28 February 2009

Beef Tale

I now have a small freezer chest with a bunch of locally grown beef in my basement. It didn't just happen. The story may interest you.

The primary influence in my new assortment of frozen bovine protein is my partner Stephanie. Regular readers know why. If you don't, read the sidebar and some of the older posts. I was also influenced by a class I took last fall about Environmental History. Some of the weekly readings included material authored by Michael Pollan, and I started listening to a number of his podcasts including an older one in which he participated in the commercial beef process as an animal owner and consumer.*

I don't subscribe to the notion that commercial beef is "poison," but I do recognize that we have yet to fully understand the effects of hormon and antibiotic-laden meat which has been hyperfattened for commercial purposes. I also believe that the CAFO system of finishing commercially lucrative beef is an exercise in poor animal stewardship.

I live in cattle country. I'm surrounded by ranchers, some sheep, but mostly cattle. The ranchers in my part of the country are those who raise calves for part of a year then sell them to the commercial lots in the Plains States where they're fattened and sold commercially. The cattle in my part of the country have good lives, but many people here buy commercial meat because it's less expensive than local. This is the perverse and interesting part of modern, efficient, cheap meat production.

Nearly all locally sold meat comes from somewhere else.

In any event because of my conversations with Stephanie and my exposure to Pollan and other eco-thinkers including my professor (Dr. Bret Weber), last December I finally and seriously set about attempting to find a source of local, less risky, ethically handled beef. I contacted one ranch not too far away that advertized "organic" beef, but they never returned my call or email. I didn't know the people anyway and went looking elsewhere.

Over the years, I've written about my friend Sim. He's a local rancher, a fellow volunteer EMT, and the Mormon version of the Marlboro man; a real live, good-looking, non-smoking cowboy. I called him last month and told him that I was looking for a local source of beef in an effort to avoid CAFO/Factory Farm-finished commercial meat. I was just hoping for a lead. His response, however, was, "boy, do I have a deal for you!"

He told me that he was just getting ready to have an animal butchered. Local ranchers sometimes select first year cows that fail the "mommy test" through calf rejection or failure to nurture, and harvest them as beef. These animals are not part of the commercial beef outflow of young animals injected with growth hormones and sold to the large lots for commercial corn-soy finishing. Sim's personal cattle are fattened** for a shorter period on alfalfa (grass), rolled barley, and limited corn. I told him that I was interested in 1/4 beef (25% of the processed animal). Sim said that his animal was going to be slaughtered shortly, would cure for a couple of weeks, and then would be butchered and frozen.

Where my beef cow lived. From one freezer to another. The moral? Be a good mommy.

A couple of weeks later I received a phone call from the butcher asking me how I wanted my animal processed. Did I want single or double wrapping? (Meat eaten within the year can be single wrapped, but they recommend double-wrapping for long-term storage.) Did I want a large prime rib or should they convert that cut into steaks? (Steaks, please.) How thick would I like my steaks? (One inch sounds nice, but the 3/4" standard cut yields more steaks.) Hamburger in one or two pound bags? (One, please.) Would I like any of the organs? (Yes, heart please.) Soup bones? (Again, yes.) And so on.

I didn't have a place to put the meat, so I priced small (5 or so cubic feet) chest freezers from a couple of local appliance dealerships. I found one that looked decent, and Asher and I picked it up in Evanston, Wyoming.

American Minivan Gothic, or Two Dudes and a Freezer

Late last week Sim called and told me it was time to pick up the meat. We scheduled a day to make the four or five hour round trip. I took part of a day off, changed my shirt in the parking lot, Sim came by to get me, and we and hit the road. Boys' day out.

The drive from our home in Rich County, Utah to beautiful Thayne, Wyoming isn't very far, and the strip of western Wyoming through which we were able to pass is alpine and not like the sagebrushy landscape that most people envision when they hear "Wyoming."

Near Afton, Wyoming

Dana Cold Storage in Thayne Wyoming combines butchering and frozen products storage. During the weeks prior to our arrival the animal was killed, initially prepped (skinned and gutted), weighed, and hung for curing. My expense included the weight of my 1/4 beef and the butchering costs based on my specifications.

The guy in the background in left photo was Facebooking.

Some of the beef was for Sim, some for family members, and one bag for me. Since it was cold outside, we were in no rush to get home, so stopped in Afton for a leisurely early dinner at a (surprise!) cowboy themed family restaurant. I enjoy that man's company.

By the time I got home, Asher was chomping at the bit to help me get the meat inside and into our pristine freezer. We now have a beautiful collection of steaks, roasts, stew meats, hamburger, soup bones, and so on. I know where it came from, and I'm on Sim's short list the next time I need beef.

The next day, seared steak strips and eggs for breakfast, with excellent Hawaiian coffee.

Thanks, Steph. We're saving some of the best stuff for you.



* The podcast is gone, but the transcript remains.
Overstatement of ills is a problem the conscientious consumer of information runs into among the well-intentioned as well as the evil. Persons promoting an agenda as a social problem tend, either consciously or not, to simplify and exaggerate the "villain." Caveat lector!
The European Union doesn't ban growth hormones because they're poisonous. Their conservative and sensible approach is based on the thinking that we just don't know enough about the ramifications of the biotechnology.
** Agriculturalists have fattened animals prior to slaughter for millenia. The problem with modern agribusiness fattening comes in the overreliance upon foods such as corn and soy that ruminants like cattle have a hard time digesting. Their stomachs ulcerate, they get sick, and in a twisted practice the cattle have to have medications included in their feed to combat the effects of that very same feed. Agribusiness defends itself by saying that space prohibits the storage of the vast amounts of grasses needed to sufficiently fatten the animals, and corn is cheap.

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Stephanie said...

Wow, Mark, what an epic tale! I'm so happy that you and Asher are going to be nourishing yourselves with an animal that lived a happy life (albeit short, but at least spared the feedlot).

I'm wondering why, however, you feel the need to add a caveat about not wanting to condemn feedlot meat, when the detrimental effects of antibiotic and hormone laden meat have been well documented (antibiotic resistance, new bacterial strains, premature pubescent development, higher breast cancer risk, etc... I can cite these studies for you if you want).

No one has called it "poisonous," although that word is thrown around to generalize anything that may be bad for you, but it definitely poses health risks. The EU has taken these claims quite seriously and is not willing to take the risk on the public's health for the sake of profits. Yes, it is the most sensible approach.

You may also want to mention the health benefits of grass-fed, pastured beef. It is high in Omega 3's (healthy fat) and is very low in omega 6's - (the artery clogging fat) than animals who were artificially fattened with corn and soy. Some nutritionists are touting grass-fed beef as the healthier alternative to fish - now that fish has such high mercury levels in it.

I can't wait to come over and cook with Asher. We're going to whip up some gorgeous soups and sauces from those bones.

El said...

He's probably reluctant to be too critical because his neighbors use or own the feedlots. It's how they make their living. If that's his reason, I can understand it.

I'm surrounded by dairies and dairymen/women, and cattlemen/women and beef cattle ranches, here in Idaho. I wouldn't want to judge them or their practices. It's not neighborly. Of course, that might not have anything at all to do with Mark's reason for remaining less than critical.

My folks used to order up a 1/2 beef every so often, when we were kids. It came off the local ranches, but I doubt it was labeled 'organic' back then. I also don't believe they used the antibiotics and hormones they use now days.

In any case, nice entry. I'm enjoying this blog, and have learned a lot from the two of you.

Mark said...

Hi Steph. This post was a joy to write. And live.

The best evidence available to me from the U.S., Canadian, and European sources I scanned while studying the matter is that some scientists believe there is a link (particularly with early onset of puberty and breast cancer), but are requiring further study. One of the Canadian sites concluded that it couldn't be anything else. That's fine as a conjecture but not particularly good science. If you've got some conclusive studies, I would love to see them.

The initial reason the E.U. took action was due to public pressure in the aftermath of the "mad cow" problem in the U.K. The scientific arguments have come since that time.

Come hungry.

Mark said...

Hi Elf. Way to go, I-da-ho!

We don't have feedlots here in my neck of the woods. My neighbors are at the "front end" of the business, calving and selling young animals. Probably most of yours are too.

I continue to learn so much from this process of opening my eyes to where the food comes from, and that - hopefully - was one of the strains of sound that whispered through this post.

Mark said...

It's worth mentioning that putting aside commercial meat for the moment, the (C)AFO/Factory Farm itself is a more well-documented source of problems, for both the local and general environment (especially water systems) and for the persons exposed to the operations (through the new bugs that inevitably evolve in settings featuring concentrated collections of living hosts). In fact, Jared Diamond and others assert that it was early Europeans' living in close proximity with collections of animals that killed some people but left with survivors with resistances to diseases that would later decimate populations across the waters with whom they came in contact.

El said...

My neighbors are at the "front end" of the business, calving and selling young animals. Probably most of yours are too. - Mark

Yep. As a matter of fact, my uncle, who lives here, is a cattle buyer. He buys and sells for the ranches and dairies. Business for the dairy end of things is bad around here. Business is so bad, they're selling off the dairy herds to slaughter. Can't afford to feed the cows.

And this should curl your toes. Did mine. I heard they were dumping milk. Don't know if that's true or not but, if it is, it seems there's a lot of hungry people who could use that milk.

Mark said...

Dumping milk was a practice from the Great Depression, too, El. :-( Dairy cows must be milked or they stop producing, but if there's a glut of milk, or you're trying to keep prices to the level that you can afford to ship the milk and live, some of the excess has to be dumped. It's a peculiarity of the economy that has its parallels in produce farming too. Hard times.

El said...

I didn't know that, Mark. Thanks for the info. Seems like such a waste, and dumping it to force the price seems almost immoral to my old hippie mindset. But, I suppose I do understand the concept. *Reality slaps me in the face ... again.*

Steve said...

A good story, Mark. Thanks.

The more I read posts like this the more I think it's only a matter of time before I swear off meat altogether. I'm terrified of the stuff anymore. Farmed fish is no better. Maybe even worse. What's a carnivore to do?

In the kosher world, I can't get the grass fed, organic beef as much. Almost never.

Mark said...

Hi Steve. Something you might consider in addition to beef is checking on the availability of kosher elk in your area. Folks used to the taste of beef often find deer, for example, to be a bit "gamey," but elk - which I've eaten for decades - can be very nearly like lean beef in flavor and consistency. Wild elk are certainly grass-feeders, and a little research should yield data on what any farmed elk in your area are being fed. As I hold my virtual finger to the winds of data (Google), it appears at least some rabbis are concluding that elk are kosher.


Steve said...

Elk is very kosher. I love venison too. I just hard to find that stuff.

Seth said...

This was a wonderful post, Mark. I enjoyed the story, the sentiment, the ideas. Also, I enjoy how you describe a four or five hour round trip as "not very far." I've always enjoyed reading about your life because it's so incredibly different than my own life.

I haven't eaten beef for nearly a year. This came about merely as a matter of taste, but evolved into a political action. After being a vegetarian for nearly 8 years, I came back to meat with gusto. Soon, though, I realized (for many reasons) that the only meat I wanted to eat is grass-fed. Even the finished beef "humanely" raised at Whole Foods seemed like a bad choice. The problem is I just don't like the taste of grass-fed beef. I've tried everything: I cook it incredibly rare; I tenderize it with a Jaccard tenderizer. I just don't dig it. So, I decided to stop eating it.

Fish is another story. I haven't eaten one ounce of fish in 5 years. I think it's dirty and I don't want to contribute to the industry.

But! To answer Steve's question: What's a man to do? Lamb! Grass-fed lamb is accessible (you can even get it at Costco) and delicious. I now only eat two meats: chicken (so much) and grass-fed lamb. I feel good about this decision. Also, I enjoy every meal...(

I'm aware of the methane problem with lamb; I try to get it local when I can...)

Mark said...

Thank you, Seth, for the assist on the lamb recommendation.

My friend Sim somewhat apologetically told me that this beef wouldn't taste quite like corn-fattened commercial meat. My taste includes a love of grass-fed (or principally so) meat, so that wasn't a distraction.

I started my love of lamb during my two years in Chile many years ago. It was only later I learned that many norteamericanos resist lamb. I may have been spoiled; the first half-dozen lamb experiences I had consisted of large gatherings around a slow-roasted half lamb. The patriarch would usually manage the constant basting with lemon, cilantro, and a host of other simple spices. The event was intended to last all day. ¡Qué rico!

Laura, the Hungry said...

This is great. Since my father raises cattle (some angus, but generally whatever is brown and edible - limousine maybe?), we've gotten hunks of the beef periodically. I know exactly where the cows were raised, what they ate (love grass, mostly) and what pond they stood in when the temperature climbs. Since you live in an area conducive to hunting, do you eat much venison? My brother used to have a friend who would bring us a big bag of deer jerky every autumn. Is there much buffalo in Utah? That's a leaner, healthier meat for those of us who need red meat to survive. :)

[I'm glad I finally figured out how to bookmark your website, btw]

Mark said...

Every time you talk about your dad, Laura, he seems more and more like someone I could sit with. I'm glad you've bookmarked us, too.

I don't eat much venison steak, but frequently consume both deer and antelope as jerky or sausage. There are a couple of people around here who ranch buffalo, but they tend to require special, sturdy fencing. One local ranch tried it over a decade ago. One day two males decided they were tired of the scenery and took off, northbound. They knocked down a dozen or so wire fences before they were shot 20 miles from home. Very sad.

Buffalo burger is readily available here and - to a lesser degree - some steaks/roasts. I believe ground buffalo was one of Stephanie's first toe-dips back into the world of meat.

Stephanie said...

Hey El, it's nice to hear from you. Thanks for your input here. The whole world of meat, cattle, and feedlots is rather new to me since I just started eating meat again for the first time in about 20 years. I'm not sure if it's the right thing for me or not (with my heart disease and all), but intuitively, it feels right, especially since I was instructed to give up inferior sources of protein like soy and wheat gluten, which contain anti-nutrients and raise insulin levels.

I'm trying to be very conscious of the kinds of meat I ingest, which is why I encouraged Mark to do the same. Like Steve mentioned above, the more you know about feedlot animals and the way they are treated, the more you want to give up eating meat all together. Still, based on what I know about the human body and nutrition, it is still the highest quality of protein we can get.

The "dumping milk" situation saddens me beyond belief. Especially when I know that so much of it could be made into milk powder, which is the key ingredient for so much of the therapeutic food we use at MSF to treat malnutrition all over the world. I wonder if there is any way to somehow connect some of these farmers with food aid manufacturers.

Anyway, I hope all is well by you and that your year is looking good so far.

All the wild game you guys mention above is still something I'm getting used to. Seth, I'm the opposite of you. I still have a hard time with the heavy flavor of lamb (I tried goat and preferred it, but can't get myself to eat it again since I connect with goats for some reason...).

The kosher thing is definitely a problem. The conservative social justice movement, Heksher Tzedek, is encouraging orthodox rabbinical councils and kosher producers to expand their definition of Kashrut - that is to include moral qualities that are reflected in the production and distribution of food. It makes yiddishin sense to me.

talesfrommidair said...

I remember, once upon a time, my Mama actually bought all our beef from a local rancher. It was cheaper than the supermarket because she bought it in bulk and put it in the deep freeze.

As I've learned more and more about how most food gets to us, I've been pretty sickened. Not just because of the array of health issues it presents, but because of its effect on the farming/ranching community (which once included my beloved Papa). I can't, in good conscience, continue to uphold that awful system.

But it is a challenging process to find and purchase everything from responsible vendors. In Denver, I have been able to find beef through a company I only thought had organic produce. Turns out they do all kinds of stuff, but it's in high demand--and you have to order early. It's also much more expensive. I'm eventually going to come up with a better plan. I decided a little while ago that I only want to eat locally produced food. It's gonna take me a while.

Mark Lee said...

Wonderful, Alma. And for many of us removed from developed local food delivery systems, it certainly does take more work. I've priced my meat, and I'm probably spending a little more than I would for commercial meat, but this is meat I can live with (I've bought two more batches from Sim since I first posted this). I wish you the best in your endeavor to score reasonably affordable, ethically raised and harvested meat.