Bill Barboni from Hicks Valley Ranch raises Angus beef and a few sheep. Bill is fortunate enough to have good pasture and enough grass to keep his 400 mother cows very healthy and producing good-sized calves year after year, an easy sell to buyers seeking quality Angus breed cattle. After selling to Harris Ranch in a certified Angus program for a few years, Bill decided he wanted to develop a grass-fed and finished product that he could market locally.
Cattle ranchers rarely do anything quickly. They deliberate, chew on it, watch the markets, and when they feel like they can make it work, go for it. I asked Bill what convinced him to go local. “It’s the right thing to do. I’ve always wanted to do this, and it’s working out fine.” That’s a straightforward answer, but there was a considerable amount of effort that led up to the successful direct-marketing program. “UC Cooperative Extension helped us get this going,” Bill stated. “Stephanie Larson, our local livestock advisor, had us working with the Sonoma Meat Buying Club. That’s where we learned that a real marketing possibility existed out there,” Bill remembers.
Stephanie Larson has been working with the Marin/Sonoma livestock community for fifteen years and pretty much knows what’s up. “We could see that retailers were more open to adapting to a supply chain system differently structured than the conventional model that they were used to. Year-round supply with seasonal emphasis was OK with them, if that’s what it took to get fresh and local product into their stores,” she explained.
The retailer that really came onboard is Oliver’s Markets in Sonoma County. With three markets in prime locations, and a reputation for high-quality, local emphasis and great customer awareness, Oliver’s and Hicks Valley Ranch became a great match. “We had a store-wide tasting of Bill’s Angus beef, with staff from all of our stores,” Tom Scott, store manager, recalls. “The staff was blown away. The flavor, texture and overall quality of Hicks Valley Angus Beef was unlike anything we had tasted.” That pretty much sealed the deal, and today you can buy Hicks Valley grass-fed beef in all of the Oliver’s Markets locations throughout Sonoma County.
This model is not without risk and hard work, though. “I have to be on my toes to make sure I have enough pasture and feed to support these cattle. Leases are getting hard to find. This was a good grass year, and everything worked out, but there is always next year,” Bill said.
Moving from a well-run and profitable commodity cattle operation to a local, year-round direct marketing program may not be right for many operators, but for those who are positioned to take advantage of the increased enthusiasm and demand for local product, the Hicks Valley Beef and Oliver’s Market deal can serve as a working example. Here, willing retailers who can find ways to collaborate with willing ranchers can combine to reach a growing and hungry market for local products.