Pasture to Plate: Black Earth Meats
By Dan Johnson | Photos By Jim Klousia 3
On a wall above the Black Earth Meats slaughter room, a red lettered sign sums it up: “We honor these animals for by their death we gain life.” It is both a blessing and a stark reminder that the business of meat eating requires the killing of animals. Steaks, chops, burgers and brats may be the delicious income generating final product, but it is the process of how these products get from the farm pastures to the customer’s plate that is the foundation of Black Earth Meats’ business.
Grass-fed beef may be a novelty in your grocer’s meat department, but before chemical fertilizers and herbicides, agricultural tax subsidizes and 32 row corn planters provided cheap grain-based cattle feeds, Wisconsin’s meat and dairy industry was run primarily on grass. The cheesehead at Packer’s games might just as aptly be a grassy green chia head as a salute to the natural resource that fed the cattle supplying Green Bay’s meat packing industry in the early 1900s after which the Packers are named.
For Black Earth Meats, located in their namesake, Black Earth, Wisconsin, it is upon this traditional pasture-based agriculture, along with humane animal treatment, organic farming and modern conservation practices that they have built their meat processing facility and old style butcher shop. In their newly renovated, USDA-inspected and certified organic facility, they process grass-fed, certified organic, local cattle and pasture-raised hogs for their Black Earth Meats and Grandpa’s Way labels, as well as offer area farmers custom meat processing services.
It may come as a surprise to discover that Black Earth Meats’ managing partner, Bartlett Durand, is a practicing Buddhist and former vegetarian. He explains that his former meat-free diet was not based upon a belief that the killing of animals for food is inherently wrong, but was instead a rejection of the way animals were raised and sold. By this, he is referring to the animals run through the industrial meat system that are, as Durand says, “treated like widgets—anonymous and without any connection to the animal, farm or farmer.”
To create a market of respect and product traceability within the local meat industry, Durand and a group of partners, including Gary Zimmer and Mary Ann and Rob Litchfield, purchased the existing Black Earth Meats facility on Mill Street and began the process of updating it to USDA standards. Consulting with Animal Welfare Approved, a third-party certifying agency with the highest humane farm animal standards in the country, Tom Bates, operations manager for Black Earth Meats, completely gutted and redesigned the livestock handling and processing facilities. They created an unloading and holding pen area that reduces fear and stress upon the animals as much as possible by creating gentle rises at unloading ramps, water at every potential holding station and a “natural path of flow” with no sharp corners or dark shadows. The Black Earth Meats facility and their humane treatment of animals prior to slaughter is backed by multiple third-party verifications that include the USDA, Iowa Department of Agriculture Organic Certification, Food Safety Net Services and Animal Welfare Approved.
Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays are slaughter days, and a USDA inspector is always on site to personally inspect the health, handling and slaughter of every animal, as well as the maintenance and operation of the facility. It is a far cry from The Jungle; Black Earth Meats incorporates foot-activated sinks to reduce hand contamination, knife sterilization stations, an ozone purification system, stainless steel for all contact areas and daily sterilization. From kill to hanging carcass is 6 to 10 minutes. In a week, Black Earth Meats currently averages approximately 40 hogs and 40 steers with a facility capacity to handle 120 of each; to put this in perspective, some of the biggest meatpacking houses can process 300 to 400 animals an hour.
Unlike the meat you will find in most grocers’ meat departments, Black Earth Meats distinguishes its products according to how the animal was raised, allowing them to source animals from farmers utilizing different management practices, and thereby providing a local market to a larger pool of farmers. For those who raise their cattle on pasture and/or are organically certified, Black Earth Meats pays a premium of $150 to $375 above the current selling price for Choice Grade grass-fed and/or certified organic beef.
They offer three categories of meat: certified organic, grass-fed and local. Labels can become tricky, but it is important for consumers to know that all animals come from primarily Dane County and regional farms. For items labeled certified organic or local, the animals may receive grain in addition to pasture, whereas products labeled grass-fed are grown entirely on grass and hay but may not be certified organic. Only certified organic meat is guaranteed through third party certification to have been produced without antibiotics and synthetic hormones, raised on pasture and fed certified organic feed. Durand explains that their meats with the local label, sold only through their Mill Street retail store and to a few restaurants, are from “someone we know who is doing a good job,” but they are not certified organic or entirely grass-fed. Black Earth Meats is beginning to offer a fourth label—certified organic grass-fed.
“You are what you eat,” as the old adage goes, and so too is a beef steer what it eats. As a ruminant with a four-chambered stomach, it has evolved to walk miles turning the cellulose fibers of grass into energy. This diet and exercise results in an animal whose meat is lower in saturated fats and has been shown, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists Report, Greener Pastures, to have higher levels of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), Omega-3 fatty acids and beta carotene (Vitamin A) than animals fed a high starch/low fiber diet of corn. With regard to human health, CLA and Omega-3 fatty acids are showing promise combating cancer, heart disease and providing benefits to the immune system.
While it is true that virtually all beef cattle today begin their lives on grass, the USDA says 75 percent are grown to maturity, or “finished,” in feedlots on a feed ration composed primarily of grains such as corn, but which can also include soybean meal, vegetable and animal byproducts, cottonseed meal and hay, to name a few. It is this highenergy diet that decreases the time it takes to fatten the animal for slaughter, adding another 400 pounds and the distinctive marbling that many consumers have come to expect from their beef. The distinction between commercial grain-fed beef and grass-fed is, therefore, primarily in the last 3-4 months of finishing, with the former in a feedlot and the latter on pasture and dry forages such as hay.
“A grass-fed animal is by definition seasonal, so trying to make a consistent product throughout the year is very challenging,” Durand explains. “The taste and look of grass-fed beef can vary depending on the time of year and skill of the handler.” The genetics of the animal and the quality of the pasture also influence how well the animal grows and the degree of fat content.
Along with direct sales of their own products, Black Earth Meats provides processing for farmers who market their own products. One such farmer is Mike Lind and business partner John Danforth, who graze their Angus-cross cattle on the lush pastures of Crawford and Vernon County and market their grass-fed meats under the label Big River Beef. Selling beef primarily through the Driftless Organics CSA program, of which Lind is the CSA manager, Big River Beef requires a USDA inspection stamp in order to sell to customers in Minnesota, so they sent their steers to Black Earth Meats for custom processing.
“We wanted something unique and of quality, wrapped in butcher paper with our logo,” says Lind. “Black Earth Meats was very accommodating. They walked us through their dry-aging room and explained the quality of our carcasses, fulfilled the special requests from our customers and introduced us to specialty cuts that require a skilled butcher’s precision with a knife. Feedback from our customers has been fantastic.”
Black Earth Meats labeled products can be found in Madison markets, including the Willy Street Co-op, Metcalfe’s and HyVee, along with restaurants in Madison, Milwaukee and Chicago. Customers can also purchase meats through the Black Earth Meats Buyer’s Club, which offers a monthly box at wholesale prices that includes burger patties, artisan brats, sausage and a rotating selection of steaks.
Because grass-fed beef is typically leaner with less marbling, Durand recommends cooking at a hotter temperature for a shorter period, searing quickly and then backing off the heat. He also suggests slowcooking grass-fed beef and pastured pork for stews, shredded beef or pulled pork, such as this incredible Dutch Oven Pulled Pork recipe by Macon Luhning.