ASHTON — When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Ashton farmers Dennis and Edith Pfeiffer had trouble selling their cattle.
Meat processing plants were shut down or running at partial capacity. The plant the Pfeiffers use finally took their cattle in time, but the couple were forced to sell them at “a huge loss.”
Over the years, people in the area have asked Dennis if they could buy cattle from him directly. With the complications in the industry, the couple thought it would finally give that a try.
Enter Pfeiffer Farms Fresh Market. The newly-constructed store on the couple’s property at 2511 Reynolds Rd. in Ashton opened in April sells locally-raised beef, pork, eggs, cheeses, fruits, vegetables and more.
"It's gone super so far,” Edith said. “Better than we ever imagined. We didn't really know what we were doing. I've met a lot of people that are in the same boat. They lost their jobs due to COVID-19 and they've kind of started doing other things. So we're all learning together. What permits you have to get, how to market your product and how to network with other people. It's gone very well. We can't keep meat in stock."
Along with raising two feedlots of cattle, the Pfeiffers farm over 3,000 acres of corn and soybeans. Edith is an “overproducer” in the garden, according to Dennis. The couple used to end up giving things like that away to neighbors to get rid of them. Now they’re able to sell it all in their own shop.
Edith said the shop has added to the Pfeiffer’s workload. But it gives them more of a connection with their market. They’re meeting people when the store is open and talking with them. She said it gives them a sense of satisfaction that they’re actually doing something worthwhile and helping people.
Dennis said there aren’t other businesses like Pfeiffer Farms Fresh Market in the area that he knows of. He read about similar businesses in central and southern Illinois that helped with a blueprint for the business. When the couple worked with the health department ahead of opening, Edith said it was tough to find another business to compare it to.
The Pfeiffers called the community’s support since opening “overwhelming.” They had an open house last August and expected around 200 people to attend.
“We must've had 700 people here,” Dennis said. “We weren't prepared for that big of a turnout. I was kind of embarrassed a little bit that we weren't prepared. We offered food and stuff. We ran out of some things. We'll have the same event this year and this year, we'll be prepared."
Edith said customers have thanked her for having local products at a reasonable price and giving them an alternative to big box stores.
“Customers know it's local, plus they know it's fresh,” Dennis said. “It hasn't been in the cooler for a month or two. It's no more than 2-3 weeks old. When you go into those bigger stores, you don't know how old the meat is. You don't know where it came from or what it's really been fed."
Dennis believes the COVID-19 pandemic has likely changed the farming industry for good. He believes small butcher shops will be kept busier because people are more concerned about where their food comes from.
The Pfeiffers take their cattle to a butcher shop where they’re processed and packaged and ready to come back. They sell individual cuts along with quarters, halves, wholes and meat bundles.
“We're cutting out quite a bunch of middle men that a store would have,” Dennis said. “ I take them to the butcher and bring them back myself in a truck and trailer. When you have the support you have, when people come in and you thank them for buying a quarter or half and they turn around and say, 'No, thank you for doing this.' That's kind of pleasing, too."
The Pfeiffers said they never saw themselves selling their own products to customers, especially at their age. But they always thought it would be neat. Once they got into it, there was no turning back. They wouldn’t want to go back to doing business the way they did before.
Edith said she’s enjoyed helping other area producers by offering their products in the shop. They’ve had FFA students sell things like flower bouquets, sweet corn and popcorn.
“We're trying to help those younger kids along and we have other area people that sell elderberry juice or honey,” Edith said. “We try to bring them in and give them a chance to sell their product too. We're trying to make it not just us, but other people to help them out as well.”