at a Glance
Richard & Peggy Sechrist
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
The New American Farmer: Profiles of Agricultural
By the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education
© 2003, Beltsville MD. Used by permission. Pp.
100 to 102
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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 ranch.
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
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
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
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,” Peggy
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
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 distributors.
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 is strong.
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,”
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
“Plan on a slow process,” Peggy advises. Producers should
try something on an affordable scale, learn from their experiences
“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
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 farmer-friendly.
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.