Valley Cattle Farmers are Turning to a Healthier, Eco-Friendly Grass-Fed Approach
( Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the May/June ’16 issue of Merrimack Valley Magazine ) Bake it, boil it, braise it, or broil it — Americans certainly love their beef. And now it seems a growing number are turning their attention to grass-fed cattle.
Just ask Roberto Alonzo, an Argentine-born farming enthusiast who brought to the Merrimack Valley more than just a passion for the planted seed. The North Andover resident also carried northward the baggage of two long-term ailments, including a 23-year bout with diabetes. The other was a nasty case of celiac disease, an autoimmune condition that renders its sufferers unable to consume gluten.
“Once I found out I was allergic to gluten, I basically started researching everything I put into my body,” says Alonzo, who endured a dramatic loss of weight before the alarming diagnosis. “I learned about what was making me sick and exactly what I could do about it.”
Alonzo soon delved “dirt deep” into the world of grass-fed beef, an organic, natural alternative to the traditional methods of feeding processed grains or soy to livestock. His American dream had been to purchase a sustainable cattle farm, but that vision changed quickly after discussions with local farmers who urged him to follow a different path. “There was a growing concern from almost every organic farmer I spoke with,” Alonzo says. “They were producing all of this grass-fed meat, but they couldn’t find anywhere to sell it.”
So, it wasn’t long before Alonzo swapped his dream of acres for aisles. Today he owns Eva’s Farm Organic Butcher Shop in Middleton. It is one of the few local stores of its kind, an outlet through which local organic/sustainable farmers can sell their beef, and where health-conscious consumers can buy it.
Since opening in November 2014, Eva’s Farm Organic Butcher Shop has addressed that elusive, age-old question of exactly where the beef is. This organic form of cattle farming has quickly infiltrated the nationwide industry, including numerous farms throughout the Valley, Newburyport’s Arrowhead Farm and Appleton Farms in Ipswich among them.
Another one is Miner Family Farm in Merrimack, N.H., where founder Don Miner also turned to organic, grass-fed farming for the purpose of personal wellness.
“I felt uncomfortable with not knowing what I was getting when I bought meat at the local grocery store,” Miner says. “So many of those items are processed with additives and things we don’t know anything about. The biggest thing for me is that I want to know what I’m eating. Now, I eat only my own products. Beef, chicken, pork, lamb — I raise it all right here.”
But grass feeding hasn’t been all sunshine and draw hoes. While this farming method has proved to be a costly investment, Miner still works grueling 13-hour shifts, often in extreme heat or cold, watering the pastures on which his 40 head of cattle feed. His one-man operation demands, among other tasks, the constant running and draining of hoses. During the winter months, he spends his days maneuvering 1,200-pound bales of silage the cattle eat in lieu of fresh grass.
The rigors of grass feeding are extensive, but the benefits are twofold, according to Steve Normanton, owner of Steve Normanton Grass-Fed Beef, a farming and retail operation in Litchfield, N.H. Not only does grass-fed beef provide nutritional benefits, he says, but its ecologically-sound production methods help to preserve environmental health.
“Since cows are ruminants, they have a digestive system designed to break down the fibers and materials you find in grasses,” Normanton says. “They are able to harvest those grasses with great efficiency, and there are a lot of nutrients stored in there. Our digestive systems can’t directly access those nutrients, but we can get them by eating grass-fed beef.”
Such nutrients include omega-3 fatty acids which can help boost HDL cholesterol (the good kind). Elevated HDL levels get high marks from researchers for helping to battle heart disease, depression and attention deficit disorder. Grass-fed beef is also rich in conjugated linoleic acid, which is thought by some to be a protectant against cancer.
Waist watchers also savor grass-fed beef’s lower calorie and fat content, as it is more comparable to meats such as venison and skinless chicken than to commercially-raised beef.
And, adds Normanton, there’s a green to this operation that’s much greater than the grass itself. These eco-friendly farming methods have proved to greatly reduce harmful emissions released into the environment. “There are plenty of carbon footprints when you grain feed cattle,” Normanton says. “You’re disturbing the soil by getting that seed crop growing and you’re releasing carbon into the air.” Compounding the negative impact, Normanton says, is the exhaust-emitting agricultural machinery used for manufacturing seed- and other cattle-feeding crops.
Once local sustainable farms sport a stable of fully matured cattle, the livestock is purchased by a retailer, or “middleman,” as Alonzo terms himself. In Alonzo’s case, he purchases cattle from privately-owned organic farms throughout Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts, and transports the animals to a slaughterhouse in Athol. “Most of the grass-fed beef you’ll find at Market Basket or Hannaford comes from Australia or South America,” Alonzo says. “To find fresh, locally-harvested beef, you have to come to specialty shops like ours.”
So, it seems that when it comes to the art of grass-feeding beef cattle, there remains but one final question to ponder.
How’s the beef?
“It’s absolutely splendid,” Alonzo says. “It has much more flavor [than grain-fed beef] and people are getting more and more used to it. They love the concept of it being healthier for their bodies and for our ecology. And business has never been better.”
Eva’s Farm Organic Butcher Shop
Miner Family Farm
Steve Normanton Grass-Fed Beef