Raising the Steaks

The more we learn about where most of our beef comes from, the more we are demanding that it be local and grass-fed. An unlikely breed of rancher is answering the call



Chris Edwards

Lifting an empty bucket high in one hand, Shelley Proffitt Eagan rattles it as she calls her herd. “They think there’s something tasty in there,” she says. She uses the decoy to move them to a new field. They are Aberdeen Angus, a Scottish breed prized for its meat. Their dark coats twitch in the June heat as they fall in line behind her; it’s late afternoon, so sugar levels are high in the sun-drenched grass, which is untouched by pesticides and fertilizers. Eating the sweet grass will increase their weight.

She swings open the gate at the Kings Mountain farm, her blonde braids falling across her shoulders under a straw hat. Like a slow train of boxcars, the cows file past.

In her slim jeans and red-tipped Ariat boots, Shelley is a new breed of rancher. Thirty-seven years old and well educated, she’s one of a growing number of female farm operators in North Carolina—in 2002 10 percent were women, and in 2007 women made up 13 percent of the total. She also happens to run the only United States Department of Agriculture-certified organic beef farm in North Carolina.

She’s raising grass-fed beef on her parents’ farm—land that ten years ago was just a backdrop to a fancy retirement home that Steve and Diane Proffitt built outside Kings Mountain. While Shelley minds the herd, her husband, Brian, is busy back at the house, working out of an office over the garage. Brian took a sales job with Time Inc. that enabled the family to move east to his in-laws’ farm. Shelley says that while Proffitt Family Farms is a viable business, Brian’s supplementary income helps them live the lifestyle they prefer. The entire family lives together—Shelley, Brian, their two children, and Shelley’s parents.

Shelley’s father, a retired businessman, became involved in raising cattle shortly after he and Diane moved to Kings Mountain from Charlotte. It began when a stranger knocked on the front door. Would he consider leasing his land for cattle grazing, the man asked? Steve Proffitt proposed a deal. We’ll go in halves, he offered. You teach me everything you know, and we’ll do it all together.

As the years passed, Proffitt learned how to raise beef cows. When Shelley and Brian and the children would come to visit, they’d pitch in around the barn and help move herds. They rode horses. “To Brian and me, it was work that we loved and something we looked forward to,” Shelley says. They lived in Colorado, where Brian worked in fundraising, his roots firmly planted in the West with family in Utah. He had been around livestock as a child, often visiting his great uncle’s sheep farm in Idaho. As Shelley’s dad became increasingly involved in raising cattle, they began to consider moving. Perhaps Steve Proffitt’s cattle hobby held the seeds of a family business.

They moved east in 2008 and shortly afterward launched Proffitt Family Farms. Shelley runs the operation, Brian helps when he’s not working his regular job, and Shelley’s parents remain involved. “It’s been a great lifestyle, coming from the ’burbs,” Shelley says. A former schoolteacher, she’s immersed herself in learning the beef industry.

Shelley Proffitt Eagan represents a quiet revolution of independent ranchers who are taking their cows from birth to market. Rejecting the traditional model of selling their cattle to large corporations that move them to feedlots and slaughter them in large factories, they are raising small herds on pastures, using local slaughterhouses, and selling their meat at farmers markets, farm stores, and by subscriptions. And while overall beef consumption in America has declined slightly since 2002, consumption of grass-fed beef, while still relatively small, has been increasing by as much as a 20 percent clip in the past few years, USDA statistics indicate. Supporters of grass-fed beef say it’s leaner and more natural, because cows are natural plant-eaters, and that the cattle are treated more humanely, all of which leads to better tasting and more healthful meat.

With a herd in Kings Mountain, another in Shelby, and another in Blacksburg, South Carolina, Shelley, as well as other local farmers of grass-fed beef, can’t keep up with demand. Her customers—most from Charlotte—want more than she can produce.

 

Americans love beef; it’s the country’s number-one protein, outselling the original, the famous, and the Kentucky fried. Each of us eats an average of sixty pounds of it per year. A bonus calls for a steak dinner, a backyard party calls for sizzling burgers with plenty of fixings. In 2008, the latest year for statistics from the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, this country produced 26.6 billion pounds of beef. When a husky-voiced Robert Mitchum announced, “Beef. It’s what’s for dinner,” in ads during the 1992 Summer Olympics, we fired up the grill and slapped on the meat.

But as the local food movement gains momentum, an increasing number of people are examining where they’re spending their dollars. The majority of beef in Charlotte supermarkets is from megasuppliers like Cargill, Tyson Foods, National Beef, and Merchants Distributors. Few shoppers know anything about what they’re buying—where the cow is from, what it was fed, or how it was slaughtered. Buying beef that comes from cows raised locally removes the anonymity that comes with mass production. The meat is from a place that ends in “Farm” and not “Inc.” And, most of the time, the beef comes from cows that were primarily grass fed.

Cows are born to eat plants. Their insides are designed for it. And all cattle start out eating grass. They are born on pastureland, but the majority are auctioned and shipped to feedlots in the West by the time they are a year old. Most feedlots are in three states: Texas, Kansas, and Nebraska. There are no large feedlots in North Carolina.

In feedlots cows are fed corn supplemented with hay and soybeans, and grains like milo, barley, wheat, and flax, as well as industrial byproducts such as potato waste from making potato chips or French fries. Corn-fed cows quickly bulk up—often with additional help from antibiotics, which stimulate appetite, and hormone injections, which increase muscle mass. The cows become abnormally fat, yielding heavily marbled beef. Contrast this with a cow that eats grass and walks through a field instead of standing in a confined lot. It simply cannot get as fat. A grain diet can also cause problems like feedlot bloat (when part of the stomach blows up so big that the animal struggles to breathe—some drop dead) and increased acidity in the stomach, which causes pain.

That’s not all. Some feedlot corn and soy has been genetically modified in a lab. The long-term impact of this DNA manipulation on human health is unknown, which is a reason why many people opt for organic products. And not all feedlots and slaughterhouses are kept sanitary, which increases the chance of E. coli contamination. E. coli occurs when fecal matter comes in contact with raw meat.

The results can be devastating. Last year The New York Times reported on Stephanie Smith, a Minnesota dance instructor who unknowingly ate a burger tainted with E. coli in 2007. Her mother ate a burger from the same package and got food poisoning, but Smith began having seizures. Smith was hospitalized for nine months and is now in a wheelchair; the family is suing Cargill, the company that supplied the beef patties to Sam’s Club. The burger, which was labeled “American Chef’s Selection Angus Beef Patties,” was composed of ground scraps and trimmings from slaughterhouses in Nebraska, Texas, South Dakota, and Uruguay and was tainted with feces. In the article, the Times reported that last summer beef contaminated with E. coli was recalled from almost 3,000 grocers in forty-one states.

The USDA admitted in April it is failing. An audit by its Office of Inspector General revealed that contaminated meat is reaching the marketplace because the agency hasn’t figured out limits for “many dangerous substances.” For substances that do have limits, detection does not necessarily lead to recalls.

We’re eating drugs, hormones, and pesticides that may be affecting our health. Last year a bill was introduced in Congress, H.R. 1549, to ban the nontheraputic use of antibiotics in farm animals, which is to say, for reasons other than sickness. According to USDA policy, antibiotics may be used to prevent disease, not just treat it. A member of the Union of Concerned Scientists was called to testify about the bill. The organization, which has 250,000 members, has been active in addressing global warming and clean energy and protecting scientific inquiry. Senior scientist Margaret Mellon urged Congress to enact the ban, saying that an estimated 70 percent of the antibiotics and other antimicrobial drugs given to farm animals in the United States are used to increase growth and compensate for unsanitary conditions. She said that it is widely known among scientists that antibiotics are not as powerful as they once were, a result, in part, of this practice.

Overuse of antibiotics gives deadly microorganisms millions of new opportunities to develop strains that can fight back. Mellon testified that no new antibiotics have been discovered in recent years, adding that “unless we act to preserve the antibiotics we have, the age of the miracle antibiotics may be coming to an end.” She named drugs familiar to anyone who has sat in a doctor’s office with a sick child: penicillins, tetracyclines, and erythromycins. They’re mixed right into the feed.

 

Alarmed by these practices and other news about large-scale food production, Amy Foster made a radical decision four years ago. “Our children were young and we didn’t want to give them food that didn’t nourish their bodies,” she recalls of the concern she and her husband, Gil, shared. “We were getting afraid of what’s on the shelf at the grocery store.” Although she had never raised an animal in her life, she started. Soon she was growing heirloom vegetables, raising chickens and cows, and selling eggs. Today she sells meat from her Lincoln County operation, Gilcrest Natural Farm, through subscriptions and at the Charlotte Regional Farmers Market. Her husband works an outside job to supplement their income.

“There might be fifty cows represented in that one pound of ground beef you buy,” she says of commercially produced beef. “But if you buy a pound of beef from me, I know that cow. I can tell you its habits, what it was like—all about it.”

She gives her cows just enough grain, about 5 percent of the overall diet, to add fine marbling. She says it improves taste. Because it is lean, it has a distinctive flavor. Tom Condron uses grass-fed beef for his pub burgers at The Liberty, a restaurant he and Matt Pera opened last year in South End. “It’s a great product from White Oak Pastures, a farm out of Georgia,” he says. “I grew up myself in England on grass-fed beef and have preferred it over corn fed.”

Depending on the farmer’s management of foraging, the beef can have a delicious, mild taste or be outright gamey; grasses determine the flavor of the meat, although overaging beef can also give it a gamey taste. “A rancher is a grass farmer,” says Shelley, who keeps an eye on fields to make sure the cows don’t eat the grass down to stubs. A diverse mix of grasses, not just one type, and frequent moving from one fenced field to another ensures a fresh and diverse food supply. Amy Foster calls herself “a salad bowl manager.”

Close management can yield what some consider exceptional taste. Shelley began to realize she had a successful product when she heard comments from repeat customers. “People started coming up to me at the market and saying ‘that was the best hamburger I have had in my life,’ ” she says.

The meat itself is also better for you. Susan Duckett, chair of the Department of Animal and Veterinary Sciences at Clemson University in South Carolina, published research last year that identified ten aspects of grass-fed beef that make it more nutritious than grain fed. She found that grass-fed beef is lower in total fat, lower in saturated fats, and higher in a number of healthful minerals and vitamins.

Beef cattle that feed on grass grow more slowly then grain-fed cattle. The herds have to be moved around; the grass itself has to be cultivated. Producing grass-fed beef takes a lot of time and labor, and that drives up the cost. Yet in one of the hardest economic times in memory, local demand for grass-fed beef appears to be increasing.

“We have weathered the recession well,” says Harriett Baucom of Union County. She and husband Milton began taking their grass-fed Baucom’s Best beef to Charlotte farmers markets in 2005; in the beginning only one other farm was doing the same. Now there are at least seven. Baucom says that despite the recession, customers keep buying the pricey beef, which can run 10 percent to 30 percent more than comparable cuts from grocery stores, but they’re finding creative ways to stretch their dollars. “People are buying more economy cuts of beef in smaller portion sizes. But we have gained more customers. Our future looks good,” she says.

 

North Carolina is not a big beef state. According to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, there were 94.5 million heads of cattle in the United States on January 1 last year. According to the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, 385,000 of those were in our state; twenty-five years ago there were more than a million. Beef cows are raised in small herds here; about half of the state’s 52,500 farms have less than fifty acres.

But the number of small farms selling grass-fed beef in the Charlotte area is increasing, and it’s often young couples with children who are getting into farming, some with no prior experience. Despite the financial hardship—usually at least one spouse has to hold down an outside job—they’re sticking with it. They want a different lifestyle for their children and food they’re not afraid to eat.

Carrie Balkcom of the American Grassfed Association, headquartered in Denver, speaks to the trend. “These kids are in their twenties,” she says. “They have no history of farming—this is a lifestyle change for them. They’ve got good educations but they’re not finding the quality of life that they need.” And she’s seen an unusual demand for grass-fed beef in North Carolina. “We have got a major amount of interest in North Carolina,” she says. “Not only people who are producing it, but people who want to buy it. I’m amazed.”

Part of the AGA’s job is to educate the public. According to Balkcom, the label “USDA grass-fed” is virtually meaningless due to a grandfather clause that permits inclusion of cows that are not grass fed. The organization is lobbying the USDA to establish a legal definition of grass fed. “The only way to know is to see our logo—it’s an audited product,” she says. The AGA sends representatives to farmers who apply for its label to check out their practices. When farmers are approved, they enter into a legal agreement to use the “American Grassfed Association” label.

In the grass-fed beef industry, meat labeled “organic” is the premium product. Organic ranchers take extra steps to meet their designation, forgoing the chemical solutions often employed by the larger cattle industry, even chemicals used for fly control. It’s the most carefully raised beef, and the most labor intensive. According to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, organic beef made up 2.5 percent of domestically produced beef in the first quarter of 2010. The Proffitt farm is the only certified organic farm in the area, says Kyle Stephens of Clemson University, which certifies organic producers through an arrangement with the USDA. He reviews every application that comes through the university’s Department of Plant Industry, which covers North and South Carolina and Georgia. The office processes all applications, from cookies and beer to homegrown vegetables. His office looks at every step the applicant takes to produce an organic product. Once certified, a company has to reapply each year for certification.

For the rancher, it’s a high standard, which may explain the shortage of organic beef farms in North Carolina. “The organic animals have to eat organic feed—even the ground they walk on has to be organic,” Stephens explains. USDA-certified organic beef means the cow never receives antibiotics or growth-promoting hormones, is fed only certified organic grains and grasses, and has unrestricted outdoor access and freedom of movement. Not only must the beef cow live in these conditions, but so must its mother during the last trimester.

Grasses must grow naturally without chemical enhancements. “That’s the one question I ask when people call about raising livestock,” he says. “I say, ‘Where are you going to get your feed?’ We don’t have that much organic hay or grain here in the South.”

That’s why Shelley Proffitt Eagan spends a lot of time moving cows. Keeping an eye on the grass to know when it’s time to change fields is a full-time job, seven days a week. In the spring she may move the Kings Mountain herd twice a day. Other herds, on fields in Blacksburg and Shelby, are on larger pastures and are not moved as frequently. She checks them a couple times a week, loading her mother’s horse on a trailer so she can get close to the fields and animals.

Once a cow reaches eighteen to twenty months of age, it is ready to be slaughtered. Farmers have to find a slaughterhouse or abattoir (the French term) to process the meat, and this is often the biggest cost they face.

Shelley loads cattle into a trailer and takes them to Mays Meats in Taylorsville, seventy miles north, to be slaughtered. The family-owned company works with about sixty farms of all types. “We do it all,” says Misty Dyson, regulatory controls manager at Mays. She says the company follows industry guidelines for slaughtering and handling that reduce stress in the animals. The carcass is hung for fourteen days to improve tenderness, then cut and packaged. The company delivers the packaged meat back to farmers, who then sell it. “Lots of our cuts go to the farmers markets in Salisbury, Ballantyne, and Charlotte,” she says.

Dyson says there has been a dramatic leap—“300 percent”—in Mays’s beef processing, and she attributes it to a rising interest in the local food movement. “The local food is growing—I see it doubling again,” she says. “I get three to four calls a week from new farms. Ninety-nine percent of our farms are in North Carolina.”

Once the farmer gets the processed meat, he can sell it if he has a state-issued meat handler’s license. To get this license, he files an application, and then an inspector comes to the farm to examine packaging, storage, pest control, and disposal of damaged products. Meat handlers are not required to transport meat in a refrigerated truck—portable coolers are fine. That’s what Shelley prefers. 

 

Back at Kings Mountain, Shelley takes a break to sit in the breezeway between the house and three-car garage. Answering her iPhone, she chats briefly with a customer en route from Charlotte. The farm store is open today, as it is every Friday afternoon. And although she and Brian will take coolers of beef to various Charlotte farmers markets in the morning, customers still show up on Fridays. “They don’t seem to mind the drive,” she says. The half-hour route along I-85 passes Gastonia, then crosses into rolling hills and farmland.

Sitting in a red metal chair, she pops open a Diet Coke and looks across the pastures to Crowders Mountain, a lone peak of an old mountain range. Around the breezeway are specimen trees, interesting shrubs, branching vines of wisteria in large pots, and a terracotta statue of an ancient Chinese foot soldier near the pool. Shelley’s mother, Diane, enjoys gardening; a tomato plant hangs heavy with fruit in an ochre pot by the driveway.

Out in the vegetable garden, nine-year-old Dewi pulls weeds with his sister. Every day they have to fill a five-gallon bucket with plants that wrap their stems and push their roots into unwanted territory. The two children pull weeds from pumpkins, lettuce, potatoes, and carrots. A wire screen keeps the chickens out; across the pasture and up a hillside, cows stay cool in the shade of mature oaks. In the breezeway, Shelley pulls the brim of her straw hat lower, squinting at the peak breaking the skyline. Her tanned face is relaxed, her blue eyes clear in the late afternoon light. “It’s been a lot of work. I told my dad, ‘I guess we’re pretty committed to this now.’ ”

For decades Americans have been demanding cheap food produced quickly. The food industry has complied. But small farmers are drawing us back into a conversation about what’s on the plate. If beef is what’s for dinner, then what, actually, do we know about it? The answer may lie in a woman with a hand on a fence, eyeing grasses on a summer afternoon.

Laurie Prince is a freelance writer in Charlotte and a frequent contributor to this magazine.
 

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