CANNON FALLS, Minn. - Slowly but surely, grass-fed beef from the Thousand Hills Cattle Co. is becoming a familiar sight in groceries, co-ops, some of the Twin Cities' top restaurants and even on school lunch trays. Its next destination may be your dog's food dish.
Todd Churchill's ranching enterprise, inspired by author Michael Pollan's account of a steer's path to market, is rolling out Restoration Raw, a blend of raw grass-fed beef, sprouted grains, trace minerals and vitamins. The product came about after Churchill hired Will Winter, a holistic veterinarian formerly of the Uptown Veterinarian, to be herd health consultant.
Years earlier, Winter was persuaded that diet was key to improving a pet's health. He championed raw food -- what animals ate in the wild before becoming domesticated. Churchill had a ready supply of raw meat, and they figured out how to sprout grain on a large scale, "which turns it into a more easily digestible vegetable," he said.
Now the company is ready to dive into a growing market for raw pet food. Restoration Raw doesn't come cheap, selling for about $5 a pound in certain Lunds stores.
But Churchill believes that people will realize the savings in their pet's improved health, "and what does it cost to take your pet to the vet and deal with a medical issue?"
It's unlikely that Churchill's move has Purina convening strategy sessions, but that's sort of his way. Thousand Hills beef accounts for no more than one-seventh of 1 percent of the beef eaten in the 12-county metro area, he said, yet that market share has grown steadily. His most delicate balancing act is meeting demand.
"We kill 25 animals a week, so it's a limited supply of beef," Churchill said. For comparison, he noted the kill rate at Tyson Foods in Lincoln, Neb., the nation's largest meat processing plant, where "more cattle are killed by noon on Jan. 2 than we'll kill all year."
A thousand hills
The inspiration for this dining revolution is the Sogn Valley, a stretch of ancient coulee through which the Cannon River flows, just east of Northfield, Minn. Churchill fell in love with the valley as a student in the early 1990s, driving between St. Olaf College and his family's horse farm in Orion, Ill. Today, its sheltering bluffs are among the thousand hills of Churchill's venture.
The reference is biblical, from Psalm 50:10: "For every beast of the forest is mine, and the cattle upon a thousand hills."
"God is reminding David that while he may be the king of Israel, the cattle across a thousand hills are God's and he's entrusting us to be good stewards," Churchill said. It's a moral compass that he takes a step further: "I believe the food industry is supposed to be about distributing nourishing food that makes people well."
It's tempting to consider Churchill's trademark black cowboy hat as a marketing ploy. "But I've been wearing cowboy hats since I was 3 years old," he said.
At St. Olaf, Churchill veered from veterinary science to accounting to speech and communications, graduating to become a certified public accountant. His first employer had a policy of taking attendance at 8 each morning, "and just out of principle, I couldn't be in my cubicle at 8 a.m.," Churchill said with a flicker of mischief.
He was fired, and began working as a freelance CFO with small businesses, preparing their financial statements, going with them to meetings with their bankers. Over the next 10 years, he worked with more than 90 businesses, among them Mike Lorentz's meat processing plant in Cannon Falls.
Lorentz believed that specialty meats were the future, and in 2002 sent Churchill the Pollan article from the New York Times Sunday Magazine. Pollan contended that grass-fed beef makes more sense ecologically because it's sustainable, then asked whether eating corn-feed beef is healthy for us -- or for the steer. His answer was a resounding "no."
All in the cow
Churchill began researching traditional breeds that fed on grass, settling on old-fashioned breeds such as Red or Black Angus, shorthorn Herefords and Scottish highlanders. But cattle are what they eat, and what they eat depends less upon the grass itself than the soil in which it grows.
"Growing good grass is an art, not a science," Churchill said, explaining how much of his focus is on "raising" good soil. He refers to leaves of grass as solar panels, and will talk at length about how growing grass sequesters atmospheric carbon in the soil instead of releasing it to the slice of a plow.
Thousand Hills works with 50 farms throughout the Upper Midwest, mostly in Minnesota. Farmers agree to uphold strict protocols. Churchill eyeballs each animal at least once, and more often several times over the course of its life. He's been experimenting with pastured pork, but isn't yet sure if it makes economic sense.
The traditional beef industry has taken a lot of bad-mouthing in this shift away from corn. Yet the National Cattlemen's Beef Association takes a circumspect approach, stating only that the grass-fed market offers further choice to consumers.
The December issue of Cook's Illustrated includes an item about taste-testing grass-fed and grain-fed beef. "The results surprised us," the item said, finding that tasters couldn't distinguish the difference with seared medium-rare strip steaks.
Negative dining experiences with grass-fed beef are likely to be linked to meat that hasn't been dry-aged, a process that concentrates beefy flavor and increases tenderness, they wrote. An increasing number of grass-fed beef producers are now dry-aging their meat.
Twin Cities chef J.D. Fratzke serves only Thousand Hills beef at the Strip Club in St. Paul. "I didn't know how damaging it was to raise cattle on grain," he said of his earlier views. "Primarily it's our country that changed a natural cycle that's existed since man started to raise cattle, given that corn is indigenous to North America. It made me look a lot farther into the diet of the other tasty creatures I was serving." Or, as Fratzke described it: "The simplest solution is usually the correct one."
Churchill is a kindred spirit, finding he needs nothing more mechanical on his farm than a tractor. He and his wife, Dee Ann, are raising six children, the last two being young twins, so he takes the future seriously. Yet he relies on what the past can teach. For that matter, he can trace his ancestors back to 1685, to English families who settled in Connecticut.
"I'm the first one in my family to live west of the Mississippi," he said, then smiled. "Though it's not by much."
Kim Ode • 612-673-7185