Eating grass is what cows have always done — that is, until farmers started feeding them mostly corn after WW II. But now the age-old way of feeding cattle is gaining ground — or, rather, re-gaining it — because it’s good for both the well-being of the animals and the health of the benefactors (that’s us meat-eaters). OK — true confession time: I ate a burger for lunch today.A real, 100 percent all-American hamburger. And it was goooood — rich, beefy flavor and not too greasy. But the best part? Not a drop of guilt. And no worry whatsoever.If you’ve seen the documentary “Food Inc.” or read Michael Pollan’s book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” you know what I mean by the guilt. Every time I meander down the meat aisle, flashes of freaked-out cows piled into poop-filled pens flit through my mind. And then there’s that latest recall of E. coli-tainted beef — was that last week or last month? And carbon footprint? Some of those rib roasts have covered more miles than I have this year.Happily, my midday repast came from a place as close to cow heaven as you can get. And, believe it or not, it was right here in New Hampshire. On an honest-to-goodness farm, with a million-dollar view and plenty of green pasture. Plus, it had just enough cows to make a nice size herd but not enough to feel crowded. I know all this because I went there —
directly to the farm where I met the cattle and the farmer that raises them.It was sort of like going back in time, except that it couldn’t be more now.Everything old is moo againIt’s kind of funny that “grass-fed beef” is so trendy, when it’s really so ancient that it probably pre-dates agriculture. After all, cows are and ever have been designed to eat grass — plain and simple. And once humans figured out that it was easier to domesticate cows than chasing down an antelope, they began to “farm” cattle, which basically involves finding some grassy spots and bringing your cows there. Once they eat it all up, you move them to the next place. And so on. It worked especially well when you had a lot of land and not too many cows.Everything changed, however, around World War II. That’s when a burgeoning human population, an abundance of corn and the brave new world of petrochemicals converged to create a new way of making meat. Michael Pollan does a great job of explaining how the whole system evolved in his latest books, but the bottom line is that we now feed our cows a lot of corn. And while they do grow fatter faster on this diet, it also causes a lot of problems — problems that have led to solutions that in themselves have caused even more problems, like antibiotic resistance, E. coli-tainted meat, water and air pollution, inhumane treatment of animals, workers and our soils, just to name a few.It may be a cheaper way of raising beef, but the costs, for many people such as myself, have become too high. Before a good alternative appeared, I’d just as likely go without.Back home on the rangeSo it’s no wonder when more and more farmers in New Hampshire began growing “grass-fed beef,” as it’s come to be called, more and more people began lining up to buy it. By definition, these cows are eating a natural diet and being allowed to grow at a natural pace, which means no need for unnatural things like growth hormones or antibiotics.
And since there is no corn involved, you don’t have to open that whole can of niblets, either.The resulting beef, studies have shown, is leaner and better for you than the corn-fed variety. And because these cows are locally grown, you don’t need to worry about how long the meat has been on a truck, how much CO2 was created in the process of getting it here, or whether, when it did finally arrive, it was shot full of dyes and gases to make it “look fresh.”If you want to know where and how the animals are being raised, well, you can go visit the farm. In fact, in many instances, you’ll have to if you want to purchase the meat (although there are a growing number of farmers markets where you can buy grass-fed beef — see sidebar, above at right).And that’s really one of the broadest benefits to grass-fed beef — it’s one more way to keep working farms part of our local landscape. Many people love living in New Hampshire because of our open spaces. But the owners of those spaces often struggle to keep their forests and fields as forests and fields — especially when it would be so much easier and more profitable to just let them become houses.From wild to woolly and back againGrowing food in New Hampshire is particularly challenging, due in no small part to our lousy soils. It’s no wonder that after the railroads came in the 1850s, most farmers left the Granite State behind for the rich, rock-free lands of the Midwest.True, you can grow trees pretty well here, as evidenced by how many of those abandoned farms were quickly covered by them. But all those stonewalls running through those forests point out the other thing New Hampshire grows well — and that’s pasture. Most of those walls date back to the sheep-farming era, in fact. Hard to believe, but by 1840, 80 percent of the state had been cleared to grow wool. (Today, about 80 percent is back to being forest. Once you take away the grazers, the trees take over.)Cow HampshireWhat it all comes down to, really — that, based on our past, this grass-fed beef thing may have a real future here. Oh, it’ll never be widespread or even cheap to grow, given how small many of our surviving farms tend to be. After all, to raise this kind of cattle, you have to raise grass — and that requires a surprising amount of science when you are working with tens of acres instead of hundreds. But when you do get it just right, the grass feeds the cows and the cows feed the grass in a lovely pastoral dance.And then, of course, the cows feed some people. And those people’s money feeds the farmers. And the farmers keep growing their bucolic fields of grass, from which everyone in the area reaps some benefit — including the local wildlife.So yeah, it’s not a perfect fairy tale where everyone lives happily ever after (the cows do get it in the end, of course), but we’ll be that much closer to ensuring that at least some parts of our rural community can survive our
modern world. NHMeet the ProducersWithout exception, the farmers featured in this story are dedicated to their animals’ well-being and serious about working sustainably with their land. And of course, they are all passionate about finding a better way to grow healthier food.That’s how Larry and Diane Savage ended up raising Belted Galloways on their 62-acre Green Ledge Farm in Francestown. They were looking to provide a healthier diet for their kids, who were struggling with food allergies and the effects of childhood autism.Originally from Massachusetts, the Savages went from buying organic to growing their own vegetables to eventually moving to New Hampshire so they could have their own herd of cattle.And they didn’t stop there. When he couldn’t find organic hay to feed his cows, Larry ended up buying a neighboring woodlot and clearing it to grow his own. They do everything they can to give their cattle the best possible life. While they could grow more cows faster by using standard feedlot techniques, the Savages allow them more space and time to mature properly. And, of course, they feed them nothing but grass.Even though it makes Green Ledge Farm beef more expensive, demand has skyrocketed. Larry told me he has had to close down the waiting list for his sides of beef because some people were waiting two years or longer.Luckily, the family has begun to sell smaller cuts through the Peterborough Farmers Market — although you better show up early!A bit farther north, Dave Weaver runs Pitcher Mountain Farm in Stoddard. Surrounded by 11,000 acres of conservation land, the Scottish Highland cattle that graze its rugged slopes have one of the finest views in all of New Hampshire to ruminate over. Dave has lived on the farm his whole life, taking over from his dad when he got too old to run it himself. They’ve been raising grass-fed (and -finished) beef before it was even called that. Basically, they’ve just been doing it the way it’s always been done.Laconic in the classic Yankee way, Dave nevertheless enjoys showing off the shaggy and impressively horned cattle. Besides, it’s not a place that needs a lot of words, really. Just being there and taking it all in is enough to make you want to come back again and again. That, and the beef, of course. Oh, that’ll do it too. (Pitcher Mountain Farm sells direct to its customers from the farm. Call to ensure that someone will be there.)Down in Litchfield, Steve Normanton is well on his way to creating his own version of Joel Salatin’s “Polyface Farm” on 65-acres of river bottom farm, formerly the home of the Nesenkeag Cooperative Farm. At the moment, he has 35 head of cattle but plans to add chickens and eventually pigs. Intensely committed to sustainable agriculture, Steve is gratified by the positive — and ever-increasing — response from his New Hampshire customers.Like Green Ledge and Pitcher Mountain Farm, Steve’s cows are completely grass-fed, grass-finished and organic — that means they eat “nothing but what nature intended,” as he puts it. A self-described “farming nerd,” Steve and his business partner Omar Khudari carefully manage their pastures by moving their cows to maximize the amount of nutrition for them while still minimizing harm to the soils. Originally from South Africa, Steve has been farming since the age of 8.Visit www.stevenormanton.com to learn more about his farm — and to place your order and to find out about pick-up.Steak TartareThere is evidence that the healthy Omega 3s and CLAs found naturally in beef, and in greater abundance in grass-fed beef, may be destroyed by heating, so why not eat it raw?2 pounds sirloin or filet mignon
1 hard-boiled egg yolk
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon onions, finely chopped
1 tablespoon capers, drained
1 teaspooon Worcestershire sauce
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons parley, minced
Salt and pepper
Trim and grind the meat twice. Chop the onions and egg yolk finely and mix with the capers, mustard, Worcestershire sauce, a few drops of Tabasco sauce, salt and pepper. Add olive oil and beat lightly for a few seconds.Add meat and parsley. Season with salt and pepper. Beat lightly for a few seconds.Refrigerate or serve immediately, as it cannot be preserved more than two hours even in the refrigerator.
This article appears in the April 2010 issue of New Hampshire Magazine