“We also need to have more respect for the domestic arts: time to grow our food, cook our food, serve our food, and build a culture of sitting down together and eating good food. In my time, being a homemaker was rejected, and I think it’s very important, for men and women, to make a home. It’s not just go, go, go. We need more focus on the quality of life.”
Even though there are farms within minutes of my home in New Jersey, it’s been years since I’ve visited one. It was due time that I physically reconnect to my food at its source, and Beechtree Farms’ Lucia and Charlie graciously and warmly welcomed me:
I met Charlie and their two dogs upon arrival. I told Charlie that I’m a nutrition major, and he shared that they ferment their hay. “We immediately wrap it up and ferment it, like kimchi or sauerkraut, instead of drying it out. If you get closer, you can smell it – it smells like sauerkraut; doing this preserves the nutrients”.
Sitting inside their home, I asked Lucia how they began raising cows. In order to understand their story, however, it was important for me to understand the significance of exclusive grass-feeding, particularly in comparison to alternative feeding practices.
“Exclusively grass fed is different from regular ‘grass fed’, which may also involve feeding cows grain during the last three months to fatten them.
Our daughter, who graduated from UPenn as a large animal veterinarian, is now at Colorado State University studying epidemiology for her Master’s (maybe Ph.D). She compares the liver of cows fed ‘natural’ diets and those administered antibiotics. The livers of the ‘natural’”, she fingered air quotes, “are all blown up due to acidosis. The cows aren’t meant to eat grains.”
Industries have been touting the “natural” label to sway well-intending shoppers, but there is little regulation with the term’s use. Despite being “natural”, grain is not optimal for cows.
The practice of grain feeding grew largely out of the fear, dating back to the Nixon administration, of an insufficient ability to feed a rapidly growing population. The industry “doctored the term ‘feed the world’ – it’s all food politics”. Grain is produced much more cheaply than grass, making it a more favorable energy input. “That’s a problem right there – cheap food; you can get a hamburger for what, a dollar?”
Antibiotics, on the other hand, are intended to hasten growth – “I don’t know how that works”, she added – and fight disease. Either way, whether it’s “natural” grain or antibiotics, Lucia “wouldn’t touch either one”.
The value of grass feeding also impacts human health, not just animal. “Grass fed beef is not the same as grain fed in terms of outcomes. Grain fed is associated with high cholesterol and hypertension, but grass fed is not – that doesn’t mean there’s no marbling [with grass fed beef] though; it’s delicious.”
Investigative journalist, Jo Robinson, spoke one year at a PASA conference as she was studying the difference between the American and Mediterranean diets. This happened to be the first that Lucia attended. “I got a free ride due to a scholarship from Rodale to go to the PASA conference. That got the ball rolling.” Robinson came across research where scientists studied the differences between diets with grass fed and diets with grain fed beef. “If you give cows grain, the omega-3’s are gone. CLA’s, conjugated linoleic acids, are disappearing.”
Robinson also brought up numerous advantages of grass-fed farming. “That’s what we had been doing”, since 1986, “so we thought, why not instead of selling at the auctions, we sell directly to the people?” Prior, “our attitude was ‘you can’t make money farming’, but the PASA conference took me out of the box. I started thinking of the land as an asset.” Since 2007, Lucia and Charlie have been selling their beef directly to people, and today, they make 85% of their living off of farming. Both have continued running their independent businesses in addition to their farm; Lucia is an artist, and Charlie runs Door Center Enterprises, Inc. Their farm has grown to the point where “Charlie is almost doing it full time. We sometimes need to hold back because our demand is greater than our supply, but what’s been helpful are our farm partners.
Our cows eat grass in their fields during the summer, and in our own during the winter. It’s good for our partners’ land and soil” – it raises the quality – “and also helps the cows get used to being on the trailer for when they’re slaughtered. It makes them feel more comfortable.”
Lucia also serves many positions on several different boards, from serving as the Chairwoman of Hopewell Township’s Agricultural Advisory Committee to serving on the Board of Directors of NOFA NJ (Northeast Organic Farming Association of New Jersey). “I’m very involved in local agriculture. I became an activist because I’m just so tired of people getting sick.
There’s been a lot of progress, though. At the supermarket, we’re beginning to see a lot less products with high fructose corn syrup – they’re beginning to use regular sugar again. But you still have to be careful, even with organic.
A lot of industries are trying to change the definition of organic. Have you heard of the Cornucopia Institute?” I shook my head no. “They’re keeping an eye on maintaining the integrity of ‘organic’.
We don’t use the term ‘organic’ because our farm and butchers are not certified – our butchers are, however, USDA certified, which is difficult. To add another level? They don’t want to do it, but we’re in the progress of getting our fields organic certified.
Princeton residents are well educated, and they know the difference between grass fed and exclusively grass fed, so we don’t need it for marketing, but ‘organic’ is still the gold standard.” Learn more about the time, money, and effort behind the organic certification from Doug of Buried Treasures Organic Farm.
To finish off our conversation, I asked Lucia one last question that I’ve asked many farmers I’ve spoken to – if there’s one thing you would say to the audience, what would it be?
“I work very hard on preserving our land. We sold the development rights, but we own the land, we just can never subdivide, build, and sell houses.
We also need to have more respect for the domestic arts: time to grow our food, cook our food, serve our food, and build a culture of sitting down together and eating good food. In my time, being a homemaker was rejected, and I think it’s very important, for men and women, to make a home. It’s not just go, go, go. We need more focus on the quality of life. In France, they center their day around a meal. They don’t snack like Americans do, and though their diet is very rich, they don’t have the same health problems we have.
We can solve a lot of problems [by living and eating more mindfully] – the environment, people’s health, the economy. Think of how many jobs were lost, especially in the middle class, when industrial agriculture came in.
I’m also concerned about the extinction of bees. Why isn’t that a part of our national dialogue? We didn’t hear anything about it (nor about agriculture in general) during the presidential debates.”
If you’d like to learn more about and/or support Beechtree Farms, you can do so here.