Regional beef co-op finds niche in Taos market

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Cid Backer, co-owner of Cid’s Food Market, says it’s always been tough finding consistent local meats to sell in his Taos grocery store. That’s why he was excited to learn about Sweet Grass Co-op.

“Mostly people can’t fill enough of our orders, but by banding together, these guys can,” Backer said.

For a little more than a month, Cid’s has been offering Sweet Grass Co-op grass-finished ground beef at its meat counter. Grass finished beef has a different taste than other beef, Backer said, but customers have been responding well.

Sweet Grass one of only a handful of regional suppliers that can keep up with demand, Backer said. The co-op said that’s the idea.

“The goal of the entity as a whole is trying to get local producers in southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico access to the meat counters in grocery stores,” said Carlos Muller, a spokesman for Sweet Grass.

That’s not as easy as one might think. For small-scale ranchers in rural New Mexico, there are tremendous costs associated with raising, processing, transporting and marketing the beef they raise.

Three years ago, the Taos County Economic Development Corp. got a grant to build its Mobile Matanza — a slaughterhouse on wheels — to reduce costs for ranchers and localize meat processing. But even with the help, individual ranchers have had trouble convincing grocery stores to carry their meat.

Muller said ranchers in the co-op used to do direct sales to customers, often at farmers markets. But by getting together, Muller said volume is increased, costs can be shared, and market options open up.

The co-op is especially helpful for producers of grass-finished beef because it can be tougher to maintain a meat supply year-round.

“Raising beef is really a seasonal thing, like raising tomatoes,” said Colorado rancher George Whitten, president of Sweet Grass Co-op. “Because of feed lots, people are used to being able to buy beef year-round in any region.”

Whitten said he and other ranchers in the co-op are dedicated to producing grass-finished beef. They tout the health benefits of grass-fed beef, the humane way the cows are raised and the environmental advantages.

But in the Mountain West, where winter weather usually means forage is scant, Whitten said most grass-finished calves are born at the same time and go to slaughter around the same time.

To solve the problem, ranchers have to get creative. Some calve at different times and “carry over” their cattle using hay (which is growing increasingly costly). Others ship their cattle to warmer climates where they can continue to graze in pasture during the winter.

The co-op’s aims to convince its participating ranchers to modify their calving schedules so that grass-finished cows will be ready to butcher during all times of the year.

By at least partially solving that problem, Sweet Grass is earning a reputation among regional grocery store chains as a reliable source of local beef, Muller said.

La Montanita Co-op, with locations in Albuquerque, Gallup and Santa Fe, has picked up Sweet Grass beef. Muller said La Montanita is also processing the beef that is going to Cid’s.

Major chains like Vitamin Cottage and Whole Foods are also expressing interest.

“Nobody wants to pay attention to individual producers, Whitten said. “But as a group, we can pool these animals and buyers will call us up. That’s the idea.”

The co-op now includes ranchers from Saguache, Colo., Alamosa, Colo., Mays, N.M., Chama, N.M., Hillside, Colo., and Zuni, N.M.

Blackstone Ranch in Taos was a member of the co-op and the only ranch to supply beef from Taos County. The ranch is no longer participating, Muller said.

But as the co-op grows, Muller thinks there will be more opportunities for small scale ranchers in the area to take advantage of the organization.

Pati Martinson at the Taos County Economic Development Corp. said there are at least a half-dozen local ranchers committed to grass-finished beef in the Taos-area.

“A producer can really find a niche within the co-op itself,” Muller said, explaining that small ranchers have more flexibility in their schedules so that cows are finished when they are needed. “The best fit would be to try and find these small family ranchers in New Mexico. That would be perfect.”

For more information on Sweet Grass Co-op, visit www.sweetgrasscoop.com or call (719) 251-5833.

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