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Chef James’ Interview with Glenn & Caryl Elzinga, Alderspring Ranch Grass Fed Beef
Alderspring Ranch is a family-owned and operated ranch. Glenn and Caryl Elzinga and their family are personally responsible for every aspect of the making of Alderspring Ranch Grass Fed Organic Beef and Natural Grass Fed Beef. (March, 2007)
CHEF JAMES: Could you tell us a little about your background and when and how you became involved in raising grass fed beef.
GLENN: I (Glenn) was trained as a forester, and worked as such in the central Idaho mountains for 15 years. Caryl has a Ph.D. in plant ecology, and worked as a botanist for several years, and then started her own consulting firm. I guess that makes us non-traditional ranchers, but agriculture is in both our blood and backgrounds—both of our dads were farmers. Although my folks were already off the farm by the time I was raised, I had several uncles still in the dairy business, where I spent a bunch of time growing up. Caryl’s parents are, ironically for a grass fed beef producer, Midwestern corn farmers. We both enjoy working with animals of all kinds.
We were living in central Idaho and had lived very frugally and saved a pretty good bunch of money. Some friends told us about a small ranch outside of Salmon, and that the older folks who owned it were interested in selling. We made them an offer for the land and the cattle while giving them a lifetime estate on the property so that they could stay on the ranch (and hopefully teach us a lot about the cattle business, which they did).
Initially we sold our calf crop as all of our neighbors did to distant feedlots. But there were always a few that we kept on the place to finish for our own table and friends. These became our first “grass fed beef” at a time when no one seemed to even be aware of the concept. We found them inconsistent (although some were excellent) and we experimented on our friends and neighbors with different growing protocols, as well as processing methods, until after about 10 years, we found a combination that could consistently produce excellent grass fed beef. It was then that I felt confident and passionate enough about our end result that I knew I could honestly sell it.
CHEF JAMES: How difficult was it to be able to get the 'certified organic beef' label? How do you feel about the USDA Organic certification program?
GLENN: The organic rules are fairly stringent, especially if you follow the spirit as well as the letter of the law. Our biggest challenges are weed control, maintaining fertility of our pastures, and watching for activities along our boundaries that might compromise our certification.
Surprisingly, animal health has not been an issue. We rarely have sick animals that require treatment. We firmly believe that a good diet coupled with elimination of stress are the keys to good animal husbandry and health (not too different from people, is it?).
I think that the USDA National Organic Program is a good concept and it currently works satisfactorily, but we already are seeing compromise resulting from pressure from big business (a.k.a. “big organic”) that would seek to lower or dilute the standards to make it easier to apply the agribusiness model to organic agriculture. For this reason, some consumers are becoming disenchanted with the national organic label. It will be interesting to see how this all shakes out over the next several years, especially since, from our experience, organic consumers tend to be the most informed of all.
CHEF JAMES: Is there any certification process to be able to label your beef 'grass fed'? If not, do you think any regulations are needed to distinguish between 'grass fed' beef that has been 'finished' on corn, and 'grass fed' beef that has never been fed grains?
GLENN: Research has shown that many of the health benefits of grass fed beef are diminished by finishing on grain, even for a short time right before processing. We also find that our customers want the unique flavor of beef that has been finished on grass rather than something that mimics the corn-finished beef typically produced in this country. While some large companies are trying to take advantage of the interest in grass fed beef by advertising their beef as “grown on grass, finished on corn for flavor,” in reality nearly all beef cattle in the United States live on grass for the first two-thirds of their lives and then are finished the last few months in a feedlot.
In fact, the USDA’s first attempt to regulate the term “grass fed” back in 2002 would have allowed most beef produced in the U.S. to fit under the term. The USDA tried again in the summer of 2006 with a proposed rule that requires a 99% forage-based diet. The comment period ended August 10 and the USDA received nearly 20,000 comments, many of them negative.
The reason for the negative comments is that the grass fed rule as proposed by USDA would allow for complete confinement and feeding of non-grain feeds (which could include many by-products of industrial agriculture that are not “grains”) as well as use of antibiotics and hormones in production. Many of the comments were received from small producers that want the label to reflect what many consumers seem to associate with “grass fed:” cattle on pastures or fields, raised naturally without antibiotics and hormones.
The USDA wants the grass fed label to strictly address feeding practices as free of grain. They are working on a definition for “natural” that addresses the use of hormones and antibiotics.
It will probably be awhile before USDA finalizes a rule. In the meantime, consumers should recognize that both the natural and grass fed labels are unregulated, and if they want to know how the beef is actually raised, they will have to do a bit of investigating. It really is buyer-beware.
CHEF JAMES: Organic foods are a rapidly growing area of food sales. How do you see the future of both organic beef and grass fed beef - will these methods eventually be adapted by large-scale corporate producers (as organic produce seems to be)? Will small scale sustainable agriculturists remain a viable and growing alternative?
GLENN: The production of organic beef by large scale corporate agriculture is already well on its way. Organic is the fastest growing segment of retail food in the US today, and it is no surprise that corporate agriculture would attempt to capitalize on this market. This has definitely changed the flavor of organic agriculture, as it moves from those who are “true believers” in organic approaches to those who consider it just another lucrative niche to be filled the cheapest way possible for the greatest possible profit.
Grass fed beef is another area that corporate America is investigating, although I believe that production of quality grass fed beef is not easily fitted to the agribusiness model. A high level of experience and skill required of the rancher to produce consistently good grass fed beef. As I said earlier, it took us 10 years to come up with a protocol that worked for our area. I believe that there is no one growing protocol for quality beef country-wide, and it takes time to develop a system that fits a given environment.
Once a successful approach is figured out, the implementation of the system is very unlike finishing cattle in a feedlot. For example, sometimes we move our cattle 3 times a day—other times we move them once every three days. It all depends on weather, grass quality, and the condition of the animals. Excellent grass fed beef is truly an artisanal product. Every two weeks, we handpick several head as ‘ready’ from our yearling herd, carefully evaluating each steer for the right amount of finish. The genetic diversity of our herd prevents us from categorically shipping a large number of animals off to the processor at any one time. Each animal responds to grass differently. One animal may finish in 14 months, another may take as long as 20. In the industrial model of the feedlot, it is important to strive for uniformity, both through genetics and feeding regimes, so that animals grow very rapidly and entire pens of cattle finish at the same time, often in 13 to 15 months.
So to go back to the question, I believe that there will be a corporate investment in the business of grass fed beef (we already have seen this in some of the larger purveyors on the internet), but I believe that for the most part, the beef produced will be mediocre because it is impossible to pay attention to small details when producing large quantities.
What most large grass fed producers have done is put their cattle in a feedlot, feeding them a consistent forage-based ration during the last 60 days of life to eliminate the inconsistency of their products. This feedlot-finishing, however, creates many of the same problems that are associated with the current system of finishing animals in confinement on a grain-based diet. Most people interested in organics are interested in the whole picture of how their food is produced, a picture that includes humane treatment of animals, elimination of concentrations of waste that cause pollution problems, reduction of E.coli contamination, and support of small family farms.
Based on our observations, which are admittedly limited, what many customers desire is agriculture that is local and small-scale in nature. We see that even people who buy primarily organic products will prefer something that is not certified produced by someone they can get to know and trust. These people want to know who is growing their food. The large-scale agricultural system by its very nature isolates the grower from the eater, whether it is an organic system or a non-organic system, and we see people growing more and more dissatisfied with that isolation.
There is hope for American agriculture. It lies not in labels but in the reconnection of the producer and the consumer.
CHEF JAMES: How has the internet affected the viability of small scale sustainable agricultural production?
GLENN: The internet is wonderful! Here we are living in May, Idaho, in the middle of nowhere, three hours from a mall of any kind, and we can supply grass fed organic beef from www.alderspring.com for Wednesday night dinner in Baltimore by shipping on Monday. They can order from a small family-run enterprise, explore our operation via our website and call or email with questions. It is very similar to the trust-building relationship that takes place at farmer’s markets, but a bit more convenient.
Never before has it all come together like now: the internet for personal connecting, packaging to keep products cold during transit, and nationwide affordable shipping systems (e.g., UPS and FedEx) to get it from the farmer to the customer’s doorstep. We think there is a great future in small-scale, farm-direct markets, especially for products that do not lend themselves to large-scale production.
CHEF JAMES: How do you see Alderspring Ranch 10 years from now?
GLENN: Our vision is to produce great food direct from our ranch to people. We want customers to “know” us, and consider us their producer. We are also more interested in quality than quantity. There is a limit to how large we can grow while maintaining stringent personal control on quality. Indeed, we have had some customers come to us who have left grass fed companies that grew big and lost quality and consistency. For that reason, we see Alderspring growing, but perhaps only to double its current size.
Even more than growing the beef part of our business, however, is our desire to diversify. We believe customers who want our beef would also like to buy chicken, lamb, and chevon (goat) from us. What is really exciting about this diversification is the use of these companion species to address management problems. For example, chickens are very effective fly-control, and goats are very good at eating weed species we currently grub out by hand.
Our overall vision is to maintain a family farm that provides a good living for us, and perhaps a few of our children when they are grown, and that serves as a model for sustainable, family-scale agriculture in the United States. Rather than seeing Alderspring Ranch growing 100 times larger as a brand, we want to see 100 ranches like Alderspring that form relationships with customers and maintain the accountability so lacking in American agribusiness today.
For this reason, over the next ten years, I see Caryl and I becoming more and more involved in exporting the Alderspring model. We currently have a fairly extensive resource page for producers on our website at Alderspring.com that gets a fair amount of use. Over the next year we will be moving that material to its own site (directmarketbeef.com), and adding additional resources that Caryl has been collecting over the past several years.
CHEF JAMES: And since FoodReference.com is also about cooking, I must ask this question: What are some of your own personal favorite dishes? Any recipes you would like to share with our readers?
GLENN: Recently we have been working on roast recipes because we wanted folks to know that there was more to beef than a ribeye. This recipe is a pepper-rubbed eye of round, roasted on the grill and glazed. It is one of our family favorites and also works for tri-tip roasts and sirloin roasts.
CHEF JAMES: And finally, the question that our readers want us to ask in all of our interviews: If you were stranded on a desert island for a year surviving on water, coconuts and seaweed, what would be the first meal you would like to eat after you were rescued? Your first beverage?
CARYL: A huge salad with a large variety of garden fresh vegetables and hard aged cheeses, Italian vinegar and olive oil dressing to drizzle; New York, medium rare, topped with mushrooms sautéed in butter, fresh-ground black pepper and a dash of salt; crusty fresh-baked warm bread with cold salted butter; tall glass of very cold fresh whole milk, coffee with cream and maple syrup; New York style chocolate cheesecake with chunks of dark chocolate in the body of the cake.
GLENN: A Smaller salad, but like Caryl’s; asparagus, still crisp, with a square of butter on it with parmesan cheese over it; a thick, slightly marbled grass fed grilled ribeye (there is nothing like a ribeye) at medium rare with salt and pepper; glass of good red wine—probably a Cab; I’ll second Caryl’s vote on the coffee (thick and cowboy like), but I’d rather have it with just cream; Cheesecake is good but only if dry and almost flaky, but not chocolate. Maybe some dark 70% swirled on top. With perhaps some sliced almonds for crust. When will this happen?
Visit the www.alderspring.com to find out more and to purchase beef that is considered some of the best tasting beef in the world.
Alderspring Ranch is a family-owned and operated ranch. Glenn and Caryl Elzinga and their family are personally responsible for every aspect of the making of Alderspring Ranch Grass Fed Beef.
GLENN With training in forestry and forest ecology, Glenn began his forestry career in Maine. In the mid 1980s, he moved to Salmon, Idaho where he worked as District Forester for the Salmon BLM for over a decade. As his family began to grow, he realized he wanted a better way to raise kids than leaving them for work all day. So began his current career in ranching. After ranching for 14 years, Glenn's cattle herd has grown from 7 head to over 200. He keeps his hand in forestry by working with his wife, Caryl, on consulting projects and by horse-logging occasionally with his two Belgian mares, Pet and Pat. He hopes to train his new draft Suffolk geldings, Red and Snap, to log as well.
CARYL Caryl is a farmer’s daughter, having grown up on a farm in Indiana. Trained as a plant ecologist, she finished her Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin in 1984. After working as an agency botanist for about 8 years, she started her own company, Alderspring Ecological Consulting. She specializes in measuring and monitoring plant populations and communities for research and resource management purposes, and has published a book on monitoring (Monitoring Plant and Animal Populations; 2001; Blackwell Scientific). She also teaches short courses on monitoring. Currently, she is working on another book titled Wetland and Riparian Plants of the Intermountain West, which should be available Fall 2006 (University of Nevada Press). In her "spare" time she is the webmaster for Alderspring Ranch.
The primary work for Glenn and Caryl now is raising their 7 daughters, ages ranging from 1 to 12 years old. Caryl only works part-time, and Glenn’s ranch work allows him to work with the kids. They believe raising children on a ranch is a valuable gift to their daughters, one that includes clean air, water and food, learning the meaning of work, developing relationships with animals and the land, and a chance to work side by side with their parents.