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From the buffet line: Lessons about responding to consumer demand

buffet lunch photo
(Editor's note: Tom Block, Farm Bureau News Coordinator, is on tour of Brazil with a group of Iowa farmers studying livestock production there. Here are some of his observations.)

Nothing says comfort food quite like a good, old-fashioned buffet when you’re 5,000 miles from home.

That’s one of the lessons I’ve learned this week traveling with a group of Iowa farmers to learn about how livestock are raised in Brazil. With a packed schedule that has us on the road from dawn until dusk, well-stocked buffets for breakfast and lunch have been a necessity not only for nourishment, but also efficiency. We’ve been able to feed our group of 22 Iowa Farm Bureau members on the Brazil study tour in less than an hour and get back on the road as we cover 1,200 miles by bus in the wide-open countryside.

And, we haven’t gone away hungry. The buffets have featured a wide selection of familiar food choices like salad greens, pasta, beans, rice, chicken and beef. A few of us have been a little more adventurous and tried some selections not found at your typical small-town Iowa café, including eggplant,  plantains and a variety of other native foods that are unidentifiable to us, but usually tasty.

The chicken and beef selections are also a little different than what we’re used in in the U.S. Instead of chicken breasts, all we’ve eaten so far is legs and thighs --- the preferred, and cheaper, option for Brazilians. The beef we’ve had is nothing like the tender, juicy cuts we’re used to at home either. We’ve learned tougher cuts are the norm -- the product of the rangy, grass-fed cattle we’ve come here to see. One of our group members joked that the tough meat is a way to get people to follow their mom’s recommendation and chew food 32 times before swallowing.

In reality, on our visits to farms, research institutes and a beef processing plant, we’ve learned that Brazilian beef isn’t graded according to quality like U.S. prime, choice and select, because consumers can’t afford the pricier cuts. Since farmers here aren’t paid for producing better beef, most aren’t selecting better genetics to improve their herds.

“It changes very slowly. It’s cultural,” said the farm manager at one of the more progressive cattle farms we visited. “The older generation doesn’t want to change.”

That’s been one of the biggest surprises for our Iowa livestock farmers, who are constantly reinvesting in their farms and seeking ways to improve the quality of beef, pork, chicken and milk they produce to meet the demands of U.S. consumers.

“You have to be open to new ideas,” said Jason Brockshus, a dairy farmer from Sibley. “We’re always looking for way to improve our production and get better.”

Some of the Brazilian farms we’ve visited are starting to get that message, but for the rest of our trip we’re expecting to follow mom’s advice to chew our beef very well as we enjoy our buffet lunches.

By Tom Block. Tom is Spokesman News Coordinator for the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation.