Wisconsin farmers work on grass-fed, locally grazed meat
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Todd Carr's family has been trucking eggs, beef, pork and chicken from their Hollandale farm to market in Madison for the past 22 years.
Not long ago, at a winter farmers' market downtown, a young customer approached Carr's Pecatonica Valley Farm stand, eyeing the ground beef.
"It was snowing colder than you-know-what that day," Carr said. "She wanted to know whether the burger I had was grass-fed. Me and my brother ... we looked outside and said 'Yeah, but on a day like today, it's hard to find grass.'... She just looked at me. And we're like — 'We're kidding. It's snowing. This time of year they get fed alfalfa.' She's like, 'Oh, thanks,' and moved on."
Alfalfa, Carr might have told her, is a dried form of what the cows forage in the summer. It's an important protein supplement during winter, and common for use with grass-fed cows.
That's the challenge, Carr said, for farmers like him. Customers hear words or phrases like "grass-fed," ''pasture-raised" and "farm to table" and use them without quite understanding what they mean.
The reality is more complicated. The desire for sustainable beef, pork and poultry can quickly run up against a lack of understanding about how that meat gets to the table, from cost of production to factors that make scaling up difficult.
"I can tell what was on the latest cooking show when 10 people come up and ask for the same thing, like flank steak," Carr told The Capital Times . There are two flank steaks, weighing a few pounds each, on an 800-pound animal.
Customers can be unrealistic in their expectations, he said.
"Today's customers, they don't want (education)," Carr said. "They hear it, they want it. If I went into the gory details of farming, they'd pass out."
Americans have had 12 years to grapple with what author Michael Pollan called "The Omnivore's Dilemma." Eating too much meat, particularly commodity beef, harms our bodies and damages the environment. In restaurants and at the farmers' market, conscientious carnivores silently note whether the chicken was raised on pasture or if the pig had a heritage.
Yet we're still eating a lot of meat. The federal Department of Agriculture made headlines earlier this year when it predicted that in 2018, Americans would eat more meat than any year since 1970. The forecast, 222.2 pounds of meat per person on average, favors chicken over beef.
In Wisconsin, ethically minded burger lovers have begun to turn to more sustainable forms of meat, like cows grazed on hills near Dodgeville, chicken raised on Sun Prairie pasture and pigs kept warm in the winter on Amish homesteads.
With herds of a few dozen animals to several hundred, family farmers have stepped up to meet the demand. The Wisconsin Grass-fed Beef Cooperative, celebrating its 10th year, includes some 185 farmers who collectively sell their beef under the Wisconsin Meadows label.
"We have seen an increase in the number of our members who raise meat," Sarah Elliott, manager of the Dane County Farmers' Market, wrote in an email. "Meat producers make up approximately 25 percent of our wait list. These numbers mirror the trends of increasing small to mid-scale local meat production."
Take fresh chicken. Wisconsin has a bottleneck when it comes to poultry processing. There are some 300 small-scale butchers in the state, most of who slaughter, clean and cut meat, but only four state-inspected processors work with chickens.
There's also an education gap. The University of Wisconsin-Extension introduced a Master Meat Crafter Training program in 2008, a series of six short courses held over two years and aimed, in part, at those already in the field. Madison College is adding a new sustainable meat diploma starting this fall.
Meat markets that offer custom processing may book out months in advance, a challenge for young farmers trying to prepare their herds for market. Farmers who want to maximize the value of their animals find that processors may not know what a tri tip roast is, or grind up a valuable roast with the rest of the trim.
"You've got to find a butcher who feels the way you do and wants to treat the animal right," said Andy Fischer of Fischer Family Farm, now based in Fall River. "There's a lot of animals being produced in Wisconsin, but not enough butchers."
Fischer called butchery "a lost profession."
"It's like farming, the profession is getting older," Fischer said. "Nobody is coming up to replace them. Every town had a bar, a church and a butcher, it was part of the town. We're losing that."
On an early spring day, John Priske looked out over his Fountain Prairie Farm, 280 mostly brown acres in Fall River.
A few of Fischer's cattle, a shorthorn/Red Angus cross, blinked in the sun in a nearby paddock, while Priske's shaggy Scottish Highland cows grazed just beyond. Chickens rambled everywhere, foraging in the brush near an airy, open barn.
"We like to consider ourselves warriors, and we've been in the trenches for over 30 years," said Priske, who with his wife, Dorothy, supplied L'Etoile with lean, well-marbled beef before the Priskes retired in 2014.
"We (had) been direct marketing since 1986, and we've been working with chefs in Madison," John Priske said. "Chefs are a lot like farmers. It's kind of a thankless job some days. You put in a lot of hours, you work a lot of weekends and holidays and the only thing you get out of it is if the person who eats your food likes your food."
This year, the Priskes will strengthen connections between farmers and chefs with a new collaboration with Madison College. The college signed a lease on 165 of the farm's acres, then turned around and leased 155 of them to Andy and Sadie Fischer of Fischer Family Farm.
The farm will become a new outdoor classroom for Madison College students looking to study the water, soil, plants, compost, feed and, of course, the animals themselves. Sustainable Farm to Table: Modern Meat Production, a one-year technical diploma, inaugurates its first class this September.
"There's something special about this place that really should be showcased," said Randy Zogbaum, an agricultural instructor at Madison College. "How to manage, how to live on the land, and how to be a family farm again. A legacy for Fountain Prairie Farm could be to teach others."
The coursework for Sustainable Farm to Table was a collaboration on many levels. In addition to the agricultural training Zogbaum has developed, culinary program director Paul Short brought in chefs and butchers to help put together an inventory of real-world skills.
"It's our goal not only to train people to open up butcher shops, but also have chefs have a place where they can learn how to do this themselves," Short said.
Andy Fischer, 33, is among the young farmers looking to continue and grow the sustainable farming practices developed by the Priskes.
"We're big into pastured pork and chickens," Fischer said. "We're looking to expand our beef herd. Our plan at Fountain Prairie is to be able to do everything there," beef, pork, chicken and turkeys, all on pasture.
"The pasture's there," he said. "Let's use it as much as we can for whatever we can."
A similar generational change is happening at Cates Family Farm. On some 250 acres of pasture outside Spring Green, Eric and Kiley Cates have taken over the grass-fed beef and dairy grazing business led for years by Eric's dad, Dick Cates.
When Dick Cates, a veteran farmer, took over his own father's beef farm, he spent years trying to make a living in commodity farming by adding to his herd. At one time, the Cateses farmed 1,000 acres and had 800 head of cattle.
Dick Cates still struggled to pay off what he had to borrow year to year. The margins weren't there.
"The commodity market is the death knell," Dick Cates said. "Any young farmer who thinks they're going to produce for the commodity market is just doing it as a hobby. There's no business model that will allow you to produce for a commodity market and make a living as a new farmer."
What has proven more successful for both the Cateses and Priskes is grass-fed beef, which requires more intensive farm practices but fetches a higher price. When Cates started marketing his beef to downtown chefs, some were skeptical that grass-fed beef could taste good, so he supplemented with grain.
Now, he said, "grass-fed has become like the religion."
"If you have a drop of grain in the life cycle of your steer, people won't touch it," Cates said. "You gotta stay on top of these things ... you have to go with the trend."
Cates Family Farm sells both Angus and Jersey beef to Madison restaurants. Few chefs can accommodate whole beef but some, like Francesco Mangano at Osteria Papavero, are willing to use cuts like shank and cheeks, as well as the "nasty bits" (offal, like heart and tongue).
John Priske described this as farmers needing to learn "the language of the chef."
"As a farmer, we need to know a lot about how to cook meat," Priske said. "Most of the time you're talking about how to prepare food, the cuts, where the cuts come from and whether they loosen or tighten up when you cook them. ... Some restaurants would bring their whole entire restaurant up for a trip, front of the house (too) ... when they're talking to the customers, they can tell a little story about where that food came from."
Wisconsin has a few hundred small processors scattered across the state in towns like Waupaca, Darlington, Plain and Cuba City.
These are the butchers Issac Semrow has worked with for his part-time, direct-to-consumer meat business, Semrau Heritage Meats, for the past four years. (For the name, Semrow went back to the original Germanic spelling of his family name.)
"I came up with being the middleman, to make it easy for people who would normally buy at the grocery store," said Semrow, who grew up on a farm in Coloma and now lives on Madison's east side.
He specializes in what Black Earth Meats used to market as "grandpa's way" — beef and pork raised outside in small herds on Wisconsin farms.
Through Facebook and email, Semrow takes orders for club steaks and round steaks of beef, Tamworth pork jowl and whole shoulder roasts of lamb, among other things. He also sells Red Wattle and Tamworth pork by the quarter for $190-$200.
It's one way to challenge people to use more of the whole animal, bones and trim and all. And it encourages customers to look beyond how the meat, well, looks.
"I run into ... questionable quality on packaging," Semrow said. "It happens all the time. ... They're going to probably cut beef steaks with a saw. When they do that, some of the bone and fat builds up on the blade. That gets on the meat. They're not going to take time to wipe each steak off to make it look pretty like you would see in a grocery store."
Semrow has had his cutting instructions get lost in translation, "which is real upsetting," he said. One butcher incorrectly ground the roasts into ground meat. Sometimes the delicate packaging on frozen ground pork gets dropped and dinged. He's had to discount his packages. He tries to be forgiving when this happens.
"It goes back to these places I'm working with," Semrow said. "They're family-owned businesses. Sometimes I'm talking to little old ladies or little old guys. You roll with it. I love working with small processors."
More small processors, and processors with the ability to scale up, are another choke point for growth in the small scale meat business.
"One of the biggest issues that we have is processing capacity," said Laura Paine, who brings her beef to Johnson's Sausage Shop in Rio. "We have a decent processor in our neighborhood but that's not the case for everyone."
For processors willing to do custom work, the timing can be tough, too.
"Just at the time when a lot of our calves are ready to process, our processor closes down for beef and pork and any other meat animals for six weeks to process deer," Paine said. "And that's common. That's where their main source of income is."
Paine is a grazing educator and researcher who runs the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship, a farmer-to-farmer program based in Medford. She and her husband started their farm in 2002, raising a breed of cows called British White.
"We built our marketing plan around direct sales to individuals," Paine said. "We sold quarters, and we bundled meat in 50- and 25-pound packs. ... We didn't want to do farmers' markets. We didn't want to have to manage inventory of cuts that people did or didn't want. These packs would have 50 percent burger, with the remainder divided between roasts and steaks."
Paine believes that for sustainable meat to be sustainable financially for farmers, folks will have to scale up.
"When we started selling our beef, we've always been grass-fed," Paine said. "There wasn't a beef co-op and there was very little knowledge about it. As grass-fed becomes more of a mainstay and bigger part of the market, what our industry needs to do is transition from ... 15-, 20-cow herds to a more sustainable level, which might be 50 cows. ... Just for my 20-cow herd I still need a tractor and manure spreader. I could have the same equipment for a herd twice the size."
Paine referenced another barrier: the paucity of USDA-certified processors, of which she said "maybe one or two can handle a dozen or two dozen (steers) a week." Federal inspection is necessary in order to sell meat across state lines.
For a hobby farmer with backyard chickens or a neighbor's pig destined to feed a few families, a small processor works fine. For a Wisconsin farmer who wants to make a living, the inability to sell their beef in larger markets in other states can make the road to profitability so long, they might give up.
"Although we have close to 300 family butchers ... they're all state-inspected," said Dick Cates. "That means I cannot ship my beef to a restaurant in Chicago, a huge market in my backyard. Chicago is out of my reach. How absurd and silly is that?"
Getting into certain markets can be difficult, he said.
"For a new producer who's trying to break into Madison or Milwaukee or Stevens Point or Platteville, some of the low-hanging fruit has already been selected," Cates added, referring to the number of "farm to table" restaurant options. "You're stymied. It's a very slow go."
The Meat Market in Baraboo plans to be one of those USDA-certified processors in about two months. Drew Brinker and his wife, Michelle, manage the shop that Michelle's father, Mike Vold, has owned since 1989.
"I've been pushing for it," Drew Brinker said. "I had customers approach me with business opportunities that looked good. We're also organic certified. It helps the organic community here in Wisconsin to be able to sell their stuff across state lines."
The Meat Market boasts a 40-foot meat case, and Brinker said the company prides itself on custom orders, adjusting roast size, number of steaks and packaging.
Close individual attention from a processor is essential for farmers like Matt Walter, a former partner in Jordandal Farms who recently started his own farm under the name Curiousfarmer. He and business partner Braden Zywicki, who's in charge of poultry, started their new stand on April 14 at the Dane County Farmers' Market.
"I want to make sure the carcasses come out right," said Walter, who raises 50 cattle and 200 hogs on a farm outside Darlington. "I want to raise more animals and sell more meat, but I don't want to have a bunch of one thing left over. That is a challenge for me."
To eat meat this way, Walter said, takes effort for the consumer. People have to seek him out, or farmers like him, but he knows "people have busy lives."
"We grow nutritious food for people who want to know their farmer and know where their food comes from," Walter said. "We're open to having visitors to the farm. We sold turkeys last year and a lot of people drove to the farm."
He tries to keep his prices reasonable to avoid pricing people out, but as Pecatonica Valley Farms' Carr said, "the world is used to cheap food, and it's not cheap, what we do."
That's part of why Kay Jensen, a market staple for the past 15 years with JenEhr Family Farm, keeps such a close eye on the business's finances, cutting anything that doesn't work.
"I dream in spreadsheets," Jensen said after a recent market morning on the Capitol Square. "When we were early on, we drew a line in the sand that said, no messing with the numbers ... if we don't make 'this' amount of money, we're done. ... We have moved that line, but it's never backward. And we drop things. We used to do cut flowers. We dropped our CSA two years ago, the numbers weren't there."
JenEhr raises 4,000 to 6,000 chickens a year, raised in shifts and processed in three batches at a plant in southern Minnesota. They're frozen, which allows JenEhr to sell them for longer stretches, and delivered by the pallet. For economic scale, Jensen doesn't want to deal with one bird at a time.
"80 percent of our chickens we sell whole," Jensen said. "Less than five percent are bone-in, skin-on breasts, because that allows me to have leg and thigh and a 'soup pack' of just bones."
People still ask for boneless, skinless chicken breasts, even at the market. JenEhr dropped them seven years ago and hasn't looked back. Jensen also moved its focus away from restaurants, finding other outlets have a better return.
"That's not profitable," she said. "When we talk about sustainable, there's how we raise things sustainably. But if I'm not financially successful, if I'm not profitable, I'm not being sustainable. Because I'm not there."
Recently on Willy Street, the cow finally came home.
The Underground Butcher storefront receives an Angus steer from CDK Angus in Lena, Illinois, once a week Red Wattle pigs from Stoneface Pastures come in two at a time every other week.
On that day, Wesley Aniel climbed up into the back of the CDK truck while Steve Dawson balanced a utility cart along the bumper. They muscled two massive sections of beef into the shop.
Butcher manager Allie Christian and Aniel both set to work on the hindquarter with flexible, wicked sharp boning knives, while Dawson took a hand saw to the forequarter.
"People can see what we're doing, the art of what we're doing," Christian said, noting how close the breakdown area is to the meat case and shop floor. "Customers are surprised by the sheer size of it. ... It's like, 'Yeah. It's a cow. That's what it looks like.'"
Christian spent seven years cooking, most recently as a sous chef at Graze. She moved to butchery about four months ago, seeking a different pace and a chance to learn some new skills.
"The things I've learned in my cooking career are really applicable here," Christian said. At Underground Butcher, "we offer a large variety you don't see in the store — we use the whole carcass as much as we can. I explain what it is, where it's from, and they'll ask me how to cook it."
Underground builds into its model the use of every part of the animal, which is more difficult with beef than with pork.
In summer, when people start buying steaks and sausages instead of slow-braised roasting cuts, the butcher shop puts a roast beef sandwich on its lunch menu made with eye of round and sirloin tips. They cook with tallow, the beef equivalent of lard (fat) in pigs.
Forequarter, Underground's restaurant on East Johnson Street, currently has a dish on the menu of shaved rare beef heart with juniper tarragon aioli and arugula. The hearts are brined and cooked sous vide at the shop before getting a final prep at the restaurant.
"Depending on where the needs are in the shop or at Meats or at Forequarter, we try to fill in the gaps," Dawson said. "We had an excess of ground lamb, so we made that into meatballs and did a meatball sandwich.
"We had a lot of beef shanks, so we reached out to Maggie" Roovers, head chef at Forequarter, Dawson said. "Once they ran something out, they started using our shanks. Our whole key is to use the whole animal, and the more outlets we have ... the more successful that business model is going to be, so we don't have to rely on getting specific cuts."
Butcher shops like Underground also attract dog lovers, both for bones and to make their own pet food out of organ meats like liver, kidney and heart.
Mason Purtell, a college student and butcher with Underground for the past year-and-a-half, rarely cooked meat before taking this job. He ran the cafe for UW-Madison's Slow Food chapter and had been put off meat by meat processing "scare videos."
"I want to be part of the energy driving better meat practices, supporting the farmers," Purtell said. "Especially in this climate, for half the year, we should be eating meat. You can get it locally still, and a lot of vegetables aren't available."
As Dawson sawed away at the forequarter to reveal a glimpse of a beautifully marbled rib-eye, it was clear that this work is also an upper body workout. Aniel, working with Christian on the heel of round, said that in comparison, his bone-free work at a local grocery store's butcher counter was like "slicing through sandwich bread."
"It's not easy, it takes a lot of work and it's very physical," said Dave Gathy, head butcher and a co-owner of Conscious Carnivore on Madison's near west side. "It starts with a person who is willing to get their knife skills up and basically be a sponge and absorb it. I've had apprentices that from the first day I can tell their heart isn't in it."
On the same morning the Underground team was working through a steer, across town at Conscious Carnivore, Gathy was training Sam Price and Eric Busse how to break down a Hereford steer into primal cuts.
"It's such a trade that's dying," said Gathy, who has worked as a butcher for 18 years. "It's either for you or it's not. It takes six months to learn if you want to do this or not."
As butcher shops educate their staff, they also clue in customers. People still want "cookie cutter, grocery store" cuts, Gathy said, "but there's so much more to the animal — the fat that comes on the animal, the bone for flavor.
"There's other cuts that can feed your whole family that we preach about. It's cheap, it's delicious and it's better than the cuts you're familiar with."
One way Conscious Carnivore (and before that, Black Earth Meats) would encourage the use of unknown cuts was through its meat share box, structured like community supported agriculture. After running the program for years, the company got rid of the CSA a few months ago.
"The cost of management of the program was becoming prohibitive," said Black Earth Meats and Conscious Carnivore founder Bartlett Durand. "It was throwing us out of balance."
Better, now, is to develop a relationship with the butcher.
"As a butcher shop, if we're out of tenderloin we can recommend a sirloin, or have you ever tried goat? We got goat in today," Durand said.
When it comes to cooking techniques for lesser known cuts, chefs like Dan Fox have a leg up. Fox, chef and owner of Heritage Tavern, acquired Willow Creek Farm last year.
"For me, it's a benefit to have the chef background," he said. "We're actively working out products and new items to utilize all the odds and ends, as far as snack sticks, summer sausage, other types of sausage."
He works with farmers in western Wisconsin to raise mostly Berkshire pigs, with heritage crosses still in development. Those pigs go to Fox Heritage Meats for use in wholesale, catering and cured meat products, as well as in the kitchen at Heritage Tavern.
"To be honest, if I knew everything I know now when I started I might not do it again," Fox said. "It's a long road. I don't know if I've made money on farming to date."
Finding butchers willing to do niche work, Fox said, has been "crazy difficult."
"We are training people from the ground up," he said. "We have focused on growing a sustainable team with work/life balance and good working conditions, health insurance, vacation time, just to keep people."
He's relied on the expertise of Alberto Sanchez, a fourth-generation butcher who started in Chicago worked extensively with Black Earth Meats, and Daniel Plaggemeyer, a carry-over from the previous owners of Willow Creek.
"He's probably forgotten more than I know about meat cutting," Fox said of Plaggemeyer. "He knows brining, smoking ... he has a tremendous amount of knowledge. So we do have people around that can train new hires."
For Fox, the key areas of growth are into grocery stores, particularly with value-added products like sausage. Ham and bacon both do really well. He's flirted with the idea of a small butcher shop, but margins are tight.
That's the same question Durand is facing. He would like to expand Carnivore's meat sustainability model into a financial model that he described as a "hybrid co-op."
One hundred people from a town, for example, could invest collectively in the butcher shop infrastructure and then rent it back to Conscious Carnivore.
"We're being cautious about where and when to open a new store, and how," Durand said. "It's not cheap to open any kind of butcher shop. It's about finding the community who really wants it to happen, to make financing low risk."
Durand believes in "blending an Apple store with an old time butcher."
"Farmers' markets are great and having your own garden is even better," he said. "But doing the local meat focus ... that's where you start supporting that local economy."
Back at the Conscious Carnivore storefront, Gathy echoed the shop's motto, printed on a sign above the door: "We honor these animals, for by their death we gain life."
The quote originated with Durand back at Black Earth Meats. He said it was influenced by Native American hunters' blessings, Buddhist thought and Christian thanksgiving as a way to "remind the folks on the slaughter floor what frame of mind to maintain."
"These animals didn't choose their life to end, and from that we want to respect that as much as possible," Gathy said. "We want to us every piece, every fat for lard and beef tallow, every bone for stocks. We try not to waste a darn thing."
It's a sentiment that resounds from farm to butcher to restaurateur and back to the farm again. It's the reason Paul Short, Madison College's culinary director, is so committed to sustainable meat education.
"The whole animal gave its life," he said, "and ignoring the other cuts is really not a responsible plan for harvesting animals. Our grandparents understood the benefits and were able to feed their families on a low budget."
Too often at the college, Short hears from meat processors that they can't get him a particular cut or don't know what it is.
"An animal died somewhere to put part of whatever's in your case," he said. "Where's the rest of it?"