Growers mix practices to meet approval of buyers
By STEVE BROWN
One group of ranchers continues to hold its own, riding a strong brand through the economic downturn.
Dan Probert, executive director of Country Natural Beef, said the group celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. It has grown from its 14 original ranching families in Oregon to 120 ranches in Oregon, Washington, California, Nevada, Idaho, Wyoming, New Mexico, North Dakota, Colorado, Texas, Montana, Arizona and Hawaii.
"We've seen no declines and feel like we're poised for new growth," Probert said.
Country Natural has built a reputation for producing sustainable beef, setting high standards for raising and handling animals best suited to their particular climate. The ranchers own the stock all the way through the process.
Probert raises 1,200 cow-calf pairs in Eastern Oregon. "They're mine until they're in the box."
The Country Natural brand has a premium, he said, "but we've had to get a little creative in some programs. Natural has become commodity natural -- a lot of other producers are doing it -- so we've had to specialize."
For one, he said Country Natural is developing a regional focus: "Northwest ranches for Northwest markets, Rocky Mountain ranches -- Wyoming, Utah, Montana -- for that region."
Also it has created a program it calls "grain over grass," he said. "A lot of consumers don't prefer grass-fed, and they don't like the idea of confinement. The cattle are finished on feedlot rations, but they're left on pasture. It's a niche between grass-fed and feedlot beef."
At the bottom line, auction prices may occasionally be better, Probert said, "but our producers know what their returns will be. Retailers are willing to take costs into account. We're getting paid for those attributes."
"Ranchers who are willing to think outside the box and willing to be a little less traditional -- we're always looking for them to come join us, to be price-makers instead of price-takers," he said.
Country Natural Beef: www.countrynaturalbeef.com