Supporting sustainable agriculture
Founded in Oregon, Country Natural Beef links ranchers with consumers
When Doc and Connie Hatfield first began researching markets for the hormone and antibiotic-free beef raised on their Brothers ranch, it was the late ’80s— a challenging time for ranching. Red meat was out of favor with consumers. The Hatfields knew there was a market for the natural beef they raised; they just weren’t quite sure where it was or how to best sell to it.
Then, on a fact-finding trip to Bend, Connie Hatfield met Ace. “I walked into this fitness place in Bend, and this 25-year-old named ‘Ace’ came skipping out,” she says. Introducing herself as a rancher, she asked him point-blank: “What’s your position on red meat? And Ace says, ‘I recommend it to all my fitness clients— but we have the hardest time getting Argentinean natural beef into Bend.’”
With anecdotal evidence of a local demand, the Hatfields called a meeting of like-minded ranchers in a 200-mile radius, and the idea for the cooperative was born.
a community of shared values
“It was a community of shared values, not a community of place,” Doc Hatfield explains. “All those ranch families came, and Ace talked to us about the demand, and we all figured out that if we marketed our cattle together, it could really take off.”
And it has. Today, the Country Natural Beef cooperative is one of the nation’s leaders in natural beef production, with beef supplied by 120 family ranches located in 13 Western states.
“The concept is to link the ranchers with the consumer,” says Stacy Davies, marketing director for the cooperative. The organization has no employees; Davies, for example, is ranch manager of co-op member Roaring Springs Ranch, near Steens Mountain. “Each company in the process is an internal partner, from the feedlot to the packing house to the distributor to the retailer. That puts us all working together to meet the needs of the consumer.”
It also fills the need that the Hatfields identified back in the ’80s: economic stability. “The way to provide stability then was to get as close to the retail consumer as possible,” Doc Hatfield says. “We needed to find out what they wanted, and that turned out to be a smaller cut of leaner beef without antibiotics or hormones, tracing it back to the family ranch that owned it all the way from birth.”
In a traditional agriculture business model, people would produce something and then try to find a buyer. With Country Natural Beef, members find a buyer and then produce to fill the need.
“CNB’s model helps to take the volatility out of the commodity market,” says Dan Probert, the co-op’s executive director. “This makes family ranches more stable, which in turn makes their communities more stable.”
Buyers, described by the co-op as partners, include Burgerville, the Bon Appetit and Café Today institutional catering companies, New Seasons Market and Whole Foods Market.
The intense interest today in naturally raised beef has also changed the way members do business. While environmental sustainability has always been a critical part of the business plan, ranchers are looking at other things, too.
“We are now focusing on things beyond ‘natural,’ like animal welfare and compassion and traceability to the ranch,” Probert says.
Endorsed by Temple Grandin
The cooperative has been collaborating with well-known animal behaviorist Dr. Temple Grandin, who has officially endorsed the cooperative’s “Raise Well” animal welfare standards. (The film “Temple Grandin,” which chronicled Grandin’s life, from her struggles with autism to her work revolutionizing the cattle industry, aired on HBO in February.)
Meanwhile, demand for the co-op’s products are up and business is good. "We’re in a phase now in the last few months where we are more short on product than we are on customers,” Doc Hatfield says.
See “Ranchers reach out” in this issue of Community Vitality to read how Country Natural Beef ranchers stay connected with their customers.