Steamboat Springs Yampa Valley Beef, the value-added program to sell locally raised beef to area stores, has begun a cautious re-entry into the market.
"We really see this as a great opportunity," said Jean Petersen, director of the Community Agriculture Alliance. "The question was, how do we get it back in the marketplace?"
Yampa Valley Beef went on hiatus in October 2001, because its board of directors felt it had run out of the energy and capital needed to push it to another level. Rather than risk damaging the credibility of the program, its organizers halted it.
Now, a group of motivated ranchers has received permission to bring back Yampa Valley Beef on a limited scope.
At the height of its popularity, Yampa Valley Beef products were available at 15 area restaurants. For the foreseeable future, just three products will be available at a single retail outlet, Steamboat Meat and Seafood Company.
The products will be limited to one grade of hamburger, beef franks and summer sausage.
"Our basic goal is streamlining the program and pulling it down," Petersen said.
Petersen has been meeting with Jennifer Duncan, Mark Monger and Todd Hagenbuch since the fall of 2002 to explore the possibility of bringing back Yampa Valley Beef in a limited way that won't overwhelm a volunteer staff. They are all in their late 20s and early 30s and have longstanding ties to agriculture in the Yampa Valley.
They make no pretense that at its reduced level, Yampa Valley Beef can make a difference in the economic life of area beef producers -- the fact is it didn't
succeed in reaching that goal in its previous, larger form. However, they believe that if they build it back up gradually, the potential exists.
In simplest terms, the concept behind Yampa Valley Beef was to cut out the middlemen in an effort to offer ranchers a premium price for their animals. The price consumers pay at the supermarket for a pound of hamburger reflects costs associated with trucking animals to feedlots and large packing plants in distant cities. Along the way, the cost of intensive labor is absorbed into the burger.
The first time around, Yampa Valley Beef struggled to offer local restaurants a consistent hamburger product that cooked the same month after month. The animals slaughtered at Mountain Meat packing weren't "finished." That means they spent their lives grazing on healthy mountain grasses, but didn't get that intense diet of grain from a feedlot. With a small pool of animals going into the hamburger, the quality varied among two-year-old steers in the prime of their lives and cows that had been culled from herds when they failed to consistently produce strong calves.
Finally, Yampa Valley Beef didn't have access to a large freezer that would allow it to store an annual supply of beef nor to a regional distributor who could open more markets.
This time around, Petersen and her colleagues turned to Scott Ford of the Small Business Development Center at Colorado Mountain College to develop a five-year business plan calling for controlled growth.
After selling almost 30,000 pounds of hamburger in 2000, Yampa Valley Beef increased production to 33,000 pounds of meat in 2001. Although that's a lot of burger, it really didn't amount to a lot of animals, nor did it have much of an economic impact on individual ranchers.
It took just 74 animals averaging 456 pounds of muscle mass per carcass, to generate Yampa Valley Beef's annual production. With an even dozen really active ranchers participating, that worked out to just more than six animals per participant, not enough to have a significant impact on their bottom line.
Board member Mary Kay Monger said the premium local beef producers make on animals sold through Yampa Valley Beef is greater when the cattle market nationwide is down, because the disparity between local prices and the prices at auction are greater.
During a down market, the cash difference to local producers was about $50 to $75 per head, Monger said. When you add in the cost of shipping, a sale commission and the cost of feeding the animals while they are in a feedlot awaiting sale, the cash difference grew to between $100 and $150. The revived Yampa Valley Beef will pay a slightly smaller premium to beef producers, Petersen said, as it tries to gain new momentum. However, board members embraced the new five-year plan.
"We had a room full of board members excited that we were willing to try this," Petersen said.
She believes there remains strong interest among consumers who are interested in purchasing locally grown beef.
"During the winter, I was getting one or two calls a week from people saying, 'what happened to that Yampa Valley Beef?'"
-- To reach Tom Ross call 871-4205 or