Richard & Peggy
Summary of Operation
• 50-head beef cattle herd
and 750-1,000 pastured chickens per month
• Organic certified beef
and poultry sold partially at off-site store
Aversion to agri-chemicals.
After setting a goal of having a chemical-free
ranch, partly because family members had suffered
chemical sensitivities, Richard and Peggy Sechrist
developed organic enterprises and marketing channels
that would financially reward their choice.
By selling their products as certified organic,
adding value to their products and creating a
regional marketing system that is friendlier to
small producers, they hope to sustain their own
ranch as well as those of like-minded neighbors.
The New American Farmer: Profiles of Agricultural
By the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education
© 2003, Beltsville MD. Used by permission.
Pp. 106 to 108
For complete text or to order: www.sare.org/newfarmer
To contact SARE:
Phone (301) 504-6425
Fax (301) 504-5207
Deep in south
central Texas, where drought can squeeze the life out of the
most promising dreams, Richard and Peggy Sechrist have been
building an oasis of sustainability on Richard’s family
Regional Marketing: Richard and Peggy Sechrist’s
store is one of several local outlets from which
they sell their organic beef and poultry.
It is befitting that Richard met Peggy while attending a Holistic
Resource Management class she was teaching in 1994; they credit
holistic management as key to their accomplishments. After they
married late in 1994, the Sechrists went through a process —
along with Richard’s three sisters, who are their business
partners — of setting three-part holistic goals for their
ranch. Richard says it was critical to their day-to-day work
because now every decision has a clear foundation.
“Our initial goal concerned quality of life values,”
Peggy says. “One of the highest priorities was to be chemical
free since both our families have experienced chemical sensitivities.”
Focal Point of Operation —
Managed grazing, marketing
of cattle and poultry
The Sechrists established a management-intensive grazing system
for cattle in their dry, brittle environment. They use all
organic practices for herd health and low-stress handling
techniques. They’ve added pastured poultry and egg production
to the ranch, and are working with a local, family-owned processing
plant where they can cut up chickens and process beef. Their
ranch was the first to be certified organic by the Texas Department
of Agriculture, and their poultry and beef are certified organic
by Quality Assurance International (QAI).
To market their products — and those of neighboring
ranchers raising organic meat — they have created a
separate company called Homestead Healthy Foods. They’ve
built an initial customer base of about 750 by direct sales
through mail order, local phone orders, farmers markets, booths
at fairs and shows, and small health food stores. In 1999,
they opened a small retail store in the neighboring town of
Fredericksburg, and also began marketing through two natural
Their accomplishments so far are a testimony to hard work
and planning built on a shared vision.
The yearly average rainfall of 26 inches can come in short
bursts in between long dry spells. The Sechrists work within
the dry cycles by maintaining their pastures in native grasses.
Richard says the native grasses have a high protein content
— as high as 17 percent when green, retaining 7 to 9
percent in the winter.
They graze three herds of cattle — one-year-olds, two-year-olds
and a cow-calf herd — in a planned rotational approach.
“It’s not just an every-few-days you-move-’em
system,” Richard says. Instead, rotations are based
on a fairly sophisticated system of monitoring plant growth
and recovery. They concentrate on building a healthy pasture
“community” that supports microbes, earthworms
and diverse plant life.
The cattle are entirely grass-fed. “As we have learned
more about the changes that grain causes in cattle metabolism
— causing them to lower their pH and lose their ability
to digest forage well — we have significantly reduced
the amount of supplemental feed,” Peggy says. They use
alfalfa hay if they need a supplement, and carefully plan
and monitor grazing to limit the times the cattle need anything
other than minerals.
After a one-time vaccination for Blackleg, their cattle don’t
get any antibiotics or synthetic treatments. “Our basic
herd health is excellent,” Peggy says, adding that the
local vet is amazed. “He feels that our pasture management
is the most important factor.”
Cattle, both steers and heifers, are slaughtered for market
at about 1,000 to 1,100 lbs.
The Sechrists added pastured poultry to their ranch after
an 18-month stretch without any measurable precipitation.
They figured that the size of their cattle herd will always
be limited by rainfall, but their land can support more poultry.
Richard says the chickens are like an insurance policy for
drought because they can sell 500 birds per week.
They started with 200 chickens per month and have slowly expanded
to about 750 to 1,000. They experimented with rectangular,
moveable pens made of PVC, but have switched to a design made
with steel to stand up to the heat. Because of the intense
labor requirements for pastured poultry at their scale, Richard
says they are also trying some modified methods so they won’t
have to move the pens, water and feed every day.
Another lesson they learned in the intense heat spell of 2000
was that chickens can withstand high temperatures if they
have shelter, but remain susceptible to dust. They began spraying
water around and over the pens to alleviate this problem.
As innovative as the Sechrists are in their production practices,
they seem to really relish the challenges of marketing. They
sell their beef in individual, frozen cuts. “That protects
our customers and provides us with a longer sell time,”
Richard’s son, Dan, set up a computer program that they
use to calculate their rate of return based on margins, pricing
and volume for any combination of cuts. They keep their markets
balanced, but continue to monitor closely.
Currently, they only sell their chickens whole and frozen.
Although demand for whole birds is increasing faster than
they can increase production, Peggy and Richard decided they
need to offer more choices in chicken, too.
They explored the possibility of building their own USDA-inspected
processing plant, then discovered that a family-owned plant
30 miles away was begging for business. The Sechrists recently
made an agreement with the owners of that plant to have all
their processing done there. This will allow them to sell
chicken breasts separately, as well as create a prepared food
from the other parts of the birds.
At their retail store, they sell their products and those
of other like-minded ranchers, while providing nutritional
information to the community. Demand for eggs has skyrocketed
since the opening.
Although they initially built their business on direct sales,
they found it difficult to reach the volume they needed to
turn a profit. They decided to develop a label that would
differentiate their products and bring a premium.
They first tried a label specifying that they were “chemical-free,”
but wholesale buyers didn’t understand the difference
from “natural beef,” so they were reluctant to
buy. In early 1999, when the USDA ruled that meat could be
labeled organic, they finally had the marketing tool they
needed. Since receiving their organic meat label, they have
begun distributing their beef through two health food distributors.
Peggy stresses that the move from direct marketing to wholesaling
is still based on holistic management goals. “We are
not interested in becoming another national beef company,”
she says. “We want to build and serve a regional market,
because that is our vision of a sustainable market.”
Economics and Profitability
Asked whether their changes in production practices and organic
certification have increased the profitability of their ranch,
Peggy responds positively. “Definitely,” she says.
“We are right at the point of cash flowing and reaching
profitability this year.”
The reasons for their economic success? Having their own store
to consistently reach the local retail market, taking advantage
of a booming wholesale market for their chickens and being
able to distribute their beef through the two health food
It has been a challenge to educate consumers about their production
practices and the difference in their products. Yet once educated,
consumer demand for organic and grass-fed, free-range meat
The Sechrists’ production practices have maintained
productivity of their pastures and increased soil biota despite
drought and a fragile environment. They use no synthetic fertilizers
or pest controls.
Community and Quality of Life Benefits
Despite working ceaseless hours, Richard and Peggy have been
more than willing to share information with other producers
at workshops and conferences, and serve on leadership and
advisory committees to sustainable agricultural programs.
Their marketing approach has brought the Sechrists in closer
touch with their community. At their store and through direct
sales, they talk to people about nutrition and food system
issues. “It’s gratifying to hear our customers
express their appreciation,” Peggy says.
Yet, the workload has a down side.
“The work required to develop this business has been
tremendous and unreasonable,” Peggy says. “We
probably would not have followed through if we were just trying
to make a buck. But our business is built on our vision of
developing a sustainable business, helping develop a sustainable
and regional food system, and expanding consumer awareness
about the need for sustainable communities.”
“Plan on a slow process,” Peggy advises. Producers
should try something on an affordable scale, learn from their
experiences and adapt.
“You need to be clear on what you are trying to accomplish,”
Richard says. “If organic isn’t part of your value
system, then maybe you shouldn’t move your farm or ranch
toward organic production. Your work has to be more than just
a means to making money.”
Peggy and Richard feel largely satisfied with their beef production.
Since they reduced their herd to 50, they have, to some extent,
developed a drought-tolerant herd. On the other hand, not
all of their rangeland receives hoof impact. Richard hopes
to create smaller pasture areas in the future.
As they develop a pastured poultry system that is more streamlined
and less labor-intensive, they would like to increase their
production to 2,000 birds per month.
Their biggest plans, though, lie in the area of marketing.
With a marketplace so controlled by major corporations, they
hope to create an alternative marketing network that is more
As the Sechrists enter the wholesale market more aggressively,
they will continue to sell direct to their local customers.
This will keep them in contact with the feedback of consumers,
and also satisfy their vision of creating local food security.