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Photo provided by Grasslands 2.0 Bert Paris and his family are Wisconsin farmers who focus on pasture-raised animals. Paris is a member of the team for Grasslands 2.0.

How could the pasture-based livestock industry grow to a larger scale in the U.S.? Three speakers talked about their visions for advancing grass-based farming at Pasa Sustainable Agriculture’s 2021 virtual conference on Feb.1.

The workshop, entitled “Get Them on Grass: Growing the Pasture-Based Livestock Industry,” featured Randy Jackson, a professor of agronomy and grassland ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; David LeZaks, senior fellow at the Croatan Institute and environmental scientist and financial activist; and Dani Heisler-Wodill, the regenerative agriculture outreach coordinator of the Valley Stewardship Network.

Jackson presented his work with Grassland 2.0, which is a collective of farmers, researchers, and public and private sector leaders aiming for nutrient and water efficiency, yield stability, improved water and soil health, and increased farming profitability through grassland-based agriculture.

According to Jackson, an integrated approach to livestock on the land can better sequester carbon and focus on nutrient balance within farming and ranching systems.

Grassland 2.0 has established a learning hub where people from all areas of the growing community can discuss these points. Jackson and the Grassland 2.0 project team use a web-based model to sit down with a farmer and assess the ramifications of changing his or her land use to a more grass-based model, including yield output, diversity and synergies in the land. Another of the group’s program models, called “SmartScape,” enables the same types of exploration by changing inputs to show what will happen across larger landscapes if groups of farmers change their farming practices to establish perennial grazing lands.

“When grasslands are managed well,” Jackson said, “they can have all of these things.”

It’s important to inspire innovation for visions of a new agriculture, Jackson said. Through collaborative landscape design and broader community discussions, he said growers and consumers can push for both bottom-up and top-down pressure to make major shifts toward grass-based farming in today’s mainstream livestock operations.

The key, Jackson said, is that the shift “needs to grow in the image of the original prairie.”

Heisler-Wodill emphasized the importance of assessing a farmer’s long-term goals and objectives. Again, collaboration is key, she said, focusing on farmer-to-farmer networks and watershed groups working within the same topographies.

Highlighting the food and products raised on a farm creates a narrative, she said. This story allows people to see from a different perspective why these pasture-raised practices are so valued and needed.

In part because of the COVID-19 pandemic, on-farm retailers are developing closer relationships directly with their customers, she said, and it is sparking a cultural shift. Producers can answer questions about their farm practices and the need for reforms, she said, and right now “consumers are really listening.”

LeZaks discussed the challenge of reaching a bigger market with pasture-raised livestock without losing the integrity of what “grass-fed” means. He envisions pastured products that won’t be just for niche markets anymore, though additional certifications appealing to specific consumers could continue to set different areas of the industry apart. For instance, Audubon-certified ranches offer bison and cattle raised on pastures with bird-friendly management. This particular type of brand-building creates a food supply for ecologically minded customers interested in supporting wildlife habitat preservation.

The bottlenecks to shifting toward a broader grass-fed agriculture, the speakers say, occur in these areas: consumer demand, not enough mid-level meat processors, and reform.

When it comes to meat processing, LeZaks said, “this piece of the value network is structurally unsound,” especially in light of the recent value-chain breakdown in the midst of the pandemic, which resulted in meat plant shutdowns and prolonged waiting periods.

The consolidation of meat-processing facilities over the last century has created an enormous need for small- and medium-size meat processors, he said.

Processor-to-processor networks do exist, and they provide social support and other aid to provide a safety net for these increasing grass-based industry sectors. For example, this past fall, Penn State announced the opening of its Butcher School, adding to the human capital and knowledge base so desperately needed to increase meat-processing facilities.

Grazing programs in the Midwest had technical support that has since been gutted over the years, Jackson said. Farmers taking a costly gamble to try different land-management practices can lose base acres for commodities subsidies. There is language in some regulations and incentive programs to promote grass-based farming practices, but many are underfunded and need to be moved to the forefront of discussion, he said.

Institutional-level buying power will play a factor in expanding this branch of the industry, LeZaks said. He said that hospitals, government programs and educational institutions must push for pasture-based farm products. For instance, the organization Health Care Without Harm has a program called “Healthy Food in Health Care,” that supports sustainable food systems in health-care facilities across North America.

Growing the grass-based value chains at the right pace and at the right scale is the key to keep moving forward while keeping the economics of the market, farm and rural economy balanced. And, through some of these practices, it is hoped that more farm-product dollars will stay on the farm.

Telling stories about the benefits of pasture-raised farming, including the farmers’ stories and incorporating data and science, broaden the messages of both nutritional wisdom and a farming livelihood, according to Heisler-Wodill. “Food influencers” on the internet who discuss the flavor and terroir of grass-fed products, right down to the nitty-gritty details of counties and soil types, push the demand for these products and this style of farming, she said. And, eaters must become accustomed to paying for the value of meat.

As far as economy of scale, changing to pasture-based operations can occur at any size — though the hope is to, over time, change entire landscapes of growing areas and create larger, grass-fed watersheds.

Heiser-Wodill hopes that the future will bring a sustainable, viable, pasture-based farm model for farmers to maintain their lifestyles while being financially sound.

Jackson said he is concerned, as a stakeholder, with children who are going to be left with the landscapes and resources his generation leaves behind. He believes that an agricultural system built on the models of the original prairies is key, and needs a focus on amending biodiversity loss and social inequalities.

LeZaks envisions the possibility of regenerating soil as quickly as it is being depleted around the country.

“How do we look at the size (of a grass-based farm industry) as it relates to viable rural economies, healthy people, flourishing landscapes?” LeZaks said. “By those boundaries, it feels like the sky’s the limit.”

Liz Wagner is a freelance writer in eastern Pennsylvania.

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