Cherie Schenker has a lot of plates in the air.
Not just this Saturday morning before Easter, when she’s filling in for the regular cook, but life in general. Juggling a fifth-generation family farm, a warehouse that ships meat across the country, a community grocery store and a café. Plus she’s a wife, mother of four, and township trustee responsible for the stewardship of the fire department, library and five cemeteries.
Cherie is quick to tell you that she’s part of the team with husband, Kevin, who spent 32 years as an Army engineer and now manages the farm raising beef, pork, poultry and lamb. She’s got a background in corporate industry, teaching, and administration, but now uses her talents and self-described “ADD” to manage the businesses and community service – and to keep McCune (pop. 400) a viable community. Her family, she explains, has homesteaded the area since 1874, before the town was even incorporated
As she whips up the day’s special (“Grown-up Grilled Cheese” with blueberry white cheddar and bacon on sourdough), Cherie remembers how the shipping business got started in 2008. They were working out of a 6 X 8’ walk-in freezer shoved into an old lawnmower shed and wondered if they would ever fill it. No one was shipping meat at the time, and Facebook was not yet a household word.
“I posted on Craig’s list that I had some local meat to sell and must have hit a wrong location button. Instead of the neighbor down the road, we received an order from Orange County, California… that’s when I thought, OK, we may be on to something.”
Fast forward 12 years, and that something has become a 5000 sq. ft structure (designed by Kevin) with café, store, and warehouse with walk-in freezers, coolers and space for a growing baking business. The Schenkers are one of two only companies in the entire country that ship meat overseas to our armed forces – even designing a proprietary container that allows products to traverse, unscathed, through war zones and 120-degree heat. But success didn’t come easy.
“One of our first orders, we got ahead of ourselves. We didn’t have the right container nor the right distributor, and the product got ruined. We lost $8,000, but we had to make things right by customers. That’s one of the first rules in the mail-order business.”
(See sidebar for more of Cherie’s advice.)
A phone call comes in; someone in Kansas City looking for the Farmers Market in Overland Park where Kevin is manning a booth. Cherie calmly provides directions from 140 miles away and then greets a teenager starting his shift. The Schenkers provide 15 jobs (full/part-time) and believe in treating employees right with “a big side dose of respect.” Many of those jobs transpired when the business expanded in 2017 and McCune Farm to Market opened. The store offers the Schenkers’ naturally-raised meats, along with locally-sourced produce, specialty items like Amish cheese, and daily staples like canned goods and milk. Before the store opened, residents of McCune – many of them elderly – would have to drive half an hour for groceries.
The store and café offer the town and surrounding area an important gathering spot, but it’s the meat business that keeps everything afloat. This was especially true when COVID hit and online orders poured in for meat and surprisingly, baked goods. But onsite dining had to cease, so the business pivoted to more “take and bake” options and increased the delivery area. Overall, Cherie believes the experience was a small turning point for many consumers who saw the power of local.
“We are several generations removed from our farms,” she says. “We’ve been conditioned to buy for convenience, out of habit. Shop Kansas Farms helped restore the importance of personal connection to the farmers who grow your food. This is fundamental to who we are as people”
Another advantage, she notes, is that small businesses often have to source from multiple distributors, so “places like mine were able to keep meat and toilet paper on the shelves longer than the big box stores.”
As Cherie moves on, now managing a request about the popular “Bunny Butt” cakes, she points to stack of eco-friendly shipping boxes (customer choice) and mentions they just started a meat subscription service. She admits her brain never stops but she does rely on kombucha – locally-made – for an energy boost. But what really keeps her going is a sense of purpose.
“The Lord gives us talents and gifts, and with that comes responsibility. How would you feel if you lost a vital part of your community because you didn’t step up?”
Stepping up – and spinning plates – is who Cherie Schenker is. Her homesteader predecessors would be proud.
Shipping: “I encourage anyone to thoughtfully consider this as a way to expand the profitability of their farm. That being said, they need to fully evaluate all aspects and ask themselves: Am I willing to ship? Do I know how to do that and what kind of resources that will take? Am I ready to interact daily with the public, including angry customers, and provide the exemplar customer service that is especially critical in this business? But, can I adequately weigh customer suggestions with what is feasible and smart for my business?”
Being Local: “We’re held to a higher standard because we are neighbors, and people can put a name to a face. Be aware that when it’s personal, people might be more likely to complain and possibly post negative things on social media. Again, customer service is vital!”
Farmers Markets: “A great way to grow your brand and business, but if you don’t like face-to-face interactions or being tied down on Saturdays, this is not the right strategy. Producers need to be prepared to answer questions, explain and sometimes justify what you do for a living. There are many misconceptions about agriculture out there and this is a great opportunity to help educate folks.”
Cost of Goods: “Can’t say this enough; accounting is critical. I’d rather have a root canal than sit down and spend a day with the books, but it’s the number one thing that will take down your business. It’s tough when you’re a birth to slaughter operation, like us, but we reconcile the cost of each pound of meat that enters our freezer. It’s easy to think you’re making money when you see lots of cash hitting the bank account, but without an accurate cost of goods, you might be pricing yourself out of business. Also – pay your sales tax, don’t sell stuff ‘on the side.’ It’s the law of the land and skirting it will come back to haunt you.”
Pricing: “Be vigilant on competition, all types, but don’t panic when others lower their prices. This goes back to knowing your costs of goods. Be consistent with your tried and true. And remember, everyone needs to eat, so there’s room for all types of producers, and consumers.”
Marketing: “Learn to love social media. Find time for it; schedule it if you have to. This is a great way to educate people who are removed from the farm but crave information. We know it isn’t all cute baby calves and sunshine, but they do not. Be gentle, but be educational. And #1 rule – leave politics out of everything. This includes your personal pages and accounts as well.”
Delegate: “Ask yourself – where is my time best spent? Sometimes as the owner, we need to step in and do any job. But focus on what your brain/energy needs to be doing to keep the business moving forward.”
Guest Writer: Dr. Elizabeth Burger
Elizabeth Burger loves to eat local food and promote the people who work tirelessly to grow it. By day she works at a statewide health foundation, with a focus on helping communities increase opportunities for physical activity, access to nature and healthy food. By night she volunteers as a rural EMT/firefighter and a myriad of other community service projects. She has previously worked in broadcast journalism, hospital rehab/wellness, small business owner, academia, and research/evaluation. What she hasn’t done yet is farming… so she welcomes the chance to learn and write about the amazing people in Kansas who care about the earth and the food on our plates.