BY PETER BELAND // PHOTOS BY RANDY JOHNSON
Mounted firmly on a cowhide sofa in his log cabin home overlooking the rolling hills near Fossil, Mehrten Homer, president of Painted Hills Natural Beef, is watching a late-season Beavers game. The phone rings and he turns down the TV. Dressed in a pressed cowboy shirt and jeans, he picks up the phone and speaks swiftly into the receiver, not wasting a breath as he arranges a money transfer to one of his producers. Never mind that Mehrten oversees an operation with 30,000 head of cattle and more than $30 million in revenue, formal business meetings aren’t needed when a phone call will do. “We trade millions of dollars this way,” the fourth-generation rancher says, not without a satisfied look.
For years Mehrten, 65, and his wife, Glenda, 63, ranched like most ranchers have for decades: They raised cattle and sold them to a broker who then sold them to a processor. Though they raised choice-grade Angus, “When you sell cattle to a broker, they get sent to a feed lot and get mixed up with lower-grade cattle,” says Glenda, who is the general manager.
|Painted Hills Natural Beef|
|President: Mehrten Homer|
|2009 Gross revenue: $32 million|
|Member ranches: 80|
|Cattle purchases: $800,000 each week from local ranchers|
Governed by a commodity market in which the value of calves had increased little from the 1960s to the 1990s, they were selling their calves at a meager 60 cents a pound when in 1996 the Homers and six other Fossil-area ranchers pooled their resources and started Painted Hills in an effort to shake off the middlemen.
They planned to control all aspects of their business; to raise, process and market their grass-fed, corn-finished cattle raised without antibiotics or hormones. And they would ask a premium price for their beef. With the help of a grant from the governor’s reserve fund, they hired an analyst to identify markets where they could sell their beef. “It was a mess, just a mess,” says Glenda with a weary laugh. After six months, the grant ran out and Mehrten and Glenda hopped in their car and drove across the Northwest to build relationships with market owners and ranchers. Despite their efforts, after four years they were $425,000 in the red. “We told ourselves we’d lose [another] $25,000 and call it good,” Mehrten says.
Painted Hills was processing 10 head of cattle a month in the early years, losing money because it didn’t process enough to make it economical and because it didn’t get money for offal, the non-meat parts of the cow. In 1999 the company approached Washington Beef (now AB Foods) in Toppenish, Wash., to get a better processing deal, but the plant told them they needed to provide at least 60 head of cattle a month to make it work. Once again, Mehrten and Glenda got in their car and drove off, this time to Seattle to convince market chain Associated Grocers to sell their beef. Washington Beef gave them the green light to process more cattle and that month they lost less money. Six months later they were making money.
“We gotta try this again,” Mehrten remembers saying. And so they jumped in the car again and again to convince more ranchers to join. Glenda would drive out to where she could get cell phone service to jot down orders when the office landline was out.
Many ranchers were wary at first of changing how they raised their cattle, but realized the worth of natural beef when Tyson Fresh Meats in Wallula, Wash., came calling in 2004. Tyson had stopped accepting cattle from its regular Canadian producers because of the incidence of mad cow disease in that country. In a deal with Tyson, Painted Hills was able to cut down its processing costs, received a great offal credit deal, and was able to improve labeling and packaging to better differentiate its products from conventional beef.
Painted Hills now processes about 2,000 head of cattle a month and is paid for its offal. The increase in production was the result of getting enough ranches — 80 to date —and consumers on board with the idea of natural beef, a task that took years of educating both groups about Painted Hills' natural, all-vegetarian feeding program. Fifteen years later, Painted Hills’ network of small markets and ranchers, forged over handshakes and coffee, is paying off. Now playing the role of producer, broker and marketer, Painted Hills is able to weather changes in the volatile commodity market.
Mehrten and Glenda can relax a bit more while their son, Will (the operations manager), and other family members take over major portions of the company’s management. Those cowhide sofas are comfy.
Yet even with their loyal network of ranchers and buyers and their aggressive drive to find new markets on the East Coast and elsewhere, Mehrten does not entirely rest.
“We’ve gotta hell of a lot of beef and there’s only so many days,” Mehrten says, his booming voice tinged with something that almost sounds like regret.