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Iowa’s Grass Run Farms Brings Sustainability Back to the Beef Industry

October 24, 2011 |

Like so many other local food producers, Kristine and Ryan Jepsen of Iowa began with an interest in “good food.” Not just food that tastes good, but food that is environmentally and economically sustainable.

The majority of the 26 billion pounds of beef consumed in the United States each year comes from factory farms. These farms have come under fire from environmentalists and animal rights activists citing issues of pollution and inhumane treatment of animals.

The Jepsens have a different way of doing business.

Their Grass Run Farms is a meat wholesaler that sources beef from 20 different farms, including their own. The Jepsens keep close tabs on their supply chain. They are personally involved in half the animals that they source, and require that cattle from other producers follow their specific protocol, meaning that they receive no grain in their diets, no antibiotics, and no hormones.

The Jepsens entered local food production in 2006 when they marketed their first five head of grass-fed cattle at a farmer’s market in Iowa. “We realized that we have a wider understanding of this whole local food movement,” said Kristine Jepsen in a telephone interview. “We’re good at forging the relationships and the contacts to build a market for it.”

The Jepsens focused much of their energy on working with full time producers that might not have much interest in the business side of it. “The root of what we do is the success of the farmers and their ability to make sustainable land and animal management decisions and base their farms on environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable practice,” Kristine Jepsen said. “Our job is to pay them a premium as an incentive to be able to afford alternatives to conventional beef production.”

Pasture-raised cattle present additional challenges. “In our part of the country everybody raises corn,” Jepsen said. “The farming practices and infrastructure are set up to favor buying corn to feed your animals, rather than building up a grazing practice. Grazing requires its own infrastructure and expertise, and not everyone is at liberty to change their production model.”

However, corn demands much from the land and gives little back.

The American diet includes a huge proportion of corn, which has made its way into most packaged food in the form of high-fructose corn syrup. Around the world, corn has become a cash crop that has pushed many food crops out of rotation. This concern continues to grow as demand for corn has expanded to fuel ethanol production.

Producing a healthy cow without grain, hormones, or antibiotics requires closer attention to the nutrition and overall wellbeing of the animals – and some proclivity for trying new methods of production. “Our producers are silent heroes in many ways because they see and value the positive impact that grazing-based agriculture has on their soil health, water quality, etc… not just now but for future generations. Also, many are looking hard at grazing as a business model that can attract and support new farmers, particularly children wanting to return to the family farm.”

Founders Kristine and Ryan Jepsen

Factory farms are economically efficient in part because they operate with few variables. All cows eat the same feed, are exposed to the same elements, and yield remarkably consistent meat. Such consistency is less common in pasture-raised beef.

Jepsen said, “The marketplace has this stubborn impression that ‘grass fed’ is a gamble, that it varies widely in taste and texture, ranging from ‘awesome―couldn’t tell it wasn’t finished on grain’ to ‘gamey-flavored, chewy, and dry.’ Our own product is not gamey or too lean, but consumers are still having that experience elsewhere in the marketplace – we hear it all the time from customers who seek us out due to our reputation for better quality.”

Grass Run Farms addresses the consistency question by remaining close to its supply and serving as a clearinghouse of information for the farms that supply their cattle. These practices not only help to solidify the company’s customer base but strengthen the industry as a whole. “When [customers] see quality and consistency it starts to derail the rumors,” Jepsen said.

In 2011, Grass Run Farms will sell 1,500 head and gross $3 million in sales. Their markets include cooperative grocers, restaurants, institutions, and other manufacturers throughout Iowa, Minnesota, and parts of Wisconsin and Illinois.

“We’re still in the growth stage of investing strategies that you need to launch a full-fledged brand,” Jepsen said. Grass Run Farms needs about $800,000 in additional investments to add additional staff, expand the brand, and increase volume.

This month Kristine Jepsen sought out investors at the Slow Money National Gathering in San Francisco, a forum connecting sustainable food producers with potential investors. It is too early to tell how much capital Jepsen’s Slow Money pitch will yield, but she found the gathering to be inspiring. “It’s just really energizing to encounter people across the country who are taking the same kinds of risks that we are, who really believe in our ability to improve our food system.”

To the Jepsens, expanding their business means more than growing their capital. They believe that environmentally and economically sustainable business practices go hand in hand. As Jepsen told investors at the Slow Money Gathering, “The more people really love our meat, the more acres are managed sustainably and for conservation purposes.”

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