Innovation from farm to fork: snapshot of TK Ranch

In 1956, Thomas Koehler Biggs arrived on the Alberta prairies and started TK Ranch. Today, Colleen and Dylan Biggs and two of their daughters continue his legacy, maintaining not only the ranch located 45 minutes northeast of Hanna, but also a newly opened processing facility located 20 minutes east of Calgary. Situated on endangered fescue grasslands, TK Ranch produces specialty products from natural dry-aged grass-fed beef, grass-fed lamb, heritage pasture raised pork and pasture raised laying hens. What makes TK Ranch unique and innovative are its longstanding commitments to stewardship of the land and animal welfare, while also producing high quality products. Informed by Colleen Biggs, co-owner of TK Ranch, the following profile will outline how TK Ranch operates, discuss its innovative approach to meat production, and examine the opportunities and challenges facing the ranch and the regional food systems in which it’s embedded.

TK Ranch is a direct-marketing company, meaning that it distributes its products to consumers without utilising a middleman such as grocery stores or distributors. When TK Ranch initially got into direct marketing, few producers were doing it, but it was a decision made in the context of a cattle market crash in the mid-1990s. “The boom and bust economy in Alberta is not just oil, it’s livestock”, Biggs noted, and so TK Ranch was faced with a difficult decision: stick with the problematic status quo, or risk the uncertainty of transitioning to a grass-fed, direct-marketed product. TK Ranch went with the latter, because, as Biggs commented, “we knew at that time that it didn’t matter how good a manager you were…if we had to rely on a commodity, we knew we were going to need off-farm jobs to make ends meet”.

Getting into direct marketing was an especially risky venture initially, due to the fact that very few producers were direct marketing at the time. Even the Alberta government advised against it, but Biggs saw great potential, initially with the thriving Calgary restaurant scene. Biggs brought her product to a chef, who “just fell in love with [the] beef, even compared to the best roasts he could get….[TK Ranch’s beef] was a superfine grade... and it had all the qualities that he loved as a chef”, such as dry-aging and no added antibiotics or growth hormones. Biggs described how “the [Calgary] chef community is very small, and when [the chef] started talking to his friends, how several also came to [her] wanting TK Ranch products”. Word-of mouth continues to be important for marketing and promoting TK Ranch, but Biggs noted that she is “constantly talking to people, on social media and [with] facebook”.

Not only is getting the word out about their products important, but identifying the consumer is vital as well. Biggs discussed the necessity of differentiating one’s product from the marketplace, noting that “if you want to stay in business you have to constantly recreate yourself”. Today, TK Ranch uses an online-based system for its orders, wherein customers have access to the entire catalogue of TK Ranch products. Orders are submitted online, and are dispatched weekly and/or monthly to customers at various pick-up locations in Edmonton, Calgary, and Red Deer. TK Ranch products are also available in a variety of retail outlets across the province.

Achieving sustainability: holistic management and vertical integration

Holistic management and vertical integration are what make TK Ranch most unique, according to Biggs. Holistic management ensures a high quality product through careful management of the animals and their habitat prior to processing, and vertical integration ensures quality following slaughter. The Biggs’ were early adopters of the now widespread technique of holistic management, and were strong promoters of the method to other producers. Biggs described holistic management as “a goal-oriented decision making model that focuses on the triple bottom line”, taking into account environmental, social, and financial sustainability. Associated with holistic management is TK Ranch’s practice of humane treatment and low-stress handling of animals. Biggs commented that “the number one thing that customers want is an on-farm slaughter for animal welfare purposes”. Ensuring an animal is treated with respect from birth to slaughter is top of mind for most of their customers.

Furthermore, TK Ranch’s animal rearing and processing facilities are vertically integrated, meaning that all aspects of production and processing are controlled by TK Ranch. According to Biggs, “we own the animals, we own the land, we own the processing facilities, we own the delivery trucks, the whole bit”. Biggs doesn’t know anyone else who is as vertically integrated to the same scale as TK Ranch, and this has allowed for increased efficiency, transparency, and the removal of barriers such as access to processing. Though the cutting facility is located some distance from the ranch, it was a solution designed to attract a larger pool of employees and to be closer to the Calgary region, which is a key market for TK Ranch. Biggs noted that since building the cutting facility and completing their vertical integration, TK Ranch has “been able to double the amount of deliveries [they] do in the Calgary region, and now [Biggs] can start accessing restaurants and other retailers [she] couldn’t before”. This has opened up large opportunities for TK Ranch, allowing the continuation of their position within the market as providers of a niche product.

Obstacles with interprovincial trade

One large challenge facing not only TK Ranch, but the agri-food and meat production systems in general, is the difficulty of interprovincial trade. Biggs discussed at length the struggles she has faced in the context of a prohibitive regulatory environment. Despite having meat that is “processed to the highest standards”, Biggs is unable to ship across the Alberta border, or go federal, which would allow shipping domestically and internationally. This can be largely attributed to difficulties associated with inspection and policy. TK Ranch’s new abattoir and cutting facilities were built to the highest processing standards and have received accolades from the across the province for their product flow and food safety standards, yet they are unable to ship interprovincially. This is due to a lack of harmonized provincial meat inspection regulations across the country. The CFIA uses the lowest common denominator to determine food safety standards and since some provinces allow the sale of uninspected meat products all provinces are treated the same. Biggs feels this shortsighted approach is unfair to those companies like TK Ranch that meet stringent meat inspection regulations like those found in Alberta and Ontario. Before building their own facilities Biggs considered using existing federally inspected processors to gain access to markets outside of Alberta, but the logistics just don’t work for smaller producers. Federal processors that offer custom services require that a liner load of cattle or pigs be processed at one time - that is 50 beef or 200 pigs. In addition to this, these federal processors don’t offer custom cutting, value added processing or storage on site. They offer a standardized “boxed beef or pork” fabrication service where the carcasses are broken down into primals and whole roasts and vacuum packaged. If a producer wants the meat cut into smaller portions or made into value added products like jerky or patties, they have to ship it to a different federally inspected facility that provides this service. Once cut, packaged and processed to a producer’s individual program specifications, the finished products must then be stored and distributed from a federally inspected warehouse - at no time can the meat leave the federal system or it loses it’s inspection status. TK Ranch currently processes 6 beef and 8 pigs weekly and could not imagine the unbelievable logistical challenges or costs associated with slaughtering 50 beef or 200 pigs at one time. “The federal system is not designed for small producers, you would need to be a factory farm with lots of livestock and deep pockets to even consider processing at that volume.” Biggs feels that an additional level of inspection should be offered to companies like TK Ranch that meet stringent guidelines and only want to ship domestically, “it seems silly to be able to sell our products to stores, restaurants and direct to the consumer in Alberta, but as soon as our products cross a provincial boundary they’re deemed unfit for human consumption. These nonsensical inter-provincial trade barriers are not good for our economy, especially for those of us in agriculture”.

Opportunities, challenges, and future evolution

Given this regulatory environment, the jump from being a small producer to a large producer is huge, especially for meat production in Alberta. According to Biggs, “scaling up is hard…there’s no in-between”. Small producers face extreme difficulties because they are forced to do all of the livestock production, farming, financial planning, order processing, marketing, delivering, and other duties along with potentially trying to raise families. TK Ranch’s success in the face of these seemingly insurmountable obstacles is due to a combination of dedication, hard work, and sacrifice. Additionally, Biggs and her husband have a “clear division of roles. He manages the ranch and everything from birth to slaughter, [while she] manage[s] everything from slaughter to the end consumer, and [does] all the administration, the banking, and the financial side. Lots of families don’t have that opportunity or the skill sets”.

New entrants to agriculture face incredible financial and logistical obstacles. This is due to the high price of land, steep learning curve, and other barriers. Infrastructure is also needed to facilitate new farmers getting set up with what they need, and is currently sorely lacking. Biggs commented that “there’s no cohesive one-stop shop for people. For most people, it’s just completely daunting”.  Additionally, processors such as abattoirs face the issue of lack of employment, and limitation of offering custom services, meaning that “fewer and fewer families are custom processing their own beef, lamb, and pork”. Potential workarounds for these issues and insufficiencies, according to Biggs, could include the establishment of a grassroots food trust system led by people within the industry, or the establishment of processing hubs, which would allow a group of people to share a facility. “You could share a freezer, a refrigerated truck, delivery costs”. The advantage with a group of producers pooling their resources to pay for this sort of facility might incentivize the continuation of such a system, due to their financial investment.

Agriculture is full of opportunities, especially, says Biggs “if you think outside the box and don’t get penned in”. By examining the challenges, opportunities become visible. One point of positivity is the increasing number of people wanting and willing to “reconnect with agriculture and food”. Because people want to know where their food comes from, Biggs sees huge opportunities in education. One possibility to accomplish this could be establishing a school where Dylan Biggs could teach about low-stress livestock handling, where “people can come and learn how to handle their cattle and livestock…where people can come and learn how to cook, or garden, or [about] about small-scale chicken production…There’s just so many opportunities”.

Going forward, TK Ranch aims to continue spreading the word about their specialty products. One area for potential growth is branching out to partner with restaurants to carry TK Ranch products, especially those “that are really keen on nose-to-tail and ethical…the thing about this business is that you have to sell the whole animal, [which aligns with] smaller, niche restaurants”. Going forward, Biggs commented that TK Ranch will continue to evolve, maintaining its roots to the land and to the principles of holistic management, while looking forward and adapting to whatever challenges come their way. The following quote from Biggs sums up attitudes towards an uncertain future, and the vision of TK Ranch:

“My family and I have worked endlessly for almost three decades to get to where we are today and we’ve created something really special. But is it going to survive the next generation? We don’t know. That’s why we need to look at things from a different perspective and say, ‘how do we create something that’s going to last and help all Albertans?”

 


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