Chewing Over What Grass-Fed Means: Part 2
by Bob Benenson, FamilyFarmed
A recent Good Food Insights article — produced by FamilyFarmed and 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 producers: All Grass Farms in Dundee, Illinois and Starry Nights Farm in Burlington, Wisconsin, both of which were starting by ex-urbanites in 2012. “Chewing Over What Grass-Fed Means: Part 1” included responses from 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?
Cliff McConville, All Grass Farms: No, we were new to farming (with a little experience raising horses and chickens) before we started raising cattle, hogs, and poultry on pasture.
Paul and Marisa Maggio, Starry Nights Farm: No, we were city (Chicago) people before we started farming in 2012, and we started farming organically and pasture raised from the beginning.
What were the main factors in your decision to raise pasture-raised livestock?
Cliff McConville, All Grass Farms: We started with the intention of primarily raising animals on pasture for our own family’s consumption, to eat healthier. However, once we got started, neighbors started asking for beef quarters, chickens, eggs and pork. So we decided to begin selling commercially as a “side gig” to our day jobs, that was back in 2012. The demand was strong and so we spent the next several years struggling to produce enough.
Paul and Marisa Maggio, Starry Nights Farm: Health benefits to our land, our animals and our customers. We believe it all starts with the soil, if you have healthy soils the rest will follow. For healthy soils, rotational grazing of livestock is the best practice, with the animals in their activity stimulating the microbiology of the soil.
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…)
Cliff McConville, All Grass Farms: We now have hundreds of customers, and there seem to be just as many reasons driving the interest in grass fed/pasture-raised meats. I would say the number one reason is health and nutrition. Many people are battling chronic illnesses, and they know that eating better quality meats, dairy and eggs is better for them. Others are very focused on animal welfare, in fact we have many converted vegans and vegetarians who would not eat conventionally raised meats but will only eat meat from our farm. There is also a strong contingent of “foodies” who are focused on the highest quality, freshest and tastiest meats, eggs and dairy, and that is their main focus. And a few that are focused on the environmental benefits of our farming methods. Some are interested in all four, but I would say the number one reason is the health benefits of eating grass-fed meats.
Paul and Marisa Maggio, Starry Nights Farm: Certainly, health and environment seem to be the biggest, but animal welfare is also an important factor. Most of our customers have learned that grass-fed is healthier than corn-fed beef. The bad environmental impact of conventional farming of animals is coming to light, at the same time that pastured livestock and regenerative agriculture are growing as better and healthy options for our environment. Lastly, we do have customers who care about animal welfare and find us because they want to make sure the animals are allowed to live a good life.
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?
Cliff McConville, All Grass Farms: There is a fair amount of scientific research that has come out in recent years demonstrating that managed grazing is the best way to rebuild depleted soils and sequester carbon from the atmosphere and put it back into the soil where it can feed the soil microbiome. Many large-scale trials (thousands of acres), such as on Gabe Brown’s farm in North Dakota, have shown significant increases in soil organic matter and overall soil health, water retention, etc. with managed grazing. Based on this research, many consider managed grazing as one of the best methods for reversing climate change. This is the true definition of regenerative agriculture.
Paul and Marisa Maggio, Starry Nights Farm: Actually, in my humble opinion, for a farm to be truly sustainable and regenerative it needs livestock. Our animals harvest our grasses and fertilize our land with their urine and manure, leaving us with no need to use synthetic chemical fertilizers, which are very energy-intensive to produce. Animals make a farm a closed system.
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?
Cliff McConville, All Grass Farms: Part of our farm mission statement includes not only educating consumers as to the health, environmental and animal welfare benefits of pasture-based agriculture, but also educating other farmers and aspiring farmers in our methods. For consumers, we publish a monthly newsletter that usually includes at least one educational story, as well as a blog that focuses on important real food issues. We also host a free guided farm tour and milking demonstration every Saturday, and have set up walking trails around various parts of our farm so visitors can wander around and see all the animals on pasture. For farmer education, we host field days every year, and also offer a seasonal internship and year-long apprentice program to train those interested in starting their own farms.
Paul and Marisa Maggio, Starry Nights Farm: Yes, education (we call is “connection with the customer”) is definitely part of our mission. We constantly communicate this message of “quality over quantity” to our customers and followers through informational blog posts, as well as using social media. Education is very important, but we also find that when people come and visit the farm, see for themselves our farming practices, and make that connection between grower and consumer, a switch is turned on. People have lost the trail of where their food comes from when they get it at the grocery store. Direct marketing is how we re-establish this connection, and it amplifies this message.
What do you view as the biggest obstacles to growing the consumer market for pasture-raised meat?
Cliff McConville, All Grass Farms: The demand is increasing, and consumers are increasingly seeing the benefits. However, as the market has grown, the international food and ag companies are coming up with a slew of marketing tag lines and packaging to make their industrial-farmed products look like they are pasture-raised. This greenwashing is putting pressure on many smaller, family-scale farms that cannot compete with the pricing of the fake grass fed. This is the biggest challenge facing the true practitioners in this market.
Paul and Marisa Maggio, Starry Nights Farm: I think the market is already (and rapidly) growing, but this is also driving up competition. The bigger obstacles I see for small family farms like us is the bigger companies starting to use misleading labeling/marketing to try and greenwash the process. We believe there need to be better standards on the label so the process cannot be industrialized and corners cut. There should be land requirements along with pasture time for the animal to be considered pasture-raised. Also, an obstacle for growing the market is for new consumers to see the value of pasture-raised meat rather than cheaper is best, which is also readily available everywhere.
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 14,700 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.