WHAT'S SO GREAT ABOUT GRASS-FED BEEF? ASK A VEGAN (From the Summer 2011 issue of SONOMA)
The last time I ate beef, I was 5 years old. I was watching my mother prepare dinner when I noticed blood in the bottom of the Styrofoam packaging that steaks come in. It was the moment I learned that beef comes from cows. My young brain couldn't process this information-why would anyone eat the cute Holsteins I watched down the street as they lazily chomped grass?
For the next six years I continued to eat poultry-why I still can't say. Probably because chickens and turkeys lack the cute factor of cows, the same logic that keeps us from eating dogs and cats I guess. That all changed when I read parts of, The Jungle, Upton Sinclair's eye-opening exposé on the meatpacking industry. The stories of animals we eat being abused through life and tortured through death were too much for my tender 11-year-old heart to bear-and meat has never crossed my lips since.
Now, had I been exposed as a child to the farming practices utilized by several of Sonoma's family-operated, grass-fed beef producers, I just might be chewing on a burger as I write this. Take the steer at the historic Beltane Ranch for example, where around 25 boy cows roam across 210 acres. That's 8.4 acres per cow-not a bad way to live-spread across rich grasslands and raised with no hormonal intervention.
"Everybody's gone to grape, there are fewer cattle," explains Tony Knecht, who raises the cattle with Beltane proprietor Alexa Wood.
Both Wood and Knecht grew up around livestock-she on a working ranch that raised turkeys, chicken, and beef at various points, he on a dairy. They began raising beef after they were both bothered by the commercial practice of shipping cows from California to Idaho for slaughter.
"We started talking about carbon footprints and locally produced agriculture," Knecht said. "That turned to talking about finishing an animal off on site, without shipping it somewhere."
With a few hundred acres to spare, they started small, testing different breeds of cattle to find the right mix. The business is still in its infancy, with Sonoma's Breakaway Café buying one-third of the meat for hamburgers while private buyers claim other animals by the half, quarter, or eighth.
"The demand is growing but I think it's hard for a lot of people to deal with a quarter (cow)," Wood said. "We hope to have a local outlet for our hamburger before too long."
And Beltane Ranch is not alone-several Sonoma County farms produce and sell this style of beef commercially. Greenstring Farm in Petaluma sells grass-fed beef raised at Slow Food icon Bob Canard's ranch in Red Bluff. Tara Firma Farms also raises cattle on grass in Petaluma, with farm tours offered regularly.
Not only are these farming practices easier to swallow ecologically and humanistically, but grass-fed beef purveyors insist the meat is actually healthier too. Win-win.
Ask any elementary school student, and they'll tell you that cows eat grass. Or they'd like to. All too often in commercial production, livestock is fed a mixture of grains, largely corn, that is pumped with antibiotics, along with growth hormones, to keep the cows from getting sick while packed tightly into feedlots as they're plumped up for market. Healthier cows, so the argument goes, eating what nature intended, produce healthier meat.
According to the Mayo Clinic, grass-fed beef is lower in bad fats while higher in the good fat known as conjugated linoleic acid, which is known to lower risks of cancer and heart disease. The beef is also rich in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, Vitamin A and E, and antioxidants such as glutathione and superoxide dismutase that also limit cancer risks. Plus, at least according to Wood and Knecht, the stuff just plain tastes better. I wouldn't know.
"You go and buy commercially produced hamburger meat, it's made out of mostly trims and fats," Wood said. "It's a hugely different product, and that comes out in the taste."
So why isn't grass-fed beef the norm in America? The commercially raised, corn-fed beef is cheaper to produce, and many shoppers understandably allow their wallets to make the decision at the grocery store. But in Sonoma, the first Slow City in America, the ideal is changing with more people seeking healthier, more humanely produced meat with a smaller carbon footprint.
"There's something really cool about having a dinner where everything on your plate came from your land," Wood says, adding that Beltane raises chicks, grows produce, and makes small-batch estate wines. "Other than your salt and pepper, you don't need anything."
From the Summer 2011 issue of SONOMA