Mystery BeefI’ve been mildly amused to see the latest marketing campaign at our local Top Foods grocery store. Double R Ranch beef. The logo is charming, nostalgic of old fashioned cattle ranches: two letter R’s, back to back, like a brand. Reverse-R-R. Back when branding meant burning a scar in a calf’s butt, not a corporate endeavor to burn a logo into everybody’s minds. Smile The campaign is full of gorgeous pictures of a grassy, uninhabited, mountain-flanked ranch somewhere. And of cowboys and girls riding on horseback to move cattle, the old fashioned not-with-an-ATV way.

The other day, the butchers at the grocery counter were wearing giant badges that said something like I know Howard. Alluding to the theoretically intimate relationship our grocery store middle management has with Howard Asmussen, the face of the ranch.

Beef CowFace, I say, because the ranch is actually a pretty huge conglomerate, not really just an ol’ family farm. It was called Loomis Cattle Company before, then it merged with Agri Beef Co from Idaho, to create a sort of western superpower of beef production, that schizophrenically has five separate corporate websites. One that had a chance of competing with Midwest cattle operations. Over 100,000 acres worth, according to their parent company website. But wisely, they must have realized that those two company names conjured up images of factory farm and feedlot: not precisely what consumers want these days. :-0

So, they re-branded the merger, in more ways than one, back to this Double R concept, with plenty of photos of 75-year-old Howard on horseback to make it seem like a family farm. And maybe it still is in ownership, albeit a very, very big one that involves a couple of families. They also market under the local yokel names of Snake River Farms (a Kobe beef outfit) and St. Helens Beef. The RR name actually comes from the Agri Beef’s founder, Robert Rebholtz, Sr. So, Howard is, essentially, just the photogenic marketing front of a very big cattle company.

FeedlotIt’s not clear if their cattle are at least partly grass-fed, they do show some pictures of cows on pasture. But since they carefully dodge this subject in their marketing text, and they do own a feedlot in Kansas, I reckon they still finish with corn and barley, like all big cattle companies must, out of practicality. I’ve heard that they import a lot of cattle from Canada, and indeed their website does acknowledge that not everything they sell was born on their ranch complex. So, though their branding campaign tries to make us feel low-carbon-footprint by buying beef that’s only been trucked 200 miles from the Okanogan, chances are, it and its feed did a lot more trucking than that.

Their other claims to environmental fame: using mostly hydroelectric power. Which pretty much everyone in Washington and Idaho can say, I think? Open-mouthed smileAnd “recycling all their outputs”-which would presumably be manure, deads, and byproduct- not too hard to recycle by just leaving it outside to compost. Winking smile

I also chuckle at their new name for the product: it’s not just beef, it’s lean beef. And they remind you that it beats the pants off of chicken, salmon, tuna and spinach as a source of zinc and iron. blurred,blurs,businesses,cargoes,deliveries,driving,Fotolia,freeways,freight,highways,Photographs,roads,shipments,shipping,speeding,speeds,transportation,transporting,travels,trucks

It does seem like they are reaching a little bit, doesn’t it?

But I’m not complaining or criticizing, heck, I leverage these same concepts in my marketing materials too (but I actually am a small family farm that tries to be sustainable and natural). I’m only getting a kick out of what has come to be, because the consumer has done this to himself. Consumers want cheap beef, they want it tasty and marbled, but they want to believe it’s healthy to eat huge portions of it. They want cows to be farmed in a nostalgic way, on pasture, with cowboys on horseback rounding them up, and sun-wrinkled, gentle-handed old farmers tending to cute calves on modest family farms. They want their purchases to be environmentally friendly, stimulating the local economy. But, did I mention, they also want affordable groceries? Well, all of these things don’t always go together, Mr. Consumer.

Meat EaterWe don’t produce enough beef in our supposedly agriculture-rich county to supply our own local demand. And we only produce it at times of the year where it’s most convenient to deal with baby animals and to maximize their utilization of pasture. So there isn’t a steady, year-round supply of fresh beef to stock the grocery store shelves, it’s mostly all butchered in the fall when the grass is gone for the year. And meat produced on small family farms is expensive: any low-volume production of anything always will be.

There was a good discussion at a recent local Cattlemen’s Association meeting about this. The new proposed farmers market in Everett is considering making some kind of Grass Fed Beefdistribution hub for local produce. So in theory, we could all pool our meat and sell it there, with a local brand name, like Snohomish County Meats. But immediately the conversation unraveled from the complications that came to mind.

Nearly everyone in the room only keeps a handful of breeding cows-fifty is considered a “large” operation around here. Here they are, The Cattlemen’s Association, and between all of them, they maybe generate a few hundred calves per year. And then: this person wouldn’t want their meat mixed in with that person’s, what if that person’s meat was lower quality? Beef connoisseurs surely would notice variation and inconsistency of our product if we all raise our animals in unique ways. So, if we were to do something like this, we’d have to all send our animals to a common feedlot for grain finishing, so that the product would be uniform. There goes grass-fed and no middle man. Then the subject of who’s going to calve in December and July? came up. Nobody wants to be the one having to breed in the off seasons, it’s a pain, conception rates are poorer, expenses higher, losses higher, profits are lower. Leave that to the factory farms who are good at it. Open-mouthed smileAnd USDA slaughter is still an obstacle; the bottom line is that you need to butcher a high volume of animals to pay for that government guy to stand there and inspect all day.

So, poor Top Foods and Agri Beef Co., what to do? Customers are demanding all these things. But we can’t deliver given our current models of production. So, the best we can do is serve you a slick marketing campaign that allows you to pretend you are getting what you want. Howard, on horseback, the theoretical rancher man who singlehandedly brings you thousands (millions?) of pounds of lean beef that spent some percentage of their lives in Washington State, and are a good source of zinc and iron. Eat up! 

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