For the Mindful Omnivore: A Conversation With The American Grassfed Association

7 years ago

If you consider yourself a mindful omnivore, be aware of the American Grassfed Association (AGA). Based in Colorado, the AGA works with ranchers and livestock farmers across the country to promote a more back-to-basics livestock industry by building "a bridge from the farm to the table." I scored some face time with Carrie Balkcom, executive director of AGA, at her office in Denver. She keeps a demanding schedule: "I have been running like crazy, I apologize. My husband says when people call, “Her address? Seat 2A, United.”

I know the AGA began in 2003, but can you tell how it all got started?

Are you familiar with federal registry? Everything that has to do with commerce is posted in the registry, all legal definitions. So the USDA was going to put in the registry the legal definition of grassfed, which was, "You can feed the animals 20 percent grains, confine it with antibiotics, hormones, and call it grassfed." And grassfed producers in this part of the world jumped on it and went, "AAAAAGH!"
So they had a meeting at the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, and they invited me because I was on the board of the chef’s collaborative and was teaching at Metro State at the time. I grew up on a cattle ranch in Florida and was pretty well known in the sustainable food circles. All of a sudden I started realizing -- you know you get that little prickly on the back of your neck -- I thought, "This is something I need to be involved in."
So I was at that initial meeting in working on the claim with the USDA. They needed an exec. director and I thought, "I want to do that." So I been here since the first meeting, was on the board. From 2003-2007, I've been working with the USDA to try and solidify the grassfed label claim -- what "grassfed" means on a package.

Up until that point, there was no label or symbol?

Oh, you could use the word "grassfed."

But there was no symbol like the AGA has now, right?

Right, and there was no legal definition, so anybody raising animals anywhere could use the term "grassfed" even if the animals only saw grass in a passing truck ... and some of them only saw grass in a passing truck.
So anyway, in 2007, when the USDA finally published the grassfed label claim that the USDA recognizes, we looked at it and said, "You know guys, thank you very much, but we’re going to go our own way and start our own third-party certified program. Which we did. Because the USDA’s definition of grassfed says the following -- and I’m paraphrasing a little bit -- that it has to be 100 percent foraged diet. However, it does not say where that forage has to be fed. It does not say anything about antibiotics, hormones or animal husbandry. Consumers Union did huge studies on this and said, “That’s not what the public believes is a grassfed animal.”
So, as everybody was applauding ... "Well, it says a 100 percent foraged diet!" Dale Lasater said, “Did you read the complete claim?" So we all started scrambling through the claim. The last couple sentences said, "Oh, by the way. If you must feed grain, keep a record of it." Doesn’t tell you what to do with the record, doesn’t tell you anything about it, so it’s a meaningless claim. It’s up there somewhere with "natural."

Does the USDA’s definition of grassfed still exist?

Yes, it’s what’s in the federal registry. The other thing is that anybody that used the term "grassfed" term prior to the publishing of the definition can still use it until they change their label ... so we’ve got miles to go before we sleep.

Does the USDA have a logo for "grassfed?"

The USDA doesn’t have a logo, and they can’t use our logo. So while we were working with the USDA, we went ahead and trademarked the little symbol that you see. We’ve certified producers, and you’ll start seeing that symbol show up on packages, in retail and in farmer’s markets.

How many products would you say that symbol is on?

Beef, bison, lamb and goat -- in all forms. Dairy as well -- cheeses, milk. Any ruminant animal that is audited by us and fits within our criteria. ('Ruminant' refers to any cud-chewing animal. - Ed.)

How many producers are in your system?

We have 60 producers who have been through the audit process and are certified. We have about another 120 in the pipeline to be audited and another 200 who have expressed interest in being audited ... You’ll find with a lot of the producers, they’re so passionate about what they are doing, it’s so different than industrial agriculture.

There's a growing awareness regarding the disconnect that we, as consumers, have with our food. And, it appears we’re not going to change the factory farming model overnight ...

Nor should we. Because until we have something to replace it, without a rebuilding schedule, we don’t want to destroy anything.  Because, what does that look like to take that piece out at this point? How many people are we going to affect? How many lives are we going to affect by just saying, “We got to stop this!”  Well, yeah, we do, but not overnight.

Maybe revise it?

Revise some of it. The other thing that kept coming up at a conference in Washington (Interfaith Council on Corporate Responsibility) is this nonsense about "feeding the world" -- no, no -- the word has to feed itself!
I think at this point, people are starting to realize ... people would go to the grocery store and pick a label. "Oooh, a pretty farm!” We’ve figured out that "the pretty farm" doesn’t mean very much anymore.

So, they’re starting to ask people like me and actual producers, not the marketing guy from Minnesota who’s running a company.  They want to hear it from the rancher or farmer’s mouth. They don’t want to be told fibs anymore. "Tell me what you’re doing. That’s all I want to know -- let me make the informed choice." Don’t lie to people anymore -- they’re smarter.
"The AGA published in 2006 The AGA Grassfed Ruminant Standard that defines true grassfed. These attributes define an agricultural model where animals are fed a 100 percent forage diet, are raised in open pasture and never in feedlots, are raised without added antibiotics or hormones and are given humane animal care. This surpasses the USDA definition that addresses the feeding practice alone." --AGA pamphlet

Do you see a turning point?

You have those "a-ha" moments in food, and I have had lots of those. But one day I was at PetSmart buying something for the dogs. A lady was there with two little toe-heads -- soccer gear and that whole bit: “No, no, honey. Max gets the organic dog food. C’mon, c’mon, we’re gonna be late. We’ll get some (fast food) on the way to soccer practice.”
After buying the organic dog food ... feeding children out of sacks -- what’s wrong with this picture? Your forehead just collapses from beating your head against a wall.
There’s so many of those things. The disconnect what the culinary schools are doing to chefs, where chefs don’t ever see food that doesn’t come out of a box. Where 85 percent of school children don’t know how tomatoes and apples grow. The fact that we’re feeding children in schools the least amount for the least amount of money -- how dare you?
Everybody says, "I’m so thrilled with what’s going on at The White House right now" -- maybe it’s symbolic. I don’t care. It’s a start. It’s a start, you know. Put people who actually know how to cook back in the schools. And put food that people can actually cook back in the schools. We say that children are our greatest resource; well, let’s feed them accordingly.

It seems getting info the consumer has to be an important goal.

Yes, and I think documentaries like Food Inc. and, of course, Fresh and Pig Business -- had they been tried 10 years ago -- because there were some that were tried 10 years ago but never went anywhere because it was just too horrific -- do help.
The other thing -- and this is pretty controversial -- but when we saw on television all the animals in England being slaughtered because of Mad Cow Disease. We were horrified, just absolutely horrified that that happened.
But we’re doing the same thing. We put it in little packages that say "ground beef," but we’re doing the same thing. How many millions of pounds of ground beef have we thrown away because we’re not raising them correctly? We’re putting them in situations where they are susceptible to disease and unsafe conditions for everybody.

What about legislation?

My legislation right now is so focused on what is impacting ruminates. And with the antibiotics, "Keep the antibiotics working" campaign. And the national animal identification system -- they want to tag every animal in the country. Why? Why? Why? Because ... you can sell more tags. It doesn’t have anything to do with animal health.

It’s some sort of gesture to the consumer, maybe, "Look, we’re trying!"

If you’re gonna do that, then you’re going to have to tag day-old baby chickens and then you’ll kill ‘em all. So, let’s think of a different system, which is make the system more humane and workable.

What’s the biggest change that a factory farm could make for the better?

Diversify. Because we’re mono-cropping. And guess what happens with mono-cropping? Factory farming is not set up for any type of diversity. Do we really want to eat that way?
Something that is very important to me is heritage breeds. The term from the Livestock Breeds Conservancy was in TIME Magazine what, seven or eight years ago: “Eat them to save them. Give them their jobs back.”
If not, what are you gonna do with all that good pasture land out there? You’re gonna plow it up and make it grow crop? There’s a reason for all things.

What is your personal meat-eating philosophy?

You make the conscious decisions to change the way you eat. I’m very selective about what I eat as far as meat, as far as vegetables, as far as strawberries in December in Colorado.Eat locally. I’m going to be in Florida this weekend, and I can guarantee you I’m gonna have tomatoes on my buffalo burger that I’m taking with me. Absolutely! Am I a purist? Absolutely not!
But if I can get something local rather than having it shipped in from somewhere, I would certainly do that. The food miles ... reading packages. I mean, you walk through the grocery store and you just see people throwing stuff in their carts and you’re like, "Ugh. Why do you do that? I mean, it takes you five days to pick out a pair of shoes."
My soap box -- or my bouncy ball -- I get up often, but we make really silly choices about food.

Thoughtless choices.

Yeah, lack of thought. The other thing that people say is, "Oh, I’ve quit eating beef -- now I eat chicken."  Um, have you seen the way they raise chickens?

Politically, the livestock/farming concerns are a great unifier, appealing to the right and left. Would you agree?

It’s always wonderful for me, having grown up in an agricultural family and an agricultural heritage, to see people from the field -- the far fields -- bringing them together. I guess it was ’94 or ’95, at a food policy conference in Washington.  One guy talked about sitting down to the table and eating -- talk to your children, sit down with them. And that really affected me because people -- over food -- can’t fight. They can fight over food but when they’re sitting down eating together.
It’s one of those very compelling things. We’re very caught up in food, and we talk about poverty, and we talk about hunger, and I don’t know ... there’s so much food in America that we’re throwing it away ... how do people stay hungry?
I just spent almost two years teaching at Lookout Mountain, which is a juvenile lockdown facility for boys, and we taught them to cook. We gave them knives ... go figure! And listening to those kids ... they knew when each fast food chain was gonna dump their food and it was how they survived. It was almost like a growing season -- they knew when things were ready, they knew where they were, they knew which ones they could get things from and I’m thinking, "These kids could live forever and not steal, because it was gonna be dumped anyway." I was flabbergasted.
It's amazing to me the amount of food that is thrown away in America every year. In Las Vegas where the guy’s got the hog farm out there -- the pounds of food that they’re throwing out, whole prime ribs and crates of vegetables, and you’re thinking, "Why is anybody in America starving? Why are we trying to feed the world again when we have so much ..." But that’s policy. Have you seen The Farmer’s Wife on PBS? It's a documentary about this farm couple with 22,000 acres that was all corn and soybeans, and they grew nothing for themselves.
They lived on fast food. And you’re thinking, "Dude, you’ve got all your equipment!" She’s running up and down the highway with a 42-oz. sippy cup in her hand and feeding her kids out of bags. I’m going, "You could have a garden! You could have chickens! You could have eggs!" And they're losing the farm.

I think 2009 was a hard reality for America, both economically and health-wise. Maybe we'll learn to become more self-reliant with gardening, backyard chickens and such.

The 2009 thing is that we’re all sitting here wringing our hands, and we did it to ourselves. We had 10 years of outrageous greed. Dude, when you play, you pay. I’m not a purist by any stretch of the imagination but ...

As far as progressive states go in this realm -- Colorado, California?

There are some really enlightened people in the Northeast, in the New England area. Oh gosh, it’d be hard to say -- Georgia Organics, I mean, huge. Parts of the south, Virginia, North Carolina ... North Carolina’s got so much factory farming with pigs and pork and chickens and stuff, but when you’ve got 300 farmers showing up to find out how to raise grassfed, that shows interest.

Who carries grassfed here in town?

Vitamin Cottage is the only grocery in town that carries true grassfed. Sunflower Market? That’s all factory-farmed meat. Their line is “Tested for Antibiotics,”  but it doesn’t say if they found any or not.

Does AGA have a conference?

Yes, every year -- just finished one in Lexington, KY. Among other speakers, we had Betty Fussell, author of a new book How To Cook A Coyote.  We talk about production and marketing. We bring grassfed producers, chefs and consumers together to talk about animal agriculture.

So it's open to the public?

Absolutely. We like to have consumers there, because a lot of conferences about grassfed are about production, and those are wonderful things to have, but they should be done regionally and locally. You can not have a national conference and talk about forages that should be grown in Idaho. Those things should stay in Idaho.
But marketing, economics and the consumer end of it, that’s what we do as a trade organization for these producers. Many of these producers do direct marketing only so we bring in people in that have marketing experience, and we bring in consumers in to talk to them. We also have Consumers Union come in, we’ve had people from the Union of Concerned Scientists, we’ve had the USDA there ...

How many people attend?

Well, the biggest one we had was in Colorado Springs in 2006 when we had Eric Schlosser -- about 350-400 people. They run about 200-250. If we’re doing butchering and cookery, we don’t go for big numbers, because you can’t do it well to big amounts.
It's about two days of  panels and workshops. This year we did butchering -- beef, swine and lamb. We had these two wonderful chefs come in and do charcuterie and sausage making and preparing grassfed beef and grassfed lamb. Because a lot of these producers don’t know how to cook their food either.
It was wonderful at this last conference. I was really struck by the number of young farmers there. Some kids from North Carolina were there: "We’re working on this non-profit farm, and we don’t have a lot of money." I found out later they were sleeping in their car. And I looked at them and said, "If you ever do that to me again, I will beat you twice. Once for me, and once for your mother!" We could get away with that in the '70s, but not anymore ...

Here's the question I ask at the end of every interview ... Do you think animals have souls?

Yeah. In fact, I said it one time when I was in Montana. Have you ever been to a CAFO like you saw in Food, Inc. where the cows just go on for days and days and days? Confined animal feeding operation?
If you look in those animal’s eyes, they’ve lost their soul. If you ever seen a buffalo CAFO, you’ve lost your soul. To do that to the most amazing ruminate ever ... because when it’s cold, they shut down and go catatonic so they don’t need to use the energy. And for us to do that to those animals is just ... we should be spanked. Those animals weren’t meant to be treated that way.
There’s a natural rhythm to life, and death is part of that. We take souls, we give souls. And I am not particularly religious, but I am a little spiritual. And there are those of us in the industry who respect the animal ... they do have a place in our cycle.
I think we should stop eating confinement beef and pork and chicken, and we should give animals their jobs back. But we need to do it in a sensible, pragmatic, judicious way. We don’t need to just pound on the table and say, “Stop this!” because we don’t need any more upheaval. We need cycles, we need for people to engage in a conscious decision-making process. It didn’t take overnight to get here, and it’s not going to take overnight to get back.
But I think the fact that we revere these children and say, “Oh, they're our future! Our children are everything!” Then stop giving them a 22-cent hamburger! You bought ‘em a $65 bicycle helmet and gave ‘em 22 cents to eat!"
(Ed Note: Here, Carrie makes a Home Alone! face in mock frustration.)
Another a-ha moment ... I had a kid at Metro, he was 18 and supposedly stupid. He was going to be released because he was 18. He was in the GED program and going to be released in this little town in Alabama. Well, I happen to know this chef in this little town in Alabama. So I called him and said, “Will you hire him if I send him down there?”
He said, “Well, what can he do?” I said, “I’ll teach him to bus.”
"Willy, here’s a knife, fork and spoon -- the knife blade goes in, the plate goes here." He had them set this far apart (shows close together) and I finally got frustrated with him and said, "Willy, that’s where the plate goes." He looked at me and said, “I’ve never eaten off of a plate.” He’d been in the system so long that he’d been eating off of cafeteria trays or out of bags or styrofoam all his life. And that’s when you want to go "Oooooooh."

Other than your producers, how many grassfed operations are out there?

You read all the time how many animals are in grassfed production but were not part of the ag census, so nobody knows. These are just smart wild-ass guesses people are coming up with. The USDA doesn’t track production methods. And we are the leading experts on grassfed production in America, and we don’t know. We just started tracking it. We’ve got a year’s tracking.

Does the AGA maintain a relationship with USDA?

Yeah, we work very closely with them. We have to.

And what do you think of (Sec. of Agriculture) Tom Vilsack?

I think he’s trying really hard. We have two undersecretaries of ag that came out the sustainable movement. There’s a lot of forces that we ... we can’t turn this ship quickly, and sometimes you just have to have a little blind faith.


In future posts, I aim to make monthly on-site visits to organic/grassfed/free-range livestock and egg producing facilities to continue this conversation. If you have any farm or ranch suggestions in these regions, please let me know:

  • Upstate New York
  • California - both ends
  • North Dakota
  • Minnesota
  • Mississippi - Gulf Coast area
  • Washington state

BlogHer Contributing Editor, Animal & Wildlife Concerns, Proprietess, Cliizbiz

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