TWENTY YEARS AGO, MIKE NOBLE’S spread was everything a modern farm is supposed to be: flush with fertilizers, high-yielding hybrid seeds, and hogs confined like shoes in a box, the better to fatten the beasts with factory-like efficiency. But it was killing his family. His wife became mysteriously sickened from working in the hog barn—chemicals, most likely, in the feed or manure had built up in her body. Their son nearly died from an antibiotic-resistant strain of E. coli, which was present in the pork. So they shuttered the hog operation, prompting their banker (who’d hoped they would expand) to pull their loan. It was the mid-1980s and the Nobles were broke—ruined by the modernization that had promised them prosperity.
Within a few years, they were back on top, doing better, in fact, than most other farmers around their home near Kenyon in southern Minnesota. They had dropped their electric and fuel consumption by two-thirds, and slashed their fertilizer and other chemical usage. They were selling meat for a premium. And all they really did was what everyone did a couple of generations earlier: graze animals on grass, not grain.
Today, pasture-based—or grass-fed—farming is no bigger than a grass blade in the field of American agriculture, but it’s growing quickly in Minnesota, with producers like the Nobles literally unable to slaughter livestock fast enough to meet demand. Cream and milk from the grass-fed cows at Cedar Summit Farm, near New Prague, have drawn the attention of Saveur magazine. And grass-fed beef is served in such foodie-friendly Twin Cities restaurants as Heartland, the Strip Club, and even the Oceanaire Seafood Room. It’s hip, it’s healthy, and, hey, letting animals graze God’s green earth—instead of stuffing them with feed corn in a barn—simply comes closer to our pastoral ideal of contented cows, tails swishing in the sunshine.
Ask children what cows eat and they’ll probably say grass—it only seems natural, and they’d be right in much of the world. Grass-fed beef is the norm in Argentina, New Zealand, and other major cattle countries. It was the standard here, too, until the 1950s. But having boosted our grain stocks to feed Europe after World War II, we suddenly had too much. So we gave the grain—corn mostly—to livestock that were never meant to eat it, and found we could build bigger animals faster and cheaper with this magic formula. Now, it’s the only way most American farmers are taught to raise livestock, and the price is right for consumers—often half as much as grass-fed meat. Only now are we learning what a devil’s bargain this might be.
“I call it the Krispy Kreme doughnut diet,” says Todd Churchill, owner of Thousand Hills Cattle Company, a Cannon Falls—based distributor of grass-fed beef. An all-doughnut diet tastes pretty good—the first day. But sooner or later, your stomach will revolt. It’s the same with cattle and corn, explains Churchill. “It’s like having permanent heartburn,” he says. The increased acidity in steers’ stomachs ups the odds of E. coli forming in their colons (the risks are lower in grass-fed cattle), and these acid-resistant strains can sicken beef’s human consumers. This risk has led to the growing practice of subjecting beef to irradiation to kill the bacteria before shipping to supermarkets, using gamma rays, x-rays, and other sci-fi stuff that make microwave ovens look like Holly Hobbie toys.
Churchill is a cowboy, with cowboy boots, a cowboy hat, and a cowboy’s attitude toward animals that walks the line between affection and pragmatism. Cattle are food, not friends. So when he says, “My definition of a healthy cow environment is someplace you’d want to throw a blanket down and feed your own family,” it’s not because he thinks Clarabelle needs pampering. Cattle grazing in lush, green grass are simply richer in healthy nutrients, including beta-carotene; Omega-3 fatty acids; the newly documented vitamin, K2, which early research suggests will put calcium where it belongs—in bones and teeth—instead of arteries; and a substance called conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which is looking more and more like an oxymoron—a healthy fat, with the potential power to challenge obesity, cancer, diabetes, and the relaxed-fit jean industry.
The most compelling health fact about grain-fed meat pertains to its balance of Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids. Generally speaking, Omega-6 promotes obesity and Omega-3 encourages leanness, but many nutritionists now believe you need a balance of both. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors, subsisting on natural foods in the B.S. era (Before Spam), likely possessed an ideal Omega ratio approaching 1 to 1, says Jo Robinson, co-author of The Omega Diet and operator of Eatwild.com, the grass-fed movement’s online bible. The balance in grain-fed animals, however, is perhaps 10 to 1 or 15 to 1, she says. And since we are what we eat, this ain’t good. “Too much Omega-6 fat leads to inflammation, and inflammation to cancer,” says Churchill. “With the Western diet, we’re basically in a permanent state of inflammation.”
In grass-fed animals, the ratio is a healthier 4 to 1. Thus, some physicians are actually prescribing Churchill’s red meat to heart patients. Which would seem like great publicity for the beef industry, but nearly every beef council in the country downplays the virtues of grass-fed cattle. They call the health benefits unproven, which is technically true, especially regarding K2 and CLA, though many nutritionists back grass-fed. But self-preservation is also a factor. Most members of beef associations raise corn-fed beef, partly because it’s what farmers were taught by extension agents for generations, and partly because it’s much cheaper to produce (grass-fed beef, which takes longer to raise, can cost twice as much in the stores where it’s sold).
But mostly the beef industry knows Americans are accustomed to the grain-fed taste, which derives from juicy, flavor-enhancing fat. In order to get that marbled, tender meat we prefer, grain-fed cattle are often fattened quickly in relative confinement, while grass-fed steers get exercise and can take twice as long to, well, beef up. It shows in the cuts. Feedlot steaks are “like Arnold Schwarzenegger meat, and I have long-distance runner meat,” says Mike Noble, who now raises cattle, hogs, chickens, and ducks to later sell at the St. Paul Farmers’ Market and metro co-ops through Farm on Wheels, his family’s operation. “That’s a very big obstacle for us in the grass-fed business.”
The difference is also evident in flavor and texture. Consistently good taste has always been the knock on grass-fed beef, and even the way it’s served at foodie-friendly Corner Table in south Minneapolis—a New York strip steak that’s well-salted and pinker than a newborn calf—grass-fed beef may be chewier than you’re used to. But such concerns may be diminishing. You once had to cook it longer and with less heat than conventional beef—low and slow, as they say—and it wasn’t likely to win taste tests, admits Robinson. But now, as producers learn to move the cattle between pastures properly, and if the grass is good during the year—if all those vagaries that factory farms long ago allowed us to forget—then a grass-fed steak could well be, says Robinson, the best you’ve ever had.
But these days, at a place like Corner Table, taste isn’t the only thing that matters. The cooks work just feet from their patrons, steam from the stoves floating across the reception desk. These diners care how and where their dinner was derived, and so chef Scott Pampuch serves only grass-fed beef. Let the apple, pear, and cranberry chutney it’s served with soften it up. And you may notice something you never have with a steak before: It tastes intense, pure, brawny, not like superfluous poundage but meat that mattered to its erstwhile owner. Real meat, and nothing but.
Tim Gihring is a senior writer at Minnesota Monthly.