Of the Baker City Herald

HAINES Seventeen years ago, Doc and Connie Hatfield's failing ranch operation near Sisters received salvation from an unlikely source.

Hatfield spotted a andquot;Jack LaLane look-alikeandquot; emerging from a Bend fitness club. She happened to ask the beefy bodybuilder what he thought about beef.

andquot;I asked this guy what his opinion was of red meat, and he said he recommended eating it three times a week, but that he was having a hard time getting beef from Argentinaandquot; beef that was hormone free and derived from cattle who don't spend a lot of time fattening up in a feedlot, she said.

andquot;I then had a little talk with myself,andquot; Hatfield recalled. andquot;Here we were just 55 miles away, and we had exactly what this bodybuilder wanted. It changed my life.andquot;

The Hatfields are the founders of Oregon Country Beef, which markets hormone-free high quality beef direct to grocery stores and restaurants in a three-state area. They were at the Sexton Ranch near Haines Friday for the culmination of OCB's three-day semi-annual meeting.

Most of the 40 andquot;member ranchesandquot; in the cooperative were represented at the meeting, a combination business planning session and barbecue for the whole family.

The Hatfields have built their business with like-minded ranchers throughout Oregon. Their beef is featured at Whole Foods, a 74-store grocery chain the specializes in health food, and at restaurants including Barley Brown's in Baker City. In fact, once a year OCB ranchers must visit a place where their beef is marketed in order to find out more about what diners are looking for in their products and to answer questions.

Richland's Dan Forsea, a fourth-generation rancher who's been an OCB member for three years, says that participation in the program where cattle are contracted up to a year in advance has made his operation andquot;more sustainable.andquot;

Selling cattle throughout the year instead of just once annually eases the possibility that a rancher's bread and butter will be sold during a low point in the market and thus reduce his profitability, Forsea said. Calving twice a year rather than once may be more work, but it also means his bulls pull double duty reducing Forsea's cost.

And what Forsea says he likes best about the group is the democratic approach it takes to decision-making.

andquot;If just one person disagrees, we will sit down and come to a consensus before we're done,andquot; he said. andquot;That can take some time, but it's worth it in the long run.andquot;

A rancher can't lobby OCB to become a member. He or she must be recommended by a member operation.

Members must subscribe to grazing practices that include fencing off riparian areas and leaving non-irrigated land alone long enough for plants to re-grow.

Forsea said he's also noticed more deer on his land over the past three years.

andquot;I got out of the service in 1973 and came back to ranch,andquot; he said. andquot;We always hunted, and we always took (wildlife populations) for granted. We've found that if you do your fencing of riparian areas and keep the cattle rotated throughout the rangeland, it makes the riparian areas grow better and the cattle better. And wildlife, especially deer, follow the cattle. It all comes together.andquot;

Forsea said that OCB meetings often bring together traditional-looking ranchers with andquot;guys with ponytails and earrings from big cities.andquot;

andquot;All of us have the same goals we just want to raise our families,andquot; he said.

Making jerky

Always on the lookout for an emerging market, Doc Hatfield has brought in Mark Yaegle to develop an OCB jerky product.

Yaegle has just retired from running Central Market, a 75,000 square foot health food grocery store in Paulsbo, Wash.

Beef jerky, with its appeal to people who spend a lot of time outdoors, gives OCB members yet another way to provide meat that must be low in fat and contain no gristle.

andquot;These ranchers are contracted to sell X amount of beef, and they've got to sell it all,andquot; he said. andquot;We can use different cuts, and it will be another way we can help keep our inventory square. You keep your costs down and you sell all your product that's how you make your money.andquot;

Today Oregon Country Beef sells 300 head of cattle each week through Beef Northwest that are killed humanely in Toppenish, Wash. Doc Hatfield says people often ask about the conditions there; the cattle are led two-by-two up a ramp and are killed by an electric zapper that's akin to the suddenness of a 30-30 shot to the head.

andquot;They die instantly, and they don't smell the smell of blood,andquot; he said.

His wife says she always looks forward to OCB meetings, where one of the group's happy chores is deciding how the profits will be divided.

andquot;We've learned a lot about our customers by talking to them,andquot; she said. andquot;I think that's why things have turned out so good.

andquot;We can all stay on our land now.andquot;