Regular readers of Burger Friday will have noticed a pattern, one that involves top-shelf burgers made using Peterson Limousin Beef (find examples here, and here, and here, and here, and others, too numerous to count).
Discerning chefs all over the Twin Cities rely upon this family-owned purveyor for its lean, rich and flavorful ground beef, culled from the Limousin breed cattle raised at this Osceola, Wis.-based operation (pictured, above, in a provided photo). For this Know Where Your Food Comes From edition of Burger Friday, I spent a few minutes on the phone with co-owner Andy Peterson. Here he is on . . .
The Peterson family: “We farm as a family. Dad is the boss. He’s the primary caretaker on the day-to-day basis. My brother and I get in and help. I do marketing and distribution, and my brother helps out on weekends. We tag-team. It’s nice that our schedules fit. And our brother and sister, they’re involved, too, just not on the day-to-day stuff.”
We’ve always farmed in the St. Croix Valley. It goes back to my paternal grandfather. They did dairy in the 1960s. In the 1970s, it was a little of everything: pigs, chickens, cows, horses, mostly a commodity cash crop. In the '90s, my family simplified, going into beef cattle, horses and a cash crop.
Limousin cattle first came to the U.S. in the late 1960s. About 10 years later, my dad and his brothers and their families had a wide mix of commercial cattle. They liked the traits -- the added muscle, for example -- that the Limousin offered. Over the years, the other breeds on the farm whittled out. I like to say that I was born and weaned on Limousin beef. I always thought it was a unique eating experience.
From my viewpoint, the agriculture landscape is similar to the dynamics of the retail business. You had to get large and compete on lower costs, or you had to specialize. We specialized. That’s why Limousin took over on our farm. In 2009, we moved to do more wholesaling, and to selling to chefs and restaurants."
Farm details: “We’re not a huge operation. We have two farms, one in Dresser, one in Osceola [about an hour northeast of the Twin Cities]. They’re pretty close to one another. My guess is that, together, they’re more than 200 acres. We typically have about 150 mama cows; that number ebbs and flows. They can live 15 to 16 years; that’s what we prefer. The break-even on a mature cow is seven years. You want them to live as long as you can. Our fat cattle — the cattle that go to the butcher — they’ll be 18 to 24 months. It comes down to size. We’re not a turn-and-burn operation. We’re not what a typical commodity feedlot might look like. When they’re ready to go, that’s when they go. Some smaller-framed animals will go at 18 months, a leaner one will go at 24 months. Overall, we’ve got about 300 beef cattle. We get our stuff processed at Block & Cleaver Artisan Meats in Siren, Wis.”
More details: "We follow a crop rotation system and a rotational grazing technique, so the animals always have access to grass and hay. They move in and out of paddocks. As part of our crop rotation system, we plant non-GMO cereal grains and legumes as part of a limited supplement. Crop rotation reduces risk. You can weather drought and flooding so much better. The two examples that I like to use are 2009 and 2013; they were both dry years. The pastures burned up more than we wanted them to, but our cereal grasses did really well, so that gave us some feed to get us into the winter.”
The farm’s future: “We’ve started to incorporate pigs back into our program. We’re doing a Yorkshire/Berkshire cross. We think we’ve got a pretty unique composition of pig that’s going to be well-received. We’ve also added lamb this year. We’ve picked up a few customers who like the availability of getting three different proteins from the same source.”
What makes the Limousin breed so flavorful: “We think that there’s a unique muscle fiber. They have a naturally recurring gene — it’s the F94L gene — that leads to an increase in tenderness and an increase in yield. The tradeoff is that it tends to be leaner. We don’t always get the marbling that we want in steaks and roasts. But through mating and genetics — and that’s how we improve the herd, it’s not through antibiotics — we think we can keep that trait prominent and also deliver the marbling that people expect to encounter at a steakhouse. We also have a proprietary dry-aging process. It’s unique to us, and totally natural. We let the beef shine as much as possible.”
Why other farmers haven’t jumped on Limousin: “Look at it from the industry’s standpoint. Angus has dominated, for years. It’s like Holstein in dairy; it’s more than all the other breeds, combined. Angus puts muscle into the cattle, and it brings the marbling that people like.
We think that that fat covers up blemishes. You cover up sub-par meat with more fat. But farmers have to get paid, and right now, on the large commodity scale, they’re getting paid more to raise Angus. It comes down to marketing. As a breed, the Limousin brand could do a better job of talking to the consumer: about so many of its benefits, from its effects on climate change, to the fewer resources required to raise each animal. But that’s a big effort, and you have to pony up. Right now, Angus has the budget.”
His restaurant and chef customers: “I don’t know right off the top of my head, but I’m guessing that we probably have 30-plus restaurant customers. I haven’t studied it all that much lately. You might say, 'Wow, 30 restaurants,' but not every restaurant is taking the whole carcass. Some buy flatirons, some buy skirt, some buy ground. It’s great to have people on board who take different pieces. You need that breadth of a customer base to be able to move all of those pieces, so the restaurant market is crucial to farms like ours.
One of the nice things about restaurant-supported agriculture is that it allows the farmer to plan. The restaurant order is a recurring order. When we were first starting, I loved going to farmers markets. I still love to go and shop at them, a whole lot more than I like selling at them. The problem, the frustration, is that you never know what you’re going to sell. You pack everything up, drive it to the market, set up and then sit there, and you never know if you’re going to sell anything. You never know who is going to show up. The weather could be bad, that could keep people away.
That’s why we gravitated toward working with restaurants. They know what they want; they can predict it. And when we deliver our product, it’s a sale. This business is all about planning. I mean, it takes nine months for a baby to come out of a cow. You need to plan.”
Seeing “Peterson Limousin Beef” cited on some of the city’s top menus: “I don’t want to say that it’s ‘surreal.’ That’s not the right word. But you do pinch yourself a bit when you realize that people care enough to put our name on their menu. These chefs, they love what they do, and you can see it in the food. And they get behind the farmer. They say, ‘We believe in you,’ and you get that support from them. It only makes you want to work harder for them.”
Where he burgers: “I'm not trying to be a politician [laughs] when I say that I love all burgers, although I don’t want to offend any of my customers by choosing one over another [that's the cheeseburger at Nightingale, above, made with Peterson Limousin Beef]. I like burgers charbroiled, I like them flat-topped, I like them fancied-up with foie gras. It’s all good to me. What I like most about burgers is that, when you eat one, you’re satisfied. Hopefully, that is. I mean, you can leave the table and think, ‘I just had a meal, I’m happy.’ One thing I don’t like is the grease-bomb burger. You can’t taste the meat.”
Veggie burgers: “I can tolerate them [laughs]. I was just joking with a chef the other day. She told me she was a vegetarian, and I told her, ‘That’s OK, we can still be friends.’ I’m a meat-atarian so I cancel her out. Actually, I might take a veggie burger over a turkey burger. I don’t want to offend the turkey people. Hey, they’ve got to do something with their trim, too.”
Buying Peterson Limousin Beef for making burgers at home: “We sell our ground beef at Sassafras Health Foods in White Bear Lake, and at Mastel’s Health Foods in St. Paul. That’s pretty much it. Cooks of Crocus Hill, they have our meat shares. They’ve been great supporters of ours.
Our intention isn’t to grow a brand and then sell it to a bigger outfit. If people want to do that, that’s fine. That’s capitalism. What I always tell folks who are working with us is that I want to be able to farm with my brother for our generation, and then leave the farm to our kids, if they want it. That’s our goal. We’re in it for a lifestyle. We want to be able to farm to be able to raise our families the way our parents raised us.”
Talk to me: Do you have a favorite burger? Share the details at email@example.com. Burger Friday will return to its regular format next week.