“At the start of this century, consumers discovered another alternative to factory food—buying their meat, eggs and dairy products from grass-based farmers. This was not just a step back in time. The farmers were using new management techniques, creating very high-quality products, and working hard to safeguard the environment. This was grandpa’s farm, run by his studious, hardworking, principled, risk-taking grandchildren. And this new/old way of farming seemed a positive step into the 21st Century.”- Jo Robinson from her book Pasture Perfect, Vashon Island Press
Preserving a needed resource for small farms in Dane County, Black Earth Meats is also helping to meet the growing demand from consumers for more options in buying organic and local fresh meats.
In May of 2007, a meat plant in Black Earth, Wisconsin was facing closure when it was purchased by a small group of investors. Gary and Rosie Zimmer (along with Rob and Mary Ann Litchfield, who are longtime organic farmers), collaborated with Bartlett Durand to form Black Earth Meats, LLC. They are taking a classic, back-to-basics approach to several aspects of their business to offer fresh, certified organic and non-organic meats only from farms practicing holistic farm management. After less than a year and an ambitious list of improvements, Black Earth Meats has grown to employ nearly 20 people between their two fresh and prepared meat processing facilities.
The bustling USDA-approved plant in Black Earth and sausage kitchen in Lone Rock are both certified organic by the Iowa Department of Agriculture. Bartlett Durand, managing member and co-owner clarified, “We took this very small (state-inspected) plant—it was the last one in Dane County—and we said, ‘Let’s do something special with it.’ So we converted it to USDA standards, which is like going from high school football to the pro-level, skipping college. It’s just a night and day difference. It’s really dramatic.” Bartlett, who first began working with Otter Creek Organic Farm cheeses and meats, explained, “This was a natural next step which is basically: provide a facility for ourselves and other local farmers who are trying to direct-market and especially get into groceries and restaurants.” (The Zimmers also own Otter Creek Organic Dairy Farm in Spring Green, Wisconsin, which produces a line of seasonal cheddars that are available among our Co-op’s notably large Wisconsin cheese options.) The Black Earth plant in particular has undergone major updating to meet USDA and Organic standards, including state-of-the-art sanitation systems and stringent humane oversight.
Livestock chosen for Black Earth Meats organic line or their Grandpa’s Way line of pasture-fed meats are never raised in confinement and feed on grasses and other forage crops that are grown without the use of pesticides or genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Neither the organic or non-organic animals are administered antibiotics or synthetic growth hormones and are continually rotated to fresh pastures during the grazing season. The results yield meat that is higher in vitamins, Omega-3s and antioxidants, and is lower in fat and calories than conventionally corn-fed animals. For several years there has been a growing preference for pasture-fed meats over corn-fed alternatives, but too few producers to satisfy demand. Typically, animals raised on a diet of mainly corn are associated with “contained animal feedlot operations” (CAFOs), which exist largely for the benefit of corporately owned meat marketers to keep shelf prices low, while keeping their profits high at the expense of everything in between. Due to a dramatic increase in this type of agriculture, the smaller, rural plants that had existed to provide area farmers with access to grocery and restaurant markets have been disappearing along with small farms in Dane County and across the United States.
Gary owns another company, Midwestern Bio-Ag, which provides consulting, testing and soil mineralization plans for farmers throughout the Midwestern U.S, and has been working to convert thousands of acres to organic or pesticide-free status since 1984. Working with and selecting livestock from these small farms where they’ve built relationships and have shared farming philosophies bestows Black Earth Meats (and consumers) an advantage in knowing precisely whom they’re buying from and under what conditions the animals were raised. “Biological agriculture works with natural laws and systems and tries to help them operate more effectively,” writes Gary, in his book The Biological Farmer: A Complete Guide to the Sustainable and Profitable Biological System of Farming. “A healthy, balanced soil is the foundation necessary for healthy plants and animals. Biological farming is not against using modern technology and new methods, but uses only those that do not interfere with natural systems and do not cause harm down the road.”
Beyond the environmental benefits of raising or consuming pasture-fed meats, chefs and connoisseurs of these foods share a similar fondness for the return of the authentic taste captured from a pasturing methodology. Corn-fed diets produce more marbling (fat) while pasture-rich diets do not and so may require some re-training to avoid burning or over-cooking. Many who first taste pasture-fed meats comment that they taste nutty, full-bodied and, for some older adults, it provokes a food memory as they are reminded of what meat tasted like before the industrial meats became the norm.
Whether you like to think of it as grandpa’s way or call it a grandma diet, Black Earth Meats is now providing a logical and vital link for local farmers and their customers. There’s a good reason the Zimmers were named “Farmer of the Year” at the 2008 Organic Farming Conference in LaCrosse, Wisconsin: through good science and a sense of responsibility, they are retrofitting and refining a part of Dane County’s agriculture to meet the local and organic eating resurgence.
- To offer only the healthiest natural beef possible.
- To provide meat with the best flavor and tenderness through strict herd selection.
- To gain and maintain your confidence in the integrity of our beef.
- To be sensitive and respectful of our natural resources.