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When Grass is Grain & Other Observations

June 18, 2018

It’s easy to get distracted when writing about food. Sometimes, when writing late at night, inspiration can come from something in my kitchen cabinets, or from some weekend cooking project. At times it can also be tempting to talk about the news of the day, with issues about food feeling secondary to violations of human or civil rights.

Food can be very important indeed. However, covering some of those important food stories can involve resources of time that I’m not always in the position to dedicate to this blog.

Which is why I’m very thankful to the NY Beef Council for helping to connect me with beef producers in the region, and providing me the opportunity to meet the people producing our food, tour their operations, and create bridges between rural and urban communities.

Recently, I got to spend several hours with John VanDerwerken, the fourth generation operator of Central Bridge Farms, his farm hand Josh, and chef Michael Lapi who was gracious enough to come and join me on this adventure.

Change is part of a family farm.

At one point this was a chicken farm. Then it was a dairy farm. Now it raises feeder calves. Feeder calves? The farm makes money by breeding heifers with bulls to produce calves which are then ideally sold directly to a feedlot where they are brought up to market weight before being slaughtered and turned into meat.

There are some operations that use artificial insemination for breeding. But that’s not the practice at Central Bridge Farms. In fact, I was on the tractor and saw the bull with current herd. He did an amazing thing with his head, nose, and mouth, which entirely contorted his face. I wish I had been able to capture it on camera.

John explained to me that the bull had just smelled one of the heifers in estrus.

To help manage the genetics of the herd, they have two Black Angus bulls. But only one is with the herd at a time. Then all the genetics are logged, and kept track of with a combination of ear tags and neck chains.

I had the opportunity to try my hand at a small part of the process.

On the lower portion of the farm, which many years ago was split with the arrival of Route 30A, is a barn called the vet’s office. The cattle come into a pen, and then are led through a snaking, narrowing pathway, consistent with the findings of Temple Grandin, which is designed to keep the animals calm and reduce their stress. That path is called the chute.

Every fall the heifers are given a pregnancy check, so they come to the vet’s office. Once through the chute, they are held in place with a head gate, so that neither they nor the humans attending to their care get hurt.

These are large, heavy, and powerful animals.

I know, because I was given the responsibility of securing a steer in the head gate. Which involved a closing a wooden lever, and locking it down with a chain. John’s grandfather told me that if one lost control of the lever, it could snap back with enough force to break your jaw.

Feeling the force and power of the steer in the gate, I had a new respect for the dangers of working with big animals. Even those like cows which seem largely docile.

But we were talking about change.

John is interested in moving the farm in a different direction from its current feeder calf model. He graduated from SUNY Cobleskill with an agriculture business degree, and wants to sell directly to restaurants and consumers.

Currently, the farm is spread out over 200 acres, but about half of that is leased from neighbors. We took a tractor ride through the winter pasture up to the summer pasture to check out the herd. John has 28 calves right now, but the land can hold a maximum of 100 head. The family has been building the herd back up from a 2012 low when John’s dad Mark was serving in Afghanistan.

All of the animals are raised on grass. It’s supplemented with the farm’s own hay in winter. There are mineral supplements made available to the herd to make up for a lack of selenium in their diet.

The pastures are amazing. Lush. Green. Filled with wildflowers…and also probably ticks.

As a side note, when I got back home, I did a thorough tick check. With an increased awareness of the dangers of Lyme and other tick borne illnesses, I had yet another renewed appreciation for the work of local farmers.

I could probably spend an entire post just talking about the winter pasture. Chef Michael wants to return there in spring, because he thinks it would be a wild mushroom wonderland. It certainly smelled deeply of dried mushrooms as we drove through.

When we stopped in the summer pasture, John pulled up some of the grasses which included rye, broom, and timothy. He pointed to their flowering tips, and said, “At this stage the grass is grain.”

This had never occurred to me. And he was absolutely right.

Technically, grain is “a single fruit or seed of a cereal” and a cereal is “any edible components of the grain of cultivated grass, composed of the endosperm, germ, and bran.” John, like many chefs, believes the tastiest beef comes from grass raised and grain finished animals. And he was suggesting those farmers who are able to produce well-marbled steaks from grass finished steer, were probably giving them the grainy bits of the grass.

It’s an interesting thought.

Equally interesting was having the conversation about GMO feed with a beef producer who I felt was doing everything else right. Part of the problem, of course, is the difficulty of getting corn meal which is not made from GE crops. But the other difficulty is one of bridging the gap between agriculture science and consumer opinion.

I’ve never been one to suggest that GE crops are going to make you sick. Cattle feed is even one step further removed from those GE crops designed for human consumption, because the bioengineered corn, soy, canola, and alfalfa are the food of your food.

But what I tried to suggest to John was that many consumers who want to buy their meat direct from a local farm are doing so because they want to avoid supporting those international corporations who engage in a variety of shenanigans. You know, like patenting life and consolidating ownership of the world’s seeds, for example. For these consumers, it’s antithetical to buy local beef if it was finished on GE grain.

John is totally happy to let the market decide, and that’s certainly an answer I can support. Currently he only uses a small amount of corn meal to supplement the diets of the animals who need it. Feed is expensive. Grass is everywhere.

Right now, this operation is run by just three people. John, his father Mark, and Josh who helps them out. John also has another gig that involves farm safety. And he tells me that the only way beef production is financially sustainable is that there is relatively low overhead.

I’m looking forward to seeing what John is able to roll out as he tries to diversify the operation a bit, and open it up to direct consumer sales. But it’s encouraging to see a small regional beef producer in action, and visit a local farm that’s moving in a new direction.

For the sake of full disclosure, the NY Beef Council does occasionally pay bloggers to write about these visits. But this is not a sponsored post. No payment was made or received. They did however treat all of us to a dinner afterwards, where I got a burger and fries. I figured I had to get get beef, given the nature of the event, but there was more than one order of chicken at the table.

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