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Agriculture is in his blood.
As a 4th generation farmer in southeast Iowa, there was never any doubt that ChopLocal Founder and CEO Jared Achen would return to the farm after completing his education. Alongside his father, sister and brother-in-law, he raises turkeys and row-crops in southeast Iowa.
Despite his plans to farm after graduation, Achen participated in the Agricultural Entrepreneurship Program at Iowa State University while working on his bachelor’s degree in Agriculture Business.
“I used to sit around and come up with business ideas, but my friends and family would talk me out of them,” Achen says. “This is the first idea that everyone I’ve talked to fully supports.”
And why wouldn’t they? The conditions are right for an e-commerce company like ChopLocal to enter the scene.
Livestock farmers like Achen have faced decreasing opportunities to market their livestock for some time. Four major packing companies control most of the meat in the United States, offering little leverage for farmers to negotiate prices. On top of these ongoing struggles, processing disruptions in the spring of 2020 left farmers with live, market-weight animals, and nowhere to market them.
“We’ve seen disruptions in demand for the turkeys that we raise because most of ours were destined to become sandwich meat. As different areas of the United States went into lock-down, fewer people were eating at quick-service restaurants. The decrease in demand trickled down all the way to the farm level,” Achen says.
Livestock farmers who raise beef cattle and pigs faced similar challenges. Demand shifted from foodservice and hospitality to grocery stores. Hotels were the largest buyer of bacon before the pandemic. But by late spring, demand for pork belly - the part of the pig used to make bacon - was nearly non-existent. Pork belly was being discarded because bacon demand had decreased so much.
On the beef side, nervous shoppers packed their freezers and grocery retailers couldn’t keep beef on the shelves. At the same time, processing plants were closing because of COVID outbreaks, leading to an oversupply of live, market-ready cattle and undersupply of beef.
All of the challenges faced by Achen’s friends, family, and neighbors, combined with some time for deep thought in the tractor this spring, led to the development of ChopLocal.
“At the end of the day, I really wanted to give farmers another market for their livestock and meat products. I explored many different ways to do that before settling on the e-commerce model that has become ChopLocal,” Achen says.
ChopLocal is unlike any other platform for the meat industry. While there are other options that allow farmers to set up online storefronts, none of them exist as a multi-vendor website. ChopLocal brings many different farmers and suppliers under one umbrella, simplifying their marketing and harnessing the efficiencies of scale to decrease shipping costs.
“The best way to describe it, Achen says, “is ‘The Etsy of Meat.’”
Like Etsy, many small farmers and vendors will be able to list products for sale on the site. In turn, customers will recognize ChopLocal as the best place to find high-quality meats and have them shipped to their door.
The e-commerce website began enrolling vendors in the fall of 2020, with a one-week test run selling farm fresh turkeys from another Iowa turkey farm in November. As more vendors set up their own “microstores”, a variety of products will be available in early 2021.
As founder and CEO, Achen has been able to draw from his education in ag business as well as his farming experience and other business ventures. Starting a new business is nothing new to the Achen family, whose father helped found West Liberty Foods, a turkey processing and copacker with locations in Iowa, Illinois, and Utah. His older brother currently serves as President of Operations.
With so many business minds in the family, Achen says, "Family gatherings are somewhat of a think-tank on business strategy and future opportunities."
Achen sees these discussions as an avenue for personal and professional growth, as he is also a board member and owner of Agri-Way Partners, a feed-milling operation that serves southeast Iowa. Within that organization he acts as a liaison between the farmers, veterinarians, nutritionist, and feed mill management to improve animal health for the customers they serve.
Achen sits on his county’s Farm Bureau board, is a member of the WACO School Board, and helps serve in various capacities within his community. He also continues to manage his family’s farm, which employs 3 full time and 2 part time employees.
As ChopLocal grows, Achen emphasizes the importance of the farmers who provide the products for sale on the site.
“When we make decisions related to ChopLocal, I ask my team and myself, ‘How does this benefit the farmers? Will this showcase our partners?’” Achen says. “Of course, we also want to provide an amazing customer experience, but the success of the farmers and small processors we work with is front of mind, as well.”
One of the key challenges faced by farmers who want to market their meats directly to consumers is their distance from customers in larger cities. While some have found success in farmer’s markets, this model still limits the customer base and requires a lot of work on behalf of the farmer. Until now, however, shipping meat has been expensive and confusing, but part of ChopLocal’s goal is to help remedy that.
“We have researched shipping extensively, and have run trials to ensure that our insulation and coolants will get the job done,” says Achen. “Combining this knowledge with volume shipping discounts takes a lot of the stress out of the process for ChopLocal partners.”
With three young children, Achen and his wife, Tawnya, have plenty to keep them busy. But Achen believes firmly that success is defined as “how I have left the world, not what I reap from it.” And to him, ChopLocal is a chance to impact the world of agriculture for the better, providing an opportunity for farmers unlike any other.