Co-op members hope extra profits will help preserve a way of life they see rapidly disappearing on the prairie
By Valerie Berton
Information Specialist USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education
Editor's Note: USDA's Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program has funded 1,400 grants since 1988 to help producers improve profits and stewardship. As part of its educational focus, SARE recently helped launch a "Farming for Profit, Stewardship & Community" campaign for small-scale producers. The campaign centers on "tip sheets" listing free and low-cost resources on subjects ranging from alternative marketing to improving soil to networking. To learn more about SARE and how to apply for a grant or to view SARE project results, tip sheets for small farmers or other educational materials, see www.sare.org
As beef prices spiraled
downward like a Kansas twister throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, ranchers in the Great
Plains began selling their spreads to agricultural corporations and housing developers.
Watching some of the best grassland in the world be subdivided for second homes, a group
of Kansas ranchers decided to take action.
Thus was born the Tallgrass Prairie Producers Co-op, ranchers who figured a collective strategy had a better chance of weathering the storm.
"Ranchers are very independent-we're not used to working together," says Annie Wilson, a co-founder of the Kansas beef cooperative and its fledgling effort to obtain better prices for sustainably raised beef. But when struggling ranchers heard about preliminary meetings of the group, "They kept showing up."
Annie Wilson, rancher and business manager of the Tallgrass Prairie
Producers Co-op, says co-op members are raising "healthy animals on healthy
USDA Photo by Vada Snider
Today, Tallgrass Prairie
Producers Coop consists of nine ranching families throughout the state who produce beef on
grass and market it accordingly. They are banking on the willingness of consumers to pay
for beef raised on a protein-rich grass that has been the envy of other ranchers for
generations. Until the 1940s, in fact, Texas ranchers used to truck their cattle north to
finish them on Kansas grass.
Aided by a SARE grant, the co-op worked with the Kansas Rural Center to hire staff to create labels, coordinate production and, above all, market beef. They now sell beef to a hospital, restaurants, small groceries and directly to individuals. At the 'Buy Kansas' Expo 1997, Tallgrass Beef was voted best Kansas product.
"It's a great effort by people trying to live by their principles, and have their product reflect that," says Dan Nagengast of the Kansas Rural Center. "There's a big striving in this country for 'real' things. Pepperidge Farms will never be a farm, but here's a product that is what they say it is."
Most U.S. beef comes from cattle finished in feedlots, where they eat large amounts of grain. By finishing beef on pasture, co-op members cut out the extra, energy-intensive process of planting, harvesting and shipping grain. Instead, their production model keeps land in grass, conserving soil and water quality. Their animals are raised without hormone implants or antibiotics.
The resulting leaner cut of beef has yielded impressive nutritional test results, and, Tallgrass Beef producers boast, tastes better. An average cut of Tallgrass beef breaks down to 116 calories, 1.5 grams of fat and 0.7 grams of saturated fat. Co-op members feel sure once that information gets out, their product will bring a better price in the marketplace than conventionally raised beef.
"We're trying to break out of the corporate-industrial mold," says Pete Ferrell, a local rancher and the co-op's secretary-treasurer. "We want to capture the value of what we're doing, to be price-makers rather than price-takers" in the fluctuating beef market.
The key, they say, is spreading the word, finding the niches where they can sell their different brand of beef. They attend conferences, workshops and trade shows, land stories in the local press, write for newsletters and talk up their product to whoever will hear them.
Their first customer was a local hospital, where the staff dietician was wowed by the lower fat content of co-op beef. A restaurant in Wichita specializing in low-fat food soon followed.
More recently, the co-op landed its first out-of-state customer. A Baltimore trade show brought co-op representatives in contact with a Hudson Valley, N.Y, distributor that supplies food clubs and natural food stores in New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
"They called us as soon as we got home and said they were ready to go," says Wilson, the co-op's business manager. The coop began shipping frozen beef from Kansas in late 1997. The effort was not without tough initial challenges. A severe drought plagued Kansas just as the co-op got underway, and cutting through what seemed like yards of bureaucratic red tape to establish a logo, business plan and marketing strategy tried their patience.
Yet, co-op members are heartened by the potential of Tallgrass Prairie Producers to reach consumers all over the country. They hope the extra profit will help preserve a way of life they see rapidly disappearing on the prairie.
"Though our community life may be fulfilling and supportive, it belies the underlying economic crisis in this area, where young ranchers are rare as thunderstorms in winter," Wilson wrote for The Land Report, a Land Institute publication, in 1995. "The best that most young people wanting to stay on the land can hope for is to find a job as a manager or hand for one of the absentee 'mega-ranchers.' I grieve for their loss of a personal, long-term stake in the land-the bonding and commitment that comes from knowing the hills and grasses they manage are truly their home[s] and must be preserved for their children."
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