Originally published in “The Land” magazine on April 4, 2004.
Where’s the beef from? With interest in organic farming rising across the United States, many consumers are asking this variation on an old question. As they move to provide an answer, farmers in Minnesota are seeing increased demand for organic beef.
Jim Riddle, an endowed chair for the University of Minnesota with 24 years of experience as an organic farmer and policy specialist, is quite familiar with the regulations that govern organic beef. According to Riddle, who serves on the USDA’s national organic standards board, organic farmers are prohibited from feeding their livestock any slaughter by-products. They also must keep records on each animal that they wish to have certified as organic. “These records are reviewed at least annually by an inspector representing a USDA-accredited certification agency,” Riddle said.
Most organic calves are initially fed organic whole milk, although in emergency situations they can be fed milk replacer that is free of non-milk products such as antibiotics or bovine growth hormone. “In order to produce organic livestock feed, feed mills must be inspected and certified,” Riddle said. Slaughter of organic animals can only take place in certified facilities after all equipment has been cleaned. Possessors need to ensure that there is no contamination of the organic meat with non-organic meat or other prohibited materials.
New farmers are steadily exploring organic beef farming in Minnesota. After beginning as a conventional crop farmer in the 1980s, Lynn Brakke of Moorhead switched to organic farming in the early 1990s. When he became curious about complimenting his crop operation with livestock, Brakke learned about raising beef and worked with a local processor to get the necessary organic certification. His initial purchase of six calves has now grown to thirty-five.
“My premise is simple. Keep them as clean, dry, and well fed as possible,” Brakke said. Having done little more than buy healthy organic calves and fed them quality organic feed, Brakke added, “The cattle seem to do better than under conventional methods. In the 3 years since I started the organic beef, I haven’t even had one with so much as a sniffle.” Based on demand and pricing, Brakke believes that he is earning more from his organic beef than from beef raised using conventional methods.
When offering advice on marketing an organic beef operation, Brakke refers to several lessons that he has learned. “I was surprised at the local interest in the organic beef,” Brakke said. Although trying to sell product over the Internet was not very successful, direct marketing has proved to be fruitful. While direct marking is time intensive, Brakke maintains that “Direct marketing is a good way to go because it just seems that with any other method you give up too much margin.”
Consumers buying direct aren’t the only ones taking part in the purchase of organic beef. With national restaurant chains such as T.G.I. Friday’s and the Chipotle Mexican Grill now offering entrees with organic meats, organic beef is finding its way into more widespread consumer outlets. As independent farmers look for new ways to stay competitive in an ever-changing beef market, the success of organic beef farming in Minnesota is a niche worth following.