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The Willows are Back

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An Oregon ranching cooperative seems to be an environmental and economic success story.

Doc Hatfield rings the dinner bell. It's 1:30 p.m. on a Sunday on the remote Hatfield Ranch in central Oregon. Appetites have been building for two hours, stimulated by the smell of thick, succulent slabs of "Oregon Country Beef" sizzling above the open flames of barbecue grills.

Oregon Country Beef is why they are all here-the families, friends and customers of a tight-knit bunch of Oregon cattle ranchers who took a big chance 10 years ago. On this late-summer afternoon, while beef producers in other places are taking a licking because of a sagging market, these ranchers are all smiles. Oregon Country Beef ranchers have not changed the price e of their "natural" beef for three years. They have met the market and it is theirs.

This annual barbecue is what the ranchers call Appreciation Day. The venue is a rectangle of hay bales and folding chairs set in Doc and Connie Hatfield's backyard, a natural amphitheater surrounded as far as you can see by sagebrush. Ordinarily, it's pretty quiet out here. Their ranch is 25,000 acres, and it's 12 miles to Brothers, a town so small you could throw a stone from end to end.

Ranching families posing for a picture.

Oregon Country Beef families at the ranching cooperative's 1996 Appreciation Day for customers (on the Hatfield Ranch near Brothers). Photo: Bob Rost

There are stories to tell and retell. Like Connie Hatfield's encounter with a body builder. And Jack Southworth's bring-back-the-stream plan. And everyone has a shot at a microphone brought by Tim Deboodt, the chair of Oregon State University's Crook County Extension Service office. Deboodt is trying to blend into the background, playing the role of facilitator. But while he's setting up the sound system, he talks to a visitor about the ranchers in the cooperative.

"They're helping make sure that what they do with grazing is compatible with the landscape," says Deboodt. "This is something they think about all the time. They're in ranching for the long haul."

All Oregon Country Beef ranchers commit to a set of principles called the "Graze Well Program." This concern for the environment is spelled out further in the cooperative's creed. It says, in part: "We are Oregon Country Beef, 14 family ranches scattered across Eastern Oregon. Our roots extend a century and a half deep to a time when most of our ranch families' ancestors were crossing the Oregon Trail. Caring, thoughtful stewardship of the land and cattle is a responsibility we take seriously...."

Officially, Oregon Country Beef started in September 1986, a few months after Connie Hatfield had a shock, then a revelation. She'd traveled to Bend, about 60 miles from the ranch, to visit a fitness club and talk with a muscular hulk nicknamed "Ace," a 25-year-old fitness guru. She wanted to find out just what health enthusiasts thought about beef.

Ace's response: "I recommend eating beef at least three times a week--but we're having a hard time getting Argentina beef, which has less fat and is raised with no hormones and no antibiotics."

Rancher flipping steaks on a barbecue.

Thick slabs of Oregon Country Beef, barbecued by cooperative members, are the main course at Appreciation Day. There are plenty of homemade pies and cakes for dessert. Photo: Bob Rost

She gripped the steering wheel hard as she drove home and remembers thinking, "Here we are--going broke 60 miles from a place where a man is saying he wants to get from Argentina what we're producing." She set up a meeting so Ace could tell other ranchers what kind of beef his fitness club customers wanted.

Eventually, ranch families spread across central and eastern Oregon created Oregon Country Beef. Some 20 ranches were involved at the start, and 14 have been with the program all 10 years. Those 14 ranches represent 28 families who often visit supermarkets to listen to what customers want and to personally sell their beef.

"People want to know how the cattle were fed. That's more important to many of them than the cost of the steak," says cooperative member Gordon Schroeder, whose ranch is near Baker City, Oregon.

Packaged beef in a supermarket.

To most Americans, beef is beef. But Oregon Country Beef families have worked doggedly to develop name recognition for their product. Photo: Bob Rost

What the ranch families have done, Schroeder says, is find a market niche and capitalize on it. They are identified with their meat from ranch to table, which keeps the pressure on them to produce a quality product and to stay in tune with consumers.

But developing that quality product to fit the niche the ranchers had in mind wasn't easy. It involved considerable research and lots of hard work.

Bill Zollinger, an OSU Extension Service beef specialist, helped the ranchers identify animals with the right genetic profile.

"We looked at the data," Zollinger recalls. "It showed how Brahmans [a cattle breed] have a different muscle structure--smaller but with more muscle fibers--which has an impact on consumer acceptance. From this we decided on changes in management, mainly that brood cows should be no more than one-fourth Brahman. We also established that steers and heifers need to be grain-fed in the feedlot 75 to 90 days. Mainly what we did, though, was to provide the ranchers with as much information and as many contacts as we could."

OSU Agricultural Experiment Station scientists did research on meat composition. "Bob Dickson (in charge of OSU's Meat Science Laboratory) really helped us in evaluating the fat and cholesterol content," remembers Connie Hatfield.

Dickson remembers that Hatfield taught him something about marketing. "I told her the demand was for beef roasts," says Dickson. "She said, 'No, the demand is for more value-added, portion-sized cuts.' I had the old crock-pot philosophy. I figured people were willing to put a roast in the pot for a couple of hours and forget about it. But Connie had been listening to consumers who said they wanted their meat ready to eat in 15 minutes, not two hours. She was right."

Rancher speaking, with cattle eating from trough in background.

When they come off the range, Oregon Country Beef cattle go to a feedlot for a short stay. Feedlot manager Larry Brown identifies animals that fit the cooperative's market niche. Photo: Bob Rost

About four years ago, the Hatfields participated in a class in OSU's home economics college called "Food Product Development and Promotion," taught by ZoeAnn Holmes, a professor of nutrition and food management. The students produced recipes, mock brochures and radio announcements for Oregon Country Beef.

Connie Hatfield says Don Hansen, an OSU Extension Service veterinarian, also helped the cooperative move toward its goals. But Hansen downplays the contribution.

"Mainly," he says, "we just talk about the philosophy of health management: the best ways to manage the health system so you have calves with healthy immune systems so they can meet disease risks with minimal drugs and other artificial aids.

"It's tough keeping it together," he adds. "But I think these people are ahead of the wave in agriculture, in finding a market niche and building an alliance to fill it."

Thayne Dutson, a meat scientist before he became dean of OSU's College of Agricultural Sciences, agrees.

"Normally," he says, "if you look at the marketing system, beef is beef is beef. In most stores you don't know what came from farmer X or farmer Y--from Texas or Nebraska or Colorado. One of the really important concepts behind Oregon Country Beef, a concept that is helping them produce a value-added product, is finding out what people really want and filling that demand.

"The other thing," he adds, "is that they've been able to create this desirable ambiance around their product. Some of it is based on science and some on image. I think image includes the Oregon country, the ranch and the people, as well as the perception of a healthful product. But the ultimate test is in the eating. I've bought some of their product and it was amazingly good."

Dutson speculates that there may be opportunities for agricultural enterprises in the state, such as Oregon Country Beef, to produce additional products that take advantage of hard-earned "brand names."

Researchers near a cattle barn.

Extension specialist Bill Zollinger, left, and Bob Dickson of OSU's Meat Science Laboratory were among several OSU research and extension personnel who helped Oregon Country Beef families develop their high-value, environmentally sensitive product. Photo: Bob Rost

If that happened, in the case of Oregon Country Beef, Connie and Doc Hatfield might be the first to know. Besides operating one of the cooperative's 14 ranches, Oregon Country Beef has hired the Hatfields to be its marketing specialists.

They aren't the only cooperative members with a special role. Another is Larry Brown, partner and manager of the Norton Cattle Company feedlot in Prineville, Oregon, where Oregon Country Beef animals go for a short stay when they come off the range.

With 20 years of experience and an almost X-ray eye, Brown can tell almost instantly if an animal matches the yield and quality grades that provide the extra-lean beef desired by the consumers the cooperative is targeting.

Every day, even on weekends and holidays, Brown walks through the feedlot aisles, scrutinizing each of the 1,500 to 4,000 well-fed heifers and steers. Each week, an average of 90 Oregon Country Beef animals are sent to Washington Beef in Toppenish, Washington. There, expert cutters prepare the meat for shipment to Seattle, Portland or San Francisco.

***

Appreciation Day is the one time each year when the ranchers and their customers all try to get together. On this Sunday, Jocelyn Tureck, chef of the Pine Tavern in Bend, Oregon, a popular restaurant known for serving Oregon Country Beef, cooks up a taste test. It's a comparison of "grass-fed beef" from animals that spent 25 days eating grain while still on the range, versus "grain-fed beef" from animals that had a 90- to 110-day feedlot finish.

The meats are marked A and B, but no one, not even Doc Hatfield, who is passing out the samples, knows which is which.

"Both of them are good, but A is better," insists Jeff Saint Aubyn, a Washington meat packer. After everyone has a taste, he is outvoted.

The producers-turned-consumers learn something: All of their meat tastes good. But the comparison suggests a bit more time in the feedlot, though not absolutely necessary, can enhance tenderness.

And even though the experiment doesn't meet all the criteria of unbiased scientific methodology, it does spark interest among some of Oregon Country Beef's best customers. For example, Mark and Carolyn Yaegle of the Central Market in Poulsbo, Washington. The Central Market store takes up 70,000 square feet and has a 72-foot-long meat case. They have 4,500 customers a day.

Man in a pen with many cattle running by him.

Jeff McCormack separates cattle on his family's central Oregon ranch. McCormack and other members of the cooperative care about protecting the land for future generations, says onlooker Tim Deboodt, chair of OSU's Crook County Extension Service office. Photo: Bob Rost

Likewise interested is Spike Bennett of the Newport Market. He especially caters to the Bend, Oregon, area's health-conscious food shoppers--about 2,000 a day. The Newport Market was one of the first stores Connie Hatfield enticed into trying the ranchers' natural beef 10 years ago.

Another special guest at Appreciation Day is Takeshi Inomata, president of Kyotaru Oregon, Inc., of Salem, a Japanese firm that produces food and operates restaurants. For more than five years, a third of all Oregon Country Beef produced was sold to Japan. Today, though, Inomata is apologetic.

"The depressed Japanese economy has temporarily turned off the market for your beef," he says. Then he smiles cordially, adding: "Oregon Country Beef is excellent, very good. The Japanese consumer index shows an upward trend. We expect a good future for Oregon Country Beef."

Inomata's testimony is one of many heard before the Appreciation Day guests--full of socializing, beef, salads, casseroles, breads and incredible pies made by Oregon Country Beef families--shake hands or hug and start driving to their homes, up to 500 miles away.

Early in the morning after Appreciation Day, Jack Southworth, Oregon Country Beef's secretary, leans on a fence along the Silvies River on his ranch near Seneca in eastern Oregon. He and his wife, Teresa, and two full-time employees run 700 brood cows and 650 yearlings on 12,800 deeded acres and another 25,000 acres of Forest Service land. The ranch has been in Southworth's family since 1885.

Scanning the surroundings, he tells what happened there long ago: "In 1826, Peter Skene Ogden and a party of trappers were traveling from Fort Vancouver to the Snake River and came through Bear Valley. They found a valley rich with beaver and the Silvies River lined with willows.

"In 1933 a friend of my grandfather's came from Corvallis. The friend asked him if the river was running any water. 'I can't tell,' my Grandfather said. 'It just trickles from one beaver dam to the next.'

"In late 60s, my dad bought a new tractor. I was 12. I pulled out the last willow along the river and never felt so good about anything in my entire life. Finally our meadows looked just liked the meadows I'd seen in the national farm magazines.

Rancher standing on the bank of a river.

Eastern Oregon rancher Jack Southworth points out the diverse plant life along a stream on public land where he runs cattle. Photo: Bob Rost

"But even though our fields began to look like what modern agriculture should be, we were losing diversity in the ecosystem. We were maintaining hay production in our meadows all right, but we were doing it only with the aid of commercial fertilizer."

In the early 1980s, Jack and Teresa took a course in holistic resource management that emphasized a three-part goal: (1) to have the quality of life you want, (2) to have the production you want from your land, and (3) to have the kind of landscape that would support that production and quality of life.

"When we sat down to work as a team to form that three-part goal with our ranch, we realized what we wanted was a stream that ran year-round--a stream lined with willows that was a good habitat for beaver and fish.

"The plan is working great. By managing the meadows differently, the willows are starting to come back, the river bed is narrowing and we are getting a lot more enjoyment from the appearance of the river."

Southworth has been a leader in Oregon Country Beef's Graze Well Program, which emphasizes sound land management. He notes that he and others in the cooperative have benefited in this area from the advice of Bill Krueger, John Buckhouse and a number of OSU range scientists and Extension agents.

"I'm really pleased with what we're doing," says Southworth. "We're producing a healthful food product while doing good things on the land. The way we're marketing our beef brings us closer to consumers and makes them more knowledgeable about the food they eat. When farmers and consumers are interacting that closely, that's good for all concerned--the people, the land and the food products."

Published in: Economics