Wednesday, June 25, 2008

a taste of local grass

When summertime comes, there’s just something that makes us want to fire up the grill and throw a bunch of hand patted beef burgers onto the sizzling flames. The crackling sound of searing meat and the wafting smells of the cook out cause most of us to salivate with anticipation. Just one whiff often makes one think, “I wonder if I can get an invitation to that cookout?” Our long-time friends the cows, the often uncelebrated guests of honor at the summer cookout, must feel exactly the same way when they stand at the fence staring upon a fresh pasture of tall, succulent grasses and think “How, oh how can I get an invitation to that good looking pasture?” When the fence is finally let loose they scramble into the forage, put they’re heads down and happily begin smacking and crunching. Tall, fresh grass is the cow’s equivalence of a summer cookout. And to a grass fed beef rancher the one sound that’s even better than burgers hitting the grill is happy cows crunching on fresh grass. “That’s my favorite sound,” explains Etwenda Wade, the rancher behind Tink’s Beef, a grass fed beef ranch located just east of Athens in Wilkes County.

With the interest in buying local and sustainable foods in full thrust, grass-fed beef is just beginning to come into its own. Not yet a part of our everyday parlance, grass-fed beef is a simple enough concept, but a full appreciation requires at least a basic understanding of the universe of the cow. Cows are herbivores; which simply means that their bodies are physiologically designed to ingest and digest green plants. Cows began to evolve, with the help of human domestication, from wild aurochs of Europe, Asia and North Africa around 6000 BC. This ancestry has predisposed cattle to be wide ranging foragers constantly on the search for tall fresh grass. Cattle also possess a strong herding instinct as a leftover defense mechanism from the once constant threat of predation. This lingering instinct basically says “eat and move, eat and move, and stay with the group.” By constantly moving they never overgraze the grass, and by staying together they eat faster, competing with each other for the choicest bites and gaining weight fast in the process.

Grass-fed beef takes full advantage of this ancestral ecology between cattle, grasses and don’t forget good old fashioned sunshine by mimicking the efficiencies of nature developed over a millennia. Rather than let cows lolly gag around the pasture, eating grasses down to the roots, damaging the soil, and exposing themselves to their own pathogens, ranchers keep the cows in smaller sections of pasture called paddocks with the use of electric wire fence. The closer quarters make the cows eat faster, then in a few days they’re moved to a fresh section of pasture with tall yummy grass. For the cows it’s just like having a cookout at least once a week. And by managing the relationship between cow and grass in ways more consistent with ancestral patterns, the health and vigor of both are improved.

With the age of cheap corn and cheap transportation coming to a close this new system of raising cows offers a long laundry list of benefits. To date, only a handful of Georgia farmers have made the leap. Etwenda Wade, who is a fourth generation rancher with cattle raising in her blood, found the grass-fed beef approach offered her an opportunity to regain a heritage of rewarding farm work while also restoring her own health. Her great grandparents were one of the original pioneer families of central Florida, eventually amassing a staggering 20,000 acres of land where they ran their cattle as they do in westerns, traveling with the herd like cowboys. Being that far south with that much land, they never had to feed hay or grain, so Tink learned about grassfed cows right from the beginning. Growing up with her cousins as neighbors, she picked up the nickname Tinkleberrry from a young cousin that couldn’t quite muster Etwenda. Luckily Tinkleberry, got shortend to Tinky, and finally to Tink.

Tink wasn’t given the option of taking over the family land and to her dismay most of it was sold for housing. Several years after moving to Georgia her dream of returning to farming became a constant obsession. Based on a friend’s recommendation she and her husband visited Wilkes County for the Mule Day celebration held each fall and she fell in love with the town of Washington. “To me it’s the prettiest town in the state of Georgia.”

Twelve years ago they purchased a beautiful and historic 230 acre homestead and Tink started raising cattle. But as is often the case, it took some hardships before everything fell into place. Chief among these was Tink’s diagnosis with multiple sclerosis. Conventional treatments for MS commonly produce some adverse side effects causing patients to seek alternative remedies. For several years Tink followed the conventional treatments, but after little success she reached a turning point that caused her to seek healthier ways of living, including a total change in diet. Now she doesn’t eat processed foods of any kind, and hasn’t touched fast food in the last seven years. The more she took possession of her treatment the more she realized that changes in lifestyle, rewarding work, and a healthy environment were crucial to her physical and mental well-being. Today she’s off of all medications and considers her grass-fed beef operation to be her most effective treatment.

Tink’s other breakthrough that inspired her to produce grass-fed beef came from her experience raising hogs in confinement for seven years. When they first purchased the farm it came complete with three swine houses and a contract to raise 750 hogs every three months. Tink has always loved animals and she hoped it would be a good way to make payments on the farm. But her discomfort with confinement really hit home one day when they were loading up hogs to send to the processor and one of them got out and into the pasture where he was able to walk on grass for the first time in his life. Pigs are easy to stress out, and as he walked around he kept “putting his little hoof down and picking it back up” as if to say, “something’s not right, this doesn’t feel like concrete.” All of a sudden the confused pig just had a heart attack and rolled over dead. The shock of the big wide world was just too much for him. That moment is one she’ll never forget and she got out of the confinement business for good.

Just like a good gardener who has to understand the physiology of the plant and the properties of the soil in order to grow a strong healthy crop, good cattle ranchers must spend a great deal of time trying to think like a cow. In fact, it’s not a half bad idea to try and think like a blade of grass too. Tink’s close attention to what her cows eat, and how her fields respond even inspire her to take an occasional nibble now and again just to see what’s going on. “I’ve tasted all the grass out here,” she states. “Clover is very sweet. If I was a cow, clover would be my diet.”

In our rather consumer-centric economy we tend to focus a lot of our attention on the benefits that sustainable foods have on us, the eaters. Things like health benefits tend to get our attention first, with environmental benefits coming in as a close runner up. On the rise is an awareness that sustainable foods also contribute to a better quality of life for those who produce our food. This includes not just the farmers but also our friends the cows. Stories about healthier lifestyles, family-owned businesses, and deeper community relationships tend to inspire, and such inspiration can have a big impact on society’s capacity to change.

“I’m on a mission,” explains Tink. “It started out as just a little thing but now every time I bring beef home and I taste it, and it tastes good, do you know how rewarding that is?”

As one of the only options for eating locally produced grass-fed beef in the Athens area

Tink is on the innovative front-lines of the burgeoning interest in locally produced foods. These kind of benefits extend far beyond the plate.

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