Chewing Over What Grass-Fed Means: Part 1
by Bob Benenson, FamilyFarmed
Our most recent Good Food Insights article, published by New Hope Network, focused on the fast-growing market demand for grass-fed meat. The article included quotes from four grass-fed livestock producers who participated in FamilyFarmed’s Good Food EXPO March 22-23. The following are the full responses from two Illinois producers: Terra Vitae Farms in Woodstock and Timberfeast in Chatsworth. Good Food Insights is a partnership of FamilyFarmed, New Hope Network and SPINS.
Had you or your family previously raised livestock by conventional practices?
Mike Biver, Terra Vitae Farms: I grew up on a conventional grain farm (corn, wheat and beans). We had a side business of producing hay and straw, and out of that side business my dad developed a “side-side-business” of raising feeder calves. We sold a lot of hay to horse customers, but horses can be very particular about their hay, so anytime a cutting did not go as planned that hay would be “recycled” and turned into beef!
The cows had access to pasture during the growing season and harvested cornstalk fields during the winter (with hay provided). They were also given grain on a daily basis.
Depending on how you define “conventional” and “pasture-raised,” you could make the argument that these cattle had a leg (or two) in each camp. Pasture and/or hay was definitely present daily — as was corn feed and synthetic fertilizers/herbicides/insecticides. Growing up, I learned a lot of animal husbandry techniques, good fencing strategies, and how to handle and anticipate animal behavior when interacting with said animals. My current farming venture tries to build off that foundation and imagine a system that has less inputs (corn, synthetic fertilizers/herbicides/insecticides), while simultaneously producing a higher quality output.
Mark Brady (with Katie Kennedy), Timberfeast: No, my family owned land for corn and soy farming, but we are both self-taught farmers.
What were the main factors in your decision to raise pasture-raised livestock?
Mike Biver, Terra Vitae Farms: Health. We focus on producing the healthiest meat conceivably possible by investing in biodiversity of plant life (the animals’ diet) and frequent rotation of animals through pasture. With our hyper-focus on the health of the animal, we end up producing the most nutrient-dense, satiating meat people have ever tried.
We had a number of personal experiences that convinced us of the health benefits of meat from animals raised on diverse pasture. We have such a oversimplified idea of “healthy eating” in this country, primarily, in my opinion, because of studies based on meat raised in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs, aka “factory farms”). Yes, that meat is terrible for you for a whole host of swirling complex factors. But I love proposing to someone that you can have a boiled chicken breast on one plate and a t-bone steak on another plate — and without knowing how those animals were raised, you cannot know which is better for your health.
Inextricably linked to health is environmental impact. I can confidently state that if the environment is not being continually improved by your animal management practices, the meat you are producing is not the healthiest it can or should be. While we did not set out to save the planet, it is a lovely outcome of focusing on producing the healthiest meat possible. A conversation for another time, but feel free to ask me about how a varied diet (including some meat) is not only better for your health, it is better for the planet’s health (veganism will not, can not save the planet). Some other wonderful outcomes include fantastic flavor and feeling satiated on less meat.
Mark Brady (with Katie Kennedy), Timberfeast: We wanted to create a lifestyle that was beneficial for us and had the highest quality of life for our animals. We wanted to grow food outdoors on grass without drugs or chemicals. A day at the office is being outside in the sun, feeling the breeze and enjoying the pastoral views. (It’s also being outside in a thunderstorm.) The alternative — confining animals in barns, wearing hazmat suits, and filling manure lagoons — was never going to be an option for us.
Consumer demand for grass-fed is clearly rising. What do you regard as the biggest factor or factors driving this demand (e.g., animal welfare, environmental sustainability, taste…)
Mike Biver, Terra Vitae Farms: First of all, the attorney in me always likes to define terms. “Grass-fed” is a bit too vague. For my purposes, I am assuming you mean animals raised on diverse pasture, frequently and regularly rotated through said pasture. This is very different than simply feeding an animal grass.
With my definition in mind, I believe it is an “all of the above” kind of answer, which is exactly why I find the topic so fascinating. Take one simple idea — frequently rotating animals on pasture — and suddenly you have a cross-section of people coming from different disciplines all saying, “Yes, that solves the problem I’m worried about!”
Whether this is a nutritionist concerned about nutritional density or the balance of Omega-3s and Omega-6s in peoples’ diets, or a conservationist who wants to restore grasslands, or a climate scientist who wants to sequester carbon, or an environmentalist who wants to minimize agricultural runoff, or a biologist who is concerned about decreasing biodiversity (insect Armageddon, for example), or the soil and water scientist who wants to see better water retention and filling our aquifers, or an animal rights advocate who wants to see animals treated more humanely, or a local business leader/economist who wants to see local economic prosperity… all these issues can be addressed by frequently rotating animals through pasture by small farms that sell directly to customers.
Does the average consumer understand this? Not yet. But the “food IQ” in this country continues to rise, and I think more and more people will start to realize the impact.
Frankly, I think health is, and will be, a major driving force. People are starting to experience substantial health challenges that can be demonstrably tied back to food. Introduce the topic of epigenetics and the compounding effect of poor diet throughout generations, and we will have a firestorm of health challenges all pushing for frequently rotated, pasture raised meat.
Mark Brady (with Katie Kennedy), Timberfeast: There’s synergistic relationship between taste, animal welfare and sustainability. When you get back to basics and strip away all the fancy marketing terms, we’re just doing what humans have done for ages: raising food grown from the earth. There’s an inner knowing that tells you this is the right way. I think people are waking up to this truth — animals raised in confinement operations are not the answer to any of the questions of animal welfare, taste or sustainability. The fresh grass and bugs add nuanced flavor and better nutrition to our products, and our regenerative farming practices lead to better quality grazing for next season.
Most of the attention about regenerative agriculture up to now has centered on crop/plant production. But livestock production plays a big role too. How do you define how pasture-raising livestock is regenerative?
Mike Biver, Terra Vitae Farms: My favorite shorthand on the topic is to build off of people’s understanding of why “grass-fed beef” is beneficial. The general population has been able to wrap their head around the fact that cattle (and their ancestors) evolved to graze pasture. Therefore, when you feed grass to a cow you are feeding it the “right fuel” that it has evolved to consume (on the flip side, feeding a cow only corn is like putting diesel in a gas engine). To take this one step further, you simply propose to people that while that cow (and its ancestors) were evolving to consume pasture, that pasture (i.e. grassland) was evolving to be consumed and interact with that animal. This world did not evolve to be an industrial food system, it evolved the only way anything evolves — as a complex ecosystem made up of many interacting parts. It is a co-dependent system made of thousands of constantly interacting players, and grazing animals are substantial players in that system.
Overgrazing is a real thing and it can harm grasslands. However, keeping large grazing animals out of the equation completely wrecks the ecosystem because you are taking out a major player of that ecosystem.
That is the broadest explanation; everything else starts to get into the weeds (pun intended). Animal grazing done right can increase the biodiversity of the plant life, increase the diversity and vitality of the soil microbiome, and lead to the increase of carbon in the soil. Proper management of animals is indeed “regenerative,” so much more than just “sustainable.” It is all about building and adding to a more robust ecological system.
Mark Brady (with Katie Kennedy), Timberfeast: To regenerate is to bring new and more vigorous life. Farmers can do this through being mindful about their impact on the land. We practice rotational grazing. Take our meat chickens, for example. We move them onto fresh pasture two times per day. They eat the grass and bugs from this portion of pasture and poop a lot, and then we move them.
Access to pasture is not enough. It’s all about fresh pasture. Rotational grazing stimulates the grasses to deepen their roots (bringing carbon into the ground), while also giving the soil a hefty dose of nature’s most revered fertilizer: poop. Then we let the pasture rest for long enough to integrate this beneficial stuff into the soil. By the time we put animals on this portion of pasture again, it has come back denser and healthier, giving the animals even better grass to eat, starting the cycle again. This is (the very simplified version of) regenerative livestock agriculture.
Educating consumers about grass-fed meat is crucial to continued and accelerated growth (including about how eating less but better meat mitigates the generally higher costs). Do you and your farm/company have an educational mission, and how can this be best amplified?
Mike Biver, Terra Vitae Farms: We do. I think it is the responsibility of any regenerative farmer to do what he or she can to educate the consumer base at large. Right now, we focus on encouraging people to come out to the farm and providing very in-depth conversations during that visit. I also share Ted Talks, books and articles with anyone who is curious.
I think the biggest thing to remember when talking to people about the subject is to first ask questions and listen. You can be much more impactful if you understand where they currently are and how they currently think. You can then meet them where they are and introduce a topic that takes them on a logical step beyond their current understanding.
I’m also working with a number of community groups to support and engage them in their efforts so that they and their constituents can have access to what Good Food means. This sometimes means speaking at their events or hosting their group on the farm. I also work to find projects that overlap with the farm: Community composting and coursework at the local community college are two current examples of things in the works. And anytime someone sends me a list of well-thought-out questions, I answer them in full as quickly as possible.
Mark Brady (with Katie Kennedy), Timberfeast: We send newsletters to our customers weekly on the benefits of pasture-raised meats and our farming. We host farm tours during the summer season because seeing is believing. We have hosted children on the farm to help with animal chores, garden, eat food they touched, and learn about sustainable agriculture.
What do you view as the biggest obstacles to growing the consumer market for pasture-raised meat?
Mike Biver, Terra Vitae Farms:
- Education regarding why it is better for health and environment.
- A multi-generation expectation that food should be cheap — and not understanding that the “cheap” food simply hides its costs in other ways (i.e. environmental degradation and disease).
- The overuse and unregulated nature of terms (e.g. “pasture-raised” —I’ve been to enough farms to know this can me a lot of different things!)
And now for my soapbox! I think one of the greatest nuanced and least understood obstacles involves the oversimplification of the topic, and an emergence of a multilayered food system that operates much like the old system.
- This not a “local food” thing. You can have a local CAFO.
- This isn’t a “grass-fed” thing. You can can have a mono-crop of one variety of grass that is overgrazed year after year and receives heavy synthetic inputs (fertilizers/pesticides).
- This isn’t just a “romantic brand” thing. You can find a lot of processed food trying to make a buck by saddling up with the same branding approach.
This is really an opportunity to re-imagine our food system. In moments of market chaos, you have opportunity to establish a “new norm.” If we inadvertently (or intentionally) fall into any of the above three mentioned approaches, we have gained very little. The opportunity for substantial change and improvement would have been squandered.
We need to show people how food can be raised in such a way that solves our greatest problems (disease, environmental degradation, climate change, socialeconomic divide). It can be done. It is being done. It needs to be done. But it will take good old-fashioned work and commitment, with people actually getting their hands dirty.
Second, an old system repackaged:
To that point, nothing waters these efforts down like a middleman. Well-intentioned business entrepreneurs who want to get between the farmer and the consumer to “help with distribution,” to “help with marketing,” to “help with packaging,” to provide a ‘”value added proposition.”
If you want to help, make introductions (because it’s the right thing to do); buy the product; find a way to have the farm participate in your realm in a meaningful way; or better yet, start to farm! But for the love of all things Good Food, don’t try to insert yourself between the farmer and the consumer. We know where the path leads… we are there now: an entire population who doesn’t understand what food is or how it gets to their plate, because there are so many middlemen in the mix you can’t see either end.
Mark Brady (with Katie Kennedy), Timberfeast: I think the biggest obstacle will be debunking some of the industry co-opted marketing terms. “Free-Range” is a huge barn with a hole in it, but people think when they purchase “free-range” eggs from the grocery store, they’re getting pasture-raised eggs, like ours, raised outdoors on green grass.
FamilyFarmed’s name derives from our efforts to help local and sustainable farmers succeed and scale up to improve access to Good Food. FamilyFarmed has provided training workshops for more than 15,000 producers in 43 states under our Farmer Training program, and promotes connections between producers and buyers through our Market Development program. If you would like to assist our efforts to build a better food system through better farming, please consider a tax-deductible donation to our non-profit organization.