In recent years, the facts of industrial meat production have been laid bare through books, films, television and articles. Exposure of gargantuan feedlots, cramped conditions, the spread of disease, and overuse of antibiotics have all contributed to an increasing demand for humanely and cleanly raised beef and pork products.
To contribute to this movement, six years ago Ryan and Kristine Jepsen decided to step up to the plate and raise their own grass-fed beef. Beginning with just a few sales at farmers’ markets, today through their company Grass Run Farms they market not only their own carefully raised products but those of numerous other farmers year-round. Additionally—and perhaps most importantly—they are using their operation as an example for others to engage in this sustainable alternative, through outreach and several different educational programs.
“We’re in production; we’re not just a marketing company,” Kristine Jepsen told Calmful Living. “It takes cooperation and understanding—literally on the ground—among producers to make this thing work. It’s really gratifying and sustaining when you are able to answer questions and help someone come into your market.”
Growing the Business
Prior to opening Grass Run Farms, the Jepsens had been sustainably conscious for a number of years. “We both came out of the first flush of zeal for back-to-land ethics for food,” Kristine said. “We both lived through the official stamp of USDA Organic. My husband had worked on a couple of organic vegetable farms in college sort of as an intern. And then I’m a gardener by nature; both sets of my grandparents had turn-of-the-century self-sustaining farms. So that whole idea was understood by me, but it didn’t really codify into something we could actually do for a living until we sold a little bit here and then sold a bit more.”
That increasing “more,” the Jepsens found, quickly exceeded what they themselves were able to provide. “We didn’t invent the grass-fed industry; it’s been around for 10 or 15 years,” Kristine continued. “But it’s really just taken shape since it’s gotten more national press in terms of the reason for preferring or for picking out grass-fed. That created a market opportunity for producers who were leaning that way or who could profitably raise grass-fed beef.
“We saw how we could participate in the industry, and at the same time decided to shore up a market that required more animals than we were producing. We found ways to introduce producers and say, ‘Could you do this, this and this, and in return we’ll contract your cattle or we’ll buy your calves and find someplace for them to go that meets all these standards?’ We just added one producer here, one producer there, and built it into a growing year-round supply.”
Adhering to Standards
Because Grass Run Farms is not only a business but a passion, the Jepsens have set high standards for the products they sell. “Grass-fed means that the animal has never received grain or starch, because that’s not what the cattle rumen is designed to digest,” Kristine said. “They are not given antibiotics or hormones, and they have pasture access.”
In addition, the Jepsens insist on healthy soils and managing pastures that sequester tons of atmospheric carbon.
Leading by Example
The Jepsens are quite aware of their Midwestern neighbors who are conventionally raising beef and pork. But they have found that leading by example—rather than direct opposition—is a far better way of accomplishing their mission.
“On the surface, it would seem an ‘us versus them’ discussion,” Kristine explained. “But the reigning mentality of the commodity markets that exist here tends toward ‘everyone in agriculture is in agriculture.’ There is a certain understanding, and you really don’t get very far saying, ‘We’re doing something right and you’re doing something wrong.’ It's more an approach of demonstrating the advantages of a new and emerging market, or a different perspective on agriculture, or a different food ethic.
“If you have some success, or some technique you are using works or pans out in the face of what people thought might happen, eventually they’re just interested. The questions start getting asked, and information begins circulating. Eventually someone will ask, ‘What would it take for me to produce for you?’ That’s where the conversation starts.”
In setting that example, the Jepsens use their own facility. “We generally have an open-gate policy,” Kristine said, “although it’s better if we can arrange tours and visits in advance. We then have the time to show examples of what we do and tell more about what visitors are looking at.
“We also host a couple of different educational events over the course of the year, usually during the growing season when it’s green or when people want to see something having to do with rotational grazing or infrastructure.
“About every other year we have some kind of farm party or some kind of more social event that brings people out. The root of it is, ‘Where does food come from? What final product do these different claims and production practices result in? Why should I care about it?’ Many times the decision to buy is economic, but there is something to the idea of accountability and knowing where our food comes from, and that consumers do have a choice in the market.”
Kristine, who is a writer by training and nature, also regularly blogs on the subject of commonly asked questions about her industry.
“I think that a lot of agriculture has the sense that very large, very anonymous vertical integration is kind of scary to the individual producer,” Kristine concluded. “Having an alternative in the marketplace is fundamental capitalism, but it’s also comforting and inspiring. If we’re able to offer that alternative to another producer, that’s very meaningful, and it’s a big part of what we do.
“We’re doing something in which we believe, which impacts the quality of food we are producing as well as the environmental legacy that it has the potential to leave behind.”
For more information, please visit www.grassrunfarms.com.