Oregon’s natural beef industry is truly a grassroots operation. The official parameters for “natural beef” includes beef raised without antibiotics, hormones or animal byproducts. But to Oregon natural beef producers, the term means much more.
Painted Hills Natural Beef
For Painted Hills Natural Beef founder Mehrten Homer and his son Will, producing natural beef is all about family. Painted Hills began in Wheeler County with seven ranching family owners who wanted to use gentle husbandry practices to produce antibiotic- and hormone-free beef.
“Without the hormones and antibiotics, the animal grows slower,” says Will Homer, who serves as COO. “The product that comes from that process tastes better, and it’s just a better experience. When a customer finds a product that gives them a good experience, they recognize it and want to duplicate that.”
Consumers have been fiercely loyal to the Painted Hills Natural Beef brand. The company began in 1996 and has experienced sustained growth since. Last year, the company processed more than 26,000 head of cattle.
“Demand for natural beef has been solid and continues to grow,” Will says. “Our company is 20 years old and we’ve been in most of our stores nearly that long. It’s all about consistency and knowing what you’re buying. That’s been an amazing place to be.”
That demand has created a need for more cattle, and today, Painted Hills partners with over 100 different cow-calf ranchers.
“Because we are an entity here in Oregon and we own and buy cattle, we create value by being an additional buyer in the live animal market,” Will says. “The industry has changed so much in the last 20 years – these days, nearly all calves traded are backed by big packers.
The independent cattle feeders are disappearing, shrinking the market opportunities for the calf producer. Giving those smaller producers a market for their cattle is a huge benefit we create.”
Country Natural Beef
Country Natural Beef, also sold under the label Oregon Country Beef, began in 1986 as a small co-op of ranchers who wanted to market hormone- and antibiotic-free beef directly to local customers. Now, the co-op includes more than 80 family-owned ranches in 10 states.
Dan Barnhart, a rancher in Philomath, joined the Country Natural Beef co-op in 2001.
“I joined because I liked the concept of being able to interact with, and actually have a relationship with, the end consumer,” Barnhart says.
Getting ranchers connected face-to-face with consumers is a key part of Country Natural’s marketing strategy. Each rancher spends two days a year at one of Country Natural’s partner stores.
“Shoppers at these natural grocery stores want to know more about where their food comes from,” Barnhart says. “Spending time in the stores allows shoppers to get to know us.”
Country Natural is intentional about listening to its customers. In addition to avoiding beef raised using hormones or antibiotics, Country Natural’s customers are passionate about animal handling practices and environmental stewardship.
As it learned what its customers wanted, Country Natural became Global Animal Partnership (GAP) certified. GAP encourages a focus on health and productivity, natural living and emotional well-being for animals.
“Interacting with customers really resonated with me,” Barnhart says. “Most of our ranchers have a similar feeling. In the natural beef circle, we do a lot of extra steps on our ranches. When we learn our customers really do care about these things, it gives us motivation to keep making that extra effort.”