BANGOR – The 13th annual Maine Beef Conference was an opportunity Saturday morning for the state’s producers to hear from several experts that the future of the industry in Maine is bright.
The Maine Beef Industry Council has spent more than $400,000 in the last 13 years promoting beef and educating consumers and beef producers – funding that is now beginning to show results, according to farmers.
Although keynote speaker Steve Suther, a Kansas beef rancher and nationally syndicated agriculture journalist, admitted that he had not been to New England before, he also said that Maine has a solid future in the beef industry.
Working together to market a Maine-branded product will be key to the industry’s growth, Suther told the more than 50 farmers in attendance. Maine’s agriculture promotion program “Get Real, Get Maine” is a step in the right direction, he said.
“The industry must become consumer focused,” Suther said. “Take a look at the chicken industry and what they have done with wings. They have raised what was once an 11-cents per pound waste product into a $4 a pound prime seller.”
Certified Angus beef growers have created more than 20 value-added, unique products, said Suther, many of them with convenience and hurried consumers in mind. Processors of Angus beef are looking for high quality, consistent animals, he said.
Jerry Chadwick of Warren is one of Maine’s typical beef farmers. A commercial fisherman by trade, Chadwick is a part-time herdsman. “The majority of Maine’s beef farms are small, part-time operations,” said Chadwick, “with about 25 to 30 brood cows.”
According to a January census of operations, there were 97,000 beef cattle and calves in Maine, with a combined value of $80 million. Figures released in 1999 by the New England Agricultural Statistics Service show that the number of farms raising beef in the state has surpassed the number of dairy operations, 1,900 to 700.
Chadwick agreed with Suther’s assessment that consistent quality is key to the industry’s success. “Maine’s beef producers have become more aware in recent years regarding the quality issue,” said Chadwick, “and it is paying off.”
Chadwick said that this year he was paid 93 cents per pound, live weight, for steer calves, compared to 83 cents last year.
According to data provided by the Maine Beef Producers Association, more beef cows are being brought into Maine than are being shipped out, an apparent move toward building quality herds. In September, four Maine beef producers shipped a load of black steers to a Vermont market; the 52 steers averaged 820 pounds and sold for $76.33 per hundredweight. “Comparing market reports from other parts of the country,” said Suther, “Maine did as well as any other state.”
Chadwick said the industry has been on an upswing in Maine for the last several years. “It is very encouraging,” he said.
Suther advised the producers Saturday to take advantage of the latest technology, especially the Internet as a marketing tool.
“There are millions of cattle being sold on the Internet,” he said. “Northern Maine, like the west, is a remote area with marketing challenges.” He suggested that producers remember that they are not just farmers; they are businessmen. “Create a mission statement and goals for your farm,” said Suther, “and manage with those goals in mind.”
Suther also suggested forming cooperatives and working together in coordinating production and shipping market-ready beef. “The truly independent producer is becoming a thing of the past,” he said. “That’s not so bad.”
“There is an incredibly strong market out there,” said Pam Gowdy, who with her husband, Christian, manages a small herd of 15 brood cows.
Like Suther, Gowdy also stressed working cooperatively with neighbors and others who can augment the farm. The Gowdys are supplied with chicken manure from a chick farm that is used to reclaim and dress their forage fields.
David Potter, who operates a beef operation in Fort Kent and was named the 1999 Maine Beef Producer of the Year, has developed cooperative agreements with a commercial potato operation and a hay farm to augment his farm.
Other presenters at the conference included Dr. Kevin Budd, a veterinarian with the New Brunswick Department of Agriculture, Kevin Woltemath of Aldemere Farm in Rockport, and Dee Potter, extension educator at the University of Maine.
The daylong conference also included a trade show.