Dave Ruedlinger and Gail Moulton like everything about Oregon Country Beef, literally. From its taste and consistency to the way it's raised, fed and processed, Oregon Country Beef (OCB) is the product of choice for these two beef customers.

They're not alone — Ruedlinger, meat team leader for Whole Foods Market-Seattle, is joined by 50-some other West Coast meat managers in favoring OCB. Moulton, general manager of Pine Tavern Restaurant, Bend, OR, is among a dozen other restaurateurs featuring OCB on their menus.

They agree they've found more than a beef supply through OCB — they feel like partners with 42 family ranches scattered across Oregon.

“Every aspect of the OCB system demonstrates the principles of healthy animals, healthy land and healthy communities,” says Ruedlinger, who's merchandised OCB for a little more than seven years. “Oregon Country Beef fits the mission of Whole Foods Market perfectly.”

For Moulton, OCB's connection to the community stands shoulder to shoulder with food quality when it comes to the standards of Pine Tavern Restaurant.

“We want our customers to not only receive a good meal, but to feel they're a part of the community,” she says. “There's a lot of value in being able to say we have local suppliers who we know personally.”

Those suppliers include Doc and Connie Hatfield, Brothers, OR, the founders and spiritual leaders of OCB. This well-known Western ranching couple, however, modestly prefers to be known as just another link in a chain that produces beef “the old fashioned way.” While OCB's producers subscribe to many traditional ranching philosophies, there's nothing archaic about the marketing concepts driving the cooperative.

“The idea is to return proceeds realized from marketing OCB to the rancher, rather than for the organization to acquire capital assets,” says Connie. “We want to market quality beef products desired by the consumer while retaining every possible bit of independence.”

But the independence doesn't mean there aren't responsibilities. Organizational guidelines call for a grass-roots, producer-controlled program with a bare minimum of administrative costs. Beyond those guidelines, OCB members must:

  • Deliver cattle as committed.

  • Pledge to a set of specified grazing principles.

  • Attend two membership meetings each year (spring and fall).

  • Participate in a customer appreciation day each August.

  • Spend one weekend/year doing store visitations or in-store meat demonstrations in Seattle, Portland or San Francisco.

Making It Number One

The combination of independence and responsibility seems to be working well for OCB members. The co-op moves 300-350 head/week through its value-added chain and grosses more than $1 million/month.

It's also working well for Whole Foods Market and Pine Tavern Restaurant. Ruedlinger's department just became the leader in beef sales throughout Whole Food's national network of 134 stores. He says “in a perfect world,” Whole Foods would have an organization like OCB in every one of its regions.

“The trick is being big enough to supply a region but not so big that you lose the heart and soul of a local organization,” he says. “They are family ranches, and that's what they want to stay.”

Ruedlinger estimates his Seattle market alone moves the equivalent of about 25-30 head of cattle each week. For the last four years, Whole Foods' northern Pacific region has been exclusively OCB. And the region accounts for about 60% of OCB's total production today.

“Whole Foods' clientele tends to be among the ‘high-end’ consumers who don't mind paying more for what OCB can deliver,” says Ruedlinger. But one doesn't have to be wealthy to buy beef at Whole Foods. “We have some great values — you just have to be a little on the ball and watch for the specials and maybe be willing to vary your menu a little,” he adds.

Linking Consumer And Community

Pine Tavern Restaurant has worked with the Hatfields and OCB for more than 10 years. With a solid base of tourism and local trade, the establishment serves up to 750 summertime meals/day and 375 meals/day during the winter months.

The restaurant's signature beef entrées are OCB prime rib and flat iron steak. Assistant manager Susie Stuemke would like to see more OCB on the menu beyond other occasional specials offered.

“We're working on adding an OCB-branded New York steak to our menu as more supply becomes available,” Stuemke says. “We'd like to see the day when we're 100% OCB.”

The restaurant's relationship with OCB is sealed each year when the wait staff and management meet personally with the Hatfields and some of the other ranchers. This training pays off. It's all a part of building good relationships between customer and producers.

“Much of our help are neophytes to ranching and the beef business,” Stuemke explains. “Beyond becoming knowledgeable about beef and especially OCB, it's incredible how enthusiastic they are about ranching in general after these sessions.”

Quality Specifications Matter

Selling quality is a given at Whole Foods Market — with no “buyer beware” attitude. Therefore, Ruedlinger says it's “absolutely important” that OCB is a product of the U.S.

“By offering the OCB label, we're assuring our customers that this is a U.S. product,” he says. “But further, it says we are subscribing to standards of overall quality and consistency.”

He asks everyone on his meat staff to have at least a cursory knowledge of beef production. He leads the staff on annual visits to OCB ranches so they can see firsthand how the beef they sell is raised.

They find the cattle grown by OCB members are on grass 15-18 months and fed for about 90 days, targeting high Select/low Choice quality grades and Yield Grades 1 and 2. The finishing phase is mutually designed between OCB ranch families and the managers at Beef Northwest Feeders' (BNW) Boardman, OR, feedyard.

They also learn that BNW reduces grain usage from 80% to approximately 30% of the finishing ration by substituting products from potato processing and flour milling for part of the grain. The use of animal by-products, antibiotics, hormonal implants and genetically modified feeds are banned from use in this feeding program.

The assurance that OCB is hormone-free and antibiotic-free is essential to their customers, say Ruedlinger and Moulton. The “free-range” aspect of OCB's ranching management specifications is also important.

“Our customers are willing to pay more for those things,” says Ruedlinger. “But, if it didn't ‘eat’ up to their expectations, it would be a different story.”

OCB's attention to local production includes processing under very tight quality specifications at Washington Beef, Toppenish, WA.

Full food traceability also has come to Oregon — at least with OCB. “If I take a label from the package, I can track what ranch it came from, when it was processed and probably even the meat cutter on the day it was put in the meat case,” explains Ruedlinger. “That's becoming a more important part of what we do — customers want to know everything they can about what they purchase.”

The Future Looks Promising

Rather than talk about specific premiums and financial rewards OCB participation offers members, Doc prefers to look at the overall mission and future of the co-op.

“The co-op will be market driven and producer controlled from start to finish,” he says. “It will make use of a livestock pool, utilizing cattle that fit their environment, and sorting procedures that allow for more consistency on the rail.”

He adds that members will strive to produce a consistent, high-quality product with expanded name-brand recognition and will respond to changing customer demand and new product development.

“The organization will remain rancher owned, continuing to incorporate new and more efficient methods of management — with stronger alliances between the producer, packer, feedyard, marketer and retailer,” he explains. “Further, we are committed to taking care of and respecting our customers, our communities and the lands that sustain us all.”

With a solid track record and this promise for the future, OCB should be able to keep customers like Ruedlinger and the crew at Pine Tavern Restaurant happy. In turn, it's a good bet OCB and its member ranching families will be able to maintain their lifestyles for a long time to come.

For more OCB information and details, go to www.countrynaturalbeef.com.

Other contacts from this article include: Dave Ruedlinger at www.wholefoodsmarket.com and Gail Moulton/Suzie Stuemke at www.pinetavern.com.