ReGen Brands Recap #50

Matt Maier @ Thousand Hills Lifetime Grazed

A 20-Year Winning Formula For Regenerative Beef

Matt Maier is the Founder, Owner, and Chief Grass Farmer at Thousand Hills Lifetime Grazed. Thousand Hills is supporting regenerative agriculture with its vast array of fresh and value-added 100% grass-fed, grass-finished regenerative beef products. 

The Brand

Thousand Hills Lifetime Grazed is a CPG brand distributed in all 50 states. In the last year, it has become the number one protein brand (fresh or frozen) in the natural retail channel boasting 6 of the top 10 SKUs in the country. Their products are available in all across the country at co-ops, natural food stores, Natural Grocers, and many other regional chains. Thousand Hills currently works with 15 different processors, sourcing from over 50 farms that manage 600,000 acres of land.

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Determined to Make a Living

Growing up in Minnesota working on his family’s small, multi-species, and grass-based farm, Matt learned early on the value of hard work, nature, and cattle. He also decided that pursuing business and entrepreneurship in food or agriculture was a safe bet in the Twin Cities, home to many of the top food brands and retailers.

Matt started his career in marketing as a brand manager, eager for the opportunity to “run a business inside a business.” After working several years at Schwan's, he opened his own agency with a solid client roster of Fortune 500 food companies. By the early 2000s, when his industry began consolidating, he took the opportunity to sell the agency and start something new. 

Going Home Again

Matt moved his family back out to the rural area he grew up in so his kids could grow up like him. After purchasing a lot adjacent to his family farm, he quickly saw that many of the surrounding small farms were no longer raising animals, and many were running an extractive rotation of corn and soybeans without any regard for the future of their land.

One day, perched in a deer stand thinking about the future, Matt recalled a study that affirmed the impact that holistically grazed cattle could have on the land. He decided to look at beef brands, eventually investing in Thousand Hills.

Changing Course to Do it Right

Matt worked to set strict protocols for how the beef they sourced was raised and ratcheted up these efforts when he became the majority owner of the company. They developed their own guidelines early on and then eventually adopted the standard created by the American Grassfed Association. When the term regenerative was first gaining momentum, Matt knew two things: 1) Thousand Hills was regenerative 2) And this claim was going to mean something in the marketplace. Concerned about greenwashing, Matt made the decision to pursue Land to Market™ certification. He was drawn to their emphasis on outcomes data to establish credibility. 

“It’s a high bar and a lot of work, but it’s worth it. Sometimes I get a little jealous of the brands that get by without doing it, but realized this is what we have to do.” – Matt

Fighting a “Commodity” Mindset

As Thousand Hills has grown, Matt gets plenty of questions from buyers about price. His answer is rather simple: the only direction it's ever going is up.

“As it is, the price nowhere near reflects the value in the package or sufficiently rewards the producers. The last thing I want to do is consolidate cattle into one plant or figure out the fastest way we can make that animal grow by giving it the most supplements, sugar, and starch. We need to go in the other direction – more diversity, more care, more stewardship – and we'll be much better off.” – Matt

The Data Supports Grass-Fed, Grass-Finished 

More than 95% of cattle in this country end up in a feedlot. This contrasts with grass-fed, grass-finished animals who eat a natural, diverse diet of grasses, legumes, and forages while living their whole life on pasture. We know this more natural approach is better for the animals and the humans consuming them, and Matt is excited about the emerging body of research proving that with empirical data.

“We don't need a whiz-bang technology thing. We can just simply do some old-fashioned stewarding of the land: multi-species, manure for fertilizer, letting diverse plants grow. We don’t need to spray weeds with glyphosate – we don't need that for our food system. Let's really grow food, not feed or fuel, that we can consume in this country.” – Matt

A Winning Strategy

Looking  back over the past 20 years, Matt credits his success to a few not-so-simple things:

1) Having high standards and aligning with the partners who support them.

Matt believes the high bar they have set makes the difference, and it has allowed them to create a value chain that is aligned from top to bottom, from producers, to retailers, to consumers.

2) Giving the end consumer an amazing eating experience.

Matt stresses that this is table stakes for any successful brand, and they've learned a lot over 20 years about cattle genetics, farm practices, processing protocols, and other factors that can create a winning formula for taste.

3) Product development = survival.

To make it financially and compete against the 80% of imported “grass-fed” beef, they need to utilize and sell the whole carcass. Doing this in "value-added" form (from BBQ beef to bone broth, chili, jerky, and meat sticks) allows them to increase their margins to sustainable levels.

50% Market Share for Regen

Matt emphasizes that the time to change the system is now. He also applauds the efforts of retailers like Natural Grocers who are exposing consumers to the right kinds of products without compromise. 

“We cannot continue to sustain our current food system, so let’s start changing it, one landowner, one consumer, one retailer, one distributor at a time.” – Matt

You can check out the full episode with Matt Maier @ Thousand Hills Lifetime Grazed HERE.

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This ReGen Recap was produced with support from Kristina Tober