During 2020’s unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, consumers reached several conclusions—they never want to be without toilet paper ever again, hand sanitizer is a precious commodity, the meat processing system we have now is flawed and they love the taste of local, home-grown beef. In response to the beef processing challenges of 2020, American Farmers & Ranchers and Oklahoma Farmers Union Cooperative developed a marketing opportunity called the Oklahoma Certified Beef Association.
Scott Blubaugh, AFR/OFU Cooperative president said Oklahoma State Rep. Ty Burns came up with the idea and wrote legislation called the 2020 Oklahoma Certified Beef Act, which went into effect Nov. 1 and created the definition that cattle bred, born, raised and slaughtered in the state of Oklahoma are eligible to be labeled as Oklahoma certified beef. Through AFR/OFU’s OCBA program, which rolled out Jan. 2, consumers are guaranteed 100% Oklahoma beef products.
“The goal is to be able to keep more of the retail food dollar in rural communities in Oklahoma, so we’ve created a tool for the smaller farms and ranches to use in marketing directly,” Blubaugh said. “We want to keep more of it on the ranches and farms so we can have a thriving rural industry. We started this to help family farms and ranches be able to stay in business and every one of those retail food dollars that we can keep in our rural communities is a huge economic driver for these small towns. If a farmer or rancher prospers, the schools, churches, hardware store are also going to prosper.”
OCBA cattle and products are certified via affidavits that are part of a third-party verification system administered by AFR/OFU. The affidavits can be used for all four stages to verify a product or per stage of the calf’s life to be included with the sale of the animal as they move into the next phase. Additionally, affidavits can cover one or multiple animals. All affidavits must be signed by a verifier, such as a veterinarian, processor, local agriculture teacher or banker who can substantiate some or all of the stages of an animal’s lifespan took place in Oklahoma. All affidavits must be notarized to be valid. If a complaint is filed against an OCBA producer, AFR/OFU will partner with Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry to launch an investigation.
One unique aspect of the program is that cattle of any category or breed can be certified in the program because the object is to offer consumers any type of beef they want, whether its grass-fed or grain finished, as long as it is Oklahoma-bred, born, fed and processed. Blubaugh said the OCBA program is probably not big enough to suit everyone that might want in, but it is growing rapidly and many retailers like grocery stores and restaurants, as well as consumers wanting to buy directly are chomping at the bit to secure OCBA products.
“We have way more buyers than we have sellers right now and really what’s limiting that is the processing capacity of our state,” Blubaugh explained. “All in all, we still have a shortage of processors here, but it’s getting better each day as more and more of these come online. There’s just really a lot of demand from consumers right now. Consumers want to know where their food comes from, how it’s raised and if you can guarantee them those things, they are willing to pay for it.”
OCBA products are in some restaurants and it will soon be in primarily small, independent grocery stores, Blubaugh said. In fact, AFR/OFU served the first OCBA steak to a prominent Oklahoma VIP on Feb. 4.
“We just had a big event last week where Oklahoma’s governor, Kevin Stitt, ate the first OCBA steak at Vast, the only four-diamond restaurant in the state, which is on the 49th floor of the Devon Tower in Oklahoma City,” Blubaugh said.
No Name Ranch of Wynnewood, Oklahoma, a major player in direct marketing beef in Oklahoma, provided the steaks for this event.
Oklahoma beef is what’s for dinner
While it benefits Oklahoma farmers and ranchers, the program is mutually beneficial to meat processors. Blubaugh said since there are no large beef processing giants in Oklahoma, only the small meat processing facilities are able to capitalize on OCBA products, thus allowing them to harness that market and stock freezers with these sought-after products. The OCBA program has also created demand for more small plants to pop up across the state, along with employment openings.
“This really creates some unique job opportunities in rural areas and for small, mom and pop processing plants,” Blubaugh explained. “We’re seeing a rebirth of that industry here in our state and new plants are coming online now. We are also seeing many Native American tribes building facilities throughout the state and some of our older facilities are being upgraded to either USDA or state inspection, and at the same time they are increasing their capabilities and capacity by about 50%.”
In a way, Blubaugh said we have the coronavirus to thank for this program because the pandemic illuminated the weaknesses of the meat supply chain in America and was one of the major reasons for AFR/OFU’s push toward the OCBA program.
“I’m not sure we could have ever gotten this bill passed and had the success we have had with this program without the pandemic,” Blubaugh said. “In April we saw grocery store shelves become empty for the first time and consumers all across the country were asking why. They didn’t understand that most of our meats are processed at great big consolidated plants around the country and if for any reason those plants go down, whether it’s the Holcomb fire or workers getting sick from the coronavirus, it really cut into the nation’s beef supply very quickly. It really woke up consumers nation-wide and they tried home-grown beef and they liked it. They decided they like it a lot more and they can’t get enough of it.”
Although this program is the first of its kind, Blubaugh said other Farmer’s Union sister states are interested in replicating it in their states, so more cattlemen across the U.S. may be able to capitalize on similar marketing programs in their states in future—giving producers and processors a much needed edge with the products.
“I think this is going to work out long-term and not just to get through the pandemic,” Blubaugh said. “Once consumers get that really good product that we have, they’re hooked on it and they don’t want to go back to anything else.”
AFR/OFU provides a producer directory at www.afrcoop.org/ocba/ for consumers to find and purchase beef directly from ranches in their areas. To become a member of OCBA, ranchers must first become members of AFR/OFU, either through a dues-alone membership or through their status as an AFR Insurance policyholder. Beyond AFR/OFU membership, there are currently two options for potential OCBA members—standard or lifetime membership. A standard annual membership is $40 per year and allows certification of up to 40 head per year; additional cattle can be certified for $1 per head. A lifetime membership of $1,000 allows an unlimited number of cattle to be certified each year. Both membership types are designed to be inexpensive options to help OCBA members gain additional market traction without adding expense to their bottom line. For more information or to join the Oklahoma Certified Beef Association, contact AFR/OFU’s OCBA Coordinator Ellen Roth at 405-218-5597 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lacey Newlin can be reached at 620-227-1871 or email@example.com.