Purple Ribbon Beef
CLARION – The Hunter family is no stranger to the beef industry.
Having raised two daughters through the national stock show circuit while managing a commercial and purebred herd in the heart of the Corn Belt, Pete and Cindy Hunter know the challenges of the cattle cycle all too well.
Their passion for their product has spurred them to develop their own link in the conventional supply chain.
Together with their two daughters, Ashley Recknor and Sara Hunter, the family is navigating the regulatory, logistic and educational challenges associated with offering their beef as retail cuts to consumers – locally, regionally and even nationally – bearing their own Purple Ribbon label.
Like many beef producers, the Hunters said they began by finishing their own calves, processing them locally and brokering quarters and halves of freezer beef to friends, neighbors and others in the nearby community.
A few experimental batches of beef sticks drawing a local demand prompted the couple to consider the direct retail route as a viable option to add value to their already-proven ability to feed their own cattle.
Know the process. Know the product.
With a herd of cows calving from December through April, and a fall herd calving from August through November, the Hunters can finish calves nearly year-round – a critical factor for supplying the restaurant and retail consumer. Winter and spring calves are born under roof, administered a traditional vaccine protocol for disease prevention and offered creep feed in yards alongside their mothers until pastures are optimal for spring grazing.
The coming of fall brings the calves back to the yard for weaning and introduction of a total mixed ration, or TMR, comprised of corn silage, ground hay, corn and trace minerals. As calves are backgrounded, neither additional hormones are implanted nor continuously-fed antibiotics mixed in the TMR.
The calves grow on the feed in the bunk.
As former herdsmen for Cyclone Trace Beef, Pete Hunter found great value in retained ownership of home-grown calves through the feedlot.
“No matter what you’re doing, you need to see that,” Hunter said. “You need to see that end-product when it’s done.”
The result is first-hand knowledge of the key role genetics, husbandry practices and feed ingredients play in the final carcass quality, according to Hunter.
This immediate feedback allows the Hunters to continually improve their management practices and add value to the product they offer.
With years of experience feeding cattle, the Hunters are firm believers in the enhanced flavor of corn-fed beef.
As a young couple fresh out of college, Cindy and Pete Hunter managed a herd in Georgia that began primarily on grass pastures. After much convincing, the owners of the herd agreed to introduce a corn ration to feedlot steers in a yard.
“Those people had never eaten meat like that in their lives.” said Pete Hunter. “They couldn’t believe beef could taste like that in Georgia.”
In order to package and sell their beef in a retail setting, the family sought federally-inspected abattoirs and split their business between Lewright’s Meats in Eagle Grove and The Story City Locker, both of which, Hunter said, have been pragmatic with the family as they develop their own product line.
Although the Hunters said federal inspection adds cost and logistical challenges, it is essential as the family moves toward marketing their retail cuts across state borders.
Bringing the product to the counter
“There has been quite the learning curve,” Ashley Recknor explained as she reflects on the journey the family shared from the show ring as fierce competitors to the farmer’s market as budding entrepreneurs.
Recknor, her mother and sister might argue that raising the beef was the simple piece of the business plan compared to the regulatory, price point, shipping and logistics obstacles the team faces.
The Hunters have harnessed the power of the internet to build brand strength through their Facebook presence and website at www.purpleribbonbeef.com.
The latest challenge, according to Cindy Hunter, has been to create their own custom Purple Ribbon label with USDA approval.
“Every step of the process takes time,” she said.
It is a worthwhile endeavor (according to who?) for the packaged retail beef to bear the brand the family holds close to heart, and it makes solid business sense. They are quickly becoming savvy in e-business and look forward to offering their products to customers across the United States.
With their current program, roughly two to three calves are processed per month throughout the year.
The supply and demand dance is choreographed by Recknor, Cindy Hunter and Sara Hunter while Pete Hunter assures every player is on stage.
Premium cuts, ground beef, roasts and beef sticks are marketed directly to consumers by the family, sold to restaurants in the Ames area or available at retailers like That Iowa Girl in Clarion.
In addition, Purple Ribbon Beef will be a weekly vendor at the Main Street Ames Farmers Market this summer.
A vision for the future
Pete Hunter knows cattle; how to keep them healthy, make them grow and bring a great tasting steak to the table.
“You’ve got to pick your path and stick to it, ” he said.
Each member of the Hunter family understands the work it takes to bring their product to the farmers market, the neighbor’s freezer or in a box delivered to a door in Arizona.
As the team looks toward the coming years, they aim to increase the number of calves available per month for processing, potentially filling the expanding local restaurant demand.
And as Healthy Harvest North Iowa cultivates partnerships with growers and restaurant owners, the Hunters said they hope to see Purple Ribbon Beef offered in a greater number of regional and even national restaurants.
Likewise, the family continues to perfect the art of shipping perishable goods (source?) across state lines and refines their internet business.
Recknor considers the younger generations’ hunger for quality products from known sources with convenience of front-door delivery.
“Shipping (product) directly to their house will be what they expect,” Recknor said. “Quality and convenience speak volumes to any consumer.”
If family ties are those that bind, the Hunters are tightly wrapped in the labor of love that is Purple Ribbon Beef.
Pete Hunter sums his passion for the business well.
“It is something that we believe in right now and we are going to do what we can to add value to what we consider a superior product.”
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