By Kelly Daynard
Sarnia – It started six years ago as a conversation between friends. Today, that idea tossed around a kitchen table has become Bluewater Beef, an initiative of the Eyre and Shaw farm families of Lambton County.
Murray Shaw recalls that early conversation. “We wanted to expand our farms but the economics at the time, for small farmers, didn’t make sense.”
While most of their beef produced at the time was sold directly to larger processors, he and partner Ralph Eyre already sold a small amount of beef locally, taking orders from friends and family for beef from their farms. From sales of that “freezer beef”, they had learned that people liked knowing exactly where their meat came from.
Soon after, they accessed an industry funding program through the Ontario Cattlemen’s Association that helped them do some market research and develop a name, brand and initial business plan that would make their farms more profitable, provide a premium beef product and, most importantly, allow them to become better acquainted with their consumers. Today, more than 75% of their beef is sold through Bluewater Beef.
“Being involved in everything from production to retail has made me understand this industry far better than I ever did before,” said Shaw. “The average farmer doesn’t know what happens to their cattle when they leave their farm. We, on the other hand, know every detail down to the weight and quality of an individual cut. It’s made us better farmers.”
Bluewater Beef manages every detail of the animals’ lives, from birth to beef. The calves are born on their farms and spend their entire lives there. Cattle are raised hormone-free, on a corn-fed diet and are ready for market between 12 and 18 months of age. Breeding is also consistent. They all are at least 50% Limousin which also helps to ensure a uniform product.
Their beef is all processed by Weiland Meats in Petrolia, another family-run business. Prior to making that decision, the partners interviewed all abattoirs in the area, looking for one whose business philosophy and attention to quality most closely matched their own.
Bluewater Beef is truly a family affair. Ralph and Murray are assisted by their fathers and Murray’s brother. At chore time, the four Shaw children and three Eyre sons pitch in. Murray’s wife Sandi manages the program’s website and social media communications while Ralph’s wife Brenda helps with orders and management decisions. On weekend mornings, you’ll see them all working at farm markets in Petrolia and Sarnia. The business has also benefitted from the expertise of Brenda’s father who was both a farmer and a local butcher for more than 40 years.
It’s at the two markets that they have the best conversations with their consumers. “The questions that we’re asked are really interesting,” said Eyre, “People want to support local farmers and they want to know more about how their beef is raised.”
Last fall, they hosted an open house at the Eyre farm and were amazed at the crowds that came from Sarnia to see the farm, take wagon rides and enjoy an afternoon in the country.
Social media has also proved to be a great way of keeping their customers informed about the business and about life on the farm. The early January birth of twin calves on one of the farms (an unusual occurrence in the beef industry) attracted a great deal of interest and excitement through its Facebook page.
Bluewater Beef has a business plan that focuses on quality and customer service. It’s a plan that the two families constantly refer to when making decisions on future growth.
“We want to continue growing”, said Eyre, “but we need to grow at a pace that makes sense logistically.”
Shaw concluded, “We’ve heard of too many ventures that failed because they grew too fast which compromised their service and their product quality.”
For both, the greatest rewards of their business venture have come in the positive feedback they receive from their customers. “Often we’ll hear from a customer who is eager to tell us about their great dining experience”, said Shaw. “It’s so great when they come back and they’re excited by the taste and the tenderness.”
For more information on this local food initiative, visit www.bluewaterbeef.com
This article is one in a series of profiles on Ontario farmers produced by Farm & Food Care Ontario.