Panelists discuss consumers and beef at Cattle U

Cattlewomen took center stage during a panel session at Cattle U and Trade Show, Aug. 4, in Dodge City, Kansas.

Sheri Glazier, registered dietician and owner of Dirt Road Dietician, LLC; Jean Gottenborg, owner-operator, Eagle Rock Ranch; Cassidy Johnston, speaker and consultant with Not Your Average Rancher; and Tera Barnhardt, veterinarian; were featured during the session. Holly Martin, director of communications with the American Angus Association moderated the panel.

Glazier, a registered dietician, is married to a farmer and lives with her family in Loyal, Oklahoma. They raise wheat, cattle, sesame and a variety of other crops on their cow-calf operation. She’s also worked in healthcare.

“I do a lot of bridging through the healthcare community as well as consumers and things like that, to addressing a lot of myths,” she said. “But also just educating people in general about agriculture, which includes a lot of beef.”

Gottenborg, a first generation rancher from Colorado, has been working and saving for 35 years with her husband to get their first ranch. At Eagle Rock Ranch they have a small cow-calf operation with Angus-Hereford crosses, which they run on a 50,000-acre forest permit and some of their own land. They also have a direct to consumer beef business with a small store in Fairplay, Colorado.

“It’s been a learning curve for us,” she said.

Johnston is another first generation rancher who grew up in town and has a degree from University of Colorado-Boulder. Johnston and her husband have been together for 12 years and have three boys. They manage a large commercial operation in Colorado with a division in Canon City and another at Ordway, Colorado.

“We’ve worked on big ranches from Montana to New Mexico,” she said. “My goal with my business that I’ve just started—we’re doing this to serve and bridge the gap between the farm and the table. Because that’s kind of where I lived for most of my life as far as not really knowing anything about agriculture.”

Barnhart grew up in Satanta, Kansas, and graduated from Kansas State University with here bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate of veterinary medicine. She serves a number of clients in the beef industry—feedlot, dairy, dairy on beef, grow yard and calf ranch clients in southwest Kansas as a consulting veterinarian. She grew up on a mostly irrigated crop farm and with a purebred herd she started with her grandfather in middle school.

“That keeps me close to home so that I can help raise my little ones because I don’t want to be on the road and in hotel rooms every night,” she said.

Each panelist has had their own interactions with consumers, but for each it presents its own sort of challenges. Glazier, as a registered dietician, fields a gamut of questions when working with those outside of agriculture. The common theme she’s found is people are generally curious about beef.

“But they don’t know what they don’t know,” she said.

Many aren’t sure how many generations removed from the farm or ranch they are or have an understanding of where their food comes from. She does find grounding in the differences in people and what they know.

“I don’t need to speak over their heads. I’m not going to be insulting to them or to tell them some of the very, very basics,” she said.

When it comes to those in the health care industry or those making nutrition recommendations, Glazier is passionate about making sure someone understands where their food comes from, and that helps with those difficult conversations.

“There’s a lot of ways to do that,” she said.

Glazier said in her world, people tend to get overwhelmed or intimidated by titles of vegan or vegetarian.

“There’s a lot of people in that movable middle that really are genuinely curious,” she said. “I usually take a moment to pause, ask them questions. What do they want to know and then kind of go from there.”

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Gottenborg admits she always thought consumers wanted to know about the buzzwords—humanely raised, non-hormones or hormones, no antibiotics—but that’s not necessarily true.

“Well, what I’ve learned through the last couple of years and having the store and having our captive audience, they always want to come to the ranch,” she said. “What they want to know the most is how the cattle are raised. What does their pasture look like? And how many friends do they have? And are they happy?”

For Johnston, growing up in Denver and going to school in Boulder, she found it’s an interesting crowd and there’s an idea that people choose certain diets or live a certain way because they “hate us or because they don’t like what we do.”

“But like Sheri said, they don’t know what they don’t know. So you have to meet them where they are, and kind of lead them along the path to show them how the cattle live,” she said.

Johnston said many consumers want to know the choices they’re making are good ones.

“Which in the beef industry is great because we’re happy if you’re eating beef,” she said. “We don’t care really what kind it is, as long as you’re not choosing that choice because of fear.”

Those in the beef industry have to remember a lot of consumers are making the choices they are because they’re afraid of a different choice or the way certain companies, industries or brands market to consumers through fear.

“We’re all really lucky that we get to know an inside view,” Johnston said. “So when I go to grocery store, I’m not afraid. I know what the labels mean. I know what various cuts are. I know the provenance of most of the products. The average person is so far removed from the farm or ranch that they don’t know any of those things. We have to remember that’s not their fault.”

Consumers aren’t stupid, and Johnston is going to let them do what they’re going to do because “we’re not going to convince them either way.”

“It’s our job to connect with them in a way that is kind and gracious, even if they’re not being very kind themselves,” she said.

Martin asked the panelists about recommendations for those trying to market their own beef and how to do it in a way that doesn’t seem negative to the rest of the industry. Johnston said the typical consumer doesn’t know that a lot about the claims beef producers make about their production practices.

“They don’t have anything to do with the health, safety or quality of that animal, but because we raise such an across the board, high quality of beef in the United States,” she said, “we have to find a way to differentiate between yours, mine and everybodys.”

Her advice is to tell the truth. Tell the story of the family and how the cattle are taken care of and raised. Explain the production practices and how they work or don’t work for the farm or ranch.

“And if someone else does something different, that’s totally fine,” she said. “But I think we need that transparency because that’s where the fear lives is when we are not transparent about what we do.”

That’s often tough to do, especially if the producer is raising a branded beef product or they’re certified. Those value added programs many participate in show consumers how good a beef producer’s end product is based on requirements and data to participate.

“The beef industry is super privileged, I guess from the standpoint of animal protein where we have this beautiful story,” she said. “We have a ranch to talk about. That’s where we know the cattle spend the majority of their life. Our brothers and sisters in other protein options in the U.S. don’t have that story.”

As a veterinarian she’s closer to the retail space than some, and when she’s working with “our Walmarts and our Five Guys burgers and Wendy’s burgers,” at the feedlot when they visit, she’s able to answer their questions as to what’s going on in the yard and how the consumer is getting exactly what they want.

“It’s very apparent to me that the consumer is the boss and we can’t forget that we get very emotionally tied to our business,” she said.

At the end of the day, beef producers need to do their job to build consumer trust. This way consumers can tell McDonald’s or Jack in the Box they want a certain thing.

Barnhardt said those on the feedlot or dairy side tend to be a little closer to the retailer because of their place on the value chain.

“We have to be a lot more open to their discussions because they have a brand to protect and they’ll leave us in the dust if they have to,” she said. “Because their job is to protect their brand, just like our job is to ride for ours.”

Kylene Scott can be reached at 620-227-1804 or [email protected].