Full list: Meat News

Seven Days: The Life, Death and Afterlife of a Vermont Steer

By Alice Levitt
March 24, 2015
Full Article

On a day in early February, Charlie stuck close to home in Plainfield, munching on hay just downhill from where Highland cattle lolled their fuzzy, square heads. He doesn’t like to be far from his mom, Janet Steward, who owns Shat Acres Farm and Greenfield Highland Beef with her husband, Ray Shatney. When Steward approached, Charlie batted his long eyelashes blankly and waggled his big, fuzzy ears with pleasure when she began to brush him and coo compliments.

From birth, Charlie was labeled a “terminal animal” — Shatney and Steward always knew his lifespan would be about 20 months. “He has only one purpose, and that is to produce beef,” said Steward, explaining that the steer would not be passing down his half-Highland, half-shorthorn genetics. But his success as a breed cross might inspire a trend among Vermont farmers who are eager to profit from an animal well suited to living on grass and enduring cold winters.

Charlie’s life and death could end up serving as a template for big-money beef in a state far better known for its beer and cheese than its meat.

And, in fact, Charlie — whom Steward called a “man of few thoughts” — had more in store for him than just becoming dinner. At Denver’s National Western Stock Show in January, he had come in last in his market animal category. But for an extra $25, Steward and Shatney entered him in the show’s carcass competition, judging the meat he would one day become. Such contests were once focused on actual dead flesh, but technology has brought the practice to life.

The animal was taken from the show ring to an area where his side was shaved for an ultrasound. The scan revealed that an exceptionally generous portion of Charlie’s physique consisted of the muscles that would become high-end cuts such as tenderloin and rib eye steaks. In short order, the living, breathing steer was named the competition’s grand champion reserve carcass. Translation: His was deemed the second most valuable cattle corpse in the country — while he was still alive and well.

Back home in Vermont, Steward publicized Charlie’s victory in every way she could. In a February article in the Barton Chronicle, she told reporter Tena Starr, “We always believed he was special on the inside, and the carcass competition proved it.”

Steward invited Joe Emenheiser, the state livestock specialist for the University of Vermont extension, to come and meet Charlie. Emenheiser later complimented the farmers for recognizing “that crossbreeding is the most powerful tool in animal breeding.” About Charlie he said, “He was a nice calf. He had grown well and was right at 12 o’clock as far as finishing” — meaning the animal was ready to meet his fate.

Saying Farewell

Charlie’s win may have garnered him a reprieve, but on February 16, it was time for his final trip. “The hardest thing I do is go to the slaughterhouse,” admitted Shatney. “But our goal is for these cattle to only have one bad day in their life.”

Dying is part of living, and both are filled with indignity for all organic beings. But at Sharon Beef, Darryl Potter tries to make animals’ transition from life to death as easy as possible. He’s a certified humane handler who lives on the same property as the facility. Outside the slaughterhouse, Potter’s two affectionate dogs follow him closely.

“They deserve a good ending,” he said of the creatures he eases off this mortal coil. “I’m an animal lover even though I’m a butcher.”

Potter makes sure that his staff adheres to famed animal scientist Temple Grandin’s philosophy of how to move his charges without frightening them, and he’s strict with farmers, as well. Livestock delivered to the facility must be clean and drug-free. If the people unloading their animal are deemed cruel in any way, Potter will not process it. The slaughterhouse is also USDA-inspected, an indication of additional oversight that helps “keep the food supply safe,” said Potter.

Shatney and Steward were quiet in the car as they pulled Charlie in his trailer to Sharon, Steward recounted. He spent his final night in a clean pen with fresh hay and water. “Darryl likes for the animals to come a day ahead of time,” Steward explained. “They eat in the pen so they’re relaxed, and they’re not loaded into a trailer then shuffled along.”

The next morning, Charlie was dispatched with a single gunshot to the head. His body weighed in at 1,350 pounds while alive, and came to a full hanging weight of 804 pounds. Steward said her animals’ hanging weight is generally between 55 and 60 percent of their live weight. Charlie — on a winning streak even in death — showed his value at 65 percent.

A Taste of Victory

As his ultrasound at the Denver stock show had predicted, Charlie’s high-end primal cuts were exceptionally large for an animal of his size. “The rib primal was 19.67 pounds, the largest we have ever had, with beautiful marbling,” Steward wrote to Seven Days the day she collected the first half of Charlie’s meaty remains.

Potter was impressed, too. Charlie’s shorthorn DNA gave him the advantages of thriving on a grass diet like a Highland, with the marbling and size of the larger breed. Compared to a full-blooded Highland, Potter said, “Charlie is a different category. It’s like buying a Cadillac versus a Volkswagen. When you’re trying to make money by the pound, there’s no comparison.”

Steward took the meat home and cooked herself and Shatney a pair of Charlie’s rib eyes. Seated at the dinner table, Shatney sawed away at the flesh, telling his wife that the meat was tough; Steward’s heart dropped, she said later. But when she cut into her own steak, “It was like butter,” Steward remembered. Shatney had been joking. “It was the best New York strip steak we ever had. I was just so grateful to Charlie.”

Other meat lovers can be grateful, too. In addition to the Capital City Farmers Market in Montpelier, most Greenfield beef is sold at Healthy Living Market & Café in South Burlington. Steward makes a delivery each Friday to Colin Driscoll, the store’s meat manager and buyer.

Aside from the significantly larger size of Charlie’s steaks, what Driscoll noticed was the marbling. “It looked more like grain-fed beef, and it was a grass-fed animal,” he said. That means the meat had the soft, fatty texture of a western-style feedlot steer, but with the lower cholesterol and higher Omega fatty acids of grass-fed cattle.

Driscoll admitted that when he prepares steak at home, it’s usually from a grain-fed animal. But Charlie’s meat seemed to combine the greatest advantages of both finishing methods.

This reporter found the filet more forgiving than most; the meat seared effortlessly to a medium rare. Though this cut is generally tender, it is often bland. Charlie’s cut had more external fat than usual, and therefore more to cut away, but it also had deep capillaries of marbling. This lent the meat a fat content that made it practically moo with beef’s deep, mineral flavor.

As for Charlie’s short ribs, they fell off the bone after just two hours of braising — about half the time usually required to render down the fatty cut. In the ground beef, the fat made for a lighter color than that of other Greenfield cattle, but also an intensely beefy flavor.

Greenfield created not just a medal winner with Charlie, but the start of something big in Vermont beef. Beginning next month, 30 more shorthorn-Highland crosses will be born at Shat Acres. “We’re going to have 30 baby Charlies! We’re so excited,” Steward said.

And with them, the cycle of life, death and afterlife will begin again.

Valley News: The Chicken Count — Small Farmers Could Use Flexibility in Slaughter Rules

Chuck Wooster
Sunday, March 1, 2015
Full Op-Ed

This past year, we raised and sold 1,000 chickens on our farm outside White River Junction. We have a strong market for chicken, and every year we can sell this many birds with a reasonable return on time and financial investment. Why, you might ask, if the market is there, don’t we sell more birds? It’s simple. The 1,001st bird would set me back tens of thousands of dollars. Here’s why.

The state of Vermont and the U.S. Department of Agriculture regulate the production and sale of meat in Vermont. (New Hampshire’s approach is similar.) This oversight has been, by and large, wildly successful in improving human health. Nasty stuff like listeria, trichinosis and botulism, which used to lay our ancestors low by the bushel, have been largely eliminated from the food supply. We’ve accomplished this success through what might be called a “facilities” approach to meat production: We require animals to be slaughtered and processed inside facilities that can be cleaned and inspected and, in most cases, overseen by inspectors during their hours of operation.

All the larger livestock animals sold in this country today, like cattle, sheep and swine, have to be slaughtered inside such facilities. There is no exception to this — if cash is going to trade hands, animals have to be slaughtered inside under inspection. That’s true whether you’re a hobbyist selling one pig or a corporation slaughtering a pig a minute.

With chickens, you can avoid the facilities route if you meet certain criteria: you clearly label your birds as uninspected, you sell whole birds directly to the customer who is going to cook them, and you sell no more than 1,000 birds per year.

This so-called “chicken exemption” is widely used by farmers in the Twin States, with more than a dozen farms in the Upper Valley making use of it. But more and more, we’re coming up against the facilities limitation, both with chickens and with larger mammals.

The main problem with facilities is that they are expensive to build and maintain. If you’re a huge producer of meat, no big deal — you build your own slaughterhouse in your vertically integrated company. But if you’re a small player (and every farm in New England is small by virtue of our tight landforms and small holdings), you’re left competing for limited slaughterhouse space, usually in the fall, when the grass runs out and every other farmer is jostling with you for appointments.

The facilities approach has a second problem, besides hurting the little guy: It tends to centralize problems and make them difficult to sort out. We’ve all read the stories about an outbreak of, say, e coli in beef, which unfold over the course of years as inspectors try to figure out which farm brought which animals to which slaughterhouses and then sold them under which labels to which supermarkets. After the recalls are finished, the lawyers move in.

The meat slaughter issue is coming to a head right now in Vermont because the number of farms, the number of farmers and the acreage devoted to agriculture are all increasing. Due to our rolling hills, however, our farms are small. Due to the limited flat land, our growth potential is primarily in raising meat. And due to the facilities approach to meat safety, we’re having a tough time making the economics work out.

To its everlasting credit, the Vermont Legislature is taking the problem seriously and proposing potential solutions. For example, thanks to a two-year experiment set up by the Legislature last year, we were able to slaughter 25 lambs on our farm last fall and sell them to our customers. Of course, we had to meet some relatively strict conditions: We had to pre-sell the animals to our customers; we required that each of them purchase a whole animal; we hired a third-party professional to help us with the slaughter; and we filled out some paperwork for the state. I was happy to do all this because it meant that I could keep the lambs at home on the farm, where they were born and raised and felt comfortable, and I was able to avoid the expense and scheduling and transportation problems associated with finding a slaughterhouse.

From my perspective as a farmer, it’s time to build on the success of the chicken exemption, and on the success of this trial program, by creating a formal certification or licensing system for farmers who are selling directly to their customers.

Many farmers lack the capital or space to build fancy facilities on our farms, and many of us don’t want to inflict the stress of transportation on our animals. Yet we all have the time, especially when it’s below zero and there’s snow on the ground, to attend classes in food safety, proper livestock handling, appropriate equipment and tools, and disease epidemiology. Give small farmers the option of achieving food safety goals through education as opposed to construction. Animals can be processed safely, cleanly and respectfully on their home farms — without expensive facilities — if the farmer knows what he or she is doing.

What we need is a three-tiered approach to regulating meat.

At the high-volume “meat producer” level, the state should continue to require inspectors and inspected facilities. At the small-farm “direct sales” level, the state should require training and expertise as opposed to facilities. And at the tiny “subsistence” level, the state should allow people to, for example, raise and slaughter a limited number of animals without inspection or certification — two pigs, for example — so someone can sell the second one to a neighbor to cover the cost of raising the first. This is a time-honored tradition that has persisted for generations despite being nominally illegal and, as long as we’re fixing the meat regulatory system, should be acknowledged with more than just a wink and a nod.

The rub, of course, is figuring out where to draw the lines between the three tiers. The “subsistence” level is pretty easy, since the goal is to legalize the backyard hobbyist: something like one beef cow, two pigs, three sheep or goats, and maybe a dozen chickens or so.

For the small-farm “direct sales” level, the 25-lamb limit that’s part of the current experiment feels about right, though it would be nice if farmers could raise 25 lambs and 10 pigs per year instead of having to choose one or the other (as the law currently provides.) For chickens, the current 1,000-bird limit is too low because building facilities doesn’t make financial sense for bird number 1,001. With proper training and certification, that limit could be raised to 2,000 or 3,000 birds, at which point facilities start to make financial sense.

Right now, small farmers in both states are working backward — looking at what the regulations allow and then deciding how many animals to raise. What we should instead be doing is figuring out how many animals our farms can support in an ecologically appropriate way, and then, if we find we have a market for those animals, turning to the state to find a regulatory framework that works at that scale.

The market for local meat is here and growing. The Vermont Legislature is trying to help local farmers meet the demand. Adding an educational and licensing approach for direct-sales farmers would be a big step in the right direction.

Chuck Wooster is a farmer and writer who lives in White River Junction.

Wisconsin Journal Sentinal: Raw-milk advocates plan appeal to state Supreme Court

By Rick Barrett
Full Article

Raw-milk advocates say they’re filing petitions with the Wisconsin Supreme Court in cases they say are about the rights of consumers and food groups to buy raw, unpasteurized milk direct from a farm.

Two of the petitions were expected to be filed Monday, said plaintiff Gayle Loiselle, a food-rights activist from Dousman. They stem from cases brought by dairy farmers Mark and Petra Zinniker of Walworth County and Grassway Organics Farm Store in New Holstein.

Earlier, a state appeals court ruled against the Zinnikers and Grassway Organics in disputes with the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, but the court sidestepped the issue of whether a person has a right to purchase and consume unpasteurized milk.

“The Wisconsin appellate court refused to rule on the question before them regarding the constitutionality of food rights and instead deflected the issue to license violations,” Loiselle said.

A third petition was filed with the state’s highest court earlier this summer involving a case stemming from dairy farmer Vernon Hershberger of Loganville.

“The plaintiffs in all three cases, along with thousands more seeking fresh food directly from the farm, believe they have a fundamental constitutional right to choose what they eat and to choose where that food comes from. We have constitutional rights to conduct business directly between farmers and citizens without government interference and without middlemen like food processors or distributors,” Loiselle said.

With the exception of limited, incidental sales, state law prohibits the sale of unpasteurized milk to the public because it may carry bacteria that cause food-borne illnesses.

Raw-milk advocates say they want access to fresh, unprocessed milk that contains beneficial bacteria. They claim the beneficial bacteria are destroyed by pasteurization, in which milk is heated to a high temperature to destroy pathogens.

“This is about basic rights,” Loiselle said. “We believe the Supreme Court has an obligation to the people of Wisconsin to review these three cases on the merits of these constitutional rights now under question.”

In early 2010, a limited liability coalition formed by raw milk supporters, called Nourished by Nature, entered into a contract with the Zinniker farm to purchase a herd of dairy cows. Nourished by Nature agreed to pay a fee to the Zinnikers, and members would then visit the farm and collect raw milk for their own consumption at home.

The Zinnikers’ attorney asked the state whether that arrangement was legal, and the Department of Agriculture responded with a letter saying it was a “sham arrangement” that could result in civil and criminal penalties. The Zinnikers then filed a lawsuit, seeking a court ruling that their operation was indeed legal.

State regulators argued, and the appeals court agreed, that the Zinnikers were breaking the law because they were distributing milk produced on their farm without a milk producer’s license.

Because of that conclusion, it wasn’t necessary to determine whether a person has a right to consume raw milk, the court said.

“Even assuming that the members of Nourished by Nature have a right to consume unpasteurized milk, the Zinnikers do not have a legal right to operate a dairy farm as milk producers without a license,” the court said.

In the Grassway Organics case, the appeals court said the operators of the farm store needed a retail license to sell milk to members of an association who paid a fee to buy from the store. State officials had told Grassway they couldn’t sell or distribute raw milk from the store.

Store owners Wayne and Kay Craig sued, seeking a circuit court ruling that selling raw milk to members of the association was legal.

The appeals court agreed with the circuit court, which determined the Craigs needed a retail food establishment license. The ruling did not address whether the sale of raw milk would be legal if a retail license were obtained.

Seven Days: Is Selling Raw Milk Viable in Rural Vermont?

On a sunny Saturday in mid-July, a would-be customer approaches a farmstand at the Barre Farmers Market. He pauses and peruses the table spread with jars of honey and pamphlets about another product: raw milk. “Is this a co-op or something?” he asks, looking up, milk pamphlet in hand. “I think I wanna get into raw milk.”

Susan and Ryan Hayes, owners of the Farm of Milk and Honey in Washington, stand with coolers at their feet holding jars of unprocessed milk, kept just above freezing in ice-water baths. These are not for sale.

But the Hayeses are on-site taking advantage of a new law that went into effect on July 1; it permits farmers trafficking in raw, straight-from-the-cow milk to deliver their product to farmers markets for customer pickup. Previously, Tier II producers of raw milk (those hoping to sell more than 87.5 gallons per week) had to sell straight from the farm or deliver directly to customers’ homes.

Before he can purchase any milk, Susan tells the man, he must visit the farm, according to state law. If he can make the trip this week, she explains, she can bring milk to next Saturday’s market for him. Or he can just buy it on the farm.

“Huh,” he says, unconvinced. “I don’t know if I’ll be back next week.”

Susan offers to deliver the milk to his house, once he completes the requisite visit.

“My problem,” he says, “is that I’m in and out all the time.” The man adds that he’s trying to eat a diet suited to the local environment. And in Vermont, the environment is very much about dairy.

As Susan wraps up the conversation, Ryan chats with another potential buyer, again explaining the state-mandated appointment during which consumers can judge the safety of the milk for themselves. “If all products were sold that way,” the woman tells Ryan, “I’d never buy anything.”

Despite these difficulties, the Hayeses say they’re “choosing to celebrate the new legislation” allowing them market access. “We’ll take whatever we can get,” Susan says.

The Farm of Milk and Honey is one of just four Tier II producers in the state. According to Andrea Stander, director of the farm advocacy group Rural Vermont, a handful of other dairies are working toward Tier II certification now that they’re allowed farmers market presence. Stander says the market-delivery law is a step in the right direction: “It’s putting raw milk out into the marketplace in a more regular way,” she says. “More people have the opportunity to know that raw milk is out there. It’s not easy [to get],” she adds, “but it is available.”

A few days later, I meet Ryan Hayes in his barn. He’s readying to milk the first of his three cows.

He cleans each of her teats with a sterile solution before attaching a suction milker and can. “Our milk only travels eight inches [from cow to cooler],” he says, rather than through tubing and into a holding tank, as at a conventional dairy. This procedure, Ryan says, minimizes contamination potential. After each milking, he cleans the milker with a scrub brush and resanitizes everything.

“We’ve been told that our milk is some of the cleanest around,” Ryan says, readying the next cow. The cow drops a well-timed cow-patty, splattering Ryan and everything else in range. “Some raw-milk farmers prefer to milk by hand,” he says, scooping poo into the gutter. “But that’s why we don’t. It happens.”

A neighboring farmer saunters into a the barn. He’s come up the hill to borrow the hay elevator, which is upstairs in the loft. “What, you’ve got three cows you’re milking now?” he asks.

“Yep,” Ryan replies, kneeling to wipe the cow’s udder with a clean rag. He dunks her teat in a sterile solution, then wipes her down again. A month ago, he explains, he bought two new Jerseys from a farm up north.

“Getting big,” the neighbor says, watching Ryan with a dubious look. He wanders back out to the barnyard.

At conventional dairies, Ryan says, the extra cleaning he’s doing is unnecessary. “The difference between conventional milking and raw milk is that they’ll just put the milker on [right after a cow poops]. Because if you’re going to pasteurize it anyway…” But the cow he’s milking, a little Jersey named Papillon (nicknamed “Papi”), is short, so her udder hangs low to the ground — definitely in the splatter zone. “Some probably got on the teat,” Ryan says.

After milking each cow, Ryan takes the can to the milk room and empties it into glass jars, then drops them into an ice-water bath to cool.

Milk stowed away, he walks to the field and cordons off an area for the day’s grazing. The cows eat an all-grass diet, and the Hayeses rotate them through various pastures to keep the grass healthy and strong, which in turn keeps the cows healthy and strong. “That’s the foundation for clean milk: healthy animals,” Ryan says.

The Hayeses are new to full-time farming; they lived until recently in Williston, while Ryan worked in Burlington as a graphic designer. He also apprenticed for a year at the Family Cow Farmstand — Vermont’s first state-certified raw milk dairy, which has been operating in Hinesburg since 2008. When bringing a cow home proved more difficult than expected, the couple wondered if they could apply the Family Cow model outside Chittenden County. They leased a farm in Washington.

At the Family Cow — where Kalyn Campbell says her 10 milking cows serve about 300 regular customers — business is profitable largely because the customers live nearby in Chittenden County. Campbell can deliver 60 percent of her milk with comparative ease, though she says her success also depends on farmstand sales.

The farmstand is not far from the main road. It’s open 24 hours a day, seven days a week and operates on an honor system: Customers swing by, grab milk, meat, eggs and vegetables, and leave cash in the box. Campbell says she stocks more than just milk to make the stand a destination, “so people can come in and buy everything they need.” In effect, she’s bringing the grocery store to the farm, since she can’t sell her milk in stores.

Campbell acknowledges that the Family Cow’s success is rare in Vermont. When she bought the business in 2013, another farmer had been building the brand — and its loyal clientele — for more than five years. “I bought this business for quite a bit of money for that customer base,” she says.

Lindsay Harris, who founded the Family Cow in 2008, moved to Tunbridge about a year ago. When she left Chittenden County, she says, she abandoned the idea of selling unprocessed milk, knowing it would be too difficult to reach customers in a rural area. Instead, Harris says, she refocused her business on making butter, bottled buttermilk and fresh ricotta cheese; she pasteurizes her milk on-farm in small batches. (For more details of Harris’ micro-pasteurization practice, see Kathryn Flagg’s story in Local Matters, this issue.)

“For years we tried to figure out how to make raw milk work in a different location,” Harris says. “But we wanted to live in a more rural area. Any place that was good for the raw-milk business was near a larger population center.”

The Hayeses struggle, high on a hill, miles from the nearest paved road.

On a recent afternoon, Susan Hayes is driving her delivery truck. To deliver $72 worth of product, she makes a 75-mile loop. It takes several hours and about half a tank of gas, which she estimates rings up at about $30.

Susan pulls up to a house in a quiet neighborhood near Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier and stops the engine. She pulls three jars of cold milk from ice-laden coolers and heads for the front door. No one home.

“This is always the sketchy part,” she says, wandering into the carport. “I have no idea if this is the right house.” Ryan usually handles delivery, and it’s Susan’s first time at this residence. She passes into a breezeway, then through a mudroom. A third door opens into the kitchen where, spying three empty jars on the counter, she heaves a sigh of relief.

“Phew! Here I am leaving raw milk in someone’s fridge, and I don’t even know whose house it is,” Susan says.

She opens the fridge, which is plastered with photos and magnets, places the milk on a rack, takes the empties from the counter and leaves. Back in the truck, Susan says, “Delivering milk is romantic and charming, and I love interacting with the customers, but they don’t need to see us every week … It’s just so inefficient.”

So why do it?

The Hayeses say they’re following the law to the letter as an experiment. “Until we try it this way,” Ryan says, “we won’t know if it’s viable.” Susan says she hopes that playing by the rules now — even if it means losing money — will give them a leg up when the raw milk issue comes up again in the legislature.

“Then we can say, ‘Look, we did it just the way you told us to do it,'” and be able to offer real suggestions on improving the process, Susan explains.

Meanwhile, Susan keeps her day job as an educational consultant in Williston and commutes three or four days a week. Ryan stays home and works the farm with their 4-year-old son.

Harris admires their fortitude. “I applaud the Hayeses,” she says. “They are pretty ambitious. All that delivery is crazy. It’s so labor-intensive. Unless you’re delivering to somewhere in Burlington, it just doesn’t make sense; the burdens really add up.”

“This is not profitable,” Ryan concedes. “That’s the crummy part.” But, he adds, “I’d say the benefits far outweigh the downfalls.”

Seven Days LTE: Freedom to Slaughter

By Ben Hewitt
Full LTE

I enjoyed Kathryn Flagg’s article about her experience with Green Pasture Meats’ mobile slaughter unit [“A Gentler Exit,” March 5]. However, Vermonters have humanely and safely slaughtered animals on-farm for generations without the benefit of fuel-guzzling, $225,000 mobile facilities that must sit idle waiting for lost federal inspectors. While I wish Mark Smith nothing but the best with his ambitious endeavor, let us not forget that the very assumption of the necessity for such infrastructure is emblematic of our severely eroded rights with regard to how we feed ourselves. According to Flagg’s article, many Agency of Agriculture officials acknowledge the existence of a so-called “black market” in farm-slaughtered meat. To those consciously participating in that market, either as producer or consumer, I encourage you to remember that you’re dealing in something far more important than meat and money. You’re dealing in your freedom.

Seven Days: A Writer Says Farewell to Her Beef Cows — at a New Mobile Slaughter Unit

By Kathryn Flagg
Full Article

Slightly more than three years ago, one bull, five cows and two calves arrived at the farm in Shoreham where I live with my husband, Colin Davis. In the years since, our herd has grown to 17. We — and here the credit falls almost entirely to Colin and his father — built fences and unloaded hay. We learned how to drive cattle, to rotate pastures, to undo the mistakes made when someone (me) let the cows escape their fences. We filled water troughs and bottle-fed the occasional sick calf. And on a recent Friday, we slaughtered the first four animals from our herd of Scottish Highland beef cows.

We did it on the farm, thanks to a visit from Vermont’s first large-animal mobile slaughter unit.

A year ago, slaughtering these animals on our farm would have meant hiring an itinerant butcher, who likely would have carved the meat as a carcass hung from the bucket of a large tractor. It would have meant the final cuts, wrapped in white butcher’s paper, would have borne the stamp “Not for Sale” — in other words, only for consumption by friends and family, or for sale on the black market that many ag officials acknowledge exists.

Instead, a U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector looked on as butchers from New Haven’s Green Pasture Meats slaughtered three steers and one bull. The butchering happened inside a 36-foot trailer with its own generator, kitted out with clean water and electricity and heavy metal winches. In the afternoon, the meat headed to Green Pasture Meats, where it will hang and age for two to three weeks. And it most certainly will be for sale.

Just a few years after state officials and farmers bemoaned processing capacity as a major bottleneck in Vermont’s flourishing food landscape, the mobile slaughter unit — along with new slaughterhouses slated to go in across the state — is speeding traffic along.

“I think, just like we need a diversity of farms, it’s great to have a diversity of scales and models of meat processors,” said Chelsea Bardot Lewis, an agricultural policy administrator at the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets. “There have been some great, positive steps forward in terms of increasing capacity.”

The Green Pasture Meats trailer is the state’s first mobile slaughter unit intended for large animals — cows, lambs and pigs. Vermont previously experimented with mobile poultry slaughtering. In 2008, the state pooled $85,000 in legislative funding with private foundation money to purchase a custom-built, 36-foot trailer for a total cost of $93,000. The plan was to create demand for the service and then entice an entrepreneur to take over — so the state put the unit up for auction in early 2012. It went to Tangletown Farm’s husband-and-wife team of David Robb and Lila Bennett for $61,000. Last year, the farmers slaughtered 7,000 birds — mostly chickens and turkeys, but also some guinea fowl and ducks. This year they’re offering farmers custom processing under inspection.

The man behind GPM’s mobile unit in Addison County is Mark Smith, who entered the meat-processing world without much butchering experience. Smith, who’d grown up in Vermont and worked on farms, was seeking to branch out into a new business after work at his construction company slowed down. While visiting a friend who raises grass-fed beef in Colorado, Smith started thinking about the meat industry. He daydreamed about an “old-time butcher shop” where he could sell Vermont-raised beef, pork and lamb from a walk-up counter.

The dream would become GPM. But Smith quickly realized that to control the quality of meat coming into his shop, he’d need to control the slaughter and butchering, too.

“Straight-up common sense tells you that on-farm slaughter, where the animals aren’t being transported long distances … is a lot less stressful for the animals,” Smith said. He researched mobile slaughter units — MSUs, in industry shorthand — and settled on a design used in Washington State, often to slaughter livestock on islands in Puget Sound that don’t have slaughterhouses of their own.

Last May, Smith’s custom unit — a $225,000, 36-foot-long trailer — hit the road. Since then, Smith and his employees have focused primarily on slaughtering animals that they sell under their own label at GPM. They buy directly from farmers, mostly in Addison County, and sell the meat at a Route 7 storefront just north of Middlebury. Everything in their meat cases — with a few exceptions such as bacon and smoked meats — comes through their own slaughter unit.

A few months ago, the company started taking on other customers — such as Colin and me — who were looking to have a few animals slaughtered and didn’t want them trucked to another location. The MSU has also switched from state inspection (which meant meat could be sold only in Vermont) to USDA inspection.

VPR: With Vt. Meat Industry Booming, Ag Agency Looks To Add Inspectors

By Angela Evancie
Full Article

Vermont’s slaughter and meat processing industry is booming, and meat inspectors at the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets can’t keep up.

That’s according to Diane Bothfeld, deputy secretary at the Agency, who told participants at a policy roundtable at the Northeast Organic Farmers’ Association of Vermont (NOFA) winter conference on Feb. 16 that the Agency is looking to expand its staff to meet a growing demand for locally butchered and processed meat.

The Agency has requested funding to add two more inspectors, called Food Safety Specialists; if the budget is approved by lawmakers, the safety specialist ranks would grow from seven to nine.

The number of slaughter and processing facilities in the state has more than doubled since January of 2012. There are now seven facilities, up from three in 2012, with an additional five facilities proposed for this year, according to data provided by Bothfeld.

The number of processing-only facilities has also doubled, from four in 2012 to nine in 2013.

Part of the reason for the staffing increase, officials said, is that Food Safety Specialists must pay daily visits to facilities that are in operation. Meat Programs Section Chief Randy Quenneville says that Vermont’s geography makes it difficult for inspectors to travel between multiple sites in a given day.

“One inspector covering three or four processing plants in a day in itself isn’t bad,” Quenneville says. “But if you take into account the travel time, it starts to make a difference.”

Quenneville noted that existing staffing is adequate for the current number of facilities, but said that the Agency would have trouble monitoring the additional proposed facilities without extra staffing.

Inspectors also pay occasional visits to 28 custom processing operations, which butcher meat that customers have slaughtered themselves, to check sanitation and record keeping.

VPR: On-Farm Slaughter May Be Legal, But It’s Complicated

By Angela Evancie
Full Article and Audio

A law passed last spring that led to new rules for commercial on-farm slaughter is going through some growing pains.

H-515, the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets housekeeping bill, made it legal for farmers to facilitate on-farm slaughter, but not conduct it themselves. The limitations – and wording – of the rule are causing some frustration and confusion.

At Green Mountain Girls Farm in Northfield, for example, the law’s stipulation that only an itinerant slaughterer or the animal’s buyer can perform the slaughter on-site means that farm co-owner Laura Olsen can’t do it herself.

The farm does have a retail cutting license that allows them to butcher inspected meat. On a recent afternoon, Olsen and Kegan Refalo sharpened knives and prepared to butcher two of their pigs. The animals had been transported to Royal Butcher in Randolph to be slaughtered and inspected. The transport is an extra step that Olsen says she wouldn’t mind having the option of foregoing.

“To have the flexibility to do some on-farm slaughter at least would be really nice,” she says.

Olsen says she can tell it stresses her animals to move them to the slaughterhouse. And there would be a financial benefit to doing everything on-site.

“There’s a slaughter fee and a box fee and a dealing-with-waste fee,” she says. “And that’s actually one of the places where [with] on-farm slaughter we could save a lot of money, because we do high-quality compost.”

Some say the wording of the rule is unclear. H-515 stipulates that “the meat from the slaughter of the livestock is distributed only as whole or half carcasses to the person who owned the animal for his or her personal use or for use by members of his or her household or nonpaying guests.”

Graham Unangst-Rufenacht, who contracts with the Maple Hill School and Community Farm in Plainfield to raise cattle on their land, says that could rule could be interpreted multiple ways.

“In the law it says whole or half animal, and it uses both the term individual and person, which, looking through a legal dictionary looks like that could point to an individual grouping of people or a person, which is actually an incorporated group of people,” the 31-year-old farmer says.

These nuances got Unangst-Rufenacht into a bit of trouble with the Vermont Agency of Agriculture when he tried to sell the beef from two cows to six people. The agency temporarily retained the meat, and issued Unangst-Rufenacht a $750 fine, $250 of which is deferred.

He says the one animal-one buyer rule is problematic:

“To find one person who wants to take home four to six hundred pounds of beef, and arrange for the slaughter on their own, is a feat,” he says. “It’s not only a lot of beef to eat; it’s a lot of beef to store and pay for.”

Unangst-Rufenacht admits that he didn’t actually read the law beforehand – he went by other peoples’ advice. But he stands by his interpretation.

“If I had read the law beforehand, I would have had a lot of questions,” he says.

“It’s very complex,” says Andrea Stander, executive director of the advocacy group Rural Vermont.

“Federal rules, state rules, animal health rules – the way in which these things intersect is incredibly complex,” says Stander. “It’s very difficult for farmers and/or consumers to really understand, in some total way, how all this stuff affects them.”

Randy Quenneville, meat sections program chief for the Agency of Agriculture, says he thinks the law was “fine the way it was.”

Quenneville’s main problem with the law is sanitation. He says the original law, which allowed for non-commercial on-farm slaughter, actually had stricter sanitation rules when it came to slaughtering for other people than the new law has for commercial on-farm slaughter.

Under the new law, “sanitary” is defined more loosely.

(2) “Sanitary conditions” means a site on a farm that is: (A) clean and free of contaminants; and (B) located or designed in a way to prevent: (i) the occurrence of water pollution; and (ii) the adulteration of the livestock or the slaughtered meat.

Quenneville says he’d rather see more farmers build their own commercial slaughter facilities, or use the ones that already exist.

The law requires record keeping, and the agency is starting to look into potential violations. So far, Quenneville says he’s gotten records for eight on-farm slaughters at five farms. That’s for 35 animals – but Quenneville isn’t sure about that last number. He thinks some of the forms may have been filled out incorrectly.

Seven Days: Black River’s Processing Plant Is a Boon for Local Meat Industry

By Corin Hirsch
Full Article

The 25 Berkshire-Chester pigs that recently arrived at 45 Fairbanks Road in North Springfield had lived a charmed life, at least for pigs: eating grain that had been hand-ground by their owner and waddling contentedly around 200 hilly acres near Enosburg Falls. And, after they met a quick end at a local slaughterhouse, the pigs became pioneers, of a sort.

Cut lengthwise, they were packed into carcass-size plastic bins and trucked to Black River Produce. This spring, the North Springfield-based fresh-food distributor took on a new role: meat processor. It was there, at Black River’s still-under-construction processing facility, that the pig sides were unloaded and rolled through the mostly empty building to the hanging room at its center. There, six men in white coats and rubber boots hung the sides on hooks and, one by one, got to work on them with saws and knives. In just a day and a half, the 25 pigs were transformed into piles of ham, loins, chops, trotters and heads.

Just as quickly, those parts disappeared in something of a pork diaspora: bellies and ham were sent to Vermont Smoke and Cure; other bellies to the chef of Craigie On Main in Cambridge, Mass. Legs went to Rhode Island’s Daniele to be made into prosciutto. Various cuts were trucked to chefs around Vermont (“One chef buys all of the heads,” says production manager Dominic Barone). Tenderloins and other chops were sealed, marked with a Black River Meat label and shelved in the company’s enormous cooler, destined to be sold at retail stores around Vermont and New Hampshire.

Though Black River Produce’s new plant — which also processes seafood — is barely three months old, its cutters work with intensity and speed, making this place a potential game changer for the local meat industry. Vermont has long struggled with a bottleneck at the slaughtering and processing levels, a frustrating challenge for farmers who might otherwise grow their herds to meet the rising demand for local meats.

“It takes longer to process an animal than it takes to slaughter,” says Chelsea Bardot Lewis, the state’s senior agricultural development coordinator. In grad school, she wrote a thesis examining whether slaughterhouses stalling the meat sector’s growth — and concluded that the real problem was with processing.

For Bardot Lewis, who also heads the Meat Processing Task Force of the state’s Farm to Plate initiative, processing has been a key problem to solve. “The meat industry comes up as one of Agriculture Secretary Chuck Ross’ top three in terms of where he sees the future of the Vermont ag sector growing,” she says. “We’ve been putting a lot of investment into both the regulatory and development sides, to expand capacity for slaughter and processing.”

Once upon a time, Vermont had more than 20 slaughterhouses, Bardot Lewis points out. In the 1980s, those abattoirs began to lose business to the growing meat-industrial complex out west, “and they couldn’t keep up with some regulatory changes that required a new level of record keeping,” she says, referring to the detailed safety protocol that meat and poultry processors must follow to operate.

Now there are only five functioning slaughterhouses in the state, and this limitation on farmers was a key driver in Black River’s decision to purchase this 40,000-square-foot building in North Springfield.

Just about the only clues to the former life of the 50-year-old behemoth are a few walk-in refrigerators; Ben & Jerry’s made its Peace Pops here in the 1980s and ’90s. After the company moved out in 2002, the place housed Ellsworth Ice Cream, which in turn moved out in 2007. Soon, vandals made off with some of the building’s wiring and pipes; two years ago, a quarter of the structure collapsed under the weight of snow on the roof.

Even in horrible shape, the place caught the eyes of Black River Produce founders Mark Curran and Steve Birge, who have a proven knack for noticing gaps in the local food system. Rather than ruin, they saw potential.

Special delivery
Curran and Birge were self-professed ski bums when they met in the late 1970s; Birge hitched a ride to Okemo in Curran’s van, and they soon began chatting about business ideas. Birge, who worked in a restaurant, knew how hard it was for Vermont chefs to get their hands on fresh produce. So they painted the side of a van with the phrase “Give Peas a Chance” and began picking up produce from markets in Boston to drive back to Vermont, stopping at restaurants along the way.

Thirty-plus years later, Black River has 2000 wholesale accounts throughout New England, including schools, food markets, farm stands and its earliest bread-and-butter customers, restaurants. That single van has been replaced with a fleet of trucks, all adorned with the company’s signature strawberry logo. They deliver produce, cheese, flowers, fish and meat to chefs and retailers, often within 24 hours of their orders being placed. Black River’s 63,000-square-foot North Springfield warehouse employs 155 people; last year the company’s meat sales totaled $5 million, and they are expected to grow by 25 percent this year.

Black River didn’t sell much meat at all until five years ago, when the company hired Tom Biggs, of a cooperative called Vermont Quality Meats, to grow that sector. When Black River began selling grass-fed beef, Curran says, it wholesaled for $3.79 per pound — a price that caused some customers to balk. “They said, ‘We’re paying $1.99 a pound. End of story,’” he recalls.

Still, the company persisted in selling local beef, chicken and quail, mostly to restaurants, specialty-food stores and a few institutional clients, including Fletcher Allen Health Care. About two years ago, demand for local meat began to surge — but, like farmers, Black River was beholden to the processing fees charged by slaughterhouses, which could tack on upward of $1 for every pound of meat. And, because processing techniques varied from place to place, the cut consistency prized by chefs was sometimes hard to achieve, Curran says.

Black River bought the building from the city in the spring of 2012 for $125,000 with plans to relocate its seafood processing there, as well. At the time, Curran reported to Seven Days that the company planned to sink $1 million or so into its rehab. So far, Black River has spent $2 million, with $3 million more to go, he says now.

Since Black River is “very healthy,” according to business development manager Sean Buchanan, most of that money came from company coffers, but the state also granted Black River a $50,000 Working Lands Enterprise Initiative award.

As rehab got under way, the company had to figure out a key component in keeping the facility running: securing a steady supply of animals. That meant locating farmers who raised their animals in humane, sustainable ways and whose operations were large enough to provide animals to Black River year-round.

“The [consumer] demand is there. Our job was to go out and get farmers to ramp up,” says Curran. “We’re looking for all-natural, welfare-approved meat. People want total transparency, all Vermont born, raised and slaughtered.”

“We’ve very cautious of who we get into business with, as we’re not looking to buy from everybody,” adds Buchanan, who knows the meat system from his time as a professional chef and from his visits to local farms. “We have a lot of producers who contact us,” he continues. “We know what we can sell [the meat] for, and we look for producers who have access to capital to scale up, who can meet commitment guidelines. That’s a pretty limited market.”

Black River’s leadership also recognized the importance of finding a broader audience for its meat, which means selling it at a price point consumers can accept. “If we have one goal with this plant, it is to be able to get Vermont meat into bigger markets,” says Buchanan. “We want to see the product not only on food-service shelves; we’d like to send these products to independent and mainstream retailers.”

Meanwhile, Buchanan helped design a circular rail system that would minimize processing time, and hired meat cutters as the advance guard to staff the facility that might eventually employ dozens.

Staffing up
Dominic Barone, 25, was a meat cutter at Healthy Living Market in South Burlington when Buchanan reached out to him. Barone says the prospect of moving from the state’s largest city to sleepier Springfield wasn’t daunting, given the opportunity. “Essentially, I was at the stage where I could keep chugging along doing what I’m doing, or take that next step and develop a career path,” he says. “This is a company I can retire from. This plant is only going to grow.”

Two other Black River meat cutters, Kelly Ireland and Briton Laslow, also used to work at Healthy Living. They and their fourth colleague, Aaron McAllister, are all under the age of 30.

Barone moved to Springfield in April and works five days a week in a place that still feels largely abandoned. But the building has another occupant, Black River’s thriving seafood sector. Just outside the meat-cutting room is a fishy-smelling one, anchored by a pile of shaved ice; nearby, lobster tanks burble away. In Barone’s domain, rosy-pink carcasses rotate into the cutting room from the hanging room, circulating on both sides of the central workspace so the cutters can work on a few animals at once.

Despite his standard white coat, Barone’s black-framed specs and tattoos give him a sort of hipster-butcher look. And he holds forth passionately on flesh. “We know meat. It’s our life,” he enthuses, adding that the industry needs “new blood.”

Asked how butchering has changed since the days of sawdust-covered floors in the backs of supermarkets, Barone cites faster cutting techniques and even new cuts, such as Denver and Sierra. “We have chefs doing crazy things, and it’s a pleasure to be able to give them what they want,” he says.

About three-quarters of the meat that Black River’s butchers process goes to chefs and institutions, with the remainder going to retail. All of the beef at this USDA-inspected facility is painstakingly tested for E. coli.

These meat cutters, along with two packagers, are already processing 30 pigs, 10 lambs and two to four cows each week. Almost all the meat is spoken for by the time it’s ready for delivery. Even the inedible bits — skin and bones — are placed in a chilled rendering room, where a New York company pays by the pound to use them in products such as lip balm, soap and dog food.

The remaining vacant spaces at Black River will eventually be transformed. Next to the meat cutters, a room with black-and-white-tiled walls will become a packing and sausage-grinding nexus. A dramatic 8000-square-foot space will hold a smokehouse and, down the road, a dry-curing facility for making salami and other cured meats. And, in an oblong-shaped room near the back of the plant, Black River is considering installing an onsite kill floor, aka slaughterhouse.

The company launched its processing operation with meat from four farms: beef from Reading’s Newhall Farm and Hartland’s Clay Hill Farm, and pork from Danville’s Deer Run Farm and Vermont Family Farm. Since then, two lamb producers and one beef grower have joined the roster.

Those 25 Berkshire-Chester pigs that were recently processed came from Vermont Family Farm owner Greg Finch. After 15 years of raising pigs, Finch says he’s planning to expand from 60 sows to 100 by next year. That will yield more than 1000 pigs annually, and Black River will purchase all of them, at prices based on hang weight.

Finch notes that while all the state’s slaughterhouses seem “maxed out,” he’s been able to navigate the bottleneck and long waits by offering a consistent flow of animals year-round. That made him an attractive partner for Black River. Finch thinks scale is key to profitability, especially as many consumers continue to balk at what they consider inflated prices for local meat.

“My price is at a reasonable level right now, but those folks who farm at smaller volume, they need to make more per pig,” Finch notes. “That has kept the price [of meat] very high. I will always keep my pork affordable.”

Point of sale
Price is always on the minds of retailers such as Alex Buron, the deli manager at Putney Food Co-op and doyenne of both the cheese and meat cases. “[The meat case] used to be this teeny-tiny cooler at the back of the store,” she notes. “We’ve done a lot of different things with our meat department, trying to make it a successful small department. We did commercial-meat pork and beef for a while, and, though it’s the cheaper price, people say they want the quality [of local meat].”

They just don’t necessarily want the price that comes with it. And therein lies a fundamental challenge to the enterprise of raising and selling local meat. “People want it, but it’s sticker shock,” says Buron. “I understand where the price is coming from, but a big part for consumers is not understanding that. People think that we jack up the price. A huge chunk of my job and efforts is to get local food in people’s mouths, and I spend so much time trying to get the cheapest price for these products. I’m at the lowest retail price that I can go.”

Buron buys beef and pork from Black River, as well as beef from North Hollow Farm in Rochester, pork from Harlow Farm in Westminster, and chickens from Misty Knoll Farms, Coleman Natural and Bell & Evans. As she narrates the deals she tries to land on each batch, it’s clear they involve a complex equation in which the variables are what she can afford to pay, what the consumers will pay, and which meat will move before it spoils on the shelf. “It’s like playing Tetris with a highly perishable and expensive product,” Buron says. For instance, poultry processing is so expensive in Vermont, “It can be cheaper to eat local beef than local chicken,” she says. That’s why Buron’s store features several choices.

Though Black River meat tends to be “pricier,” Buron says, “they’re trying to provide a safe, clean place for people to bring their animals. I was excited to hear about it both professionally and personally.”

Buron will soon be raising her own cows for beef on land she purchased in Springfield.

Like her, Sean Buchanan describes static between what consumers say they want to buy and what they’re willing to buy. “People say, ‘I only want 100 percent grass-fed.’ But sometimes there’s an imbalance between what people are vocalizing and what they really want.”

For now, the six guys who work at Black River’s meat-processing plant are not only cutting the meat but grinding and packing it, too. “Yesterday we had to pack 800 pounds of sausage into 1-pound packs,” Barone says. “That was a long day.”

After those pigs were out the door, the cutters anticipated a few more long days processing 38 lambs. That kind of traffic explains why Black River is on the lookout for “qualified cutters,” says Barone. “The more we have, the more meat we can take on.”

That’s music to the ears of people like Buron, who hopes that a consistent supply of locally raised, reasonably priced meat might coax people away from supermarket coolers and into independent retailers — and, in turn, support the growth of local farms. “If customers buy local meat from their local small store, they’re ultimately supporting a bigger cause,” she says.

The original print version of this article was headlined “Fresh Cut.”

New York Times: Where Corn Is King, a New Regard for Grass-Fed Beef

June 17, 2013
Full Article

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.