Connecticut isn't exactly the sort of place you'd expect to find herds of organically raised cattle grazing in wide-open pasture lands.
The terms "grass-fed" and "pasture-raised" beef tend to conjure images of sprawling Western ranches rather than our highly urbanized, suburbanized and forested New England landscape.
Luckily for our locavores, Connecticut does have a few farmers dedicated to the idea of raising non-industrialized beef and determined to overcome some serious economic and environmental challenges.
Beef cattle raised on grass need lots of room to graze, and there simply isn't a whole lot of agricultural pasture land left in our densely populated state. Less land means smaller herds and fewer "economies of scale" of the sort that favor giant Western feed-lot growers.
New England growing seasons can be short, making it tougher to raise enough hay to keep cattle fed over our long winters. All of which makes grass-fed or pasture-raised beef more expensive and thus less attractive to many consumers.
The folks who have found ways to cope with those obstacles tend to be passionate.
"Cattle are not supposed to be standing in a feed lot in two feet of crap," says Deb Stuart, co-owner of one of this state's largest grass-fed beef raising operations. "Nature didn't intend animals such as cattle to eat corn and grain."
Stuart is talking about the industrialized cattle-raising operations that produce most of the beef found in supermarkets.
Most Americans today don't even know what "grass-fed" or "pasture-raised" beef looks or tastes like. We're conditioned to supermarket steaks and roasts from cattle fattened on corn and grain in vast, agro-industrial feed lots in places like Texas and Kansas. These are the operations that have come in for increasing criticism from natural-food advocates and those concerned about the heavy use of antibiotics and growth hormones employed in these massive, grass-less, manure-plastered cattle yards.
The meat that comes from those feed-yard animals is bright red, marbleized with white fat and tender to the tooth.
A steak off a grass-fed steer carcass is a "deeper, richer red… and the subcutaneous fat has a yellow tint to it," says Stuart.
Grass-fed beef also has less fat and is "a little bit chewier," explains Barry Sherr, one of the owners of Chamomille Natural Foods in Danbury. He compares it to venison, and admits not everyone is a fan. "Some people don't like to chew," he says.
Stuart insists grass-fed beef can be tender, and argues there are health benefits for both cattle and humans to avoiding that corn-fed "Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation" or CAFO-style farming.
Cattle fed only on corn and other grains often run into serious problems. "They don't digest it well," says Stuart, "and they don't feel well when they eat it." Corn diets can lead to e coli infestations in cattle stomachs, which is one reason feed lot operators pump antibiotics into their steers.
Sherr, who is the chief nutritionist at Chamomille Natural Foods, is in total agreement on the health side. "They are so much healthier, eating as God and nature intended," he says of grass-fed cattle.
Sherr and his wife Nancy have been selling Stuart Family Farm grass-fed beef for a decade. "It's been a very good seller for us," he says.
Herb Holden sells organic pasture-raised beef from his 135-acre farm in East Windsor. ("Pasture-raised" organic cattle, in addition to grass and hay, also consume other types of organic, non-grass feed.)
"Mass farming came about because consumers drove it that way," he explains. The demand for high-end cuts like prime rib requires a hell of a lot of beef.
A corn-fed steer usually weighs about 1,300 pounds, but only about nine pounds of that is filet mignon, Holden explains. "And everybody wants the prime rib," he says.
Grass-fed and pasture-raised beef cattle tend to be smaller, and less profitable.
The Stuart Family Farm in Bridgewater is one of this state's biggest grass-feed beef farms, with a herd numbering around 225.
Deb Stuart and her husband Bill lease about 600 acres of land from the Bridgewater Land Trust and the Nature Conservancy's Sunny Valley Preserve. They move their herds to different pastures about every two weeks, and need a lot of hay to keep their stock well fed over the winter months.
The Stuarts say they harvest about 25,000 square hay bales a year, and another 1,500 of the big round bales.
Like many of this state's organic beef producers, the Stuarts sell their meat at their farm store and to a few restaurants. The Stuarts' beef is featured on menus of upscale spots in Greenwich and New Milford.
Most organic beef producers in this state also raise organic pigs and chickens to help make their financial ends meet.
There are at least a dozen other organic cattle growers scattered around Connecticut, like Holden in East Windsor and Patty and Erick Taylor up in Woodstock.
The Taylors' Devon Point Farm has a few more than 30 grass-fed Devon beef animals grazing on 93 acres. Patty Taylor says she and her husband were "hobby farmers" for years before deciding to go into agriculture full time in 2007.
Devon Point Farm's beef is also being served in several restaurants in northeastern Connecticut, including the Vanilla Bean Café in Pomfret, 85 Main in Putnam, and the Dog Lane Café in Storrs.
Holden's 135-acre Broad Brook Beef operation is large enough to sustain a herd of more than 100 Hereford cows and steers. He's been running the farm since 1977, and selling organic beef to the public since 2009.
Holden says his cows don't need antibiotics or growth hormones, because they're kept "in clean pens, with fresh water, and they're not standing in their own manure."
Connecticut cattle farmers do have some advantages, according to Holden. "We have much more lush fields than they do in California or Colorado," he says.
In Colorado, according to Holden, farmers need 30-40 acres per cow to raise cattle in pastures. In Connecticut, you can raise a steer on five acres of pasture. "That's because we have 55 inches of rain a year and Colorado has like 12 inches," Holden says.
The demand for Connecticut-grown organic beef seems to be rising.
Holden is already selling his meat to high-end restaurants in and around Hartford.
"There are grocery stores that would love to have me service them," Holden adds, but he simply doesn't have enough steers on his farm to provide a regular supply.
Sherr is seeing a similar desire for local, organic beef on the other side of the state.
"Our grass-fed meat sales have doubled and tripled over the last couple of years," says Sherr. "More and more consumers are becoming conscious about the advantages of grass-fed animals."