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Amelia Nielson-Stowell: Going against the grain: Grass-fed beef a niche for Utah farmers

SALT LAKE CITY — Nick Larson stands in the Star G Bar booth in the heart of the Downtown Farmers Market, surrounded by coolers of prepackaged meat, pictures of cattle grazing in Chaco Canyon and a steady stream of customers.

"It's 100 percent grass-fed," Larson tells a woman, "from start to finish."

Her face lights up. "Do you sell by the cow?"

Armed with information from agribusiness whistle-blowers such as author Michael Pollan and the documentary "Food, Inc.," a sector of the American population is changing the way they eat.

It's an ideological revolution about food, and a growing minority is choosing to buy meat from a cow that was munching on grass in their neighborhood a few days ago, versus meat with an unknown feedlot background that's been sitting in a freezer for weeks.

Locally, a subsection of Utah ranchers are shifting their operations, reinventing the traditional way of farming to contribute to Utah's $15 billion agriculture industry.

Larson is one such rancher, selling Star G Bar Natural meat at the Downtown Farmers Market in Pioneer Park. He adjusts prices on a white board, weighing New York strip, briskets and London broil on a scale.

"The new trend for this is old news for the Gillmor family. We've been raising cattle this way since the 1870s," Larson said of the multigenerational family ranch northwest of the airport. (Larson's wife, Jenn, is a Gillmor.)

In 2001, Star G became the first to begin selling beef at the downtown market. Its ranchers proudly tout the fact that their animals are free of hormones, steroids and antibiotics, having eaten only natural grass and hay.

"They're virtually as clean and wild as it can be," Larson said.

Changing operations

Children of the baby boomer farmers arguably have been making the biggest dent in the grass-fed niche. They've paid attention to the grass-roots shift in the agriculture industry and have utilized their social-networking savvy to promote the family ranch through the Internet.

Typically, calves are born in spring, sent out to pasture for a season and then sold to feedlots by winter. It's there where they're fed grain, mostly corn. It's not their typical diet, but it fattens them up and creates marbled beef.

Canyon Meadows Ranch in Altamont shifted its operations two years ago. Prior to that, the ranch since 1946 had raised grain-fed cattle sold to feedlots at auction. Now, it's focusing on intensive grazing, rotating the cattle through pastures and treating the rare sick animal on site rather than administering antibiotics.

"I've seen the trends and read about the health benefits of the grass-fed. It's good for the land and the animals," said Deborah Myrin, a third-generation rancher.

Her father, Alarik Myrin, raised seven kids on the Duchesne County ranch. Three are back after stints at college, selling the meat at farmers markets and small local grocery stores such as Liberty Heights Fresh in Salt Lake City and The Market in Park City.

"Doing it this way has increased cost, but this is the better way," Deborah Myrin said. "There's really a big demand for the grass-fed. It's healthier. It tastes good. It's all-natural."

Christian Christiansen found that popularity almost by accident. He and wife Hollie began raising pigs on their farm in Vernon and figured "it's the same amount of work to raise two pigs as it is to raise one, so why not offset the cost and sell a pig?"

The response was huge. Fresh out of college, the Christiansens drained their savings and poured everything into premium Berkshire pigs. Broke and nervous, they placed an ad to sell 10 pigs, debating whether the risky gamble would warrant attention.

Forty-eight hours later, the pigs were sold out.

Before the Christiansens knew it, restaurants were calling. They researched Pollan and Joel Salatin books, adapting those principles to their farm. They expanded their stock from pigs to high-end, heritage-breed cattle, turkey and chicken — all grass-fed.

This year, Christiansen Farms started a community-supported agriculture, or CSA, share of meat. Its waiting list is bigger than their number of customers.

"This year has been the year we've exploded. It's been overwhelming," said Christiansen, who has a degree in agriculture. "Our philosophy is quality meat that is clean of antibiotics shouldn't have to be something for the elite. It should be affordable."

The Christiansens have expanded their three-acre farm to 20 acres. They plan to raise 400 pigs in 2011 — an increase from the 240 this year and the 100 pigs in 2009. Christiansen still works a full-time, business-management job, caring for the ranch with Hollie and their three kids. Sons Hans, 6, and Dane, 4, and daughter Shia, 1, have various farm chores.

"We've found that the commercial industry has kind of ditched quality and taste in pursuit of production, efficiency and low cost," Christiansen said.

The barbaric practices of agribusiness — such as washing pork in ammonia, cutting pigs' tails, feeding cows corn with antibiotics, pumping meat with fillers and raising animals in cement warehouses where they are packed in tight — are scaring people away, he said.

No ketchup required

The grass-fed meat sells itself because of the taste, Christiansen said.

"When they try our pork, the taste is so dramatically different than what they're used to," he said.

Richard Sparks, deputy director with the Utah Department of Agriculture and local food coalition Utah's Own, was surprised when he picked the grass-fed beef in a blind taste test.

"I thought I was a marbled beef guy," Sparks said.

Former Utah State University professor Tilak Dhiman found far-reaching taste and health benefits of 100 percent grass-fed beef versus grain-fed beef. His research shows that grass-fed is lower in fat, higher in protein and rich in vitamins A and E, omega-3 and Beta-carotine.

Keeping it local

Buying local meat, though, is more important to Utahns than the health benefits. A new poll by the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food found buying local food is important to 51 percent of Utahns, more important than buying organic (21 percent).

"A lot of our beef is trucked out of Utah to be processed, then sent back here," said Larry Lewis, department spokesman. "That's a lot of miles and a lot of fossil fuel burned. Buying food that's close to home is appealing."

Lewis said he was surprised the 400 Utahns surveyed make local a higher priority than organic.

The department doesn't keep statistics on the number of ranchers selling grass-fed meat or selling meat locally, but agriculture officials say they are seeing more Utah ranchers at farmers markets, and more markets and restaurants are carrying Utah-raised meat.

In Summit County, a group of ranchers, government officials and residents began a food coalition in February with the goal of keeping local beef local.

"There's a lot of beef here, and a lot of beef eaters, but the two don't intersect," said Michele Devaney of the Uinta Headwaters Resource Conservation and Development program.

The Summit County Beef Coalition began a pilot program this year, selling whole or half cows to the public from Blazzard Farms in Kamas and Half Circle Cross Ranch in Coalville.

While the demand for grass-fed meat is there, it's not enough to sustain a large ranch. Star G still sells more of its cattle at auction than to locals.

"There's a desire by the ranches to sell it, because they know there's a niche market. ... But there's a long way to go," said Jed Christenson, marketing director for the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food.

The number of Americans who want local, grass-fed meat is growing, but no one can put their finger on why.

"I think it's all part of the local-food movement," Devaney said.

Myrin, with Canyon Meadows Ranch, attributes the rise in popularity to the media attention. Christiansen at Christiansen Farms credits the buzzwords of pasture-raised, antibiotics-free.

"The reality is, people have finally realized that industrialized beef production is about atrocious as any food production can be," said Larson with Star G Bar. "People care how the animal was raised."