It was the best of steaks; it was the worst of steaks.
On a recent evening at Tayst restaurant in Nashville, two people sitting at the same table ordered the same steak from the same menu. Jeremy Barlow, the restaurant's chef and owner, says the slices of beef came from the same cow and were cooked and prepared the same way, by the same chef, in the same kitchen. The meals were prepared and delivered; the diners dined. Afterward, they delivered their verdicts to Barlow.
"One of them said it was the best steak they'd ever had," Barlow recalls. "The other said it was the worst."
Tayst features food from local farmers, and the beef Barlow served that night came from a farm where the cows graze exclusively on grass. Some people refer to this approach as "grass-finishing," where "finishing" refers to the few months before the cow is slaughtered and processed into beef.
At local farms and farmers' markets, some local producers pride themselves on selling grass-finished beef, like the steaks on Tayst's menu. Other producers go the route of "grain-finishing;" feeding their livestock corn or other grains during those last few months. Both producers have their reasons. Grass-finishers point to studies that show greater health benefits and a smaller environmental impact. Grain-finishers say that the corn adds marbling --- delicious fat --- to the final product.
For consumers shopping for meat, these labels --- grass-finished vs. grain- finished --- may seem another headache-inducing layer of complexity. There is no official USDA definition for either term; they're mainly used by the producers and consumers themselves
More people are probably familiar with a similar-sounding term, "grass- fed." Some farmers argue that the word isn't specific enough. After all, most cattle, even those that live and die in the crowded conditions of factory farming will eat grass at some point in their lives. All cows, in varying degrees, eat grass.
In 2007, the USDA took a first step toward clarifying the definition of "grass-fed" when it set voluntary standards for beef producers who want to use the word on packaging. According to the USDA, 99 percent of a grass- fed animal's diet must come from grass or other plants. That definition, however, only addresses what a cow eats --- not where it eats or how it's treated.
"The term 'grass-fed' by the USDA means it's been fed grass. [The USDA] doesn't care where," says Carrie Balkcom, executive director of the American Grass-fed Association. That organization is campaigning for a stricter definition of 'grass-fed' that includes guidelines for how an animal is cared for, and the conditions under which it was raised. Balkcom says adding new terms --- like "grass-finished" --- will only add to the confusion.
With the ever-growing collection of labels and certifications showing up on beef and other meat products, it can be tricky for consumers to discern. Just as farmers have to consider myriad options, consumers have to decide what's important to them: whether it is the taste of the beef, the environmental impact or the animals' diet.
Local farmers have different reasons for choosing grain or grass for the finish. The decision goes far beyond the labels. They must weigh environmental impact, financial costs and availability of land. Ultimately, every small beef producer has to juggle the variables to succeed in one all-important area: Taste. They know that consumers aren't going to buy what they don't want to eat.
Charley Jordan, who owns the Circle J Ranch in Woodlawn, Tennessee, learned early that if he kept his customers happy, they kept buying his product. Though Jordan, a 22-year active-duty soldier who flies helicopters, had always wanted a farm, he didn't expect to end up in beef production. However, a few years ago he had a bull processed from his farm. He took the meat to work at Fort Campbell.
"I sold out of beef in 5 minutes," he says. "People came back, telling me the beef was awesome, so I did it again."
Bolstered by his early success, Jordan bought more property. Now, he raises his cattle according to the standards of the Tennessee Natural Beef Program --- he's one of only 16 operations with the certification. That means, among other things, that the animals don't receive antibiotics or hormones. They mostly eat grass and hay --- which means they're naturally lean --- and in the last month or two, Jordan supplements their diets with corn. "Fat's the flavor," Jordan says. "My customers like to have a little bit of marbling in there, but don't want so much that it overshadows the quality of the meat." He sells his beef at the market in downtown Clarksville.
Another local producer, West Wind Farms, in eastern Tennessee, takes a different approach. West Wind is run by Kimberlie and Ralph Cole who, like Jordan, didn't start out as farmers. They were scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. For 12 years, they worked their day jobs while getting the farm started. Fifteen years ago they quit Oak Ridge and took their science expertise to the farm.
The Cole's cattle are 100-percent grass-fed. They don't use any herbicides or pesticides on the farm. They are the only producer of certified organic beef in the state. Kimberlie Cole says they're able to produce high- quality, nutritious meat by paying attention to where the cows graze and what they eat.
"It's basically managing them intensively on grass, and managing the grass intensively," she says. They select animals that are resistant to parasites and don't breed those that fail to thrive on the farm. By paying close attention to the animals and how they live on the land, the Coles were able to build a sustainable farm. Getting the recipe right takes time, but their efforts paid off.
"We had never farmed before, so we had a pretty steep learning curve when we started on beef quality," she says, "and the first beef that we produced honestly was not that good. It was not very tender."
But times have changed. Now, West Wind Farms supplies organic beef all over the state, including Tayst restaurant in Nashville - where Chef Jeremy Barlow says the grass-finished West Winds Farm beef can compete with grain- finished products. Even so, he says, for some people, pasture-raised beef can be a hard sell.
"The argument against grass-finished beef is that it's hard to chew," he says. "But we've accustomed ourselves to a steak that's not a steak."
Americans in particular, he argues, are used to steak that can be cut with a butter knife. That steak doesn't taste like beef --- largely because of the high sugar content from the grain. With practice, a steak-eater can learn to recognize variations in the grass-finished meat over seasons. In some ways, he says, beef is like wine, "You can get an idea of the place where it's grown." Ultimately there's always one sure way to get straight information about the source of food. Ask the farmer.