Some Southeast Tennesseeans are returning to buying grass-fed beef from area suppliers and food markets, experts say.
“It’s good, reasonably priced, it tastes delicious, and I know it’s good for me,” said Paul Blazek, a database administrator in Brainerd and customer of Back Achers Farm in Chickamauga, Ga.
Most cattle today are raised commercially, fattened for the last four to six months of their lives in large Midwestern feedlots by about 70 percent to 90 percent grain, according to the National Beef Cattlemen’s Association Web site.
But in the Chattanooga area, more farmers than ever are capturing the solar-powered advantage of grass. Small farms across the area are expanding their customer base, selling frozen stew beef to customers in parking lots and delivering grass-fed organic hot dogs to host houses for distribution to a short list of interested buyers.
Most say they’re driven to do the work for personal health reasons and because they feel they’re creating healthy communities and local economies.
“(Grass fed) is the way God intended cows to be raised. When you feed them grain, it’s not healthy for them, it’s not healthy for us, and (with grass fed) we’re using natural resources,” said Dave Waters, owner of River Ridge Farms in Ten Mile, Tenn.
Meanwhile, some shoppers are loading up on what they believe is a healthier, more environmentally friendly meat.
“Two weeks ago I picked up a whole cow. I had two huge boxes of beef in the back of our Honda CR-V,’” said David Bishop, a heart-lung machine operator at Memorial Hospital and customer of Red Gates Farm in Dunlap, Tenn.
Grass-fed beef — defined as cows raised on a 100-percent grass diet — is a now a red-hot trend, local marketers said.
Fresh Market in East Brainerd offered grass-fed steaks from Australia for the first time this fall, said Ross Reynolds, Fresh Market’s vice president of merchandising for meat and seafood. Greenlife Grocery on the North Shore displays grass-fed beef at its meat counter.
“It’s a quality trend people are discovering,” said Chris Thomas, chairman of the Chattanooga Market.
Beef was once the bad boy of the health- and environment-loving bunch. With beef’s reputation for being environmentally damaging and loaded with saturated fats, many consumers turned to vegetarianism, fish or chicken.
But new books, such as journalism professor Michael Pollan’s 2006 best seller “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and Barbara Kingsolver’s “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle,” have revealed a new picture of beef production and health benefits.
Well-managed herds, for example, build grasslands. Raising beef cattle outdoors, where they eat grass, also answers some animal welfare concerns, advocates say.
And besides impressing some customers with its no-hormone, no-antibiotic claims, grass-fed beef may even prevent heart attack, stroke, diabetes and cancer.
Studies, many listed at eatwild.com, show it also has a healthy balance of anti-inflammatory omega-3 and inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids and high amounts of the likely cancer preventer conjugated linoleic acid (CLA).
Mainstream health groups await more evidence before endorsing the work.
“But it’s clear that grass-fed beef is healthier for us than grain-fed beef,” said Pamela Kelle, a registered dietitian and co-owner of Solace, an outpatient eating disorder clinic downtown.
So why isn’t everyone eating grass-fed?
For many, the higher cost — sometimes 50 percent higher or more — creates a barrier.
Grass, a seemingly cheap product, still costs more than U.S. corn, said Bill Keener, co-owner of Sequatchie Cove Farm in Sequatchie, Tenn.
“Corn is heavily subsidized — in the billions of dollars — via the farm bill. It’s the cheapest corn in the world,” he said.
When you buy local, grass-fed beef, you pay a living wage to the farmer, butcher and employees. Animals receive a higher level of care, and cost per animal is thus increased.
“We’re used to a subsidized, socialist food policy — we think food should be free. Why should it be free? This is what it really costs to have a really healthy community, healthy landscape and healthy environment, healthy animals. There are no hidden costs here. In the other food system, there are lots of hidden costs,” Mr. Keener said.