Country Natural Beef celebrates 25th anniversary

Aug 26, 2011

Back in 1986, no one was talking about “natural” beef. Whole Foods Market, the national chain of natural food stores, was still a nuts and berries shop in Austin, TX. And the nowadays everpresent buzzword “sustainability” was on the lips of exactly nobody. The ’80s were also tough times for the ranching industry, with many producers struggling just to keep their operations from going bust. Most producers, needless to say, did not choose that time to pause and examine the philosophical moorings of their business, their product, or their lifestyle.

But Doc and Connie Hatfield have never been “most producers.” Well before natural beef became a popular niche market product, these eastern Oregon visionaries perceived a basic truth: that many urbanites care about what goes into the food they eat, and want to feel connected to the people who produce it. Even back then, the Hatfields understood that some consumers were beginning to view food as a choice with ethical implications as well; they wanted to buy food that was produced according to a set of values that they shared. And the Hatfields saw that if they could fulfill the demands of this customer, it would create value. And that value could flow back to the rancher, who sorely needed a stable, reliable income.

The Country Natural Beef (CNB) story began when Connie wandered into a fitness center in Bend, OR, in 1986 and asked the jock on duty what he thought about red meat.

“He said he recommended it at least three times a week,” recalls Connie. The problem was that the fitness crowd was having to source their beef from Argentina, since they wanted beef free from antibiotics and hormones.

“He kind of gave us a market that day,” Connie laughs.

And so, years before the words “antibiotic- and hormone-free beef” entered the common lingo, Doc and Connie gathered 14 independent-minded Oregon ranching families together in their barn and cooked up a plan to form a co-operative. Called Oregon Country Beef, they would produce an all-natural product that had no antibiotics, no artificial hormones, and was accompanied by a strong story about the ranchers’ practices and values. And there would be no middlemen; the ranchers would own their product right up to the retailer.

It was the small beginning of a big idea. The original 14 Oregon Country Beef families started out providing three head of finished cattle a week to one or two local independent Oregon markets. Hardly flush with cash, the ranchers did all of their marketing, sales and transporting of their product themselves. In retrospect, being do-it-yourselfers provided some vital lessons. Laughs Connie, “It was so great that we had no money. Because we got innovative and we started having relationship[s] with all these people.”

Today, the 120 families of Country Natural Beef—as the co-op is now called— ranch not only in Oregon, but Washington, California, Nevada, Idaho, Wyoming, New Mexico, North Dakota, Colorado, Texas, Montana, Arizona and Hawaii. According to the group’s website, CNB members together own over 100,000 mother cows that are managed on 6.3 million acres of private and public lands. The co-op processes 700 head a week, while the beef is sold in 132 Whole Foods Markets across the West and many other natural foods markets and specialty stores besides. Since 2004, CNB has also been the exclusive providers of beef to Oregon’s “sustainable fast-food” chain, Burgerville, supplying them with over 2 million pounds of beef a year.

According to John Wilson, co-managing partner for Beef Northwest cattle feeders, the story behind the CNB product has played a major role in the co-op’s ability to draw in buyers and keep customers loyal. “The interesting thing about the story with them is it’s not a story, it’s not a PR gimmick, it’s not smoke and mirrors. It’s from the heart.”

In an unqualified testimony to the co-op’s success, Doc and Connie celebrated the 25th anniversary of the group last week with several hundred fellow producers, buyers, friends, and well-wishers on the Hatfield’s High Desert Ranch outside of Brothers, OR. On a brilliant August day, an unlikely mix of what Doc likes to call “predominantly conservative, rural, religious” ranchers and the “liberal, urban, secular” buyers of their all-natural product gathered together under a tent for a meeting of the minds, fond memories, and a tri-tip dinner. Representatives from Whole Foods, New Seasons Market, and Burgerville were on hand to show their appreciation for the group, as well as a slew of loyal independent grocers who have been buying the co-op’s all natural beef since the early days.

What was abundantly clear at the event was the CNB tent is a very big tent indeed. Weathered ranchers in hat and boots visited casually with urbanites in Hawaiian shirts and Birkenstocks. Mixed in among the button-downs and the Wranglers was the occasional piercing or tattoo, and nobody seemed to mind.

Brian Rohter, former CEO and president of the 10-store New Seasons Market chain of Oregon, and long-time friend of the CNB producers, explained that when it comes to basics, CNB ranchers and their liberal-minded customers have much more in common than not.

“What do we agree on?” asks Rohter. “We agree on the need for healthy food. We agree on the need for healthy land. We agree on the need for healthy community and for people taking care of each other.”

This common ground between producer and consumer was not something that simply sprang up overnight. Rather, it is the hard won fruit of carefully culti vating relationships. “It’s just a relationship business,” says Connie. “You see to it that your ranchers know the store people, and the store people know the ranchers. …These are longterm relationships. These are friends.”

As CNB continues to expand, there is talk of dividing the co-op into several different geographical units to ensure that the product stays true to its “local” character. Preserving this grass roots character of CNB may prove essential to its future success as big players like Tyson and JBS move in for slices of the natural beef market. Although it is likely the big packers can offer a more competitive price for natural beef, it is doubtful they can provide the story, or the relationships, that have been key to CNB’s success.

Success for CNB has also come from taking a long view of things. Kids who were in diapers at the first meetings 25 years ago are now taking their places as decision makers at CNB board meetings. Their own children were romping all around at last week’s picnic, the latest generation of producers and stewards (though just now they are more interested in spitting seeds and throwing hay at each other). When asked what single thing will keep CNB going strong for another 25 years, Doc doesn’t miss a beat: “The kids playing in the barn.”—Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent