Cuisine: Medium Rare and Hold the Guilt

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, June 1996

Cuisine: Medium Rare and Hold the Guilt

Yes, say Doc and Connie Hatfield, the world is ready for PC beef
By Wendy Marston

"It's the smell of sage after a summer thunderstorm," intones the tall man with the Stetson and the silver belt buckle. "It's the hardy quail running after cattle to join them for a meal."

No, this isn't an arty advertisement for a new brand of aftershave. Patrick "Doc" Hatfield, a lifelong cattle rancher in Oregon's Great Basin, is talking about beef. Not just any beef, he clarifies, but something the supermarket-strolling world has never seen before: politically and environmentally correct beef. "Our cows don't take hormones," he boasts with white teeth flashing. "And they don't destroy the land."

Environmentally friendly beef isn't a new concept; a handful of farmers in the west have been experimenting with it since Allan Savory, the controversial founder of the Albuquerque, New Mexico-based Center for Holistic Management, introduced his idea of sustainable grazing about 12 years ago. In a nutshell, the practice involves trying to mimic the way in which ungulates typically graze in the wild, packed in tight and roaming as a group. By being herded into small spaces and moved often into new pasture, the cattle are prevented from overgrazing any one parcel. The ecological effectiveness is hotly debated in ranching circles, but Savory claims that this method can actually improve rangeland.

Doc Hatfield and his wife, Connie, have taken the theory a step further, however, by finding a market for--and thus a way to make money from--Savory-style beef, which until now has wound up on the meat counter totally undifferentiated from conventionally raised beef. Their approach has been two-pronged. Ten years ago, in partnership with 26 other Oregon ranch families, they created their own distributorship. Now they're convincing a growing number of health-food stores that their customers are eating red meat.

"The old earth-muffin hippie is blending into the yuppie urban gourmet," Doc explains, sounding like a Madison Avenue marketing specialist. "They want a little red meat, but they want to know where it's from and how it's produced."

Another PC meat, free-range chicken, has been in stores for more than a decade, but beef has been absent, largely because wholesale distributors weren't convinced that red-meat eaters cared about being politically correct. The Hatfields thought otherwise. Now, thanks largely to their salesmanship, supermarkets and restaurants in Washington, Oregon, California, and Japan are carrying their hamburger, pot roasts, and steaks, and the Hatfields' business, started from nothing, is rapidly expanding at a time when beef prices have plunged to a 20-year low.

But not everyone agrees that the Hatfields' beef is worth the money. "There are truckloads of scientific evidence that says there's no difference," says Darrell Wilkes, president of Integrated Beef Technologies, a consulting firm in Denver, Colorado. "The additives that go into conventionally raised cows have no lasting effect on the human body."

Undeterred, the Hatfields split their time between tending the ranch and barnstorming the West, preaching the red-meat gospel to supermarket owners and environmental groups, who have been known to give them rousing ovations. And they're winning a few converts. Calvin Campbell, a fourth-generation rancher near Paonia, Colorado, was intrigued by the Hatfields' ideas about resuscitating the rangeland--but it was another point that really convinced him to give it a try on his 600-acre spread: "They seem to be making pretty good money."

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