Like many of his fellow beef cattle farmers in northwest Ohio, Larry Warns used to sell freezer beef to friends and neighbors. They would ask him, "How come we can't get this quality of beef in stores?"
In 1999, Warns and 15 other fellow producers got together to figure out how to do just that. They decided to take their beef to the Toledo Farmers' Market and listen to what consumers had to say.
"We learned they wanted meat products without antibiotics or growth hormones, liked to know where their food came from, and supported family farms," says Dan Frobose, beef marketing educator with Ohio State University Extension's Agricultural Business Enhancement Center in Bowling Green, Ohio. Frobose has assisted the group since its beginnings.
The effort gave birth in 2001 to the Ohio Family Farm Beef Industry Network. What started with a handful of farmers pooling their startup capital has grown into a statewide enterprise, which now contributes more than $11 million to Ohio's economy and links more than 80 producers and independent beef processors, as well as 20 retail grocers.
In only four years, the network has developed and marketed two unique branded-beef programs certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture: Ohio Signature Beef, which provides top-quality products such as steaks, and Ohio Heritage Beef, which offers snack foods such as jerky and other value-added products.
Sales of Ohio Signature Beef began in April 2003 by marketing only two beef ribs and two beef loins per week to Zagara's Marketplace in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. In 2004, the two programs marketed 1,308 head of cattle worth $986,965, with an added value to the Ohio economy estimated at nearly $6.9 million.
In 2005, Ohio Signature Beef was expected to market at least 1,800 head of cattle worth nearly $1.66 million in sales, with a value-added production close to $11.6 million. Today, 20-25 cattle per week are marketed through both programs at retail stores throughout Ohio -- meat markets or independent retail grocers known for exceptional quality meats and knowledgeable meat cutters.
The network, Frobose says, has managed to bring together small-scale, family-owned packing and processing facilities, located primarily in central and northwestern Ohio, and cow-calf producers from southern Ohio to provide a sustainable production and marketing system. The network also enhances the economic quality of life of Ohio's rural communities by adding value to their extensive feed resources -- grass from the southern and eastern parts of the state and corn from central and northwestern Ohio.
Farmers contribute an average of 50-60 head per year to the programs, with herd size ranging from 30-200 head. Thanks to the network, participating producers earn $60-80 more per head than if they sold their product through the regular market.
Tim Sauter, a farmer from Helena, Ohio, and president of Great Lakes Family Farms -- which encompasses the producers participating in the network -- says future plans for the enterprise include placing Ohio Signature Beef and Ohio Heritage Beef products into additional retail outlets and marketing directly to high-end restaurants. As the business grows, he says, it's crucial to find the right balance between production and demand.