Doc Hatfield was a one-of-a-kind rancher, entrepreneur and environmental steward. He imprinted those qualities on the Country Natural Beef cooperative, which has set a standard for the niche marketing of beef and helped blaze a trail bridging the urban-rural divide.
With his wife, Connie, Hatfield joined in 1986 with 14 neighboring ranchers near Brothers, Ore., and created a unique and highly successful brand of beef. Today, the cooperative includes more than 100 ranch families in 13 states and sells its beef to Whole Foods and other high-end retail stores and restaurants.
At that time, the notion that beef could be raised and sold at a premium ran contrary to an industry that gravitated toward the commodity markets. By raising cattle on grass and attaching a unique identity to the beef, Hatfield and the Country Natural Beef ranchers pioneered a new form of marketing. They were meeting with customers at the grocery stores more than 20 years before the USDA's "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food" campaign came along.
They believed in asking Country Natural Beef customers what they wanted. At the co-op's first meeting, they invited an athletic trainer to their ranch. He told them he was looking for naturally raised beef without added hormones.
From then on, the co-op made that their signature.
Doc Hatfield was more than an entrepreneur. He was a mentor, a friend and a leader in U.S. agriculture.
He freely worked with other ranchers as far away as Canada, helping them to start their own cooperatives. He was as comfortable having breakfast with a member of Congress as he was doctoring his cattle.
He was also a poet who could paint a word picture of what life in the country is about. During a video presented at the Agri-Business Council's 2009 Denim and Diamonds dinner awards, Doc spoke about their philosophy.
"Our product is more than just beef," he said, with Connie at his side. "It's the smell of sage after a summer thunderstorm, the cool shade of a Ponderosa forest.
"It's 80-year-old weathered hands saddling a horse in the Blue Mountains, the future of a 6-year-old in a one-room school on the high desert.
"It's trout in a beaver-built pond, hay stacks in an aspen-framed meadow. It's the hardy quail running to join the cattle for a meal, the welcoming ring of a dinner bell."
"All of these pictures are real," he said. "That's not just a story. That's who and what we are. That's what sustainability looks and feels like."
Doc Hatfield got it. He got what makes men and women so passionate about life in the country, raising livestock and making a living a hundred miles from the nearest town.
He also got that urbanites, many of whom have never even been on a ranch, still have that gene that tells them rural America is where their home is.
The Ag Connection Award the Hatfields received that night could not have been more appropriate. They remarked on numerous occasions that one of the goals of Country Natural Beef was to link the generally conservative rural members of the co-op with the generally liberal urbanites who bought their beef. He was sure that everyone, urban and rural, conservative and liberal, shared an interest in healthy food, healthy land and healthy animals.
Patrick Dale Hatfield died March 20 of pancreatic cancer. He was 74. In the setting Western sun, Doc cast a long shadow across the high desert of Oregon and beyond. And as that sunlight flickered out, he left his many friends better for having known him.