This is the longest post ever to appear on this blog, by far, but I wanted to share all that I learned at Slope Farms. I think it's very important to engage with this - thinking about where our food comes from.
I don't remember exactly when I began buying Slope Farms beef, but it's been over five years now. I tried several varieties sold at the Coop and found Slope Farms to be the most delicious.
A few weeks ago, as summer was still vibrant but beginning to wane, I found myself in the Catskills for a few days. I emailed Ken and he welcomed me to come visit the farm. I drove west from near the Hudson River on Route 28, a gorgeous drive if ever there was one.
I arrived at Ken and his wife Linda's house and Ken told me to put on a pair of the big rubber boots that sat in the garage. We would do a lot of walking on wet ground, he said. We began by going out behind his house, past his little tomato garden, and heading toward the pastures. I asked him about how it happened that he became a beef farmer.
Ken grew up in Brooklyn, in Fort Greene. He left NYC for college and went to SUNY Binghamton for college and then to SUNY Buffalo for Medical School - that's how he came to feel a connection with upstate NY. He returned to Brooklyn with his wife Linda and worked as an old fashioned family doctor for 25 years. Ken was the doctor, Linda ran the business. He was not part of a larger medical group - he had no other partners. He saw kids, old people, everyone. But eventually the necessities of the modern medical business establishment made it unfeasible for Ken and Linda to continue their business, and so they stopped. Their kids were grown. They had been visiting the Catskills for years, and decided to move there.
Okay, I said. But why beef farming? We looked out at the hills of pasture from behind Ken and Linda's house.
Ken went on to tell me that the Catskills region used to be covered with dairy farms, now largely defunct. "NY State has abandoned factories, just like Detroit," he said. "Ours are empty plots of land that once were used for dairy farming. You can think of the beautiful unused open pastures of upstate as similar to the empty factories of Cleveland or Detroit."
Ken unlatched a part of the wooden fence and we walked out into the pasture.
"Rotational grazing is the key to healthy beef agriculture," Ken said. The idea is to mirror the natural grassland ecosystem, which in nature includes large ruminants moving from one area to the next as a key component of the health of the grass and soil. In the past, between tens of millions of years ago until hundreds of years ago, large ruminants roamed the plains in the US and the eastern grasslands as well. They grazed, they used their hooves to trample some of the grass into the soil, they added excrement to fertilize/add carbon to the soil, then they moved onto other plots and returned after the grass had recovered and regrown."
"So how did you figure this out," I asked.
"Rotational grazing is not rocket science," Ken smiled. "You can learn 80% of what you need to learn in an hour or two. You can read about it in any number of books. The other 20% takes more time, observation, and practice to learn."
"What about in the winter," I said. "What do they eat then?"
Ken said that the grass in the fields doesn't grow past October, but it "stockpiles" in the pastures and the cows eat it through December - it remains nutritious into the winter. Then they eat hay produced at nearby fields until the spring. I asked if the beef finished on grass tastes different from beef finished on hay, and Ken said that it does not.
"And where are the cows now," I asked. We walked uphill, and through a clearing in a line of trees, I saw them.
"And they never go inside," I asked.
"The adults are almost never indoors," Ken said. "The babies - if the rain or wind or cold is too intense, they will go inside. We leave the younger animals close to the barn so they have the option of going inside if the choose. They generally prefer to be outside, only going in if there is freezing rain or windy cold."
"And what about at night? Is there any worry about bears or any sort of predator?"
"Not bears," Ken said, "but there are coyotes around, which the New York Department of Environmental Control reports are about 90% red wolf. They cannot hurt a full grown cow, but they could take a calf if the mother weren't vigilant. We've never lost any calves to coyotes.
"You know, I was pretty surprised when I started seeing Slope Farms veal appearing on the shelves at the Coop," I told Ken. "There's such a stigma with veal. Why did you get into that business?"
"Well, some cows make babies that take too long to 'finish,' and I learned which ones those are," Ken said. Babies from those cows become veal. We raise those calves in the fields with their mothers and the herd."
"Finish? - What do you mean by that?" I asked. I must have made a face. Because Ken said "You know, if you drink milk then you are participating in the veal industry. This is a dirty little secret. Cows must have a baby every year in order to produce milk. Of course, half of the babies are male. And in the dairy world, most male calves are raised away from their mothers in an industrial setting, and end up as veal. Our male calves become steers, and are marketed at 18 - 30 months of age."
Ken explained that a 'finished' animal is one that is ready for market. For lack of a better word, it is 'fat' enough. Animals whose ribs are showing, or whose haunches are too bony, those animals are not 'finished' and will stick around longer, eating more grass. He said that it took him a while to learn how to select good cows, when buying animals at the beginning, to predict which would 'finish' well.
"So how does it work in general - how long are the animals with you here," I asked.
"Our animals are slaughtered at an average age of two and a half years old," Ken said. Some calves become veal. Other calves that are male become steer and then are slaughtered at about two and a half years old. Female calves can be finished just as the steers, or kept as breeding stock as long as they continue to make babies that 'finish' well - often more than 10 years."
"What happens when that older cow stops making 'good' babies," I asked.
"For older animals, generally females who stop breeding, the default is ground beef because most of the meat is not very tender, but is has very good flavor," Ken said. "But the tenderloins on those animals stay very tender and have great flavor - deeply beefy. With these animals I like to take a rib steak into my 'test kitchen' and see if it's tender enough for steaks. About one in three times it is, and the Tarlow group in particular loves those steaks."
---Note to self: find out how to go to Marlow & Sons, Romans, or one of the other Tarlow joints when that kind steak is on the menu.---
"As healthy as the grass and the cattle look," Ken said, "it's the life underneath the surface of the soil that's the richest, teeming with small animals, microorganisms, and fungi, which creates a healthy soil. When it's working, cows eat the leaves of the grass plants, use their hooves to push other grass into the soil. In the perennial pasture that develops, plants like clover work symbiotically with bacteria to move nitrogen from the air to the soil. When soil and roots are healthy, grasses will regrow and be ready for grazing again in about 6 weeks."
As we walked further through the pastures, I looked more closely at the plants I could see.
We walked back to the house and got in Ken's pickup so we could see the rest of his cattle and his land. On the way we passed some fields that looked quite nice, others not as much. Ken told me that some of his neighbors noticed how healthy the Slope Farms fields look, saw what Ken is doing with rotational grazing, and adopted the practice for their own herds. Others, not.
After touring we stood in Ken and Linda's kitchen and talked some more. "So how does this become the industry standard?" I asked. "Is it about Americans learning to eat less meat, but meat of higher quality that is farmed in a healthy way?"
"I agree that in terms of health and the environment, it is better to eat less meat that is of higher quality," Ken said. "But I feel that there is room for more than one type of beef for consumers to choose from. Its about changing our tastes, expanding our palate. The American palate currently leans towards feedlot beef that is low in flavor but extremely soft in texture. Grass fed beef has more flavor but is, on average, a bit less tender. People should have a choice rather than being stuck with the industry standard."
There is no question whatsoever in my mind that the feedlot cattle industry is harmful the health and to the environment in several important ways. At the end of this post (which by now must seem will never come) I will include Ken's analysis of the costs of industrial feedlots. Our conversation continued and I asked him more about how to scale the grass fed beef business.
"Is this a good business, first of all," I asked. "Are you making money?"
"Yes," said Ken. "It is very important for me to show that this is a profitable enterprise, to help create an economically viable model from grass fed beef production in our region."
"So what's stopping others from doing what you're doing," I asked.
"The main barrier," Ken said, "is how to get a small number of finished cattle to the market of wholesale buyers. Buyers want a regular supply of high quality product. Feedlots house 10,000 - 100,000 animals. Trucks can come in, point to the animals they want, and drive away with them. Feedlots are horrible in many, many ways, but they have one advantage - they aggregate the animals so that when they are ready they can be shipped to market from a central place."
"So a small cattle farmer has a hard time getting the finished cattle to market," I said.
"Yes," Ken said. "There is a need for an aggregator. This is a crucial business player. As others start good farms, an aggregator is needed."
"Are you doing any of this now," I asked.
"I work with about a dozen farmers to help them get their beef to market. I'm at their farms constantly and I can vouch for their no hormone, no antibiotic, all grass, and animal welfare practices. They raise the cattle and I can maintain quality standards and sell their beef under my label."
---Whoa - does this remind you of anything in the wine industry?---
"So," I asked, "is this something that can happen - can grass fed beef be brought to scale?"
Ken told me that the Grassland Team at Cornell University says that there are 3 million acres of unused pasture in New York State. They wouldn't all be used for cattle farming, but that's enough pasture to finish 1 million cattle each year - enough to supply all of the demand for beef in New York City for a year.
Compelling ideas, indeed.
I love the taste of grass fed beef. At home I eat it exclusively. Whenever I happen to eat feedlot beef, I am struck by the differences in appearance, taste, and texture. I find the corn-finished feedlot beef to be pink rather than deep red, and essentially tasteless. The tenderness has no appeal to me - it's like eating a very soft wet towel. But I'm opinionated and picky, so find out for yourself. If you happen not to have tried grass fed beef, I seriously encourage you to find and buy a simple grass fed steak. It costs a bit more, but it tastes better. And you're paying for more than your beef - you're investing in something bigger than just that steak dinner.
"What are the costs of the current industrial feedlot system," I asked. Ken wrote an email to me later in which he described the costs as follows:
1) At the feedlot:
1)Regional air pollution with toxic dust and airborne bacteria.
2) Greenhouse gasses from manure lagoons.
1) Runoff killing local streams and polluting larger waterways.
1) Cattle each have about 100 square feet and are not able to have a normal life grazing.
2) High grain diet leads to 'acidosis' and cattle illness.
Human Heath Impacts
1) Daily antibiotic use in cattle leading to strains of bacteria in humans that are resistant to antiobiotics (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus bacteria, salmonella, E. coli, campylobacter)
2) Hormone implants in feedlot cattle lead to hormone residue in meat.
3) Feedlot beef has a fat profile that is less healthy than grass fed beef - there is more saturated fat, less omega-3 fatty acid, less conjugated linoleic acid).
2) Production of Grain to Feed the Feedlot Beef
Fossil Fuel Usage
1) Use of fossil fuel to plant, fertilize, harvest, and transport grain.
2) Use of fossil fuel in production of chemical fertilizer, herbicides, and pesticides.
1) Widespread water pollution from runoff from chemical fertilizers (the dead zone off the Gulf of Mexico, for example)
1) Loss of carbon from the soil into the air due to plowing, as opposed to rotational grazing which moves carbon from the atmosphere into the soil.
1) Use of GMO grain.
2) Loss of biodiversity in plants and animals from mono-crop production.