BOWLING GREEN, Ohio — Individuals who food shop in areas such as Cleveland, Toledo, Akron/Canton or Dayton may have seen packaged beef with the "Ohio Signature" label.
The product — raised, processed and packaged right here in Ohio — is quickly finding a market with consumers looking for higher quality, fresher and safer meats, and is breathing new life in Ohio cattle producers downtrodden by the competition of U.S. beef production.
"Consumers spend roughly $2 billion a year in Ohio on beef products. Only about 3 percent of that comes from beef raised in Ohio. The rest of that comes from other countries and states," said Dan Frobose, an Ohio State University Extension beef cattle marketing agent for the Agricultural Business Enhancement (ABE) Center. "To me that says ‘opportunities.'"
Frobose is among a wide variety of Ohio State specialists in Extension and research who have strived over the past five years to help Ohio beef producers establish a specialty market that tailors itself around their consumers. The work, along with a $1.26 million U.S. Department of Agriculture grant supported by Marcy Kaptur, Ohio's 9th District Congressional representative, has resulted in the Great Lakes Family Farms cooperative — a group of about 50 Ohio producers who carry the "Ohio Signature" label on their fresh, freezer and beef jerky products.
"This is a consumer-driven market," said Frobose. "The success of the program lies in the fact that we go from consumer to conception, rather than conception to consumer."
According to a University of Dayton consumer preference study, Ohio consumers are in support of the state's economy and agriculture and favor buying Ohio-raised products, especially if that product is fresher, safer and of a higher quality. Additionally, nearly half of those surveyed would pay a 20-cent premium or more on such a product.
Based on the results of the survey, producers in the Great Lakes Family Farms cooperative grain-feed cattle that are traceable from the calf supplier to the processing plant (source verified), are hormone-free and all natural, and are raised under animal welfare requirements. Additionally, the meats that are packaged are federally inspected and carry a USDA grade on par with Certified Angus Beef. And because of the efficient management process under the program, as much as 90 percent of the cattle going to market meet the qualifications of choice and prime cuts, some of the highest quality meats consumers can buy.
"The management practice under the program provides more accuracy in selecting cattle ready for harvest," said Frobose. "That's important because it reduces the days cattle are in the feed lot and it screens out those cattle that are too heavy or too light and the ones that never reach ideal quality."
In addition to meeting consumer needs, the "Ohio Signature" program also provides cattle producers a way to continue in the business.
"The focus of the cattle industry has moved to the Great Plains," said Frobose. "The frustration in Ohio is how do we diversify our income portfolio to include beef because the economic scales do not lean in our favor. We also have to deal with the social pressures that come with livestock production."
Beef producers like Roger Boyle of Weston, Ohio, are grateful that such a program exists.
"It's a good program and it's a good thing for the area," said Boyle, who has seen local outlets to sell his cattle slowly diminish over the years. "No longer are there places around here to sell my beef. This program provides me those market opportunities, keeps me in a business that I like doing, and gives me the opportunity to provide a good product to consumers."
Producers are averaging a 10-cent to 15-cent premium per hundredweight for cattle that meet brand qualifications. These premiums are derived from improved efficiencies and the marketplace.
Despite the successes of the program, producers do face some challenges. One of those challenges is the lack of Ohio-based processing facilities that can process and package meats in the form that retailers require.
"It's hard to compete in Ohio with our size and lack of facilities," said Larry Warns, a beef producer from Perrysburg, Ohio. "It's a hurdle that we are still working to overcome."
The producers in the co-op raise, on average, 50 head of cattle a year. Most processing facilities find that number too small to deal with. This year producers are looking to market 1,200 head of cattle. In five years, the group hopes to increase that number to 5,000.
Other challenges producers face include raising and producing cattle throughout the year, overcoming the cost of federally grading the meat because of their small size, and training laborers.
Such challenges, however, haven't squelched the enthusiasm of those in the "Ohio Signature" program who are confident that the consumer will give the program that push toward success.
"Consumers tell us that they can't find the quality of our meats anywhere else," said Warns, who has been in the beef production business for over 25 years. "Some have even told us that once they start buying Ohio Signature they don't switch to anything else. They are hooked on it."
For now consumers have to do a little hunting for the "Ohio Signature" label. Currently about 20 retailers throughout Ohio carry the product. Producers also sell their product, both fresh and frozen, at local farmers markets.
In addition to fresh meats, the Great Lakes Family Farms co-op also sells beef sticks and beef jerky under the "Ohio Heritage" label. They are looking to expand their markets by offering corporate beef gift packs, and tapping into the senior citizen population by offering high energy meats as a part of their diet. Ohio State researchers in the Department of Animal Sciences, along with researchers in the College of Medicine and the Department of Human Nutrition are involved in studies that are addressing this market opportunity.
For more information regarding the "Ohio Signature" program, or to find retailers that sell "Ohio Signature" beef, log on to http://www.ohiosignature.com.