Rancher Grant Hirsche is used to selling live cattle.
But selling packaged steaks is a whole new adventure for this Alberta entrepreneur, who raises Herefords and Angus cattle near Aldersyde, south of Calgary.
“It’s about survival,” says Hirsche, who recently opened a butcher shop in Okotoks, where he promotes his beef as a product free of hormones.
Hirsche runs the 2,200-sq.-ft. shop with fellow rancher Doug Fraser, who also raises Hereford cattle west of Okotoks. This venture into selling meat “from field to plate” is their answer to the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) crisis that has devastated Alberta’s cattle industry since a single cow was diagnosed with the disease 17 months ago.
|Wendy Dudley, Business Edge|
|Grant Hirsche teamed up with fellow rancher Doug Fraser to open Hirsche Fraser Meats in the face of the U.S. import ban.|
The discovery of BSE resulted in the loss of live cattle exports to the U.S. and other foreign markets. Add to that a record calf crop hitting the auction marts and prices plummeted, leaving ranchers with their fields full of unwanted animals.
“Right now, I’ve got about 1,100 head. Normally, I’d have between 700 to 800 head,” Hirsche says. Usually, about half of his 150 bulls would be shipped to the U.S., but not this year.
“I had to do something with my older animals, and I sure didn’t feel like giving them away,” says Hirsche, noting cull bulls that once fetched $5,000 are now being sold for as little as $200. “That’s how I started selling my own meat.”
Hirsche spent the summer selling between 900 and 1,350 kilograms of beef a day from the back of his freezer truck along Highway 2 south of Calgary. During one weekend at a farmers’ market in Calgary, he sold almost 22,500 kilograms of beef to approximately 9,000 people who stood in line for several hours.
Recognizing the overwhelming support for area ranchers, Hirsche and Fraser teamed up to open Hirsche Fraser Meats. Their cattle are slaughtered at local processing plants, aged between 21 to 28 days (to improve tenderness), and then carved into various cuts at the store. The retail outlet boasts freezer space and a smoker. About six animals are processed through the store each week.
“I never thought I’d be doing this,” says Hirsche, shaking his head. “It sure is different, and we’re doing OK. We sell 20 different products, and that includes jerky, bologna, pepperoni sticks and sausages.”
The store has three full-time employees.
Hirsche doesn’t expect the U.S. border to open soon, and he isn’t the type to sit back and wait for somebody else to come up with a solution.
“You could be waiting a long time and in the meantime, find yourself out of business,” he says.
Hirsche also handles meat from ranchers who have purchased his bulls. “That way, I know what I’m selling is a natural product, and that it fits our market. I know what it’s been fed. All the animals can be traced back.”
Because the cattle he buys are from purebred breeding stock, they are not fed additives or growth hormones. “That would hurt their fertility,” Hirsche notes.
He depends on word-of-mouth advertising, and customers interviewed are giving his shop a beefy thumbs-up.
“It’s like the way it used to be in small towns, when you had a local butcher. It’s so nice to have a place where you can come and buy fresh meat,” says Okotoks resident Treva Hay. “I come here once a week. The steaks are to die for, and I like the idea of supporting a local rancher and knowing where the meat comes from.”
Hirsche and Fraser are not alone in coming up with producer-driven initiatives to save the cattle industry.
Individual ranchers are selling butchered beef through ads in community papers, while others are selling directly to consumers through farmers’ markets. Hirsche and Fraser are also members of the Beef Initiative Group (BIG), a consortium of ranchers lobbying the government for a long-term solution to the BSE crisis rather than relying on temporary bailout measures.
BIG is hoping to establish a Canadian producer-owned plant, where all slaughtered animals would be tested for BSE. “That way, we could develop new markets,” Hirsche said. Asian markets such as Japan’s demand 100-per-cent testing in their domestic markets, and expect the same of their imports.
The Alberta plant would be paid for by producers through a $3 per cattle levy, Hirsche said. The group is seeking bridge financing from the government.
It’s all part of Alberta taking back control of its beef industry, as it adopts reforms to reduce its dependence on the U.S. The federal government recently announced a plan to fast-track approving new slaughterhouses, and announced an income- support program to help ranchers through the transition. Before BSE, about 60 per cent of Alberta’s cattle and beef products were shipped to the U.S.
Hirsche doesn’t believe opening a number of small packing plants – as proposed by various producer groups throughout the province – is the answer. “Those groups are having a tough time getting capital, because investors are leery. They’re wondering what would happen to those plants if and when the border does open again.”
Getting additional plants up and running will also take time, particularly if they become mired in controversy. The slaughterhouse proposed by Ranchers’ Beef Ltd. for northeast Calgary met strong opposition from nearby residents and members of Calgary city council. The cattlemen then moved their site to the Municipal District of Rocky View, which approved the proposal.
However, Calgary officials vow to continue the battle, saying the city will not help out with the plant’s water and sewage needs.
So what’s the future for Hirsche Fraser Meats? “Well, I’d like to have a small chain, but get it down to a counter-front operation,” says Hirsche.
What the province really needs is a central packing house where animals could be processed, aged, cut and smoked, he adds. “We need something separate from the larger plants and the monopoly they have . . . we can’t be so dependent on them.”
Cargill, near High River, and Lakeside Packers in Brooks process the majority of Alberta’s cattle.
And what if the U.S. border does open? “That shouldn’t affect our business,” says Hirsche.
“We’re offering something consumers want. They like knowing where their meat is coming from, and they like supporting local business. We’ll make it, that’s for sure.”
(Wendy Dudley can be reached at email@example.com)