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Brad Buchanan parks his gray Ford F-150 on the side of the dirt road we’ve been driving along, and we step outside into the brilliant February sunshine. Buchanan’s farmland—8,300 acres in all—unfolds before us in every direction as straw-colored, snow-patched ripples. We duck under a thin white wire of solar-powered electric fencing and walk through the slush toward a group of black wagyu-Angus cows.
We’re at Flying B Bar Ranch in the tiny town of Strasburg, which, despite being just a 45-minute drive east on I-70 from Denver, feels as though it could be in Kansas. I’m here to see Buchanan’s “rural experiment,” as he is fond of calling his regenerative cattle ranching and farming operation. At its most basic, regenerative agriculture is an approach that endeavors to increase soil health, retain water, promote biodiversity, and bio-sequester CO2 from the environment in the soil (trapping the gas from the atmosphere and storing it in the land and plants).
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Although Buchanan looks comfortable in his cowboy hat, boots, and jeans, he spent most of his professional life as a suit-wearing, city-dwelling architect. Over the years, he became fascinated by the disconnect between urban and rural environments. “People go to King Soopers and get a chicken breast or a T-bone, but they don’t know where food comes from. People are starving, literally and figuratively, for a connection to this place,” Buchanan says, sweeping his hand across the blue sky and open fields in front of us. It was that longing for connection that ultimately drove him and his wife, Margaret, to buy a ranch in Strasburg in 2006 and trade their Park Hill home for full-time ranch life 11 years ago.
The couple started raising grass-fed and grass-finished beef (meaning the animals spend their entire lives on pasture, eating forage and hay, as opposed to conventional beef, which typically eat grains at a feedlot) to sell directly to customers. Soon after he started ranching, however—spurred by research into how he could make his land more productive—Buchanan began to go beyond grass-fed, implementing practices associated with the regenerative movement.
First, he adopted a style of rotational planned grazing. With the help of a grazing design app (yes, that’s a thing) and a team of cowboys, Buchanan moves the “hot wire,” or electric fencing, we’d ducked under earlier—and his 900-some cows—between pre-plotted paddocks of land about once a week. It’s a modern ranching method intended to replicate the way “ruminants,” or grass-eating mammals, historically coevolved with grasslands. North American shortgrass prairies, like the land Buchanan farms, once helped to support more than 30 million bison that would eat and trample their ways across the land. Animals are moved frequently to avoid overgrazing; grazing encourages healthy soil activity; the animals’ waste contributes to fecundity; and all the trampling aerates, spreads seeds, and works dead plant matter down into the soil. “All of this generates soil carbon, plant carbon, and water retention,” wrote journalist Judith D. Schwartz in her Yale Environment 360 online article, “Soil as Carbon Storehouse: New Weapon in Climate Fight?”
Because Buchanan’s cattle eat only grass and hay, they take nearly twice as long as conventional grain-fed animals to reach market weight. They’re processed at a humane slaughter facility in Fort Collins, then sold through Flying B Bar’s online retail platform. Buchanan also sells beef to the Brown Palace Hotel, Old Major, Urban Farmer, Marczyk Fine Foods, and Choice Market in Denver.
The architect-rancher is pleased with the emerging results of his experiment: Embracing regenerative agriculture means he no longer purchases inputs like feed or fertilizer. He’s noticed that the soil, at least anecdotally, retains more water, a boon in an area of the state where the Kiowa Creek only flows for part of the year—and some years not at all. He points to vibrant plant growth (food for cows) and biodiversity (birds and mammals) on his property. And his beef business grew by 30 percent in 2018 and is expected to grow by 20 percent this year, which tracks with larger consumer trends: Demand for beef labeled as grass-fed has never been higher, with national sales soaring from $17 million in 2012 to $272 million in 2016. By these indications, grass-fed beef is, more than ever, what’s for dinner. Or is it?
“Regenerative” has begun replacing “sustainable” as the foodie buzzword du jour, but Buchanan’s practices are far from mainstream. According to a 2017 study from the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Tarrytown, New York, grass-fed and grass-finished beef (which is to say, beef that bears a “grass-fed” label or claim, as regulated by the USDA), such as Flying B Bar’s, made up just one percent of the U.S. beef market in 2015. A closer look at the labeling process—the USDA labels even partially grass-fed animals as such and does not require on-farm inspections to audit grass-fed production standards—makes it easy to deduce that regeneratively ranched beef almost certainly accounts for a far smaller market share.
Meanwhile, a 2009 Duke University study reports that 75 percent of the beef Americans consume today—from fast-food hamburgers to filet mignon at high-end steak houses—is produced by an industrialized system controlled by four global corporations: Tyson Foods, Cargill Meat Solutions, National Beef Packing Company, and Greeley-based JBS USA (a subsidiary of Brazilian-owned JBS S.A.). To get a look at the form of modern animal cultivation currently being practiced in the United States, you can simply drive northeast of Denver toward Greeley or Yuma or Fort Morgan, where you’ll likely see—and smell—one of Colorado’s 200-some industrial-scale animal operations. Unlike Buchanan’s cows, the roughly two million cattle that pass through these local feedlots every year do not roam the plains nibbling on native grasses. They live out much of their short lives confined in dirt-floored pens, fattening quickly on cheap, grain-based diets.
The consequences of such intensive consolidation and efficiency are well-documented: Recent reports from the World Resources Institute, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations all point to animal agriculture as a major contributor to climate change. At industrial operations, manure, once prized as a natural compost source, collects in such tremendous lagoons that it becomes a pollution risk for waterways. Around 70 percent of the antibiotics in this country are used to treat farm animals—not people—and animals also require vast amounts of feed, which in turn necessitates vast amounts of farmland to sustain. Bernard Rollin, a professor of philosophy, animal science, and biomedical sciences at Colorado State University, describes it as a “square pegs, round holes” scenario. “We’re trying to force a system that doesn’t comply with nature,” he says.
So what’s stopping regenerative agriculture from going mainstream? The answer isn’t simple. As Buchanan points out, land in Colorado is expensive, and you need a lot of it to graze beef. And for ranchers who are used to quicker returns, the delayed revenue stream can make the transition difficult.
Lack of access to slaughter facilities and distribution is yet another factor dissuading farmers from embracing regenerative techniques—and, for those who already do, it’s a major barrier to growth. The majority of animals in the country pass through USDA-inspected slaughterhouses built by and for the four large-scale meat processors, such as JBS’ Greeley plant, which can process up to 5,400 head of cattle per day. For smaller producers, figuring out where to convert animals into meat is practically a full-time job. According to Kate Kavanaugh, co-owner of Western Daughters Butcher Shoppe, a regenerative-meat-focused retail outlet in Denver’s Highland neighborhood, there are around 10 USDA-inspected slaughterhouses in the state available to ranchers like Buchanan who want to bring their own meat to market instead of selling it to a larger company, like JBS, which would then handle both processing and sales.
“I joke that there should be a Tinder app for slaughterhouses,” says Adrienne Larrew of Corner Post Meats, a 1,500-acre regenerative operation near Colorado Springs that raises cows, pigs, lambs, turkeys, and chickens. “Access to slaughter on all species is really difficult, but especially poultry.” Corner Post’s birds are currently processed at Westcliffe Meats at a cost of $8 per chicken—significantly higher than the price of slaughtering birds at an industrial scale. To make money, Corner Post has to charge the end consumer $6.50 per pound—that’s $26 for a four-pound bird—with processing accounting for 30 percent of the cost. In contrast, a four-pound Purdue-brand chicken at King Soopers costs less than $7. “People always ask me why our product is so expensive,” Larrew says. “And I tell them, ‘You should be asking why the other stuff is so cheap.’ ”
When I spoke with Marcus McCauley, manager of McCauley Family Farm in Boulder County, this past spring, he was still grappling with the 2018 closing of Boulder Natural Meats, which used to slaughter his pastured chickens. “I don’t know where I’m going to process birds this year,” he said of the 4,000 or so chickens he originally planned to raise this summer. (Now, with insufficient infrastructure on the farm to process at that scale, he will grow only 1,500 birds, slaughter about one-third of them on-site, and send the rest to Westcliffe Meats.)
But changes are, well, abreast. McCauley and other members of a stakeholder group have spent years petitioning the state to change its restrictive chicken-processing regulations, and as of March, they’ve scored a big win. Colorado now allows small poultry producers to slaughter fewer than 20,000 birds per year on their farms without the burden of USDA inspections (but with a state inspection and license from the Colorado Department of Agriculture)—a huge step up from the previous cap of 1,000 chickens per year. The key questions, McCauley says, are whether retailers’ and restaurants’ insurance policies will allow them to buy from farmers who aren’t processing through the USDA system and whether small farms can afford to invest in processing infrastructure. Other farmers, such as Larrew and Aaron Rice of Jodar Farms in northern Colorado, are considering eventually buying and operating their own USDA-inspected plants. “That I want to own a slaughterhouse,” Larrew says, “is not something I ever imagined myself saying.”
Despite the uncertainty of the processing landscape, Kavanaugh says Colorado is still better positioned to support regenerative producers than a state like Oregon, where there are so few USDA-inspected plants that many ranchers drive to neighboring states to have their meat slaughtered. “Overall, we have pretty good access to leading the charge on regenerative ag, in terms of the structure of slaughterhouses as well as the fact that half of the state provides great space to graze,” Kavanaugh says. “We have a lot of opportunity here.”
Standing in front of the meat case at King Soopers or Safeway, consumers can feel paralyzed by choice. I certainly do. Even after spending months researching the meat industry, I’m still not sure what constitutes a “good” buy. There’s grass-fed beef, but unless it carries a certification label from a trusted third party, such as the American Grassfed Association (which ensures animals eat only grass, are raised without confinement, never receive antibiotics, and are from American farms), those cows could have eaten grass pellets at a feedlot; eaten grass for just a portion of their lives; and come from anywhere in the world. (In 2016, the USDA quashed regulations that necessitated country of origin labeling for beef and pork.) There’s organic beef, which has its own host of issues: The cows’ feedlot rations should consist of organic corn and soy, but the Washington Post reported in 2017 that millions of pounds of corn and soy used for feed was likely not organic. And then there’s the least expensive commodity stuff, probably the most financially responsible choice for a student-debt-saddled millennial like me. How can an even reasonably informed consumer navigate this label labyrinth?
“There’s never been worse food fraud,” says Mike Callicrate, a Kansas cattle rancher and activist who sells his regeneratively raised beef and pork directly to consumers at his two Ranch Foods Direct brick-and-mortar stores in Colorado Springs. “The big guys just steal your words, and consumers become so tired. We’ve got such different and distinct models of production, and consumers need to be able to figure out which one to support.”
Callicrate and Buchanan clear that hurdle by cutting out the middleman (i.e., grocery stores) and marketing their meat directly to consumers. Working around retailers, however, means missing out on the business of the average buyer. But the Savory Institute, a Boulder-based nonprofit organization, is hoping to effect big-level change on this front. Its goal is to make it easy for consumers to choose regenerative products at large-scale retailers via its new Ecological Outcome Verified (EOV) label, part of its Land to Market program.
On a sunny day last November, I drove to Strasburg and continued south to the Savory Institute’s West Bijou Ranch. Director of development and communications Bobby Gill and I sat in the back of a pickup truck as CFO Jim Snyder steered it across the prairie toward the ranch’s bison herd. Snyder parked the truck and climbed into the back with us. A few curious bison approached, their colossal brown bodies dwarfing the truck, and us.
Founded by Zimbabwean-born ecologist Allan Savory in 2009, the Savory Institute is partly responsible for the proliferation of the grazing style practiced by ranchers like Buchanan. Since taking control of this 7,500-acre bison ranch over two years ago, the Savory Institute has turned the land into a research and testing ground for its holistic planned-grazing theories.
Thanks to Allan Savory’s TED Talk, “How to Reverse Desertification and Fight Climate Change,” which has garnered upward of six million views, the Savory Institute is widely known as a champion of the ruminant. At its core, though, the organization is more concerned with land than animals. “ ‘Regenerative’ implies that the land is getting better over time,” says Gill, describing how the institute came up with the concept of its ambitious EOV label. “So, we thought, Why don’t we measure what’s happening to the land?”
For producers to qualify for Savory’s EOV label, their land has to demonstrate positive, measurable health trends. “We count how much bare ground [there is between plants]. What’s the water infiltration rate? What’s the soil organic carbon and the biodiversity of plant and animal species?” Gill says. The idea is that by measuring outcomes at the land level, rather than assessing the animals’ diets or welfare standards, there will be less opportunity for producers to game the system (i.e., “grass-fed” beef that comes from a feedlot). “In a world where large marketing machines can confuse consumers, we want to be super transparent,” says Daniela Ibarra-Howell, the Savory Institute’s co-founder and CEO. “We want to get clear with the consumer: This is not a claim about the product. It’s about the land the product has come from.”
As of this summer, only Epic Provisions’ Sriracha beef bites and REP Provisions’ beef sticks carried Savory’s EOV label; more Epic products will follow suit in early 2020. In addition to Epic (which is owned by General Mills), Savory has partnered with Hormel-owned Applegate and Zuke’s, a pet food company owned by Nestlé Purina, all of which have started Savory’s data-collection process within their producer networks in hopes that their wares will eventually bear the EOV label.
Ibarra-Howell says the big names are a sign that the market is shifting in favor of regenerative practices. “Big ag and food is seeing that if they don’t move fast enough, they are going to lose at the end of the day,” she says. But such a shift will take time. The bison at West Bijou Ranch aren’t even the property of the Savory Institute, but rather belong to three third-party owners, so Savory has no control over whether they’re finished on grass or grains. Savory is considering creating its own herd that can move fully through the Land to Market program and be sold, with the EOV label, to area retailers and Denver chefs. They need to find a way to make the grass-finishing part economically feasible first, however, which means waiting for the land to regenerate or purchasing even more grazing space.
Meanwhile, JBS, Colorado’s largest food company, is mired in scandals ranging from corruption probes to charges of animal cruelty from its suppliers to last year’s recall of millions of pounds of E. coli– and salmonella-infected meat to this year’s recall of more than 40,000 pounds of meat tainted by plastic. The national Center for Biological Diversity and Food & Water Watch have filed a lawsuit against JBS USA and the Swift Beef Company for illegally dumping slaughterhouse pollution into a tributary of the South Platte River. During my reporting for this story, the only people from the conventional sector of the industry who said they were open to speaking with me were Bill Hammerich, CEO of the Colorado Livestock Association (who, in the end, never returned multiple phone calls), and Mike Thoren, CEO of Five Rivers Cattle Feeding, which owns the largest network of cattle feedlots in the world.
Thoren, whose five Five Rivers’ Colorado feedlots have the combined capacity for 310,000 cattle, defended his brand’s approach. “We take environmental compliance very seriously. First, it’s the law. Second, it’s the right thing to do,” Thoren says. But examples of Five Rivers’ stewardship amount to it doubling the size of its waste collection lagoons to lessen the chance of waterway contamination in the event of heavy rainfall—a gesture Rollin confirms cannot completely offset the inherent flaws of the feedlot model.
If consumers want to see a day when the methods of the Brad Buchanans and Adrienne Larrews and Marcus McCauleys and Mike Callicrates of the world become the rule rather than the exception, they’ll need to vote with their wallets when they can afford to (which may mean eating less meat overall). If enough of them do, these regenerative producers may be able to scale up, lower prices, operate their own slaughterhouses, and gain entrée to big-box grocery stores. “Your food choices affect the lives and livelihoods of small family farms that have been the backbone of this country,” Buchanan says. “Bridging that is about the survival of our planet. It’s that big.”
Want to buy regenerative meat in Colorado? Try purchasing directly from these local producers.
Flying B Bar Ranch
Find it: flyingbbar.com
Corner Post Meats
What: Beef, pork, chicken, lamb, turkey
Find it: cornerpostmeats.com
Ranch Foods Direct
What: Beef, pork
Find it: 4635 Town Center Drive, Colorado Springs; 1228 E. Fillmore St., Colorado Springs; ranchfoodsdirect.com
McCauley Family Farm
What: Chicken, pork, lamb
Find it: Boulder Farmers Market; Longmont Farmers Market; Union Station Farmers Market; fromourfarm.org
Western Daughters Butcher Shoppe
What: Lamb, pork, beef, chicken, duck, turkey
Find it: 3326 Tejon St., Denver; westerndaughters.com