Rancher Christina Traeger raises grass-fed beef, along with her hopes that “real good food” will find a wider audience.
AVON, Minn. – The odds are against Christina Traeger.
And yet …
British White cattle browse the grassy slopes of her Rolling Hills Traeger Ranch, like mottled clouds of fog in the draws. The work of herding, calving and feeding is as relentless as when her great-grandfather settled these acres northwest of St. Cloud, although today it’s called “sustainable agriculture.”
Traeger is among a growing number of producers on a mission to provide people with what’s often called “better beef,” from cattle raised only on grass, their systems free of antibiotics, hormones or the chemistry that propels bumper crops of corn and soybeans.
She knows that most consumers shop at grocery stores, with little knowledge of whether their steaks came from large feedlots where the corn flows free or from a prairie where the spreading oaks should be in paintings. Instead of a “Bonanza” ranch house with a broad front porch, Traeger lives in an aging trailer, but that’s the reality of being a small producer these days.
For a dozen years, Traeger worked with her three daughters, a rarity in the ranching world. Now, though, the two oldest have married and moved out of state. It’s just her and 15-year-old Hailey, driving a freezer truck on weekends and many weekdays to co-ops and farmers markets from Fargo to Linden Hills.
If people would only ask, “Where’s this beef from?” or “How was it raised?” Traeger thinks she might gain an advantage, because her answers are, “Right here” and “The way nature intended.”
The hurdle is getting that message out.
“Marketing is everything, and that is where we have hit a wall,” she said. “We’re not in going-down-the-toilet kind of trouble, but we can’t go anywhere without help.”
She can’t afford what marketing whizzes charge, which, while worth every penny, is money she doesn’t have. “I have cattle.”
And passion. It’s a word on the verge of losing its meaning, perkily trotted out for everything from baking pies to traversing obstacle courses.
So when Traeger replies to the obvious question about why she works so long and hard for so little return, and she uses that word, the quaver that starts deep in her throat makes it seem freshly coined.
A minute earlier, she’d explained matter-of-factly how most small farmers make about $2 an hour. Now, tears well. “If I didn’t have the passion for these cows, I wouldn’t frickin’ do it. I just firmly believe in growing real good food for people and that someone out there will find me. But even if they don’t, we’ll keep doing this because it’s the right thing to do.”
Then she clears her throat and brightens. “It’s like that saying, ‘It’s not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.’ ”
Reality meets biology
Traeger was 21 when she, her husband and two daughters moved to the farm a mile from where she grew up. A half-dozen years later, the marriage ended. Still, she was determined to build a herd of “better beef” cattle.
She researched breeds for hardiness, flavor, how well they calved, the things that matter when staking your livelihood on an animal. But she also needed docile cows because the girls would be helping with chores — slinging hay, herding, vaccinating, branding and finding newborn calves in a cold spring rain.
British Whites proved the ticket, known for their gentle demeanor and so valued that during World War II, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered five cows and a bull shipped to the United States.