Yesterday I traveled fifty miles down Highway Seventeen and spent part of my day with Joe Morris and his grass fed cows in Watsonville, California. It was gorgeous, and such a refreshing experience! In golf we have a saying, Keep It Simple Stupid. Joe Morris and Morris Grassfed Beef keep it simple.
Though that doesn't seem novel on first glance, in today's industrial-fed America, it is. But, don't confuse simple with easy. Corn-fed beef is easy, profit is their only concern.
Simple is raising cows the way it's sustainably been done for centuries. Morris uses a holistic approach that considers more than profit. They're focused on what's best for: the cows, the environment, community, the health of the consumer, and the grass.
The Morris Grassfed website explains their holistic philosophy better than I ever could.
For beef quality, animal husbandry and our own integrity, it behooves us all to take care of the animal at each step of its life. Our animals live perfectly in harmony with their fellow community members, both plant and animal; and they enhance that community-the "land-- as they live. They are members of the "land," just as we are. If we require the transformation of their lives into our own as our food, this is a perfectly natural relationship, as is theirs with the grassland plants that sustain them. The only way we can desecrate animals that have become our food is by living lives of dishonorable character. We honor our food animals by making our own lives as integrated into the life of our communities as theirs were.
This cyclical nature is exactly the opposite on a corn-fed feedlot. First, industrial corn requires fossil fuel for their pesticide. Fossil fuel is used in transporting the corn to the feedlot. Then the manure that comes out of the corn-sick cows is not even usable by farmers. On the other hand grassfed cattle's manure is teaming with life. I was shown the dung beetles which break down the cow manure, to return it to the grass as fertilizer.
When I'm in my garden I sometimes get this strong feeling of connection to history. I realize what I'm doing now, my grandparents were doing. And it's what our ancestors were doing when they came over to America. I think Joe gets that feeling. I could hear it when he was speaking about his childhood. He told me how his grandpa raised grassfed cows in California and it was the best meat he'd ever had. The business runs through Joe's family tree, his great-grandfather was a San Francisco butcher in the 1850s.
This picture sums up one of the many moments where I felt connected to the past. This is Joe's right hand man Everett Sparling (a fellow Chico State Wildcat Alum) and four of his co-workers.
That's the life! And that same scene has been played out for hundreds of years. I firmly believe
the future of food is in the past. As my rancher host said, "When we try and control nature we lose." We have been losing for some time now. The scorecard shows that Coca Cola and McDonald's are hundreds of times larger than Whole Foods. I wonder if this stock market crash will help us remember, no one's gravestone has a tally of profits on it. "Here lies Feedlot McCorn, he had wonderful Q3 profits in 2007."
I asked Joe Morris what he thought about some of the political hot button Agriculture issues.
The National Animal ID System which is being proposed as mandatory is a nightmare. He agreed calling it a, "useless expense. They didn't consult with farmers, and they're making us pay for an unnecessary fix." Joe says the better way to go is for the eater to know their farmer. There's a "responsibility of being an eater, there's too much reliance on a third party." He and I agreed that people need to be more knowledgeable about the nutrition of and who grew their food. Also they need to know how the food was grown and what the health effects of producing and consuming this food have on the community. Grassfed meats aren't just lower fat, they're higher in omega 3 fatty acids, conjugated linoleic acid and beta carotene.
Corn's Fossil Fuel Costs We spoke, and were in complete agreement about the high fossil fuel costs of corn-fed beef. Morris said that it takes eight pounds of corn for every one pound of cattle. So each 1100 pounds cow would take about 9000 pounds of corn. Michael Pollan explains it better than I can.
When you add together the natural gas in the fertilizer to the fossil fuels it takes to make the pesticides, drive the tractors, and harvest, dry and transport the corn, you find that every bushel of industrial corn requires the equivalent of between a quarter and a third of a gallon of oil to grow it--or around fifty gallons of oil per acre of corn. (Some estimates are much higher.) Put another way, it takes more than a calorie of fossil fuel energy to produce a calorie of food.
Whereas the Morris Beef is grown with sunlight, and the only fertilizer the grass needs is provided by the cattle.
Joe is 100% for raw milk. "It is one of the best foods we have. I can't believe in the 21st century we can't come up with a system to make it available to people."
"I've never seen a cow good enough to have two of them."
"Completely unnecessary. I don't know an engineer that can tell me what a cow should like better than nature. When we try and control nature we lose."
The funny thing is that, like cereals, we're adding back in the food (and soil) naturally occurring nutrients that the industrial food process removes. I've heard recently about genetically engineering animals with more Omega 3s. These Omega 3s are in abundance in grassfed beef, as are CLAs and beta carotene. Michael Pollan goes into this in his groundbreaking book Omnivore's Dilemma.
We've come to think of "corn-fed" as some kind of old-fashioned virtue, which it may well be when you're referring to Midwestern children, but feeding large quantities of corn to cows for the greater part of their lives is a practice neither particularly old nor virtuous. Its chief advantage is that cows fed corn, a compact source of caloric energy, get fat quickly; their flesh also marbles well, giving it a taste and texture American consumers have come to like. Yet this corn-fed meat is demonstrably less healthy for us, since it contains more saturated fat and less omega-3 fatty acids than the meat of animals fed grass. A growing body of research suggests that many of the health problems associated with eating beef are really problems associated with eating corn-fed beef. (Modern day hunter gatherers who subsist on wild meats don't have out rates of heart disease.) In the same way ruminants are ill adapted to eating corn, humins in turn may be poorly adapted to eating ruminants that eat corn.
The Morris Grassfed Beef is sold through their website and in retail by TLC farms. TLC raises pigs, lamb and eggs and sell MGB beef at the Santa Cruz farmer's market. The fellas also recommend CAFF dot Org, which is called the Community Alliance of Family Farmers. Their very flashy sticker on Everett's truck caught my eye upon arrival.
We're all invited to their Field Day May 16th at their San Juan Farm. It's a BBQ and get together. The concept is one we can all support, building and supporting a community of responsible local eaters.
In this video you can see the acreage that these cows play on.
And here they are on the move! You're not gonna see this on a high capacity feed lot. Hearing them grunt from the exercise was music to my ears!
Update: I talked to Joe Morris and he reminded me that cows raised on corn aren't fed it their whole lifetime (so my math about corn usage per cow was off). Most are raised in pasture for their first 6 months then finished on grain. Also I remember in Omnivore's Dilemma, one vet saying that cows can only be fed corn for a finite amount of time before they get too sick. Thanks for the correction!