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Beef cattle raised on grass in Cornwall

CORNWALL — What does “grass-fed beef” mean?
For Cheryl and Marc Cesario of Meeting Place Pastures in Cornwall, “grass-fed” is more than a label slapped on a package of beef. It’s a way of thinking.
“I don’t see myself as a beef producer. I’m a grass farmer,” Marc said. “I’m in the energy business. The sun shines every day, whether I do anything or not. The question is: How do you harvest the sun?”
The Cesarios view the 680 acres under their management as “a giant solar panel,” converting the sun into grass and clover, which, with proper grazing management, is converted into high-quality protein.
With Vermont’s long winters and higher than average annual precipitation, that grazing management is critical.
The Cesarios move their animals one to three times a day in a practice called “nonselective grazing.” Left to their own devices, cows will eat only what they like — selective grazing. But if they’re restricted to smaller areas and moved only after they’ve consumed a much wider variety of vegetation, a self-perpetuating system evolves that’s better for both land and animals — improving soil health, increasing water retention and sequestering carbon, they explain.
Marc likes to think of this grazing management style in terms of “biomimicry.”
“How were grasslands managed before humans? There was grass and buffalos and wolves,” Marc said. “I see myself as the wolf.”
The Cesarios operate a cow-calf-to-finishing operation that earns a per-head, per-day fee from cattle owners to manage a brood-head herd of about 140 and a herd of 400 to 450 finishing animals.
They see this branch of the local foods market they have entered as a place of transition. While that can be exciting, it can also present many challenges.
COOPERATIVE EFFORT
For several years they were members of Adirondack Grazers, a cooperative formed in 2012 by Northeast family farms producing humanely raised grass-fed beef for wholesale markets.
Before they joined, Cheryl, who also works as a grazing specialist for University of Vermont Extension, had also been doing all the direct marketing for Meeting Place Pastures.
“It was like having a second full-time job, so a co-op seemed like a good idea,” she said.
Adirondack Grazers had one big customer, Fresh Direct, an online grocery store that makes residential deliveries in the New York City area. But as is the way with big customers, Cheryl said, Fresh Direct wanted more and more, until they became the co-op’s exclusive customer.
In March 2017 Adirondack Grazers and Fresh Direct parted ways. By that time, Cheryl said, the market had changed. The four biggest U.S. meat processors — Cargill, JBS, National and Tyson — had taken note of the growth in the “grass-fed beef” and the market was flooded. Unable to adapt, the Adirondack Grazers membership in February voted to close the co-op.
CONNECTING WITH CONSUMERS
The previous summer the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund had commissioned a study of the state’s grass-fed beef industry. In a section of the study called “Grass Fed Beef Value Chain Research,” industry experts Rose Wilson and Allen Matthews reported on several significant ongoing challenges:
•  No agreed-upon definition for “grass-fed.” The label may apply to animals that were fed grains in order to achieve market weight before processing. The report anticipated further confusion on the issue once Cargill, JBS, National and Tyson launched “natural” and “grass-fed” product lines.
•  Confusion over the definition of “local.” The report determined that institutional food company Sodexo, for example, was labeling meat products raised out-of-state as “Vermont Grass-Fed” as long as they were processed (slaughtered, cut and packed) in Vermont.
•  Watered-down standards. The report warns that “moving to a feeder-farm, finishing-farm model spearheaded by the large packinghouses” could “lead to nothing more than ‘grass-finished feed-lot beef.’”
The biggest blow to Vermont’s grass-fed-beef industry, however, was the elimination in 2015 of the USDA’s Country of Origin Labels, or COOL, Cheryl said.
The original COOL policy was created for the 2002 Farm Bill and applied to a number of meats, poultry, shellfish and vegetables, according to Ken Becker, the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Specialist for COOL.
In 2009, however, Canada and Mexico filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization claiming the USDA labeling violated trade agreements. “They challenged only the beef and pork provisions,” Becker noted.
Over the next six years lawsuits were won and lost and requirements were rewritten until finally in the 2016 omnibus spending bill Congress removed beef and pork from COOL altogether.
This means that foreign-raised cows and pigs can be labeled as U.S. products as long as they’re processed in the United States.
The fate of Vermont’s grass-fed-beef industry may be tied to those regulations, Cheryl said. There aren’t enough consumers in the state to support “buy local” marketing strategies, and Meeting Place Pastures only sells directly to a few individuals who want whole or half animals.
Still, it’s a young industry and Cheryl says they’re optimistic:
“With increased grazing management and finishing skills, there’s still hope.”
Marc concurs. Though the Cesarios’ setup is more commonly seen out West, he sees a future for the industry in Vermont and is hoping to expand their operation in the future.
It all comes down to the quality of the meat, in the end. Products carrying the grass-fed label can range from tough-n-lean to tender and well-marbled. Given the right management, however, the Cesarios are banking on the notion that a Vermont grass-fed steak, cooked to perfection, can be positively transcendent.

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