When Adam Bolender discovers a way to improve the health, diet or market value of his herd of beef cattle, he readily shares it with his fellow cattlemen in southern Ohio.
As founding members of the Buckeye Valley Beef Cooperative, he and his wife, Aubrey, have a vested interest in the success of herds belonging to their friends and neighbors in Brown County. The inclination to share tips and best practices — which may not have been the way years ago — comes naturally to his generation, said Adam Bolender, who grew up working on his family’s dairy farm. “It may be a little outside of the box for older farmers,” he said. “But I’ve had several come up to me and say they think it’s a good thing.”
The couple launched the cooperative in 2016 with fellow farmers Eric and Lori Nethero, Ben Parker and Tricyn Huntsman-Parker with the intent of producing a stable source of beef that would allow the partners to sell to more vendors. They recently voted to add two more farms into the cooperative.
“We can do together what we cannot do apart — sell to wholesale meat suppliers, grocery stores and directly to consumers year round,” said Lori Nethero. “Alongside the sale advantages, having multiple heads to brainstorm ideas keeps us all thinking, motivated and in check.”
The opportunity to work together, ask questions and share ideas has been helpful, agreed Ben Parker. “A lot of times farmers tend to keep things to themselves. What we’ve got going on is really neat.”
Tricyn Huntsman-Parker, a veterinarian, is eager to share her medical knowledge and the information she gleans while caring for animals on other farms. A self-described “city girl,” she appreciates the insights and experiences that the longtime farmers bring to the co-op. The other founding members all grew up around cattle and participated in 4-H together. The Bolenders and Eric Nethero serve on the Brown County Farm Bureau board. The Netheros are 4-H advisers and Ben Parker helped start the Young Ag Professionals group in the county.
Making the change
The Bolenders—including Adam’s father and uncle – began shifting to beef cattle in 2012 because of declining milk prices. They sold the last of their dairy cows in 2015.
Aubrey and Adam, who had been enjoying some success with a side cow-calf operation, saw the growing interest in local food as an opportunity to expand. They knew they would need help because their farm did not produce enough beef to meet a year-round demand.
“Consumers want that wholesome, local product,” she said. “You see it everywhere — the movement toward knowing where your food comes from, where it was raised and who raised it.”
As they began to cater to buyers interested in local food, the group found that customers needed help understanding the various choices available to them. “They have interesting questions about how we feed and what we feed. There’s misunderstanding about some things being unsafe,” Aubrey Bolender said. “Sometimes we have to undo what’s been put out there by others.”
For the cooperative, that means not only providing beef, but sharing the story behind how the cows are raised. Cooperative members feed a mix of grass and grain because it leads to a tasty end product, Aubrey Bolender said. “We’re raising cattle the way our grandparents did,” she said.
The ability to connect with consumers through the cooperative has been exciting, Lori Nethero added. “One of the aspects we have enjoyed the most about meeting with consumers, at local craft shows and festivals, is having the opportunity to educate them on the importance of where their food comes from. We would never provide a product that our own families wouldn’t eat.”
Members of the co-op understand that quality meat is the result of careful production practices, Tricyn Huntsman-Parker said. “Our job as farmers and cattle ranchers is to make sure to deliver the best product possible.”
They want consumers to know that they are paying attention to “each individual animal,” Ben Parker said. “We’re a bit more hands-on. We stand behind what we do. It’s a value-added product.”
Work on the farm never stops as Aubrey Bolender and her daughters make way to take care of the cows in Brown County.
The families that make up the beef cooperative include, from left, Adam and Alli Hamilton, Eric and Lori Nethero, Aubrey and Adam Bolender with their children Emery Kate, Macy and Brant, and Tricyn and Ben Parker.
Emery Kate and her sister, Macy, don’t play school. They play “co-op” in their little office at home.
Photos by Allison McAdams