When BEEF editors launched our annual Trailblazer Award back in 1994, we wanted to honor, first and foremost, producers. Our aim was to recognize the industry's pathfinders. These were to be everyday folks involved in the everyday tasks of providing America with the highest-quality protein. But they would also be people of foresight who ventured ahead of the pack to blaze a trail for their counterparts.

This year's honorees are Doc and Connie Hatfield of Brothers, OR. The husband-wife duo is responsible for the inspired idea that drove them and 13 other Oregon ranching families to found Country Natural Beef (CNB) in 1986.

Under the co-op's structure, every member is a board member and the functions of production, feeding, marketing and finance are performed by teams headed up by individual co-op ranchers. Until last May, the Hatfields had served as chief marketers for the program. Over that time, this natural-beef marketing cooperative grew into a 100-ranch organization generating $50 million in annual revenue.

“We want to make sure that others are acknowledged in your story because this was, and is, a lot more than a Doc and Connie show,” Doc admonished me early on.

The story is one of how a group of ranchers utilize firsthand communication with the consumers who buy their product to build a sustainable, transparent enterprise that meets their consumers' desires and produces a fair return to all parties involved.

“Our CNB ranchers mostly are rural, conservative, religious Republicans, and most of our customers are urban, secular, liberal Democrats. But those things don't have anything to do with healthy food, healthy families, healthy land and healthy, happy animals,” Doc says.

And, the group has found success without disparaging their conventional counterparts.

“We're very careful in our marketing not to bad-mouth conventional beef. There are a whole lot of conventional producers who produce beef just like we do but the problem is our commodity system mixes it up and you don't know what it is. There's a customer base that wants more detail and information, and that's the market we serve,” Doc says.

The Hatfields join a truly remarkable group that this magazine has chronicled in 16 November issues. Our first honoree was the late Burke Healey of Davis, OK, recognized for his work in promoting the mapping of the bovine genome. Later honorees distinguished themselves in the areas of cattle care, the environment, beef marketing and promotion, regulatory issues, agricultural law and beef quality.

Together, the roster provides an impressive chronicle of the foresight, courage and initiative inherent in the members of this industry. Read profiles on all the previous winners at http://beefmagazine.com/trailblazer-honorees/index.html. Plus, there's a video on the Hatfields, there, too.

Congrats, Doc and Connie.