What do BMWs and bison have in common? More than you might think, says the CEO of Heritage Angus Beef.
“Bison or high-end beef are no different than high-end Scotch or Grey Goose Vodka or a Rolex,” Christoph Weder said at the Wildrose Bison Convention earlier this month.
“Bison are not a commodity. They’re a luxury product. Produce it with the mindset that you’re producing the Rolex of proteins.
“It’s about the story.”
The story of Heritage Angus Beef began around the time drought hit in 2002, when Weder was a cattle producer and Alberta Agriculture beef specialist near Camrose. After a visit to the Peace Country, where drought was less of an issue, Weder and his family packed up and headed north to Rycroft.
A week later, BSE was found on a farm down the road from his old operation.
So Weder decided he needed a differentiated product and began raising beef without added hormones or antibiotics.
“No one else was doing it at the time,” said Weder. “Everybody else was getting out of the beef industry, but we used it as an opportunity to expand and keep growing.”
Today, Heritage Angus Beef consists of more than a dozen ranches producing specialty beef with a long list of attributes: hormone and antibiotic free, GMO free, grass fed, environmentally friendly, Prairie Wise certified, Halal certified, verified, audited, and fully traceable.
“At Heritage Angus Beef, we’re more than beef,” said Weder. “We’re trying to build a luxury car that has all the bells and whistles.”
A lot of its beef is exported to high-end markets in Europe and it also supplies Hero Certified Burgers, the popular high-end burger chain with more than 50 locations in Ontario.
Most producers concentrate on production, but that’s only one piece of the puzzle, said Weder, who now ranches in Hudson’s Hope, B.C.
“We focus so much on cost of production and finding ways to do things cheaper and faster,” he said. “But there’s a whole other side of the equation that not a lot of focus has been done on, and that’s marketing.”
One of “the biggest downfalls in agriculture” is focusing entirely on the cost of production.
“We teach everybody ‘produce, produce, produce,’ but really, at the end of the day, we’re producing food products,” he said.
“We want to get paid for those food products, so we really need to know about and concentrate on marketing.”
At Heritage Angus Beef, Weder works to be “in the bottom 20 per cent on cost of production, but also in the top 20 per cent in marketing.”
“To continue in agriculture, it’s not just about lower cost of production. It’s also about getting higher value up the chain.”
The real deal
And producers need to build true value chains — “not ‘screw you’ chains,” he said.
“People talk about value chains, but really, it’s one guy screwing the other guy over half the time,” he said.
“You need to look at cost of production, return on investment, and reasonable profit — for everybody along the chain.”
Value chains “don’t stop at your farm gate,” said Weder. “You’ve got to look at your partners down the road.
“If you think about doing a better job of selling your product and finding out who bought your product, you could really make a huge difference for your bottom line.”
But marketing has to be based on “real things, no smoke and mirrors,” he added.
“Beyond no hormones and no antibiotics, people want to know where their food comes from — what’s behind it, what’s done to it, who are the people that are raising it,” he said.
The company lists its member ranches, most of which are in Alberta, on its website, which also details how its cattle are raised.
“One of the things that we have in agriculture is authenticity. Farmers and ranchers, believe it or not, are still well trusted by most people in the city.”
But livestock agriculture needs to be worthy of that trust, by focusing on traceability, animal welfare, and environmental sustainability, said Weder.
“When I go market beef, I can tell you where it came from, how it was raised, when this or that was done to it,” he said.
“You need to have standards of production and be prepared to do those things.”