WOOSTER, Ohio — A diverse group of animal protection activists, small farmers, an OSU Extension educator and a rural development specialist met Feb. 25 at the Ohio Agriculture Research and Development Center to talk about forming grass-fed beef cooperatives in Ohio.
Joe Logan, president of Ohio Farmers Union, moderated the event, which he said was held in response to the “growing demand for grass-fed beef.”
A cooperative offers several advantages, including shared resources, shared decision making, shared markets and profits. A co-op can help connect producers and consumers “more intimately,” Logan said.
Although the information presented could be applied to any new or existing co-op, many of the people who attended were there to hear more about co-ops being formed that include members of Humane Society of the United States.
The past couple years, HSUS has become involved with farmer groups in states by creating advisory councils in Colorado, Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska, North Carolina, and about a year ago — Ohio.
Related: Group of Ohio farmers form ag council with HSUS.
Mardy Townsend, an Ashtabula County beef farmer and member of HSUS’ Ohio council, is one of the organizers of the effort to create an Ohio-based grass-fed beef cooperative. She said she has more demand than product, and that creating a co-op would help provide additional supply.
“I have a market that I cannot come close to filling,” she said.
Featured speaker was Joe Maxwell, a hog farmer from Missouri who is also vice president of HSUS’ outreach and engagement. In Missouri, he is in charge of Heritage Acres Foods — a group of farmers that raise, processes and sell their own pork according to what it calls “the right way.”
The Missouri organization produces meat according to a core set of values and standards, which includes the relationship between farmers, communities and consumers. The standards include no antibiotics, no crates, cages or crowding. Humane standards must also be met, which are decided by the Global Animal Partnership — an organization that sets animal care and husbandry standards for each specie of livestock.
The Global Animal Partnership is governed by a board of directors that includes various farmers, farm activists, and Maxwell’s boss, HSUS CEO Wayne Pacelle.
Maxwell said the first step to forming a cooperative is finding people you can trust.
“The keys for success is loyalty and trust basis. You’ve got to look alike and be committed to each other,” he said. “It’s kind of that one-member, one-vote. We’re all in this thing together.”
As a farmer and past lieutenant governor of Missouri, Maxwell said he was used to dealing with HSUS and found he shared many of the same values, especially the commitment to end cruelty to animals and promote family farmers.
Once you figure out your partners, he said, you have to look at the master plan — like where will the operating capital come from, who will be your manager, and how will the cooperative function. He said it’s important to seek out people who are well educated, who build relationships, embrace and apply technology and are good at communicating.
He said American farmers are indeed “the greatest producers in the world,” but may not be as qualified when it comes to marketing and sales. For this reason, they should build their co-ops with members who have those skills.
This is especially important when hiring a co-op manager. Maxwell said farmers generally should not try to manage the co-op on their own, because it’s not feasible.
“You’ve got to get a champion,” said Deborah Rausch, a specialist with USDA Rural Development.
That champion should be someone who leads the company and delegates tasks to other members in a way that keeps everyone at peak performance.
The advantage of a co-op, she said, is farmers can reach people and consumers they might not be able to reach on their own. They also benefit by pooling resources and sharing profits.
Like Maxwell, she said it’s important to get the numbers right before the co-op is formed. Market data should be sought and analyzed.
Maxwell recommends at least 50 percent in equity before starting, so the co-op can always cash-flow. He gave examples of how his own co-op lost thousands of dollars that could have been avoided.
Along with choosing members and the mission, a co-op also has to consider the feasibility of the product it intends to sell.
In the case of grass-fed beef, there are some constraints in terms of climate and volume cattle that meet the definition.
“We have this little thing in Ohio called seasons,” said OSU Extension Educator Jeff McCutcheon.
“It’s (the seasons) not insurmountable, but it does exist,” he said. “It’s one of the parameters you have living in this state.”
Grass-fed operations can get around this challenge by planning ahead, substituting different feed sources, and writing the rules of their cooperative in a way that takes into account emergencies, and the nutritional needs of the animals.
McCutcheon said grass-fed beef also take much longer to fatten out, compared to beef that are grain-fed. The ration of a grass-fed animal needs to be balanced in a way that produces the muscle-fat combination that the consumer wants, but also that’s healthy for the animal.
He said grass-fed producers do have a lot of opportunity, but they must share the “story” behind their product.
“You’re selling a story,” he said. “The story is what matters to the consumer, often, and we’ve got a great story.”
The following are some of the basic principles of a co-op, as outlined by U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development Specialist Deborah Rausch:
• Voluntary and open membership. • Democratic control. • Member economic participation (ownership and control). • Autonomy and independence (control). • Training and Information. • Cooperation among cooperatives. • Concern for community.