The new year is often a time for setting goals for the coming year, and after you hear from today’s guest, I’m confident that you’ll be inspired to set some new goals for yourself. Hannah Esch is a recent college graduate, business owner and agriculture advocate. She launched her business, Oak Barn Beef, three years ago as a sophomore in college. That’s right. In addition to balancing college classes, organization involvement and just being a normal college kid, she launched a business selling farm-raised beef directly to consumers, which has flourished, despite the challenges 2020 threw her way.
In this episode of the Trailblazing in Agriculture podcast, Hannah shares how she launched Oak Barn Beef, discusses how her involvement in the University of Nebraska’s Engler Entrepreneurship Program helped her gain valuable skills she needed to be a business owner, visits about challenges she overcame in 2020 and shares why transparency is so important in her business.
Hannah’s story is one that hopefully inspires you to set some new personal or professional goals for 2021. It’s also a reminder that you will face setbacks or encounter challenges as you work to accomplish those goals. Don’t get discouraged, just keep moving forward.
Episode 5 Transcript
This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Jessie Topp-Becker: Happy New Year, Trailblazers! It’s Jessie and it’s time for the first episode of the Trailblazing in Agriculture podcast in 2021. I’m so excited you’re joining me on our journey to chronicle the stories of the agriculture industry’s pioneers and innovators.
The new year is often a time for setting goals for the coming year, and after you listen to this episode, I’m confident that you’ll be inspired to set some new goals for yourself. Hannah Esch is a recent college graduate, business owner and agriculture advocate. She launched her business, Oak Barn Beef, three years ago as a sophomore in college. That’s right. In addition to balancing college classes, organization involvement and just being a normal college kid, she launched a business selling farm-raised beef directly to consumers, which has flourished, despite the challenges 2020 threw her way.
In today’s episode, Hannah shares how she launched Oak Barn Beef, discusses how her involvement in the University of Nebraska’s Engler Agribusiness Entrepreneurship Program helped her gain valuable skills she needed to be a business owner, visits about challenges she overcame in 2020 and shares why transparency is so important in her business.
Welcome to the Trailblazing in Agriculture podcast, Hannah. I’m so grateful that you’re able to join me today.
Hannah Esch: Thank you for having me on. I’m really looking forward to our conversation.
Jessie: As we kick off this episode, Hannah, can you go ahead and tell us a little bit about yourself, your background in agriculture and your business, Oak Barn Beef?
Hannah: I grew up in more of an urban area in Colorado – just 40 minutes north of Denver – until I was 13 years old. We had eight acres out there where we had our show cattle, and it was always so fun to bring out my friends from school who had never really been around cattle and show them that side of things. I think that’s where my passion for agriculture and teaching about agriculture really started. When I was 13, my parents and my family moved to Nebraska, which is where my parents are originally from. We expanded our cow herd at home; we used to have a ranch that was farther away. It was really fun to actually be able to live on the ranch and do the day-to-day things with the cattle. What we mostly did was embryo transfer and a recip herd. Producers would pay us to put in their embryos, and then those calves would go back to them around weaning time. The cows that didn’t take an embryo, we would breed with our own genetics and then that would be what we would sell for beef a lot of the time. My dad and my family business really got me started in selling beef. When I was in college, I was an animal science major and a minor in the Engler Agribusiness Entrepreneurship program at the University of Nebraska. I really had an entrepreneurial itch, so my dad and I started selling that beef more in smaller bundles and trying to hit more people who couldn’t just buy a hole or half or quarter of beef. Eventually, I ended up taking that over and that’s how Oak Barn Beef was born. Oak Barn Beef ships family-farm Nebraska beef directly to consumers across the United States.
Jessie: What a unique story to talk about how you grew up raising the cattle and then how you launched that business and how it has grown. I’m excited to dive into a little bit about that. You launched your business in 2018 when you were a sophomore in college. It’s been a few years since I’ve been in college, but I know that there’s a lot of demands when you’re a college student. I’m curious, how did you balance being a college student and a business owner at the same time?
Hannah: Yea, that was fun. I think the biggest thing was just trying to prioritize every single day. If I had a big animal science test coming up, I would be studying for that, and then the other days when I didn’t have as much going on, really putting all the effort I put into building our website and some of those things. Some days, I wouldn’t say I balanced it. Well, I would say it was okay. I always tell college students that’s the best time to build a business if you’re interested in it, because not only do you have kind of a lot of free time, but you also have a lot of mentors and people who are willing to help you out because you’re a college student, so that’s a huge plus.
Jessie: Absolutely. Taking advantage of the resources that you have available to you. You talked about having this kind of entrepreneurial spirit or kind of always wanting to start a business. But when you went into college, was starting your own business always something that you had dreamed about doing, or what really made you say, “Yep, selling farm-raised beef directly to consumers is what I want to do?”
Hannah: I wouldn’t have called myself an entrepreneur or I would never have thought that I would start a business by the time I graduated from college, so that was kind of a surprise. My senior year of high school I interviewed for scholarships with the Engler Entrepreneurship Program, and once I dipped my toe in that I think it was all in on wanting to be an entrepreneur and learning about the outside of the box thinking. The Engler program was so good about that, because they really did hands-on learning instead of just writing business plans and taking classes or more of like the logistical and technical things. My freshman year of college, Dr. Tom Field had given us $50 for our team to go start a business. My team started a dog-walking business, and I don’t think we walked a single dog, but learned from that. I think just the hands-on learning really got me to want to start my own business.
My sophomore year I was the Nebraska Beef Ambassador through the Nebraska CattleWomen, and I had the opportunity to travel across the state and even country at one point to teach people about beef: where it comes from, the concerns that concerned consumers may have about it and talk through some of those things. When I was at the Nebraska State Fair birthing pavilion, a third grader from a rural community told me that eggs come from cows because they’re next to the milk in the grocery store. Just talking through that conversation, I really knew that I wanted to put a face to the farmer and create a connection there. But some of my other conversations also led to wanting to put a positive face to the farmer with some of those other conversations with concerned mothers, for example, who have seen bad stuff on social media. By showing a more positive face on my Instagram as much as I can, or even a more unfamiliar face, people don’t think of a 21-year-old, little blonde girl as being the farmer sometimes. That’s kind of what drives me is creating that connection and education.
Jessie: That’s really neat. Obviously like with your business, you have that opportunity via social media; you really do have a great opportunity to use that as a platform to address some of that misinformation, or just tell people like you said, that third grader, that’s not actually where eggs come from. What a great opportunity for you to use that platform to promote the ag and beef industries, Hannah.
Hannah: Yeah. It’s really challenging to kind of take on some of those bigger topics, and that’s something I’m still really working on is trying to advocate for those. I’d say the way I’ve been trying to do it, mostly, is just showing like day-to-day operations. And hey, like, this is what most farmers and ranchers do every day to take care of their cattle and some of those things, but covering all of the topics is really important; but I’m just still learning a lot about that.
Jessie: We hear a lot about farmers and ranchers being told “you need to tell your story and you need to do that.” But I think a lot of times we don’t know where to start, right? Like, we don’t know, how do you get started doing that? Do you have advice for how to be maybe vulnerable or transparent about the things that you’re doing? You’re just very real with the things that you share and things that are going on in your day-to-day operation.
Hannah: Well, thank you for saying that. The first step is the hardest. It’s really hard to talk to a camera and explain the process as you’re doing it. Once you get used to it, it gets easier and easier. My advice is just to start doing it and then learn as you go. Make a timeline; basically, commit for a while and continue doing it. That way you can’t really stop when you feel uncomfortable.
A big challenge I have is when we’re actually like trying to work cattle and stuff, I really can’t be on my phone. So I try to do that at other times too, when it’s kind of less of a high-paced environment or anything like that. That way I can do both.
Jessie: Yeah, certainly have to be realistic about what you can do when you’re in the actual knee-deep of it, going through some of that. It’s not really realistic to have your phone out showing people what you’re doing while you’re trying to close gates and all of that.
Hannah: Right! It might get a little muddy.
Jessie: You’ve talked quite a bit about the Engler Entrepreneurship Program, which you were a part of when you were at the University of Nebraska, Hannah. For people who aren’t as familiar about it, tell us a little bit about that program, how you got into that program, and how it really has helped you with your business?
Hannah: This is one of my favorite topics. Paul Engler is the founder of the Engler Entrepreneurship Program, which is at the University of Nebraska, but he has donated a lot of money to other colleges as well, too. His goal is to basically revive rural communities. He believes that by empowering college students in entrepreneurship and ones that want to return to those rural communities, they’re going to take these businesses with them back to those rural communities and, hopefully, revive the main-street buildings. I think that’s a really cool mission. He does it in a very different way than typical entrepreneurship programs. Some of my favorite stories are those hands-on experiences that I’ve already shared. More than that, the staff that works for Engler are mentors, they’re not professors or teachers. Well, they are technically, but it feels more like a mentor, you know. My senior year, instead of having a class for one of my last credits for the minor, I met with one of the mentors every week to talk about what business issues I was having, wins and all of that, and then you kind of have somebody to go through and carry you through those hard times and learning times and people who have gone through it too.
Jessie: How did you first learn about the Engler program and know that that was something that you wanted to be a part of?
Hannah: My dad had heard of the program through I think just other people within the ag industry being in it. Maybe he saw something on Facebook or something along those lines. I interviewed for a scholarship for the Engler program. That’s something else that they are extremely helpful with. I’m trying to remember the exact statistic, but I think they give out around $600,000 in scholarships to Engler students every year. There is a renewable scholarship there that basically pays for your college if you receive that scholarship, which is awesome. The idea behind that is, is if you aren’t having to work a typical college job during your time at college, that frees up your time to really dedicate towards your entrepreneurial endeavor. I was fortunate enough to get one of those scholarships, which really, I think, made a huge impact on my ability to start Oak Barn Beef, and I know it has for a lot of my peers as well. It’s an awesome opportunity for incoming students or college students at the University of Nebraska already.
Jessie: Definitely sounds like something for those students or individuals who are getting ready to attend college to look into if they have a desire or a dream to build their own business. It sounds like a great program.
Hannah: It is. I highly recommend it.
Jessie: Well, starting a business is certainly a challenging endeavor, regardless of age. And you kind of talked about that a little bit. Obviously, you grew up involved in the cattle industry, so that was something you were familiar with, but how did you take on the learning curve associated with determining how to price your product and market the business or store and ship meat to customers across the U.S.? How did you go about learning all of those things that are critical to the success of your business, Oak Barn Beef?
Hannah: I think the beginning learning curve was one of the hardest parts, because I did know the live cattle side, but I barely knew anything about the butchering process or working with the butcher or anything after that. Marketing, as an animal science major, that wasn’t something that I really learned a lot, and then just the logistics of storing and shipping meat was a lot to think about in the beginning. Luckily, I had my dad there with me for a lot of the beginning parts who had been through some of that and helped me learn that. But when I realized I wanted to take a step further than that. I started researching companies all over the U.S. who are doing basically the same thing I wanted to do, which is selling family-farm-raised meat directly to consumers across the U.S., and educating about agriculture, too. I found an account on Instagram, who was basically my dream business.
It’s called Five Marys Farms, and it’s in northern California. They ship their beef, pork and lamb across the United States. They held retreats out on their ranch so that people could come see like ranch life, and they called it “glamping,” like glam camping, so it was like a fancy retreat on the ranch. On top of that, all of their marketing was through Instagram. They really focused on like just sharing those day-to-day things on the farm and ranch, and explaining some of those processes for people who are interested. When I found this business, I knew it would be essential for me to learn from them if I wanted to really make Oak Barn Beef thrive. I wrote the owners, Brian and Mary Heffernan, a letter asking them if I could move out to the ranch for the summer of 2018 and be their intern. Graciously, they accepted, which I don’t know if I would do the same – just a random letter from a Nebraska girl asking. I was able to move out there for the summer, and they taught me a lot of things, especially about the shipping and storage of the meat; that was huge. I learned a lot about pricing your product and marketing the business, a lot of those things. When I got back from that internship is when I really pivoted to the business model that we run now, which is those smaller bundles and shipping mostly. That was a great experience and I’m still learning every day, but that gave me a huge step up, and I really appreciate that they helped me out like that too.
Jessie: That is really neat to hear you talk about that – just reaching out to them and having that experience and how you were able to learn. I think that’s a testament to the ag industry and a lot of the people who represent agriculture; just that willingness to share what they have going on and to teach others and help you learn the things that you needed to or wanted to. So that’s really cool.
Hannah: Yeah, it was a great experience.
Jessie: How has Oak Barn Beef changed and evolved since you first started, Hannah?
Hannah: At first we were selling mostly quarters, wholes and halves, like a lot of ranchers are doing. And that was great, but when I decided I wanted to put a face to the farmer and do that direct to consumer and education aspect, those people would normally live in the cities and don’t have a giant deep freeze that can fit a whole beef. When my dad and I were still doing it together, we broke it down until 1/16th of a beef and started selling those packages, and we weren’t shipping or anything. As that evolved, we went to our model now, which has beef bundles, which are about 12- to 25-pound packages with a variety of different cuts, and then selling individual cuts as well; and mostly shipping across the US. We’ve shipped to all 50 states, which I was really excited about hitting. We also do the wholes, halves and quarters still locally, but definitely our main business model is more towards that other way. In addition to that, we have a subscription box as well, so customers can get beef to their doorstep once a month, or every two months, every three months or every four months. That’s really taken off recently, so that’s been a fun new learning experience.
Jessie: That’s really neat too, like you talked about people in urban areas don’t typically have a giant deep freeze, like many of us in the ag industry grew up doing, being able to walk down to the freezer and just take whatever cut of beef you wanted from the freezer. So I really liked the idea of the subscription boxes and being able to, like you said, provide beef consistently to those customers and have them be able to experience that as well.
Hannah: It basically took off when COVID started. To give you an example, when we started 2020, we had seven subscribers, so it really wasn’t picking up too much and I was still trying to tweak it a lot to be more of interest for customers. We got up to 90 subscribers at one point, and that was all during COVID. I think one reason was because stores were selling out so much in the urban areas. But also I wasn’t pre-selling any of the bundles that we had. I didn’t feel confident enough that we would exactly get that amount back from the butcher. I didn’t know if you’re going to get 17 ribeyes or 16, so trying to pre-sell individual cuts in those individual bundles was really difficult, so I pushed our subscription box, which has some flexibility for the actual cuts. That was the only way people could pre-sell. That’s been a really interesting curve of seeing that growth and trying to figure out those processes, because going from seven subscribers to 90 was a huge difference maker. Not only shipping wise but trying to figure out those processes to make it even more automatic and manual and better for the customers at those points, because I couldn’t be talking to every single one of them at that point. That was interesting, for sure.
Jessie: COVID has definitely impacted a lot of businesses and people, personally and professionally, in 2020. It’s interesting to hear how you were able to pivot and adapt to that because, like you said, we saw grocery stores not having that meat on the shelves, but we also saw a lot of farmers and ranchers trying to provide beef to consumers as well. And you were already in a good position to kind of be able to do that, so that’s really neat.
Hannah: Yeah, absolutely. It’s been a cool change to see an uptick in selling direct to consumer.
Jessie: Did your business have to adapt to any other challenges that COVID may have thrown your way, Hannah?
Hannah: The biggest challenge has been with butchering right now. For the locker that I was using I could call ahead about two weeks in advance and get butcher appointments. They’ve been booked to July 2021 for the past at least six months, so that was a big change. Luckily, as I heard butchers were filling up, I made some appointments. But I wish I could have kept up with demand more by having more butcher appointments, but it just wasn’t possible at that point to change anything. They also had stopped doing a lot of the specialty cuts. I usually have like stew meat, fajita meat, kebab meat, ground beef patties, beef jerky and beef sticks, and they had stopped doing all of those at that time to, basically, just get more cattle in and help out more ranchers. I understand that and admire that, but it was really difficult to not have those cuts. Obviously when those cuts aren’t being made, that really makes an uptick in the amount of ground beef you get back to, so that’s been a challenge to manage that quantity where I had it pretty well managed before, so I’m still working through some of those things. I started working with another butcher, too, and they are able to cut those specific cuts, so that has helped recently too.
Jessie: For anyone who has been in business for an extended period of time, COVID was probably a challenge, but your businesses is relatively very new, and what a learning experience for you, Hannah, to have to navigate through all of this as a young entrepreneur and a relatively new business owner. I’m sure you’ve learned a lot of valuable things this year that will carry you far in the future.
Hannah: Absolutely. I’m very grateful for all of the new customers it has brought us, but it was also a really big challenge to not only figure out how to manage the uptick and then on top of all the other things, too. So yeah, grateful for the positive impact and the lessons learned.
Jessie: One other change that you experienced this year was that you recently moved the business to West Point, Nebraska, which is your fiancé’s hometown. How was the experience moving the business? Did you have to find new processers for your beef? And how did that experience look?
Hannah: That was a big change in the midst of COVID. I actually graduated from the University of Nebraska in May of 2020, too. The moving experience went fairly well, but it felt like starting a new business almost; trying to figure out all of those logistical things again. The biggest thing was trying to build a walk-in freezer in West Point. I had a small one at my parents’ house, which is about two hours away, so that was reasonable for the fact that I could commute for shipping days until that freezer was built in West Point. My fiancé, Eric, built the whole freezer. We found a walk-in freezer out of a Pump and Pantry that went out of business, and we purchased it off of Craigslist. Eric had to make a lot of alterations with that, and his parents have been gracious enough to let us put it on their farm, too. A big process, big change for that, and as we changed, figuring out shipping and the different distances and the maps and where to get dry ice, where to take our beef for the butcher, and all of that has been like starting a new business.
Jessie: In addition to COVID and moving your business, I’m sure you’re looking forward to maybe a little bit of a less intense learning year this next year.
Hannah: Yes, a year of growth, hopefully. Focusing on figuring out some of those processes and making it more efficient and a little more planning for the business in 2021 is the plan.
Jessie: I noticed on one of your recent social media posts you mentioned including a handwritten note in every box of beef that you pack for your customers, or that that’s a goal. As someone who also enjoys sending notes and thank you cards, I think it’s a really neat touch that you add to each package, and I’m sure it’s just one of the many ways that you let your customers know that they’re appreciated. Why is going that extra step for your customers a priority, Hannah?
Hannah: I think Oak Barn Beef is more of an experience than just an exchange of beef product, so I try to make that experience the best possible one that we can. The handwritten notes, I think people really appreciate just because in this big business world, you’re not used to that anymore, so by knowing your farmer and knowing they’re writing a note in each box for you is pretty cool. If I’m not able to write in every box then I normally do like a joke of the month, which are very cheesy – just random cattle jokes at this point – but people have really enjoyed that, too. Just an extra step. I think it really makes a difference from people buying beef from a grocery store. My hope is that they have friends over after COVID and are grilling steaks and get to tell them all about how excited they are that they buy from a young woman out of Nebraska who raises their beef for them. That’s the ultimate goal. I really like to think of when they receive their boxes that it’s a gift for them, and it’s exciting when they open it, and in what ways can I make that experience the best possible?
Jessie: We talked about this a little bit earlier on in in our conversation, but you have prioritized that transparency and connecting with consumers on social media, and being very transparent about yourself and the cattle and your business. Can you share one of your favorite experiences that you’ve had connecting with a consumer as part of your business?
Hannah: That’s a really good question. I had connected with somebody digitally, and they lived in Georgia and were moving to Alaska, because they were a part of the Coast Guard. Her daughter and husband dream of owning a farm; they had their backyard chickens in Georgia and just loved it. They made a special trip out of their way to come to West Point so that they could see the cattle and our farm, and they absolutely loved it. That’s probably been one of my favorites, just because it turned from a digital interaction to an in-person interaction, and it was so fun to teach them and have them out.
Jessie: That’s neat. And like you said, in the work that you do, a lot of it is digitally, so to being able to put that face to the customer – I’m sure it was just a very memorable experience for you.
Hannah: I do like doing like digital and e-commerce and everything, but sometimes just having that actual human interaction, it really tops it all off, so I love those experiences.
Jessie: The name of the podcast is Trailblazing in Agriculture. There’s certainly no denying that you’re a trailblazer yourself, and that you’re doing remarkable things for the ag and beef industries. It’s been so fun to hear you talk about Oak Barn Beef, and I’m just excited to continue to watch as your business grows and evolves in the future. That said, I’m curious who has been a trailblazer in your own life; someone who you admire and who has inspired you to chase your dreams, Hannah?
Hannah: There are so many. The biggest ones who have been with me my whole life are my parents. They’re entrepreneurs themselves, and I’ve really seen them have that grit in chasing their dreams and making it all happen, which is probably the first thing that has impacted me. Then I’d say the Engler Program has had that second impact, who has really inspired me to chase my dreams. Dr. Tom Field, who is the director of the Engler Program, is one of the biggest inspirations for that. He really pushes every student to achieve those dreams. He’s been a great mentor to have.
Jessie: It’s amazing what we can achieve when we have those people in our lives who are supporting us and cheering us on and believing in our dreams, sometimes even more than we do ourselves.
Hannah: Absolutely. You need those people; otherwise, it’s not gonna last long, in my opinion. I’ve had a lot of those days where you’re thinking, is this even worth it? And those people bring you back to reality and really help you push through. You need those people.
Jessie: What advice do you have for someone, Hannah, young or old, who is looking to take that leap of faith and start their own business?
Hannah: The best thing to do is just start. You’re not ever going to learn everything before you’re actually doing it. So if you can learn as you go, that’s the best thing that’s going to happen because you’re not going to realize all of the things that are going to happen until you’re actually doing it. Whether that first step is starting a Facebook page for your business or if you want to sell beef – selling like five beef a year or something like that – just start doing it and you’ll learn so much as you go. For younger people, don’t wait until you’re all the way ready. Just start it now.
Jessie: I really do appreciate you taking time to share about Oak Barn Beef and how that business has started and evolved, and some of the things that you’ve learned. Like I said, you’re definitely a trailblazer, and I’m honored to be able to feature you on the podcast. So thank you so much, Hannah.
Hannah: Thank you for having me on, Jessie. It’s been really fun to talk to you and I’m so grateful you reached out to me.
Jessie: Feeling inspired to set some new personal or professional goals for 2021? I know I am! It was so fun to visit with Hannah; she’s a young trailblazer with a bright future. Whatever goals you have set for the next year, just remember that with passion, hard work and determination, you can accomplish big things. And don’t get discouraged when you face setbacks or encounter challenges, they are a normal part of the process.
Thanks again for joining me for today’s episode of Trailblazing in Agriculture, featuring Hannah Esch. Join us again next time as we highlight more trailblazing women in agriculture!