By Kirk Johnson
PULLMAN, Wash. — Tongs in hand, you lean over to take in the smoky sizzle of a steak on the grill, and your thoughts naturally turn to … your alma mater?
That is the plan.
Food stopped being a punch line at most colleges years ago, as salad and burrito bars supplanted the overcooked broccoli and beans. Now, Washington State, a big public university in farm country that has been raising its own cattle for generations to train veterinarians and farmers, is trying to put a brand name on the college’s meat. It shipped the first introductory orders of packed and frozen WSU Premium Beef in January.
Students conducted surveys at football games to determine whether there was an appetite for well-marbled, expensive cuts of Wagyu, a Japanese breed raised here since the 1990s. Unsurprisingly, in a sea of tailgate parties, they found ample evidence for a market share.
Officials have since been promoting the product through campus dinners hosted by the School of Hospitality Business Management, and they say WSU Premium Beef also could help recruitment at the animal sciences department, where student ranchers ride point in Wagyu husbandry from calving to packing. Revenue from beef sales, meanwhile, could help fill some of the gaps left by years of deep state budget cuts. Wagyu typically sells for about $5 a pound more, sometimes much more, than regular beef. The university is offering a variety box for $9.50 a pound.
“We’ve all taken a hit,” said Margaret E. Benson, the chairwoman of the animal sciences department. “These programs have to be self-sustaining.”
Clothing and accessories that declare allegiance to one’s university are, of course, nothing new. And specialty or seasonal products from institutions with agriculture studies departments have also been around for years. Cornell Dairy Ice Cream from the university’s dairy operation is famous in Ithaca, N.Y. Texas A&M Jerky has been a big seller in College Station since the 1980s. The Creamery here at Washington State has been selling Cougar Gold, a white Cheddar cheese packed in a can and named for the university mascot, since the 1940s.
And it is lost on no one here that only a few miles away, across the state line, the University of Idaho’s animal and veterinary science department has been very successfully packing Vandal Brand Meats, also named for its mascot, since the late 1980s. About 95 percent of Vandal Brand’s products — which include beef, pork and lamb — is sold locally, with many in the Washington State University community also regular consumers.
“We feed a lot of Cougars,” said Ron Richard, the Vandal meat department’s manager.
But in recent years, food researchers said, a number of trends have coalesced, changing the stakes, and the possibilities, for what a college food brand might be.
The movement for locally sourced food has fueled a growth in student-led agriculture with new or expanded farm-to-table product lines in places like the urban gardens at George Washington University and the Sustainable Student Farm at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
Student-run farms supplying dining halls and farmers’ markets have started or expanded at many institutions, including UC Davis and Cal State Chico. At the same time, the commercial branding of commodities has become an industry norm, from Washington State apples to California avocados.
The erosion of public financing for higher education, meanwhile, is forcing universities to think harder than ever about how best to keep themselves anchored in the minds of the public and their alumni. Washington State’s higher education system ranked eighth worst in the nation, measured by the depth of financing cuts, down 22.4 percent from 2008 to 2013, according to figures from Illinois State University’s Center for the Study of Education Policy.
“Schools are looking for new ways to generate revenue, but there is more entrepreneurial thinking in colleges and universities than ever before, too,” said Brian Wansink, a professor of consumer behavior at Cornell and the director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab.
Wansink has studied what he calls “food halos.” That is the aura or glow that a compelling story or some connotation of health, social consciousness or environmentalism can bestow on a product. Colleges, he said, with nostalgic allegiances going back generations and educational missions that go beyond the profit motive, can often grab halos while only half trying.
“Anything like a university brand meat has an incredible halo,” he said.
Then there is the saturation factor. Just how many Notre Dame Fighting Irish throw pillows for example, could a person really want? Dinnertime, by contrast, comes around like clockwork.
At Washington State University, which opened in 1892 as the Washington Agricultural College and School of Science, farming roots run deep. Pictures on the wall at the Beef Center show student judging teams from decades past — year after year of skinny, earnest-looking farm boys who had grown up in the local ranching and agriculture economy.
These days, though, the university’s enrollment is heavily skewed toward the urban and suburban, students from the Seattle area especially. The families sending their sons and daughters here, officials said, are also exactly the kind of consumers looking for premium, locally grown produce and meat. An institution of farmers, they say, has become one of foodies. About half of the first round of WSU Premium Beef orders were from the Seattle area.
“We had people wanting to ship their son or daughter a box,” said Tom Cummings, the university’s cattle operations manager. “One was to South Carolina.”
Mark Rhea, a product designer and self-described food devotee who lives in West Seattle, was among the early adopters.
“I’m pretty serious about my cooking,” Rhea said. He is also an avid college basketball fan who follows the WSU team, even though he did not go there. He said he came upon WSU Premium Beef on the university’s website. He likes the taste, he said, and the fact that it is locally raised at a place he could visit.
University officials said that with nearly 25,000 students on four campuses and beyond that tens of thousands of alumni and extended family members, there is no shortage of potential customers.
“The numbers are huge, from our institution, our alumni and our friends,” said Tammey Boston, the university’s manager of business development and strategic initiatives. And the best part, she added, is that no expensive advertising is required. “We’ve got email addresses,” she said.