STARBUCK, Minn. — We are standing on some very frozen Pope County land, staring at about two dozen midnight-black cows and one big bull, all of which are staring right back at us in their cow-eyed way.
The herd is an Australian breed called Lowline Angus. They are small for Angus, but they are grass-eating machines on the Prairie Horizons Farm. The temperature is in the low single digits, but these cows are not, nor have ever been, inside a barn. They have never had a shot of antibiotics, growth hormones, steroids or eaten a bushel of corn. Their coats are so long and thick that by mid-March on the prairie a person’s hand can disappear into them and not touch hide.
Mary Jo Forbord, the farmer, mentions that the mayor has been out to see the cows.
“The Starbuck mayor?” I said, thinking of the nearest town.
“No, R.T. Rybak,” she said. “The Minneapolis mayor.”
“Has the Starbuck mayor been to your farm?” I asked.
Mary Jo shakes her head no. “How is it,” she said, “that in 140 miles, we can go from being cutting edge to kooks?”
Earlier this decade, Mary Jo and her husband, Luverne, were standard-issue Minnesota dairy farmers. They worked long, long hours in the barn, sold milk and wondered how to pay the bills without expanding the operation and borrowing large sums of money to do so. “We lost our love of farming,” she said. “Rats on a treadmill.”
Out of the dairy business
Today, Mary Jo is executive director of the Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota. The 150-animal dairy herd is gone, as are the $10,000 annual bills from the veterinarian, most of their fossil-fuel consumption, several acres of feed corn, tons of soil erosion, and a fair amount of equipment. In its place are 250 acres of natural prairie grasses, more biodiversity, flood control and an extensive watering system (nine ponds, 1,800 feet of water lines), the short-legged Lowlines, organic wheat, and the sidelong glances of many neighbors who wondered what happened to that multigenerational family farmer, his wife and family.
“They called us tree-huggers,” Mary Jo said. “And then we started cutting down almost all the trees.”
That’s because the trees — mainly Siberian elm and buckthorn — aren’t native species and are not compatible with the Forbords’ plans to grow as much grazing land as possible on a certified organic 480-acre spread. To say the Forbords are cattle farmers is not entirely accurate; they grow grass. Last summer they even borrowed 230 goats — for their weed-controlling munching skills — from a neighbor who needed pasture.
I am a customer. A fellow from the Shenandoah Mountains of Virginia has sent me to the Forbords’ organic farm with his highest recommendation for its all-grass-fed, all-natural beef. I have nicknamed my steer “Larry,” although my wife and children prefer the number 713, which was on the tags Luverne attached to his ears. I am attempting to follow Larry/713 from Starbuck farm to St. Paul plate.
Who can sell the beef?
Luverne doesn’t say much, and he has an intensity of gaze that makes you want to plead guilty, whether you’ve done anything or not. He raises the beef and Mary Jo markets it. “If he had his way, we’d never sell one; if I had my way, we’d never raise one,” Mary Jo joked. Demand is ahead of supply; the first time I called the Forbords last fall, all steers were spoken for.
The first thing I learned is that I cannot drive the 140 miles to the farm, buy a steer and take it home. I also cannot drive to the Starbuck Meats and Locker Service, run by Keith and Sandy Knutson, and buy a couple of Prairie Horizons Lowline Angus rib-eye steaks out of his cooler. That would be illegal.
Tom Clasen, director of operations for Knowlan’s Super Markets in the Twin Cities, is along with me, on a scouting trip for his nine-store chain. (Several are Festival Foods stores.) He’s been in the grocery business his whole life, including working while completing an electrical engineering degree at the University of Minnesota. High-end, grass-fed, organic, Minnesota-raised beef would fill a grocery niche for Tom, who is constantly on the lookout for local foods to set his stores apart.
Knowlan’s can’t buy steers directly from the Forbords or the Starbuck Locker, either.
That’s because the federal government, through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has determined Larry/713 or his kin cannot be sold in a retail store or in a restaurant unless he is killed and butchered in a USDA-certified slaughterhouse and a USDA inspector witnesses his death, picks up his head and cuts out and examines his lymph nodes.
More inspectors, better inspections needed
Keith’s meat processing plant is not USDA-certified. He pulls out a thick, white three-ring binder. “Paperwork,” he said. Somewhere in that binder are the rules about certification levels, processes, procedures and plans that he would need to be blessed by the USDA.
“I met with the new inspector for this area yesterday,” he said, flipping through the pages. “She’s got time on Mondays. I butcher on Mondays.”
In the world of inspections and certifications, that’s good. The inspector will have to be present when Keith kills the animals. On the average Monday, Keith slaughters nine steers. They hang for a couple of weeks (“dry aging”) and then he and his assistants cut them up. He would have to slaughter on a different day or work it out with the inspector if he wants the next level of certification.
There are at least three categories in which a meat processing plant can function in the regulatory maze threading through our food system. The Knutsons are at “Custom-Exempt,” as are 252 other meat processors in small towns throughout the state. Keith and Sandy would like to move up to “State Equal To,” which means “equal to” USDA inspections and would allow them to sell Prairie Horizons beef to Knowlan’s stores or anyone else within the borders of Minnesota.
There are meat products for sale at Starbuck Locker, but the pork and beef is shipped here in a box and made into bacon, hot dogs, steaks and a dry, spicy Swedish sausage called kurve rula pulsa. The steers and hogs were slaughtered somewhere else, in a USDA-approved facility.
Inspections and food safety are touchy subjects in the food business. Breakdowns in the system are nearly an annual event — think contaminated spinach in 2006, salmonella in peppers in 2007, downer cows in 2008, and peanuts today. One thing that almost everyone agrees on is that there are not enough inspectors.
A small fossil fuel footprint
A Custom-Exempt processor like Keith can slaughter the animal for me. That’s because he does not own the steer — he’s providing me a service.
Luverne and Mary Jo could truck their steers to a USDA-certified facility and order meat carved up for Tom, me, R.T. Rybak or anyone else. But they don’t want to. Their meat would be more expensive, for one reason. For another, Luverne and Mary Jo Forbord and Keith and Sandy Knutson are best friends. “We want them to get our business,” Mary Jo said.
Another reason is that the Forbords don’t like to take their steers for a ride. The nearest USDA plant is in Belgrade, about 30 miles away. Luverne, who takes steers to market four times per year, estimates that he uses one-half gallon of fossil fuel to birth, raise and deliver one steer to market. That’s a thimbleful of gas compared to what the big cattle operations use. Food journalist Michael Pollan, in his book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” reports 34 gallons of fossil fuel is burned to bring a typical feedlot steer to market.
Tom asked Keith to describe the steps of how a steer is handled at his shop. “What do you use to kill them?” Tom asked.
The answer: a .22 rifle. “I load it, and wait until they turn and look at me,” Keith said. Most large slaughterhouses use a captive bolt pistol to stun the animals, which is like getting smacked on the forehead with a ball-peen hammer fired from a gun.
Larry/713’s road to market
On Feb. 15, Larry/713 and two of his half-brothers left Prairie Horizons Farm loaded into a Knutson truck. He began life in April of 2007 and weighed 1,035 pounds at the end — small compared to a Black Angus, but because of his short legs (closer to the food) he was an efficient grazer. A feedlot Angus would eat 3,000 pounds of grain in his lifetime. Mine ate none. He did eat an acre of pasture and drink 15 to 20 gallons of water per day.
“These Angus look like photographs of Black Angus from the 1920s,” Mary Jo said. “With genetics, modern Black Angus are 1,400 pounds.”
The Starbuck Locker was built in 1915, and its rail system isn’t high enough off the ground to move the modern genetically enhanced breeds — they drag on the floor, so the butchers have to cut them in more pieces to move them around. “The steers were short, fat and wide in the old days,” Keith said. Even though the Forbords’ steers are smaller, the Australians who developed the Lowline breed claim it has a 30-percent larger rib-eye steak.
Chad Knutson, 24, was married on Feb. 14. Two days later, duty called, and he reported for work with knives sharpened. On the morning of Feb. 16, Keith and his son sent Larry/713 and six others further into the food chain. When they hoisted the carcass on the hooks in the cold storage unit to start the dry-aging process, 624 pounds were left. A quarter of that was mine.
Mary Jo is a registered dietician, and she pays close attention to the fat and vitamin content of her steers. Because these cattle feed on grass, their fat is of a healthier composition, including more unsaturated omega-3 fats and less saturated fat than a corn-fed steer. Some meat processors don’t like grass-fed beef because, according to the University of Minnesota Extension Service, (PDF) the unsaturated fats are “softer” and may have a shorter shelf life if sold fresh and not frozen.
Everything Keith is handling for me is quick-frozen. I paid the Forbords $2.60 per pound for Larry/713, and then I paid Keith $84.60 to kill him and slice him into a range of T-bones, roasts, a couple of porterhouses, several other cuts and 30 pounds of hamburger. Dozens of smooth white packages are stamped “not for sale” by Starbuck Locker.
Aaron Greggerson, one of the locker employees, hefts two big coolers full of beef into my truck. My coolers can’t hold it all, so the rest of my share of Larry/713 goes into a cardboard box. (Fortunately, it’s well below freezing in the back of my truck.) The T-bones are on the menu for Saturday night.
Driving home, Tom is thinking about what happens if the Knutsons get the next level of certification and the Forbords, who know each of their customers by name, choose to expand their 140-animal herd to meet the needs of a medium-sized Twin Cities chain like Knowlan’s. Heavy on Tom’s mind is the recession and customers who are abandoning premium meats for the cheaper cuts, and how much risk his company should take.
Back in Starbuck, a new mayor took office in January. “He is interested in having a tour of the farm,” said Mary Jo.
Mark Neuzil covers the environment and agriculture.