Teton Talks: Where We Source From and Why – Part 2

In an effort to continue our “grass-feducation” to our consumers, Teton Waters Ranch has sat down with VP of Operations, Ethan Chutkow, to answer a second round of questions about where we source from and why. Teton Waters Ranch’s mission is to create a regenerative, healthy and humane food system for all by being better for the planet, better for the animals and better for you. In order to do so, our sourcing standards must be precisely followed. Chutkow states, “we decided that meeting the consumer demand for authentic grass-fed beef was our first priority, instead of compromising our standards or simply not servicing the demand.” Continue reading to gain an inside perspective on Teton Waters Ranch’s sourcing methods and how we got there:

Ian Chamberlain, TWR Director of Procurement and Ethan Chutkow, TWR VP of Operations. Photo taken in New Zealand.

Interview Questions:

Why did Teton start sourcing their 100% Grass-Fed Beef outside of the United States?

As people discovered TWR and our products, the demand for real grass-fed beef products accelerated, and what we could produce from our ranch could not supply the demand. So, we went to our neighbors in the Pacific Northwest. We found ranchers who were completely aligned with our practices, and others who made some minor changes to their cattle management to be aligned and able to work with us. Demand kept growing and we headed further east into the plains to meet more ranchers and see how their practices aligned with ours. Although we found some great ranchers, some did not meet our standards. We decided we would not bend our standards to be able to source from a rancher who feeds grass in a feedlot, or who uses growth hormones.

Instead, we took a step back and decided to cast a wider net. We asked ourselves “where in the world does grass grow best?” We put feelers out in Ireland and South America but did not find alignment that fit our needs. Then we heard of the abundant pastures on the island of Tasmania, just south of mainland Australia. Upon first sight, the conditions were optimal; lush, nutritious grasses, healthy and steady year-round rainfall, calm cattle quietly grazing to their heart’s content. As we learned more about the culture of animal husbandry there, we were even more impressed with it all. Time and time again, as we walked into the pastures to examine the diversity of grasses and dig into the rich soil below it, these curious beasts would edge closer to us to see what we were doing. If we stood there long enough, they would circle around us completely just as they would on our home ranch in Idaho. This is a true sign of animals who are handled appropriately and treated with care and respect. We found total alignment with TWR standards with the ranchers we met, and enjoyed some of the most tasty and healthy beef in the world with them.

What are the downsides to sourcing from a global supply instead of from our own backyard?

This is a great question, and one we struggled with at the beginning. We had traveled to the other side of the world in search of the best grass-fed beef out there, and we found it! We all wished it wasn’t literally on the other side of the planet, but it was. We grappled with the idea of sourcing from so far away. We understood this meant we were going to have to ship the beef to the US and that this would have a carbon footprint that we had to take into consideration. We also considered that our preference would be to support local US farmers by buying their beef. The demand for beef that met TWR standards was growing and if we didn’t supply it, the available alternative to those consumers was at best beef labeled “grass-fed” but was not up to anyone’s standards, or at worst conventionally raised feedlot beef.

So, we set out to answer some questions. First, we completed a carbon footprint analysis of sourcing from Tasmania. I was thinking this would be a deal-breaker for us, but I was wrong. It turns out that the efficiency of ocean freight equated to lower total carbon emissions than some of the beef we were sourcing in the US! That’s because ranches in the US are much more spread out, and the cattle often have to travel much longer distances to get to wintering pastures (not all cattle can stay on the same ranch year-round as they can in Tasmania), or to the processing facility. Also, ranchers in the US often use more tractors and other equipment to manage the cattle and the land, which contributes to the higher carbon footprint of domestic beef.

We then needed to do some soul-searching to make sense of sourcing from abroad when we really would prefer to have a positive impact more locally. After some reflection, we decided that meeting the consumer demand for authentic grass-fed beef was our first priority, instead of compromising our standards or simply not servicing the demand. But we paired this decision with an internal commitment to make it our priority to get more domestic producers to change their production practices to fall in line with TWR standards so we can be investing in our own backyard. As a result, these domestic producers have found that after adopting TWR production practices, they are seeing healthier cattle in their programs and through regenerative agricultural practices they now have richer, healthier soil.

Is regenerative agriculture more common outside of the United States?

“Regenerative agriculture” is only needed where “degenerative” or simply bad agricultural practices have existed. Well managed agricultural systems maintain healthy soils and biodiversity, and thus aren’t needing to be “regenerated” or revitalized. In the US, industrial farming practices have relied far too long on a broken recipe: 1) spray vast swaths of land with herbicides (mostly glyphosate) to kill off all vegetation, 2) use heavy equipment to plow the land and turn the soil, 3) plant herbicide resistant seeds (often genetically modified), 4) apply synthetic fertilizers, 5) water, and 6) continue weed control by liberally spraying crops and fields with more herbicide. This was a successful recipe to produce more food at lower cost. But the long-terms costs were not taken into consideration, and today we are facing a slew of environmental and public health crises that stem from this.

The process of clearing land through chemical application and tilling creates for farmlands stretching as far as the eye can see that have no vegetation. Brown dirt all the way to the horizon. Vegetation is what holds the soil in place. Without vegetation, winds blows the top soil away. Remember studying the Dust Bowl in middle school? That was real and still is. When it rains on vegetated lands, the roots of those plants drive pathways for the water to infiltrate the soil. If there is no vegetation, the soil turns to mud, gets condensed, and the top soil gets washed away into ditches and streams that ultimately feed rivers and end up in our oceans. From this erosion, we lose about 24 billion metric tons of topsoil per year. It’s a crisis. Even worse, those eroding soils are laden with applied herbicides and fertilizers. Rivers in the US have never been more polluted than they are now, and huge “dead zones” in our oceans have been created where those rivers pour toxins into them.

Without rich soils to plant in, farmers need to apply fertilizers to the land to give their crops the nitrogen they need in order to grow. These fertilizers are primarily derived from petroleum. Plants are able to grow with this fertilizer and still produce food, but the crop is devoid of essential nutrients because all of those were carried away over the years by wind and rain. If the crops don’t receive necessary nutrients, neither do the people who eat them. And thus the health crisis in the US.

So, regeneration is simply the process of rebuilding soil. Before much of the Midwest was converted to huge expanses of corn and soy, these were bountiful pastures where the grass was “managed” by roaming herds of bison. For millennia, this symbiotic relationship between the ruminant and the grassland thrived, created healthy soils, retained carbon from the atmosphere and established balance in the ecosystem. This balance was disrupted first by the mass hunting of the bison and then by the plowing and tilling of the land. Regenerative agriculture looks to use cattle and other ruminants as a tool to rebuild soil and reestablish that balance and symbiosis.

That’s a long answer to a short question, but the sum of it is that lands that have been properly and responsibly farmed and grazed do not need aggressive regeneration. This includes large areas in the Americas. But short-sighted agricultural practices have been the norm in the majority of the US for the better part of two centuries now, and the need for soil regeneration here is unprecedented.

Moving forward, is there a region Teton would like to focus on sourcing their 100% Grass-Fed Beef from?

Yes. For all the reasons listed above, it is a top priority for us to bring regenerative agriculture practices deeper into the fold of the US agricultural system. It seems all too convenient that delicious and nutritious grass-fed beef is only a byproduct of regenerative agriculture, but it really is. It’s been a real uphill climb for us to work with US farmers to embrace this form of agriculture, and it’s not the fault of the farmer. In many ways, our agricultural industry has been set up to cater to big agricultural practices. If you grow corn and certain other grains, you are provided crop insurance through the Farm Bill, a luxury you would not have by producing other crops or grazing cattle. Many of today’s farmers are upholding farming businesses handed down to them from previous generations. The soil they inherited is depleted, and the margins on their crops are so thin that it’s hard for them to take even a year’s worth of risk in trying something new. But it has to happen. We are running out of ways to bioengineer our way out of needing real soil, to plant real seeds in, to produce real food, to provide real nutrition to our kin. And if eating real grass-fed beef helps those farmers rebuild soil and regain biodiversity on their farms and reinvest in their depleted lands, count me in!

So, we’re hard at work on this at Teton Waters Ranch. We are starting with ranchers who have already seen the benefit to regenerative agriculture and are willing to make some changes to be compliant with our protocols. We are trying to be a solution for them to get their beef to market so they can focus on revitalizing their land. In that same effort, we are making more grass-fed beef available to discerning and “grass-feducated” consumers across the nation. It’s not always easy, but we are committed to doing all we can.

To learn more specifics about the ranches we source from, explore our interactive sourcing map.