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Producer Co-Op Sells Grass-Fed Beef
Wisconsin Meadows eliminates the hassles for Wisconsin farmers producing grass-fed beef. The producer co-op started with a handful of producers in one county and now handles processing and marketing for beef produced by close to 200 members in more than 55 counties in the state.
  “After years of selling at farmers markets and direct to the consumer, it was great to have a salesman who calls on restaurants and stores to market your beef,” says Rod Ofte, a founding member and also general manager of the co-op.
  Ofte markets most of the 100 head he finishes out on grass yearly through the co-op. He and other co-op members produce grass-fed beef raised without the use of hormones or antibiotics. Rotational grazing is strongly encouraged. The co-op requires a strict protocol of how animals are raised and cared for, including approved supplements.
  Beef is marketed wholesale to grocers, co-ops and restaurants, as well as for home delivery in Wisconsin. When ready to market, the co-op handles processing at USDA-inspected plants close to producers and pays members according to the quantity and quality of the beef produced.
  “For the first 5 years we had one price fits all, but we lost customers due to the uneven quality and supply,” says Ofte. “Now we pay premiums based on quantity produced and on grade at processing from choice to fair.”
  He notes that 20 percent of the members produce 80 percent of the beef, with most coming from 5 members. He adds the largest producers also produce the most consistent quality.
  “You need to have a system that rewards quality and quantity,” says Ofte. “With the old pricing system, we had to beg for product from producers. That’s no longer the case.”
  Another change made since the co-op started is the membership fee. At first members paid an initial $200 fee to join, which they could request back if they left.
“We undervalued the partnership and didn’t appreciate start-up costs,” says Ofte. “We changed the fees to $500 to join with only $200 refunded if the member quits.”
  Leadership is critical, as is funding, he adds. “You need a key group of leaders who are willing to sacrifice time and effort to the organization,” he says. “We had a volunteer board of directors who were instrumental in moving us forward as an organization.”
  While sales built, Ofte often made deliveries for the co-op. “One of the board members was an accountant, and he handled our books and cut the checks,” says Ofte. “However, you need a professional account manager who can build distribution and sales. You also need to know your key brand differences. In our case, our marketing manager is also a beef producer who understands the product.”
  A grant from the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection helped with start up.
  “A number of members put in their own money also, but for the past 5 years we’ve been profitable,” he says.
  In addition to marketing members’ beef, the co-op tries to help improve quality. “We have panels at our meetings on what to do to produce the best beef,” says Ofte. “We’ve had people join who have never had cattle before.”
  While the co-op has no interest in expanding membership outside the state, they continue to add members in Wisconsin. They are also expanding their product line with the addition of pasture-raised pork.
  Ofte gives presentations on how Wisconsin Meadows was formed to like-minded producer groups. Ofte says he is also available as a paid consultant to provide more in-depth assistance in setting up a similar co-op in other states.
  Contact: FARM SHOW Followup, Wisconsin Meadows, P.O. Box 269,
Viroqua, Wis. 54665 (ph 800 745-9093; www.wisconsingrassfed.coop; www.wisconsinmeadows.com).

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2018 - Volume #42, Issue #6