By: Christopher Weber
Published: February 1, 2012, grist

Bartlett Durand is the rare local-food entrepreneur who has no trouble turning a profit: Durand’s Black Earth Meats processes and sells grass-fed beef, and these days grass-fed beef sells like crazy.

Located near Madison, Wis., Black Earth is an abattoir, an old-fashioned butchery containing everything from a slaughterhouse to a retail store. Its sales have doubled in four out of the last five years. Durand expects them to jump again this year, from $6 million to $10 million. Orders have poured in so swiftly that, in addition to artisan butchers, Black Earth had to hire a “chef liaison” to translate orders into cow anatomy.

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Yet his business has the customers to grow. Black Earth buys cows from 78 farmers. To keep up with demand, Durand must convince them to raise more cows on grass alone. He must also lure new farmers to the field. And farmers, though intrigued, are justifiably wary. Is grass-fed beef a fad among chefs and yuppies destined to peter out, or a major new market?

Folks like Durand are betting on the latter. They believe that grass-fed beef — which cuts out both feedlots and the resource-intensive practice of raising grain just to feed cows — can catalyze a great change in American agriculture.

As Fred Kirschenmann, a sustainable farmer and noted agricultural scholar, says: “Putting cattle back on pasture will be the beginning of more resilient, less energy-intensive farming systems that are more likely to survive in our future of higher energy costs, unstable climates, and depleted fresh water and mineral resources.”

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