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Is that Local, Grass-fed Burger Really Local and Grass-fed?

Posted 3/13/2015 9:35am by Paul Nehring.

In the past few years two of the biggest, most promising trends in the food business are “local” and “grass-fed.”  In fact, the demand for these products is growing so fast that demand often outstrips supply.  Unfortunately, too often when that happens, food retailers, not wanting to lose customers, will cut corners or stretch the truth just a bit, or sometimes a lot, to make you think you are getting what you want.  That same thing is what is happening in the local, and grass-fed beef business, at farm markets, grocers, and now, especially with restaurants. 

For instance, you may have noticed that some Wausau area restaurants now claim to offer local grass-fed beef on their menu.  Yet, to the best of my knowledge, none of those restaurants is actually sourcing their beef from a local grass-fed producer or producers, and in fact, I know at least one restaurant that was purchasing beef from a local butcher and was calling it locally raised, grass-fed beef, when in fact, the butcher purchased that beef a meat packer which sources all of their beef from feedlot raised cattle—the butcher is local but the meat is not, nor is it grass-fed. 

Some other restaurants that are claiming to sell local grass-fed beef are actually sourcing it from branded beef companies that are not what most of us would call “local.”  One restaurant, Redeye Brewing Company, gets their grass-fed beef from a branded beef company in Southern Illinois, but to their credit, they don’t label that meat as local on their menu, just grass-fed—hey, I’m fine with that, because it’s honest.  Another, Great Dane Brew Pub sources their “local, grass-fed” beef from Northstar Bison in Rice Lake, WI. Northstar Bison purchases their grass-fed beef from growers in Northern Wisconsin and Minnesota.  At least they are somewhat from Wisconsin, but not exactly local. 

It’s hard to blame the restaurants for not sourcing all their meat from local sources, because there just isn’t nearly enough supply.  I’ve been in the meat production business on our farm, for over 10 years, and I’ve been involved with all the local farm markets in the area, and I have a pretty good knowledge of the local supply of grass-fed beef.  While local grass-fed beef production is increasing, growth is slower than you might expect.   

On the supply side there are some very real challenges to produce enough grass-fed beef right now.    The reason is that is that cattle prices have increased so much the past few years that we haven’t been able to come up with the capital to expand our production.  Cattle are now selling for 200 to 300% higher than they were just five years ago.  While we raise many of our cattle from birth, we also purchase weaned calves, at about 6-7 months of age, and raise them until they are 20-24 months.  Those calves come from local grass-fed farms, and we pay the going rate.  In 2008 I purchased calves for an average price of $450 per head.  In November of 2014, I had to pay over $1500 for those same weaned calves.  We have been creative with sourcing outside capital, but it’s only been enough to keep a steady supply, rather than an increasing supply. 

We used to work with some local restaurants but have had to drop all of those accounts because we couldn’t afford to purchase enough cattle to service them. It’s frustrating for us that we can’t come up with the capital to grow our supply to meet demand, especially when local restaurants want that beef.  However, it’s an unusual time in the cattle business and unless we can find additional investors to finance growth, it’s not going to happen. We can’t take out a third mortgage on our home, and even if we could it’s not worth the risk.  My wife and I are already both working jobs off the farm to finance this business and keep it afloat, as well as to pay for our living expenses, so there aren’t easy solutions to this.

I imagine it is frustrating for chefs that they can’t find local sources of grass-fed beef when their customers are increasingly asking for it, and expecting it. And we can’t blame chefs for not sourcing local grass-fed beef, because they just can’t find enough of it for regular menu items like burgers and steaks.  However, I don’t believe that just because local grass-fed beef is in short supply that it justifies lying on your menu by suggesting that the beef is local and grass-fed, when it is not local or in some cases, not even grass-fed.  While local and grass-fed may be trendy shouldn't honesty and integrity be the most important ingredient on the menu?

My suggestion is that if you are dining at a Wausau area restaurant that claims to have local grass-fed beef on the menu, ask what local farm or farms they are sourcing the beef from, and where those farms are located.  I’d be curious to know what you find.  You can email me or post it on my facebook page.

My suggestion to chefs is to be true to your menu.  I’ve found that people appreciate the truth far more than anything else you can give them and that trust builds confidence in you and your business.  I hope that you realize that the local foods movement is based on honesty and transparency, so that customers can know where their food comes from and how it was raised. 

Farm market

You can find our products at the Wausau Summer and Winter Farmers Markets.  During the summer we are at the VFW Hangar Lounge parking lot on River Drive, on Saturday mornings, from 8:00-noon from mid-May through the end of October.  During the winter we are at the Marathon County Extension Building on River Drive, in Wausau on Saturday mornings, 8:00-noon, from mid-November until mid-April.  Or you can give us a call or email to arrange home pickup or delivery. 

Contact Info

NewGrass Farm, LLC

4009 Henry St.

Wausau, WI 54403

715-675-0688

newgrassfarm@gmail.com

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