Blending automation and social media marketing with traditional farming practices, Dierks Farms is a fifth-generation family business that is redefining modern agriculture. After inheriting the family farm in Southern Illinois, Larry and Pam Dierks discovered that raising grass-fed cattle and marketing their product to a health-conscious client base gave them a competitive edge.
As they learned more about the grass-fed beef market, they became convinced they were approaching consumers the wrong way. Rather than selling their product at unpredictable market rates, they started taking their beef to organic farmer’s markets and shipping it directly to the consumer. Through stepping up their social media capabilities and automating their correspondence, they’ve been able to build up a loyal customer base across the continental US. Dierks Farms is proof that innovative technologies like artificial intelligence have an important place even in conservative industries like farming.
Recently Tharawat Magazine had the opportunity to sit down with Pam Dierks to discuss their transition to an alternative market, the vital role automation has played in their business and the importance of technology in sustaining farms for generations to come.
Tell us how Dierks Farms operates as a family business. Who works in the business and what roles do they play day-to-day?
All five us work in the business. Our oldest daughter is a lawyer, and she’s instrumental in helping us on contracts other legal issues. I have two boys, the oldest one graduated from college with a degree in agricultural business economics, and the youngest is in college right now pursuing the same degree. Graduating is conditional to them becoming partners in the family business, and the skills they’ve learned along the way have been crucial to our operations. The boys handle the shipping, and I handle the automation and the website. My husband manages the entire farm and takes care of the inventory, which can be extraordinarily challenging sometimes. We work together every day, and everybody pitches in. If a cow gets out, everyone is there to make sure we get it back. That’s just the way our farm is – we’re doing everything from marketing automation right down to cattle wrangling.
How did you come to specialise in raising grass-fed cattle?
It started when I went to a workshop on how to grow the family farm. One technique was using grass-fed cattle as a marketing tool, and we thought, ‘Well, we do this anyway.’ We’ve never fed grain to our animals, but we were selling them into the traditional market without advertising this aspect, so no one even knew that they were grass-fed. To differentiate ourselves from the competition, we decided to start marketing and shipping our beef directly to consumers in the continental US.
We no longer sell any of our products by conventional means, only by the half, whole, and quarter, as well as by the piece and the bundle, which sets us apart – very few farms do this.
What strategic changes were required to transition from a B2B to a more B2C business model?
The way in which we sell our product is completely different now. Aside from a presence at farmer’s markets, we deliver anywhere within 500 miles of our farm. Anywhere outside of that radius and we’ll package it up and send it. We have a contract with FedEx and use dry ice for long-distance shipments. Our beef arrives in insulated boxes with our logo on the side.
What will be important in sustaining the business into the sixth and seventh generations?
So far, moving away from the traditional market and specialising, both in terms of product and marketing has been crucial. There’s too much chance involved in conventional markets – I always say that you have better odds putting your money on a craps table in Las Vegas than you do putting seed in the ground. Even with cattle, variables in China – a drought, for example – can affect the price of beef in the US. We have a set price, which is slightly higher because it’s grass-fed, as well as antibiotic and steroid-free. As a result, we can depend on a consistent revenue stream.
Focusing on the health-conscious consumer will be increasingly important. There’s a growing awareness around what’s in our food. Many of our customers have health problems, and they worry about what their children eat – it’s important they feel comfortable with the food they feed their families.
Our greatest challenge will be keeping our herd healthy because we don’t use antibiotics. If one of our cattle gets sick, then we have to cull them all. This would be catastrophic, but it’s a reality of the way we operate. That’s why it’s incredibly important to pay close attention to the rotation of the pastures and the condition of our hay.