LOPEZ ISLAND, Wash. — On a blustery afternoon in December, Scott Meyers mingled in a pasture with a herd of black cattle, sweet-talking them as if they were family dogs with a weakness for flattery. He scratched their backs, hugged them and rattled off their names: Chocolate, Fudge, Honey.
From these pampered creatures, Mr. Meyers produces grass-fed Wagyu beef, celebrated for a buttery flavor that comes from the Japanese breed’s intense fat marbling.
It used to be that to get beef from Mr. Meyers’s Sweet Grass Farm, customers had to order it directly from him in freezer-busting quantities, like a 30-pound variety pack or a quarter of a cow. Then they had to pick the meat up on designated dates at one of two locations outside Seattle, or take the 40-minute ferry ride to this island.
But about a year ago, Mr. Meyers connected with some Seattle tech entrepreneurs who had just created a start-up called Crowd Cow. The online service sells whole cows from small ranchers, divided into manageable orders, usually about 10 to 12 pounds, and delivered to homes as frozen, vacuum-sealed cuts. The beef from Mr. Meyers’s first animal sold out on Crowd Cow within a couple of hours.“They’re really providing a great service,” said Mr. Meyers, 60, who runs Sweet Grass Farm with his wife, Brigit Waring. “They’re that really helpful middleman.”
Internet middlemen help ordinary people share cars and apartments. Why not cattle?
The concept is starting to catch on with beef connoisseurs and small ranchers like Mr. Meyers, who would rather spend time ranching than doing all the work required to sell beef directly to customers: blogging about their cattle, promoting themselves on social media, juggling order logistics.
Crowd Cow and similar start-ups promise to do that work, without obliterating the identities of small ranchers like Mr. Meyers. Rather than putting its own brand on the meat it buys, Crowd Cow advertises the beef’s producers and allows them to tell the stories of their ranches on its website.
“They’re transparent — they sell our product as our product,” said Mr. Meyers, who also sells beef directly to Seattle-area customers through his company’s website. “It gives me some security. If I put my beef in a store, that limits my identity.”
Joe Heitzeberg, the chief executive of Crowd Cow, which has sold nearly 200 cows online, founded the company with Ethan Lowry. He said their idea was to teach the consumer about the particulars of each ranch. “We’re saying it’s like microbrews and wine,” he said. “There are differences. We want you to understand the differences.”
Long before the dawn of the computer, friends, families and neighbors banded together to buy cows from local cattle ranchers, divvying up the butchered parts into quarters and other fractions that stuffed their freezers and fed them for months.
Websites like Craigslist have allowed people to recruit strangers to join in cow shares. Local ranchers advertise the shares through sites like Eatwild, and some sell beef directly to customers through their own sites.
Many of the ranchers are tapping into a growing public demand for high-quality beef from small producers. Most of the beef on Crowd Cow and similar websites is grass-fed, which research has shown has higher levels of healthful omega-3 fatty acids than meat from animals raised on feedlots. The company’s ranchers, including Mr. Meyers at Sweet Grass Farm, do not use growth hormones; in rare cases, they use antibiotics to deal with medical conditions, but not to promote growth.
While even large commercial cattle operations now sell grass-fed beef and many supermarkets stock it, some consumers prefer the beef they get from small producers online.
“I felt like there was more flavor coming to the table,” Timothy Enns, a biotechnology executive in Pleasanton, Calif., said of the beef Crowd Cow sells. “It’s a very high-quality product.”
Loren Taylor, of Ocean Shores, Wash., has ordered several times from Crowd Cow, and enjoyed the beef from Sweet Grass Farm. “My favorite is the Wagyu,” Ms. Taylor said. “That meat is awesome. You can definitely taste it.”
“I really do believe it’s the way their farmers take care of their cows,” she added.
Price comparisons with supermarkets are tricky because of the way online services package their orders. A new company called ButcherBox, based in Cambridge, Mass., sells subscriptions to variety packs of meat, weighing seven to nine pounds, that are delivered by mail every one to three months.
Mike Salguero, the founder and chief executive of ButcherBox, said the company had about 10,000 subscribers nationwide, and each month shipped 100,000 to 200,000 pounds of meat, including pork and chicken, from various ranches. It identifies the sources of all of its meat in the box.A typical $129 box of grass-fed beef from the company includes ground beef, rib-eye steaks, flank steaks, sirloin tips and a tri-tip steak. ButcherBox sells additional cuts as add-ons to orders, like a 10-ounce rib-eye steak for $12.50. Amazon Fresh, the web retailer’s online grocery service, sells a single 10-ounce grass-fed rib-eye steak for just under $14.
“Our dream is to be your meat for the month,” he said. “We believe people should be eating meat that’s much healthier than they are currently getting.”
Crowd Cow takes a different approach, spotlighting a single cattle ranch at a time and selling the beef from only one of its cows until the entire animal is gone. Much of its beef comes in variety packs: A recent sale from Step by Step Farm in Curtis, Wash., featured a $69 package that included four eight-ounce flat iron steaks, two 10-ounce chuck steaks and two pounds of ground beef.
More intrepid eaters can buy hearts, livers and tongues. The company sold turkeys for Thanksgiving, and plans to expand to other kinds of meat.
Crowd Cow buys the animals after they are already dry-aged, butchered and vacuum-sealed in plastic, so it can deliver orders within a week. For now, the company gets its beef from Washington ranches and serves customers only in the West, with plans to expand eventually to the East Coast.
It doesn’t appear that big beef sellers are feeling much impact from the start-ups. “We have not heard of Crowd Cow, so we can’t speak to what they are attempting to do,” said Kelsey Bugjo, a spokeswoman for Omaha Steaks, which reported $450 million in sales during the 2015 fiscal year.
Becky Harlow Weed operates Harlow Cattle Company, a 320-acre cattle farm in Spanaway, Wash., and now sells nearly three-quarters of the approximately 52 grass-fed cattle she slaughters every year to Crowd Cow, rather than to individuals or upscale butcher shops.
“I can honestly say it makes it more simple for me,” she said. “I have one big customer. Sometimes I think, ‘Wait, that’s scary.’ Everyone says don’t put your eggs in one basket.”
“But I don’t have as much desk work to do,” she added. “I don’t worry about who is going to take this carcass or that carcass. It has given me more time to focus on cattle and the ranch.”
Still, some independent cattle ranchers said it was risky to distribute largely through an internet start-up, which could be acquired down the line by a company less interested in how the meat is raised.
“Maybe Crowd Cow sells,” said Glenn Elzinga, who owns and operates Alderspring Ranch in May, Idaho, with his wife, Caryl. They have sold grass-fed beef on their own website for more than a decade.
“That’s what happens with venture capital: They sell the business to somebody and everything changes,” Mr. Elzinga said. “Corporate boardroom decision-making isn’t always aligned with the small producer.”
But Mr. Heitzeberg said he and his co-founder had set out to build a company that could grow without compromising its values. “We are not looking for an exit,” he said.