck because he would be switching from selling frozen meat cut and cryovaced at various New York slaughterhouses, to selling fresh meat out his own butcher shop, complete with an old school-minded (though young) butcher and kitchen where artisan quality meat products, including smoked meats would be created. Those home printed signs were a symbol of Jake’s confidence not only in his vision, but in his ability to pull it off, and, just in case you don’t know, pulling off a meat business is no small feat — it is a highly regulated industry, with a very high failure rate.
I was convinced that I wanted to work with Jake long before the end of his four hour visit, and I think I can go out on a limb and speak not only for myself, but also for Jake and say that when we shook hands in my driveway just before he left we both sensed that we might have been taking the first steps toward cultivating a special relationship. We both understood (and continue to understand) that ultimately both he and I were in our respective fields to make money, but we both refused, from even before our first handshake, to treat each other as associates in a classic arms length business relationship. Jake showed himself to be committed to an openness, honesty, flexibility, and understanding that is extremely rare in the “business” world.
It would, of course, have been very easy for me to be skeptical of Jake. He and I had said a lot of things about our hopes and dreams, our visions of the future, where we would like local-regionalism to be in the future and how it would get there. Many of the things Jake (and I) said could have been (and perhaps still could be) critiqued as pie in the sky, and many of Jake’s claims about his (genuinely unorthodox) approach to dealing with farmers that supply him could have been seen merely as hooks to draw me in only to discover down the road that he was really no different than anyone else, that for example, he would not take all of the animals that he committed to, that he would fall way behind on paying invoices, that he would not really be open and honest.
I took a gamble trusting Jake. He could have been a sort of charlatan. After all, in our agricultural economy when you commit to a single buyer to raise a couple of hundred pigs that absolutely must be sold at non-commodity prices or the enterprise will be a total loss, he would have had me (he actually does have me) totally under his foot and could have done any of the things I mentioned above and I would have simply had to take it because, again, unless a couple hundred non-commodity pigs are pre-sold in our agricultural economy, the enterprise is doomed. If your buyer backed out on you, you might be able to sell 10% to 20% of them, maybe even 50%, if you are really good at marketing, at non-commodity prices, but you would have to dump the rest of them on the commodity market, getting not much more for them than you paid to purchase the eight week old heritage breed piglets.
Instead of a charlatan, over the past year Jake has proven himself to be exactly what he presented himself as: open, honest, flexible, and understanding. He has shown himself, in other words, to be a forerunner in the creation of the BSA model. He understands completely the importance of supporting the farmers that he works with, and he turns that understanding into practice: he pays well and quickly (most of the time), he honors his volume commitments, he is flexible and understanding when life on the farm doesn’t go as planned, and he really is deeply committed to building a full-service butcher shop around deeply held principles while compromising on those principles as little as possible, which is another rarity (I think I have compromised more on my principles in the face of unexpected difficulties than he has in the face of similar and similarly unexpected difficulties).
I consider myself very lucky to have hooked up with Jake. I am absolutely confident that Dickson’s Farmstand butcher shop will be wildly successful. Jake has marketing and business savvy, a good sense of style and design, and, for me what is most important, has and maintains his sense of the importance of supporting his farmers. We are the backbone of the butcher case, and not only does he know it, he is committed to treating us as such, even as so many other small-scale volume buyers treat their farmers no differently than Sysco or any other food service corporation might.
To get the farm up to scale, I have committed nearly all of my eggs to the Dickson’s Farmstand basket, and I am not at all concerned about that. I am confident in Jake’s success and his continued commitment to me and the other farmers he works with. Again, I am lucky to have met him, and I hope and plan to work with him for many many years.
Whenever you are in Manhattan and have a hankering for honest (in so many ways) meat that harkens back to another era (in so many ways), go visit Jake at the shop in Chelsea Market at 75 Ninth Avenue (between 15th and 16th streets). If you’ve got family and/or friends in Manhattan, tell them about Jake and to go see him at the shop. Have fun, and as Jake says, “Eat meaty.”