Why Buy Grass Fed?
In addition to the health benefits of Grass Fed beef, there are many other reasons that customers are changing their food priorities:
‘Local’ gives a name to the increased connection between the producers and consumers of food, a connection that can be maintained even if the distribution goes beyond the 150 mi rule of thumb. Usually Grass Fed production happens on a much smaller scale than commodity production, therefore the producers and marketers of these products have more information about where and how the animals were raised, what kind of animals they were, how the meat was handled, etc. In some cases the consumer can even learn something about who the producers are. All these added values are part of the extra price the consumer pays for the added value of knowing the “story” behind the food they are eating.
Humane Animal Treatment
We treat our animals with respect not only because their performance depends on being in a low stress environment, and not only because we enjoy being around them, but because they deserve respect. Conscientious producers and consumers understand the intrinsic dignity of all life, not only human. They see that their own well being depends on the health of the ecosystems that they live in, the quality of the food that they eat, and the strength of the communities they live in.
“De-industrializing” Agriculture: More Families on the Land
As modern food production has become increasingly industrialized, it has achieved the dual purposes of producing a great deal of food, cheaply. Whereas food would have made up 25-35% of the average person’s budget in, let’s say, the first half of the 20th century, it now accounts for only about 9%. Another way of saying the same thing can be found in a recent article in Stockman Grass Farmer by Paul Schwennesen. Paul explained that whereas his grandfather could have purchased a new pickup with a trailer load of steers (about 12 head), it would now take a semi load (about 40 head) to purchase an equivalent piece of equipment. The bottom line is that we have grown accustomed to spending a much smaller proportion of our incomes on food, and therefore have been investing a much smaller portion of our means in the land and people that produce food.
As in the example of the changing value of steers mentioned above, if an equivalent unit of food becomes increasingly less valuable, then the producer of that food will have to make increasingly more of it to maintain the same standard of living. More vividly, a rancher who could have sustained a family at a given standard of living with 150 cattle in the 1950’s would have to maintain a herd of roughly 450 to raise his family according to an equivalent standard of living today. What this has meant for farmers and ranchers in our country is that individual producers have been forced to “get big or get out,” as was famously the policy of former Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz and is still the norm today. In effect, this means that people are able to make their living as farmers and ranchers. One puzzles at those who mourn the decline of rural agricultural communities throughout the country while applauding the industrial scale agriculture that is the root cause of that same change.
More and more people are deciding that cheapness should not be the only standard by which we evaluate food production. Committing a bit higher proportion of one’s budget to non-industrial agriculture means contributing a bit more of our budgets to food production that:
- Takes care of soil by preventing erosion, nurturing plant community diversity, nurturing the microbial health of the soil
- Relies less on high input (fossil fuel) machinery, fertilizer, pharmaceuticals, etc.
- Places a high value on the human labor that can give attention to detail, and on the jobs that ultimately put kids in rural schools and preserve rural culture
- Asks the land to produce only what is reasonable, not what is maximally possible
Natural, Free Range
In the commodity beef production model, most ranchers give their beef animals growth hormone implants (like a steroid) when they are young in order to maximize their muscle production and ultimately be paid more at the end of the year for the increased lbs of meat. More and more people are concerned that the animals from which their food comes have never been treated with these drugs, and so they opt for a growth hormone free product. In commodity beef production, where cattle are confined together in feedlots for grain finishing, it becomes advantageous to put antibiotics right in with the feed rations to prevent against the increased risk of sickness in when many animals are kept in close proximity. Grain also tends to change the acidity in the animal’s rumen, which increases the risk that E. coli will grow, and induces beef producers to administer antibiotics as a preventative measure. Even though antibiotics probably do not affect the quality of meat, some people oft for an antibiotic free product because its association to feedlot confinement and grain feeding.