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Idaho's Food Scene

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Small livestock farmers flood the market

A friend’s recent e-mail arrived with the subject, “Natural Beef,” and the message began with a question: “We are slaughtering some more cattle. Is anyone interested in a half-a-beef or more?”

The meat was raised by Rod Davidson, a friend of a friend, in Adrian, Oregon, and was described as “hormone-free, natural grass-fed and finished (fattened) with Idaho brewery barley.”

I was intrigued by the connections: Davidson’s eastern Oregon cows chewed on the spent mash from a brewery just walking distance from my house in Boise. I called Davidson and quizzed him on the natural history of his cows. Curiosity satisfied, I placed an order. I’d split a half-a-beef, about 250 pounds, with a buddy.

“I want people to eat less meat, too, but I want them to eat mine.”
-Janie Burns, Meadowlark Farm

If 2009 was the year that Americans finally decided to learn where their food comes from, 2010 is the year to know who raised it.

“The most important thing on the label for me is my name and my phone number,” said Janie Burns, who raises grass-fed lamb and pastured poultry at Meadowlark Farm, south of Nampa.

In Idaho, there is a sudden glut of small-scale, all-natural meat producers like Burns. For a state with a strong ranching and farming heritage, perhaps it should come as no surprise. Traditional animal husbandry never left the state, but given the mass horrors of modern industrial feedlots, small farms are more attractive than ever.

Some of this meat is certified organic, some goes beyond organic. There’s good-old “naturally raised,” the foodie-chic “grass-fed” or even conscience-clearing “Animal Welfare Approved.” Davidson said he raises beef “the European way.” Glenn Elzinga at Alderspring Ranch, in the Pahsimeroi Valley between Challis and Salmon, calls his beef “artisanal.” Cheryl Bennett, sales manager at Lava Lake Ranch, which raises organic and natural lamb near Carey, said they just do things the old-fashioned way, “The way meat used to be.”

In Sun Valley, they might call it boutique meat.

By whatever name, Idaho meat-eaters now have access to more information and more choices than ever before. Even vegetarians are finding that personal connections with producers are a compelling reason to return to selective carnivorous activity.

In Nampa, Burns said she has a conversation with a struggling vegetarian about every two weeks.

“I want people to eat less meat, too,” Burns said. “But I want them to eat mine.”

Elzinga considers his connections to his customers a fundamental aspect of the sustainability he practices. He demos his steaks at the Boise Co-op, at Atkinsons’ Market in Ketchum and at select markets in Montana. He said he often catches vegetarians surreptitiously nabbing a bite; they are the ones looking up and down the aisles hoping not to get caught.

Davidson, Elzinga and many other small Idaho producers use Northwest Premium Meats in Nampa to process their beef. The slaughterhouse, which processes up to fifty animals a day, slaughtering them one at a time, was founded by a group of bison ranchers looking for quality custom butchering.

“We can claim a very low stress, very humane method of moving animals to slaughter,” said plant manager Dennis Mason. “People do not want mass-produced, corporate farms. People are demanding to know, ‘Where did these animals come from?’”

That means farmers also know where their animals are going.

Just a few e-mails like the one he sent me and Davidson had buyers for all of his cows, customers with whom he already had a personal connection. He didn’t bill me for my half-a-beef until after I had picked it up and loaded it into my freezer.

“I may or may not make it in this business,” Davidson said. “But I think growing food for people is something that’s going to last in this country.”

-Nathaniel Hoffman




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