Using social media to put beef onto plates

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SPRINGDALE, Mont. — Susie Felton keeps all of her projects neatly on her plate, and at the center of that plate, is beef. In a changing food marketplace, Felton is working to make her own way.

Felton, known as Mrs. Montana Rancher on social media, is building an empire alongside her husband, Jim Felton, who she refers to as her Montana Rancher. Together, they are raising their two daughters while building the family's multigenerational Angus bull business — Felton Angus Beef.

Getting into the beef business is a plan the couple made when they were dating and, after 10 years, has come to fruition as Felton now ships the family's beef right to the door of consumers who connect with the company — and the family — online.

Felton's social media presence is a reflection of real life on the Montana ranch. She turned to her Instagram followers when deciding which decadent dessert to donate to the school carnival raffle. Once the winner was chosen — a salted caramel chocolate pecan pie — she posted photos of the process, the recipe, the finished project and, finally, a photo from the event.

Felton hasn't gone about her social media presence in a casual way but, instead, has immersed herself in online training courses to improve her skills.

"We're sharing what we do and what works for us," she says. "The recipes I share have been passed through the generations or have found through social media. I show people what we do on a daily basis and how we solve problems."

Felton's social media presence is key to the couple's success, and she has been able to connect with consumers across the country from their Montana ranch. Felton documents how she feeds the entire ranch crew every day while teaching viewers about beef production and preparation. She also educates viewers about how they grow the feed they use to feed their cattle. There's no doubt her daughters are gleaning something from Felton's work as they pretend to have their own Instagram cooking show, complete with an Instagram introduction and tagline at the end.

"Our kids are paying attention," she says. "They're going to have to do something different if they want to come back to agriculture. The way Grandpa did it isn't going to be how they do it."

While she ships beef all over the country, she has found that many of her customers are in Montana. That being said, the Felton operation is an example of a ranch paving their own way into a changing market.

"The way people have ranched and the people now taking over is different than the last generation," she says. "It's going to be vastly different for my kids as they come up. The way people are buying food is changing. If there ever was a time to do something different, now is the time."

Felton's growing beef business depends on relationships as much as social media. Many of the customers who order beef know Felton through social media and maintain contact with her as they offer feedback, receive help in preparation and guidance as they order their next shipment. They truly know their rancher.

"There's room in the market for every producer in the country who has cattle to take it directly to the consumer," she says. "If they can do it and get it at the right price point, the consumer wants to know where their food comes from, and ranchers can show them."

Felton cites the recent purchase of Whole Foods by Amazon, the grocery delivery market, the explosion of meal delivery services like Blue Apron and even Facebook's newly released meal delivery service available through the Facebook app as ways in which the food industry is changing.

"We're in the middle of it right now," she says. "How consumers are buying food is changing. If there ever was a time to be a price maker rather than a price taker, it's right now."

Felton says as foreign beef is imported and mixed with domestic supply, it is becoming difficult for consumers to know the origin of the beef they're feeding their families.

"With social media, it gives the power right back to the producer," she says. "In all aspects of agriculture, it takes the product all the way to the consumer."

This newest expansion to the family's ranch isn't without it's challenges. Felton says there was a steep learning curve in regard to shipping and packaging as well as preparing to have cattle on feed at all times. Jim Felton's passion is feeding cattle, which complements Susie's social media savvy and, as the two work together, their daughters are witnessing the building of a business.