Features and Occasionals

Where’s the Beef (and lamb, poultry, pork…)?

By Stacey Closser

How (and why) to score local meat. Meet the farmers and their families. Also: an extensive list of where to purchase locally raised meat.

Whether or not you buy the “meat is murder” argument for vegetarianism, there’s no way to deny that the meat industry is one of the most environmentally-damaging, inefficient and, above all, cruelest, aspects of our modern way of life.

The proof is all around us: documen­taries such as Food Inc. and books such as The Omnivore’s Dilemma have pulled back the curtain on industrial food production. And guess what?—it’s not pretty. Mega-farms that produce the vast majority of our meat products are huge polluters of the soil, water and air. Animals on these farms suffer through outrageous living conditions, with chickens that can’t spread their wings, pigs that can’t turn around and cattle that are fattened on a diet of illness-inducing grains. The rampant use of hormones, antibiotics only adds to the list of mega-farms’ offenses. We pay another environmental tax to have these food products travel an average of 1,500 miles to sit on our plates.

Thankfully, the desire to “buy local” is becoming increasingly common as people are more informed about where their food comes from—after all, if you know where it comes from, you know how it was raised or grown and the impacts it has on your local environment.

Although we don’t have as many local meat producers as other states, the industry is growing. Local pro­viders are discovering there are plenty of people who want their products.

Consumers who buy meat from local producers do so for a variety of reasons, including a desire to eat healthfully, to satisfy a craving for flavorful meat and to support farmers who treat livestock humanely.

Meet the meat

On any given day, Shayn Bowler of Utah Natural Meats in West Jordan, Utah, plays farmer, mechanic, veterinarian, builder and businessman. His young sons are often along for the ride. On one recent Saturday, Kristen Bowler, his wife, wears an ironic “Employee of the Month” t-shirt and cowboy hat while filling orders and chatting up customers. Many are regulars with big coolers to fill, while others are new to the farm. The line moves forward and orders are placed above the cluck of chickens and squeal of kids playing. Scenes like this are happening across the state.

“There’s just nothing better than customer verification that you’re raising your animals the way you say you are,” says Shayn. The Bowler family has been raising cattle since the 1940s, and Shayn and Kristen continue the tradition today. Their business, Utah Natural Meats, offers Angus and Corriente beef, pasture-raised pork, turkey, chicken and eggs.

Business is booming—the Bowlers have found that the demand for their products far exceeds what they can produce. “There’s no competition among providers because the demand is greater than supply,” says Shayn. The culture among local meat producers is one of cooperation. “We’re out for a better cause than just putting money in our pockets.”

Their sentiment is echoed by other area farmers. These farming families are dedicated not only to their animals, but also to satisfying their customers.

Stacy Palmer and her husband, Matt Palmer, own and manage Pleasant Valley Beef with Matt’s brother’s family. He and his brother’s family started Pleasant Valley Beef in 2005 and hit the farmer’s market circuit. For a few years, they did a lot of running around marketing their business. These days, the Palmers attend the Lehi and Provo farmer’s markets once a month, where they distribute pre-ordered beef and offer newcomers sampler packs. Customers have legitimate concerns about factory-farmed meat, since a single hamburger patty can contain the meat and fat from several to 100 cows. Local producers have the unique ability to guarantee their steaks and patties come from a single, grass-fed cow. “We’re a small farm. We know that you’re getting the animal that we send.”

Christian Christiansen and his wife, Hollie, settled in Vernon and began raising Berkshire hogs for their family several years ago. “We never had intentions of starting a farm like we have now,” he says. But once friends and neighbors started buying their pork, word spread, a business was born and today the Christiansen Farm sells pork to several area restaurants in addition to their local clientele.

Jamie and Linda Gillmor, owners of Morgan Valley Lamb, have been marketing direct to customers since 2001. They’ve secured an enviable list of clients ranging from all Utah Harmon’s stores to high-end restaurants and enthusiastic locals.

So the truth is, customers who want to buy local have a variety of opportunities to do so, as long as they get in line before the product is gone.

Taste the difference

Before you buy, you have to remember that the meat you buy locally won’t taste the same as the meat from mass producers. The reason is because it’s most likely grass-fed and pasture-raised. This natural diet leads to leaner, more flavorful meat.

“A lot of people say, ‘The taste reminds me of my grandmother’s house, of my childhood,’” says Kristen. “Because back then, people still ate locally raised meat.”

Of course, just because it’s local doesn’t guarantee it will be the most delicious meat you’ve ever had, according to Matt Palmer. There is some science and skill to raising tasty meat.

“Anybody can raise a calf and make it gain weight. To get a product that people really enjoy, that’s the trick,” he says. He says he’s run into people who have tried grass-fed beef and thought it was awful. “If you do it right, you’ll have a high quality product.” Palmer ensures his products meet customers’ high expectations by breeding quality animals, maintaining pastures (certain weeds can give meat off-flavors), handling the animals humanely, processing them at the right time and dry-aging the beef for at least two weeks.

Animals are what they eat

The health benefits of grass-fed and pasture-raised animals are well documented. Grass-fed beef is lower in saturated fat and provides higher levels of omega-3 fats (those typically found in flaxseed and fish), and vitamin E. They are precisely these differences that gives grass-fed beef its unique flavor. Pasture-raised pork is much the same. Time and again, farmers say that what the animal eats makes all the difference in how its meat tastes.

“You can tout all the positive things about how the pigs are pasture raised on an all-natural diet, free-ranging, humanely treated, but at the end of the day, if the product isn’t better than what you can get at the store, and you’re charging more, it’s not going to work,” says Christiansen. “I’ve had people tell us that we’ve ruined them for life and they’ll never go back to commercial pork.”

Pleasant Valley Farm owners Matt and Stacy Palmer understand that some customers prefer the taste of grain-finished beef. They select a portion of their cattle to eat a 30% grain diet during their last 60 days. “It adds a little bit of fat and marbling that people like,” Stacy says. “The problem with the store meat is 80% of the animals’ diet is grain and it makes them sick.” Even though cows are technically herbivores, they are capable of eating a small percentage of grain.

“We have been fattening animals on grain since biblical times,” says Jo Robinson, author and founder of EatWild.com. “What’s new is we have found a way to feed them up to 90% grain without killing them.”

It’s this large dose of grain that requires animals to be on antibiotics, which prevent them from developing life-threatening bacteria and diseases. Local meat providers may offer grain-finished beef, yet they are able to do so without using preventative antibiotics. If you’re concerned about what the animals eat, you can just ask the farmer who’s feeding them.

True trickle-down economics

Buying local meat also helps the local economy. According to SustainableTable.com, money spent in the community stays in the community longer, benefiting local retailers instead of huge agricultural corporations. One study found that 91 cents of each dollar spent at traditional food markets goes to suppliers, processors, middlemen and marketers. The remaining nine cents goes to the farmer. In contrast, farmer’s markets enable producers to keep 80 to 90 cents of each dollar spent by the consumer.

Christiansen Family Farm is partly supported by area restaurants that buy its pork. In turn, Christiansen has committed to buying locally grown grains, making everyone’s dollars go even further in the community.

“It’s been really neat to see the ripple effect of supporting local business,” says Christiansen. He used to spend a full day acquiring feed and filling the feeders. “One of my neighbors started milling my feed for me and he’s basically been able to start a full-time business out of it,” he says. Christiansen also has contracted with two other small area farms to buy their piglets, creating side businesses for those families as well.

“All these people have benefited from us staying local,” he says.

Communities reap more economic benefits from the presence of small farms than they do from large ones. Studies have shown that small farms re-invest more money into local economies by purchasing feed, seed and other materials from local businesses, whereas large farms often order in bulk from distant companies, according to research cited by SustainableTable.com.

For every dollar spent at a local business, 45 cents stays in the community and is reinvested locally; for every dollar spent at a corporate chain store, only 15 cents stays in the community and is reinvested locally, according to the Center for a New American Dream.

What’s encouraging

Dramatic change has occurred in meat production just in the last generation, and not in a positive way. Animals that were once raised locally have increasingly moved to factory farms where their mass confinement produces all manner of negative impacts. Manure lagoons pollute local waterways, unsanitary conditions force indoor workers to wear special gear to avoid getting sick, the rise of antibiotic-resistant diseases, tainted meat and more. When you take into account the real cost of corn and soy production and product transportation, it becomes clear that cheap meat is tolling us by way of our health and environment.

But Jo Robinson, investigative journalist and author, has spent the last 11 years of her career following the animal production industry and what she has seen offers hope. During the last 10 years, the grass-fed beef market has grown from zero to 5% of the $60 billion beef industry, she says. “In just a short period of time, we’re getting excellent progress,” she says. With the help of local producers and informed consumers, a new balance can be found during this generation.

Some of our current economic hardships are actually accelerating the process. Taking a cow from pasture to feed lot to processing and back to grocery stores requires fuel. And when you factor the costs of grain production for feed, the list of fuel expenses grows almost exponentially. With grain and gas prices going up, so do meat prices. Perhaps someday soon, the economic incentive to buy commercially raised meat will diminish. Until then, it’s up to consumers to create the demand at a local level.

“Knowledge is what’s going to turn this around. As long as we don’t know, we’ll be happy with the cheap, convenient meat that we have,” says Robinson.

If you’d like to support your local farmer or meat producer, get to know them personally either at a farmer’s market, online or in person.

“The rewards are when someone calls us and says, ‘We just really enjoy your beef. Thank you for what you are doing,’” says Palmer. “If the customers are happy and the environment’s happy, then I think we’re headed in the right direction.”

Pleasant Valley Beef, Mt. Pleasant

Grass-fed beef, grain-finished beef, free range chicken

Order online for pick-up at Thanksgiving Point and Provo farmer’s market locations, delivery for a fee available.

Utah Natural Meats, West Jordan

Grass-fed beef, pasture-raised pork, free range chicken and turkey, eggs.

Order online for pickup; farm store open Saturdays 9-12, available at Hyon Health in Pleasant Grove.

Christiansen’s Family Farm, Vernon

Pasture-raised pork, grass-fed beef, pastured poultry

Order online for pick-up at arranged delivery points. Coming soon to Tony Caputo’s.

Morgan Valley Lamb, Morgan County

Pasture-raised lamb

Home delivery available in certain areas. Also available at all Harmon’s Utah locations, Salt Lake Downtown Alliance Farmer’s Market, Park City Farmer’s Market, Liberty Heights Fresh, Tony Caputo’s Market, Springville Meat, Broadway Market. Order online.

Canyon Meadows Ranch, Altamont

Grass-fed, red Angus beef

Available at these retail markets: Broadway, Days, Jade, Rico, Tony Caputo’s, Liberty Heights Fresh, Stewart’s, The Market at Park City, and Wild West Meats. Also at these farmers markets: Bountiful, Downtown SLC, Park City, Sugar House, Wasatch Front, Market on State. Contact to place order for pickup or regional delivery.

DirectBeef, Murray

Grass-fed, grain-finished, dry-aged black Angus beef

Order by telephone or email, free home delivery available in Northern Utah.

Heritage Valley Poultry, Tremonton

Organically raised chicken, duck, rabbit and goose

Contact to place order for pick up or delivery, or visit them at Caputo’s Saturday Locavore Market.

Lightning Springs Natural Grass Fed Beef, Roosevelt

Grass-fed beef

Order online, meat is shipped.

Stacey Closser is a Salt Lake City-based freelance writer who just recently discovered the joys of local meat.

This article was originally published on September 1, 2011.