It was while working as a producer for an episode of the HBO documentary series “Weight of the Nation” that Sarah Teale decided it wasn’t enough to show people the problems involved with today’s food systems.
“I did a lot of filming all across the country with farmers in Iowa and Kansas and Missouri and California,” Teale said. “It really pushed me toward doing this.”
“This” is raising a small herd of grass-fed cattle on about 80 acres of pasture land in Granville.
Rosie’s Beef LLC, owned by Teale and Gordon Chaplin and named after their daughter, is part of a co-op of more than a dozen grass-fed beef producers, mostly in Washington County, who have combined forces to get their beef to consumers, restaurants and butchers as far away as New York City.
The co-op just celebrated its one-year anniversary and is seeing success spurred by multiple market pressures, both local and national.
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In the latter case, the nation’s cattle herd has hit a record low, thanks in large part to years of drought in the Midwestern states where most of the nation’s commercial beef is raised.
Many farmers, unable to feed their cows after crops failed, sold their herds to slaughter. Now, beef prices are at a record high, as many of those farmers decided retirement is a better option than trying to buy their way back into the market.
On the local front, consumers are becoming more educated about the differences between grass-fed and grain-fed beef. There is also no sign the “eat local” movement is losing steam.
A shrinking disparity between the price of commercial beef and locally produced, grass-fed beef, and the success of the Adirondack Grazers Cooperative in getting their products into more local specialty stores have combined to further boost demand.
“It’s getting to the point where it’s about even,” Teale said. “I think we’re still a little more expensive, but when it comes to being in the case, we can be about even, which is great because it gives people a chance to compare and then understand why we all feel it’s better to go with the grass-fed, for all kinds of reasons.”
Teaming up for success
Teale is a founding member of Adirondack Grazers. She recalled the first meeting attracted representatives from about 50 farms in New York and Vermont. Today, the co-op is in regular contact with about 37 farms in the region, with 13 full-paid members, Teale said.
All of them are growing, she said.
But it’s a kind of success that breeds its own stress, according to Lisa Randles, co-owner of White Clover Farm in Argyle.
She and her husband, Remus Preda, are raising about 50 head of cattle on 125 acres of pasture land, using an intensive rotation practice that moves the animals several times each week, if not daily.
Access to quality, ample grass is key to the farm’s success, but Randles knows the word on grass-fed beef is out.
She has heard from customers in New York City that large, commercial grass-fed beef operations are coming.
“That’s what we’ve been told; a lot of those cattlemen (who were hurt by the drought) have bought a lot of land up and leased a lot of land in the south,” Randles said.
“So, they’re going to be hitting the market probably within the next year.”
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Proliferation of large-scale grass-fed beef farms could turn the artisan beef raised in Washington County into a commodity, Randles said.
It’s a concern shared by Teale, of Rosie’s Beef, and it’s not an unfounded fear, according to Sandy Buxton, a Cornell Cooperative Extension educator who focuses on helping farmers with marketing strategies.
There is precedent, she said, for bigger corporations to jump into the fray when demand for a niche product increases.
“The example I would give you is, over the past five to 20 years, we’ve watched grocery stores go from being sterile, perfectly stacked pyramids of fresh vegetables and fruits to trying to look like your local farmers market,” Buxton said.
“People are looking for something, and the big boys are like, ‘Wait a minute, people are getting paid more. That’s what’s selling. We need to do that so we can sell.’ So, I think that’s a valid concern.”
A better burger
Buxton pointed out that, even if large grass-fed beef farms spring up in the South, they won’t have the “buy local” marketing option regional farmers have.
And Teale pointed out larger operations, by their nature, are going to face significant challenges.
Not the least of those is one of the fundamental benefits of eating grass-fed beef. Teale explained grain-fed beef comes from cows that spend much of their lives eating grass in pastures.
But when they reach a certain size, they’re taken to “feedlots,” where they’re provided a diet of grain to fatten them up.
Feedlots are crowded places, and farmers typically give the cattle antibiotics to keep any illnesses from wiping out an entire herd, Teale said. Commercial beef cattle are also typically given growth hormones to speed up the process.
“What happens when you have grass-fed animals, like this, is that they don’t tend to get sick,” Teale said. “It’s a very rare occasion when any of our farmers have to call the vet. They are healthier, and therefore the meat is healthier.
“So, I think there’s a real reason for keeping cows on grass and for keeping cattle on smaller farms where it’s manageable and people can keep an eye on their animals and really care for them.”
There are also logistical issues with establishing large herds on quality pastures, according to Tom Gallagher, Cornell Cooperative Extension’s regional livestock specialist for the Capital District. He said he also heard reports large-scale grass-fed beef operations are in the planning stages.
“I know there have been discussions about that,” he said. “I think a lot of them are testing the waters, if you will.”
But Gallagher said there is a big difference between a grain-fed cattle operation and a grass-fed one.
“It’s like a dairy guy becoming a beef farmer,” he said. “It’s a total change. If you want to expand a grain-fed herd, you just add another feedlot. But with grass-fed, there’s only so many cows you can have on the land.”
A cow of a different color
Gallagher also said there’s likely to be a healthy market for grain-fed beef well into the future, thanks to fundamental differences between the two kinds of meat.
“It’s a totally different kind of beef,” he said.
Debbie Ball, operations manager at Eagle Bridge Custom Meat & Smokehouse, agreed.
She estimated about half the animals processed at her facility are grass-fed cattle. But grain-fed beef, because of its fat content and “marbling,” is easier to cook. Consumers who try to cook grass-fed beef like it’s grain-fed are in for a lesson, she said.
“I have some chefs who only want grass-fed and others who are very specific about wanting local beef, but they want grain-finished,” Ball said.
“As far as the end consumer, you really need to know what you’re cooking and pay attention to that. You can overcook (grass-fed) beef, and it’s not going to be appetizing.”
Ball warned the breed of cattle also impacts the quality of the meat — whether it’s grass-fed or grain-fed.
Grass-fed on the rise
Still, Ball and Gallagher both said they expect demand for grass-fed beef to continue to grow.
“Because we can grow good grass in this part of the Northeast, I think the market is going to continue to expand — the number of people getting into grass-fed,” Gallagher said.
“It’s so much less labor-intensive. There are no feedlot buildings. You don’t have to grow corn.”
Ball said the proliferation of grass-fed farms in Washington County helped her business grow from a staff of five or six to about 20 over the four years since Eagle Bridge has been federally licensed.
“We’ve added additional freezer space,” Ball said. “We also are looking to expand our cooler space because of the amount of beef that’s going out — beef and pork that’s going out in quarters or halves to the restaurants. The demand is up there.”
The processing facility has a waiting list for farmers who need their animals slaughtered, she added.
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Karen Christensen, co-owner of Mack Brook Farm in Argyle, said she’s adding cattle to her herd to meet demand. She raises grass-fed Angus beef on 300 acres off McEachron Hill Road.
She said she has been getting inquiries from new customers, and some families are now deciding to “cowpool,” by buying a quarter- or half-cow to be shared among multiple households.
“As this becomes something more people want, we’ll have to scale up,” Christensen said.
She often sees a boost in demand after news breaks about nationwide beef recalls.
“As more people become aware, they are seeking out alternatives,” she said.
Meghan Kubiak, who with her boyfriend Nathan Mattison leases about 40 acres of pasture land in Argyle, has been able to sell most of the beef they raise at regional farmers markets. The couple have 35 head on certified organic pastures that are part of Slack Hollow Farm.
Rising demand for locally produced meat is what keeps her from being concerned about “big-agriculture” getting into the grass-fed market in far-flung states.
“I think it would take too much land, and it would take longer to do (commercial beef) grass-fed,” she said. “You’re looking closer to the 24- to 28-month mark (before harvest), so I guess that doesn’t worry me too much.”
Meet your meat maker
Teale, of Rosie’s Beef LLC and a founding member of the Adirondack Grazers Cooperative, has put her film skills to work making vignettes of the various farms that comprise the co-op in an effort to help customers get to know the people who raise their beef.
It’s a product attribute that just can’t be commoditized, she said.
“We’re gradually doing films of all (the co-op members) so people can really see: Look, we’re not hiding anything, and come and visit the farms, and this is local, and these are the people that are growing your beef,” Teale said.
The effort is helped by recent deals to get co-op beef into local stores, including Putnam Market on Broadway in Saratoga Springs, Bedlam Corners General Store in Hebron and the Cambridge Food Co-op on Main Street in Cambridge. Deals have also been struck to get the meat into Walker’s Farm Home & Tack on Route 4 in Fort Ann and Healthy Living Market and Cafe in Wilton Mall, Teale said.
She added she’s not concerned about keeping up with demand.
“The co-op can be as big as it needs to be,” she said.