Two roads diverge in the U.S. beef industry. Americans are buying more alternatively raised meat — organic, natural, grass-fed and the like – but most large-scale cattle producers in the Midwest are not cashing in on the trend.
By Clay Masters.
Prescott Frost, however, owns a 6,000-acre operation in the sand hills of northern Nebraska, and he’s betting on alternatively raised beef. Frost is a former stock broker from Connecticut who sold his family’s farmland in Illinois two years ago to come to Nebraska and raise certified organic grass-fed beef. He has about 600 cattle.
“If change is going to come from the heartland, it’s got to come from educated people from the city,” Frost said.
The potential is there. Market researcher Spins reported a 19 percent increase in sales of natural and organic beef and pork over last year, though the market is still dwarfed by conventional production.
Retailers and other middlemen are building their own supply networks to meet the demand.
Frost is using his name — yes, he’s the great grandson of poet Robert Frost — to bring attention to what he calls the “natural” benefits of his beef. And he’s taking that message to a specific audience. All of his Nebraska beef ends up on the coasts, shipped directly to consumers.
“One of the things we’re trying to do is eliminate the middlemen in the process, whether it’s the meat distributors or grocery stores,” Frost said. “If you take out all of those people along the way then there’s more money for the farmer and the consumer.”
At Whole Foods Market, the natural and organic food chain, organic meat is purchased from local suppliers close to individual stores, not from bigger producers in large beef states like Nebraska and Texas.
“We go out there trying to make sure whatever we commit to we can sell and then really expand from it, and it has worked tremendously well,” said Theo Weening, global meat coordinator for Whole Foods.
That local focus won't drive conventional producers in the Midwest to turn to organic or grass-fed cattle. Still, Frost is hopeful he can show that alternative production can work in the heart of cattle country, though he recognizes it’s a challenge.
“Culturally, it’s almost impossible to make a change in (a conventional) operation,” Frost said.
Some of that resistance is evident at the consumer level.
Just an hour away from Frost’s ranch, Bob and Terry Carr own the Bunkhouse Saloon in the small town of Valentine, Neb. The Carrs raise cattle and understand the local market.
Bob Carr said Valentine residents aren’t really interested in organic or other specialty meats, so he’ll continue to serve the corn-fed Angus he buys from a large food distributor.
“We get compliments on our roast beef dinners and our prime rib, our hamburgers and rib eyes,” Carr said. “They’re very happy with them and if you try to and change that, it’s a really tough deal.”
Cattle experts say ranchers in the Midwest are also held back by something far more pressing than local preferences.
Producing alternative beef comes with a lot more costs. In raising organic meats, ranchers can’t use hormonal implants to stimulate growth. Cattle on a strict grass diet need more acres of land and grass to feed on, and it takes cattle longer to gain weight.
“The economics come down to every individual producer and whether they’re getting paid enough to offset raising beef conventionally,” said Galen Erickson, a feedlot specialist at the University of Nebraska. “It’s quite a large difference between the cost to raise cattle using all the technologies we have today, versus organic -- and versus grass fed it’s even an additional cost.”
Frost, though, is committed to taking the road less traveled.