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Organic & Grass-Fed is Healthier & Greener

McClatchy Newspapers | April 16, 2007
Chris Vaughn

GRANDVIEW, Texas - Inside the only boucherie in town is a meat case full of chuck roasts, flank steaks, New York strips.

But what they're really selling in the rustic Burgundy Boucherie is a story.

It's an old story, actually, one about a Texas ranching family that raises cattle on rolling, green hills of native grasses, never uses pesticides, hormones or grain, and sells their meat to people they know on a first-name basis.

Jon and Wendy Taggart tell it best.

"It's not new," Wendy Taggart said. "It's the way ranching was done years ago."

A few years back, they climbed out on an agricultural limb, gambling that people would pay extra for organic, 100-percent grass-fed beef bought directly  from their store in Grandview, about 35 miles south of Fort Worth.

They struck at a time when many Americans were growing more interested in all-natural products and more concerned with problems in mass-produced meat.

That interest keeps growing, and not just in the expected places such as New England and California. The Dallas-Fort Worth area is considered the second-strongest market in Texas for environmentally friendly foods.

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But there's one problem.

"There is more demand than supply," said Brad Stufflebeam, president of the Texas Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. "Texas is decades behind this movement."

The grass-fed beef movement - which means the cows are not fattened up in feedlots with grain or corn - is in its infancy.

The American Grassfed Association is only 4 years old, and few people have particularly reliable statistics about it.

But in a state as cattle-rich as Texas, there are fewer than 20 grass-fed producers that can be found on the Internet, most of them selling whole or half  carcasses, not individual cuts.

Nationwide, it is estimated that less than 1 percent of the beef supply comes from grass-fed cows, an even smaller amount from organic grass-fed operations like the Taggarts'.

"It's a niche, niche market," said Angela Jackson, president of the Organic Grassfed Beef Coalition in South Dakota. "It's been growing 50 percent a year  the last three years, but the number of producers coming on is not as fast as the growth in demand. We don't ever see being able to catch up."

Bucking the 50-year agricultural tradition of always growing bigger to survive, the Taggarts elected to go smaller by creating Burgundy Pasture Beef.

And far from just surviving, they are prospering. They are left to wonder why more ranchers aren't telling the same story they are.

"Our business increased 70 percent from 2005 to 2006, and that was the smallest increase we've ever had," Wendy Taggart said. "I think there's a lot  bigger market out there."

The National Cattlemen's Beef Association in Denver expects to see continued growth among grass-fed producers, particularly since grain prices are  so high.

But Joe Schuele, a spokesman for the group, said it is unlikely to ever dethrone grain-fed cattle as the predominant source of beef.

"We're all in favor of cattle producers identifying and capitalizing on that kind of market opportunity," Schuele said. "It's a marvelous opportunity for a select number of producers, but it's not likely to be an opportunity for a huge number. It's unlikely to create any major shifts in cattle production in the foreseeable future."

Eight to 10 full carcasses usually hang in Jon Taggart's dry-age freezer. Even when they're stripped of any identifying characteristics, Taggart still knows which carcass came from which cow.

Just four miles away is the Taggart ranch, a 1,370-acre spread of wheat fields turned native grass pasture.

Pure Angus calves come to the Taggart ranch at about 12 months from operations that use only grass. They stay there for another 12 to 15 months, eating only grass. Jon Taggart decides which is ready for slaughter, based on  how fatty they look.

They go to slaughter near Hillsboro, Texas. The carcasses come to the boucherie - or butcher shop - for 21 days of aging.

They're processed and packaged from employees on site. Then the meat is sold.

This is what people mean when they say "local food."

Organic is no longer the buzzword for the food savvy.

That market kept up double-digit growth over the past few years, to the point that large agriculture companies are now in the business of  organics.

To local food supporters, industrial agriculture is bad; organic or  not.

"Local food is the ultimate in accountability," Stufflebeam said, because it puts farmers and ranchers directly in touch with customers. "Local food is a more secure food system. When people understand the value of food, where it comes from and the people who grew it, it makes the banquet on our tables much more rewarding and nutritious."

To illustrate how much local has overtaken organic as the rallying point, neither the Taggarts nor Stufflebeam have ever requested organic certification  from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"I hope our customers put more faith in what I say than the USDA," Jon Taggart said.

The Taggarts' grass-fed program started nine years ago because of money. Specifically, not enough of it ending up in their bank account through a conventional stocker calf operation.

"We were struggling," Jon Taggart said. "The cattle business is a tough business. We had to come up with some way to increase our income."

So, in their words, they left the "commodity-driven rat race" in which beef prices go up and down on based on the packer or grocer market.

Instead, they converted their ranch and their herd to all-grass and all-natural, a process that took several years. In September 2004, they opened  their store, perhaps their biggest leap of faith, because it was too difficult  to run the business out of their house.

Because they sell directly to the customer, they can set their own prices, which have never come down.

Bone-in rib-eye is $12.99 a pound. A tenderloin is $26.99 a pound. Flank steak is $7.99 a pound, and short ribs are $4.29 a pound, all of which goes to  the Taggarts.

"It's a better way to raise a family," Jon Taggart said. "We can budget our household now."

Running a grass-fed ranch is easier in some respects.

Jon Taggart doesn't have to plow, fertilize or buy antibiotics. Every few days, he moves the cows to a different pasture and makes sure the grasses are  doing well, and the cows take care of themselves.

But the rest of it is a huge departure from what ranchers normally do - processing the meat, marketing, running a Web site and dealing with customers.

"We are service-oriented," Wendy Taggart said. "Our customers want to talk to who is raising their food because that's important to them."

The Taggarts' typical customers are middle- or upper-middle-class, educated and selective about what they put on their plate.

They also get their meat delivered to their door, typically a 20-pound order that runs about $100.

"Our customers are black and white, people with families and empty-nesters," Wendy Taggart said. "But the one thing they have in common is  their food philosophy."

Deanna Wagner is one of them, a former vegetarian who went back to eating meat - only because she could find products like the Taggarts'.

"I have a husband and two teenage boys, who can eat," Wagner said. "I can feel good about them eating this."

Many of the Taggarts' customers shop at Central Market or Whole Foods, and they still do for fish and other items. But even those grocery stores with certified organic options don't offer what some people are looking for - the exact provenance of their dinner, provided by the grower himself.

Coleen Merk of Dallas is a Whole Foods shopper who has been shifting to more local foods. She buys her meat from the Taggarts, and buys chicken and goat's milk from an East Texas farmer for her family of six.

But the Taggarts' home delivery with custom cuts is what sets them  apart.

"I don't know of anyone who does that," Merk said. "I buy from there for three reasons - the quality is superb, they deliver, and I don't have to buy a  half or a whole cow."

The age-old criticism of grass-fed beef is that it can be tough, and that's based partly on truth.

Grain does fatten a steer faster and offers more consistency in taste. But the Taggarts say a grass-fed steer will get a similar amount of marbling, given more time and the right genetics.

That's what Jon Taggart does - he buys good Angus calves and doesn't rush them to fatten up. He is also careful not to "stress" the cows, which he says  can ruin a perfectly good carcass.

"People told us when we started that grass-fed beef is tough and has no fat on it," Wendy Taggart said. "We continued anyway. And I was astounded at the quality of beef that can be raised on grass."

Jon Bonnell, owner and chef of Bonnell's Restaurant in Fort Worth, has served the Taggarts' meat for three years.

Bonnell's is a highly regarded restaurant that specializes in serving regionally grown food.

"I've tried several grass-fed products, and they're the only ones I like," Bonnell said. "Since they dry-age the beef and hand-select each cow, the tenderness is fantastic.

"It's a handcrafted deal. Jon looks in the herd and says that cow, that cow and that cow are ready, whereas someone else might say, `I need 10 cows,' and  the first 10 they get are the ones that get processed. His is a personal touch,  and he really knows what he is doing."

The Taggarts' business is growing. Already, they sell pasture-raised pork and chicken from friends, plus raw-milk cheeses. They're working on offering pasture-raised lamb.

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They've even talked about opening a little hamburger restaurant in the boucherie.

To handle the increasing demand, they'll slaughter more cows this year than last, which has been true every year.

But they've chosen a low-volume business model and have no interest in selling to large numbers of restaurants, much less grocery stores.

They predict that they will hit a point at which they won't grow  anymore.

"We got into this to cut out all the middlemen, and they're going to stay out," Jon Taggart said.

"Our business model is direct retail to the customer. I could really grow my operation big, but then it becomes a lot like the commodity business that we left."

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HEALTH BENEFITS OF PASTURE-RAISED BEEF

Studies have shown a number of health benefits to eating beef from cows that were 100 percent grass-fed.

_Lower in saturated fats

_Slightly higher in omega-3 fatty acids

_Higher in vitamins A and E

_No antibiotics

_Substantially lower chance of E. coli  contamination

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