Stick a fork in it: Local beef co-op done
The idea looked profitable on paper.
Get Roaring Fork Valley ranchers together to form a cooperative, so they could sell some of their beef locally. Ranchers could save shipping costs on their beef, and earn a premium by selling directly to local customers. The co-op could help keep the ranchers operations viable, and possibly keep them from selling out to developers.
Unfortunately, a series of events beyond the ranchers’ control, plus a federal grant they didn’t receive, ended the local effort recently.
“When our grant was denied, that was the pivotal point,” said Shannon Meyer, executive director of the Western Colorado Agricultural Heritage Fund, a Carbondale-based nonprofit group.
The Western Colorado Agricultural Heritage Fund works with area agricultural interests through conservation easements and other means to keep them in business, with one goal being the preservation of open space.
Meyer said the fund helped to organize the beef co-op after learning of a successful program in the Yampa Valley, which includes Steamboat Springs.
The Steamboat Springs co-op sells beef directly to the Steamboat Springs ski area, and also to local restaurants.
The Roaring Fork Valley co-op, which was part of the Hotchkiss-based Rocky Mountain Beef Co-op, first approached the Aspen Skiing Company, and the skiing company signed on for its mountain restaurants.
“The only problem was, they don’t manage many restaurants,” Meyer said.
A total of seven ranches, from Carter Jackson’s place south of Glenwood, upvalley to the Capitol Creek area, participated in the co-op. The first year was the most successful, but the group encountered problems in the past 12 months it couldn’t get around.
Marketing was the biggest problem. Meyer said that as a director of a non-profit group, she couldn’t solicit business for profit, and there was nobody else to make sales calls.
“A person really has to go out and market this beef,” said rancher Sue Rogers, who was part of the co-op.
As for co-op members making sales calls and taking on other administrative tasks themselves, “They are all ranchers, they don’t have time to field orders,” Meyer said.
The co-op offered only ground beef, but it was really good ground beef because the entire cow went into it, not just the scraps. At one point, a co-op member took samples to Aspen restaurants so they could taste the goods.
“They all said this was better beef,” Meyer said. The stumbling block was the co-op beef cost restaurants more, and they didn’t think they could pass the higher prices along to consumers. Such has not been the case in Steamboat Springs.
Meyer said in Steamboat Springs, restaurants list higher priced co-op hamburgers next to commercial grade on menus, and the co-op burgers outsell the others 2-1.
“It’s been a big disappointment,” Meyer said of the Roaring Fork Valley co-op.
Another problem that related to marketing and staffing had to do with selling only ground beef, and not being able to offer “primals” such as T-bone steaks and other cuts.
“With just ground beef, it’s easier to administer … there’s only one price list. But the real money is in primals,” Meyer said. “To do that it takes more administration, and ranchers don’t have the time.”
As a last-ditch effort to improve the co-op’s sales efforts, it applied for a federal sustainable agriculture grant, so it could hire someone to draft and implement a marketing plan. When the grant was denied, the ranchers decided to call it quits.
But other problems pre-dated the grant denial.
“There were a lot of problems out of the ranchers’ control,” Meyer said.
During hunting season, the co-op had to use a processing plant in the Fruita area rather than its regular plant in Rifle. One co-op customer got a shipment of bad beef from the new processor, “and that really threw a wrench in things. Once consumers lose confidence, it’s hard to win it back,” Meyer said.
Another time, a processing plant’s freezer broke down. The upshot was the co-op ran out of inventory. “This was through no fault of the co-op,” she said.
Although it probably didn’t have much to do with the co-op’s demise, there was also some confusion in the public’s mind, because one independent Carbondale rancher sells beef directly to at least three Carbondale restaurants or grocery outlets.
“That was kind of confusing people,” Meyer said.
Meyer said that technically, the Rocky Mountain Beef Co-op is still in existence in the Hotchkiss area, “but they haven’t sold any beef in a while.”
Even though the local co-op is history, hamburger connoisseurs can still taste for themselves what they might have missed. Meyer said the co-op still has “a bunch of inventory” in the form of 12-pound cases of frozen hamburger patties. She can be reached at 963-7300.
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