Wyoming ranch supplies Whole Foods meat counterWritten by Christy Hemken
The ranch, owned by the Northern Arapaho Tribe, has an agreement with a company called Panorama Organic Grass-Fed Beef, which, in turn, has an agreement to supply Whole Foods with beef that meets its specifications. Arapaho Ranch manager David Stoner says Whole Foods specifications are even more stringent than the USDA organic certification.
Beef from the Arapaho Ranch exclusively supplies 25 Whole Foods stores throughout the Rocky Mountain region, including the Salt Lake City area, the Front Range, New Mexico and Overland Park, Kan.
Although Stoner says Whole Foods was reluctant to begin offering organic grassfed beef in its Rocky Mountain region, Panorama has already supplied them with the beef in its West Coast stores.
Before the deal was finalized representatives from the ranch and tribe traveled to Denver, Colo. to hammer out the details, after which people from Panorama and Whole Foods visited the Thermopolis operation.
“What we have right now is an agreement with Panorama that we will sell them all our cattle that fit the Whole Foods market, and they will buy our cattle exclusively for the Whole Foods Rocky Mountain Region,” says Stoner.
Although the ranch was certified in 2008, the program includes 2007 calves as certified organic for both slaughter and production. However, as the organic replacement heifers become older and move into the cowherd, the ranch will have to find another market for the culls, as Whole Foods only accepts cattle younger than 20 months of age.
The ranch’s arrangement consists of sending one load of 40 cattle each week to Colorado Springs to be processed at a USDA organic and Whole Foods-approved facility.
“Our animals leave here weighing just over 1,000 pounds, and the carcasses yield about 58 percent, which is pretty good for grassfed,” says Stoner. Carcasses are killed and quartered at the first plant, after which they go to a Denver, Colo. processing plant where they’re fabricated into primals and sub-primals. From there, individual meat counters cut the beef to fit demand.
“Whole Foods has beautiful meat counters,” says Stoner, noting that everything going into Whole Foods stores is boneless, including everything from steaks to roasts, and that all fresh meat is packaged in old-time brown butcher paper. “They cut their own steaks and do their own grind, processing the carcasses based on what will sell best at the time.”
Stoner says the ranch’s biggest competition comes from Uruguay, but their advantage is being fresh and being local. “One of the things Whole Foods wanted was local and fresh, and there’s no way the producers from Uruguay can guarantee that.”
“Whole Foods promotes this as ‘never confined’ beef,’” says Stoner. “They’re confined the day before they get shipped.”
The cattle travel to the Front Range on a truck owned by a Northern Arapaho trucking company.
The last week of June marks the ninth load shipped from the ranch under the agreement. “So far it’s going really well,” says Stoner. “So far, most of the feedback has been very positive.”
He says some customers have commented that the meat is tough, but counters, “I’ve eaten this my whole life. It’s not tough – it gets dry when it’s cooked too long because there’s very little marbling.”
To avoid cooking problems, people from the ranch conduct in-store cooking demonstrations, and they also host Whole Foods meat cutters at the ranch for first-hand education, because they’re the ones who interact with customers and answer questions daily. “They know very little about how it’s raised or how to cook it, and it’s part of our job to educate them, too,” says Stoner.
“We tell people it takes about a third less time to cook this beef,” says Stoner. “Don’t cook it as long, and certainly don’t leave it on the grill until it’s well-done. Even the customers that really want this product need to be taught how to prepare it.”
At the end of June about 40 people from the tribe, including a dance group, had recently returned from the grand opening of a new Whole Foods location on the Front Range.
Stoner estimates the ranch’s two-year-olds will last through early fall, after which they’ll begin to ship yearlings. Of increased shipments in the future, he says the ranch is comfortable and can easily supply 40 to 45 animals each week and he doesn’t expect the grocery chain will ask for more than that.