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Nobody has a beef with this beef — it's grass-fed

| Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2010

"We couldn't have done this seven years ago," says Susan Beal, DVM and agricultural science adviser to the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA). "This" refers to the third annual Grass-fed Beef Cook-off, a statewide event co-sponsored by PASA and Slow Food Pittsburgh.

It's a perfect August day, among rolling hills on Jamison Farm in Latrobe. Jamison is famous for its fabulous lamb, but use of its processing plant recently expanded to include other meat farmers. And today, beef rules.

Not just any beef, of course, but carefully, naturally nurtured animals fed 100-percent grass, from birth to slaughter.

"We don't have actual numbers," Beal says, "but it is fair to say that grass-fed/grass-finished beef is a rapidly growing sector of farming. Every year, there are increasing numbers of farmers who are morphing their management in that direction -- or establishing new farms specifically to that end."

Why?

Because, according to PASA executive director Brian Snyder: The meat is superior and more healthful for consumers; its farm-management model ensures that landscapes remain in permanent pasture, protecting the environment; and animal welfare demands it: Cows are built to eat grass; feeding them grain makes them sick, resulting in antibiotic overuse, a danger sadly passed on to the consumer.

Formal scientific studies confirm the health benefits of grass-fed over grain-fed -- from lower fat content to higher omega-3s. (Visit www.eatwild.com/healthbenefits.htm .)

Slow Food Pittsburgh's Virginia Phillips sums it up: "100-percent grass means no GMO (genetically modified organism) grain, no hormones, pesticides or insecticides, no manmade additions. It's better for people, the animals and the earth."

Eleven judges -- sustainability minded chefs, food writers, editors and retailers -- divide into teams A and B to blind taste 14 grilled Delmonico steaks. The ballot requires numerical ratings -- 1 to 6 -- of each sample for appearance, aroma, texture/mouth feel, flavor, aftertaste and overall -- plus detailed descriptives -- fatty, chewy, buttery, flavorful. Judging is done in two rounds, culminating in first-, second- and third-place awards.

The contestant farmers do a separate blind tasting to name a "Farmers' Choice." They also get the ballot with the judges', hopefully, helpful comments.

Afterward, the public streams onto the farm for a grass-fed burger bash-potluck picnic as the winners are announced:

• Grand champion: Rafael Velez, Horizon View Farms, Rockwood, Somerset County

• 2nd place: Larry Herr, Cressbrook Farm, Lancaster County

• 3rd place: John W Leimgruber III, Eastbrook Homestead, New Castle

• Farmers choice: Larry Herr, Cressbrook Farm, Lancaster

• Farmers choice Runner-up: Al Granger, Glasbern, Fogelsville

Competition is tight.

Herr, 2009 champion and a close second this year, values the credibility that comes with the award.

Colombia Andes-born Velez, first-time entrant, acknowledges the help he has had and the difficulty of competing with large agribusiness grain feedlot operations. He is an anesthesiologist and entrepreneur as well as a farmer, and he raises strictly grass-fed "because it's the right thing to do."

Velez' beef will be available at the soon-to-debut Pittsburgh Public Market in the Strip District. For other quality beef producers, check www.buylocalpa.org .

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