By KATHRYN SHATTUCK
June 17, 2013
BASSETT, Neb. — Isolation comes with the territory in the Sandhills of Nebraska, where grassy dunes laced with wet meadows undulate above the Ogallala Aquifer, and the thinning towns are few and far between.
Tom Lasater, who runs his family’s beef-marketing business in Colorado, has discussed a collaboration with Prescott Frost.
In the four years since he settled here, Prescott Frost has found himself set apart more than most. In a state where corn is king, he is on a quest to breed a better cow for the grass-fed beef industry — one that can thrive without chemical pesticides, antibiotics, hormones and, the clincher, grain — and to market his own brand of artisanal meat.
A great-grandson of the poet Robert Frost, who tended Ayrshire cattle in Vermont, the Connecticut-born Mr. Frost has spent a lifetime taking the road less traveled by. He put down roots on 7,000 acres in what he calls the Napa Valley of ranchland, home to more than 700 species of native grasses and forbs: bluestem, buffalo, reed canary, brome — the salad bar on which grass-fed beef is raised.
“If change is going to come to the cattle industry, it’s got to come from educated people from the outside,” Mr. Frost said, quoting from Allan Nation, the publisher of The Stockman Grass Farmer, considered the grazier’s bible.
“There’s a cultural kind of fear-mongering that is involved,” said Fred Kirschenmann, a distinguished fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University and the president of the board of the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, N.Y. “The attitude out there is that grass-fed is for the crazies.”
In late April, Mr. Frost was attending the Slow Money National Gathering in Boulder, Colo., where food producers trawled for investors, when he found himself at lunch with Tom Lasater of the storied Colorado and Texas ranching family. Dining on burgers and kale salad, the men could have been mistaken for oenophiles as they debated the nuances of dry aging and terroir, or how various grasses and soil conditions affect the taste of meat.
“When the wine industry started out in California, nobody had a language for what a bouquet was,” Mr. Frost, 55, said. “Vintners had to come up with a way an audience could have a conversation about hints of raspberries, of camomile. And that’s what we have to do with beef.”
The next week, Mr. Lasater, 42, who in 2009 settled in Denver to run his family’s beef-marketing business, paid Mr. Frost a visit to discuss a possible collaboration.
The connection was easy to understand. Each had been educated at Eastern boarding schools (Mr. Frost at the Putney School in Vermont; Mr. Lasater at the Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire), had lived abroad (Mr. Frost in Paris and Rome; Mr. Lasater in China and Hong Kong) and had spent time in California (Mr. Frost as a stockbroker and decorative painter in Los Angeles; Mr. Lasater as an Internet entrepreneur in Silicon Valley).
And though Mr. Frost took up farming in 2003 after inheriting land in Illinois while Mr. Lasater grew up in the saddle, each was focused on addressing the distribution imbalance between the heartland and the coasts, and on increasing name recognition of their brands.
“The intrigue and the interest in eating grass-fed beef is more in the areas of urban concentration, and where you have the cheaper land is more in the rural Midwest areas,” Mr. Kirschenmann said. “In New York, land is so expensive that farmers can’t afford to raise animals from birth to butcher on grass.”
After beef samples sent to food writers received enthusiastic reviews, Mr. Frost created a monthly Internet club, at PrescottFrost.com, that offers organic, grass-fed ground beef and hot dogs, with steaks as a bonus for subscribers. All the meat, his own and that of other producers, relies on the genetics masterminded by his partner, Rick Calvo, who fine-tunes their ranch’s two herds: Mr. Frost’s Murray Greys and Mr. Calvo’s Red Angus.
“You want a minimum-input type cow, with more depth of body, more thickness, good udder structure and a good disposition,” Mr. Calvo said. “An angry cow is not a very good eating experience.”
In the mid-1990s, Mr. Lasater’s father, Dale Lasater, whose holistic management techniques have been chronicled in National Geographic and the documentary “Food, Inc.,” decided to market the Beefmaster, his family’s breed.
“We learned that just because we liked our beef didn’t mean that anyone else in the world did, or even really cared what grass-fed beef was,” Tom Lasater said. “For the first 10 years it was a real uphill battle.”
Lasater Grasslands Beef sells about 75 percent of its product through retailers like Whole Foods and Natural Grocers, with the remaining 25 percent online.