Ahead of the herd A growing number of organic farmers are doing what comes naturally, and feeding an increasingly skittish population with pesticide- and steroid-free beef.

October 15, 1997|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,SUN STAFF

GETTYSBURG, Pa. -- Linda and Gene Moose's Chapel Ridge Farm sits amid the foothills of South Mountain, not too far over the Maryland line. It's been a dry summer, and everything is the color of hay. A couple of dozen cows, looking like small reddish-brown mountains themselves, are working away at a block of salt and other minerals Gene has put out for them.

The cows are Santa Gertrudis cattle, bred in the flatland of Southern Texas to withstand harsh weather. They are naturally sturdy, naturally healthy -- and naturally lean.

And on Chapel Ridge Farm, they are naturally raised.

The Mooses raise their own hay and use no herbicides or pesticides. The cattle are not given antibiotics or hormones. The water they drink comes from deep wells, and it has no chlorine or other chemicals. The food they eat is grown and prepared on the farm, and it is carried out to them in buckets. When they graze, it is on pasture that has not been touched by pesticides or herbicides, and whose runoff will not kill all the vegetation in roadside ditches.

"People think we're fanatics," says Gene.

In fact, the Mooses are part of a small but growing population of farmers who are going back to their roots to raise cattle for meat. Since "natural" foods first became popular in the '70s, there has long been a trade in "boutique" cattle, often Black Angus, with farmers raising cows whose meat is ultimately for sale through clubs, catalogs and to neighbors and friends.

Movement of the '90s

But in the past five to seven years, farmers who had become interested in the organic movement started adding "natural" to "boutique," and marketing beef from cows raised on natural feed, with no hormones or antibiotics.

Taste and tenderness have been the main selling points in the past, but environmental concerns and issues of hormones and antibiotics fed to beef cattle ending up in the meat supply have led to more interest in "naturally" raised cattle.

Maryland, like several other states in the country, regulates organic farming and requires farmers who want to use the designation to obtain state certification. Pennsylvania doesn't have a state regulatory function, but oversees several private organizations that certify organic operations.

Up until now, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which regulates beef and other meats, has not had standards for organic farming, and doesn't even track organic operations in the country. As a result, no one in the United States is allowed to use the word "organic" as a marketing tool for meat. However, USDA has been developing proposed standards for all agricultural products and expects to release them for public comment "sometime in the fall."

While it's hard to get a handle on how many organic cattle farmers there are, it's clear that there's growing interest in organic food. Statistics from the Organic Trade Association, based in Greenfield, Mass., show that sales of all organic products have doubled in the past five years, rising to $3.5 billion in 1996 from $1.54 billion in 1992.

Maryland's organic certification program started in 1991, said Bob Pooler, a marketing specialist with the state's Department of Agriculture, and now certifies about 140 farmers.

"Most of them are small, about an acre or so," he said, and most raise just one crop, such as grains, fruits or vegetables, ginseng or herbs.

Based on the calls he's getting, there is growing interest in organic beef cattle, he said, but most people think that until the government allows such beef to be called by the consumer-friendly term "organic," the market will remain a mere boutique.

According to Early Monroe of Frederick, who is president of the Maryland Organic Food & Farming Association, there are about 10 farmers in the state raising beef cattle organically. "We hope to be adding a couple more in the next three to four months," he said.

Monroe is one of those farmers. He has 88 acres and about two dozen Black Angus cows, though he says the average size of an organic cattle operation in the state is about 15 head. Monroe, whose farm, like the Mooses' and most other organic operations, is a family operation, sells halves of beef (60 to 100 pounds of various cuts) to individuals from a roadside stand, by word-of-mouth and -- here is a major difference from the hippie-organic movement of the '70s -- by overnight air to people who shop their Web site.

Shop near farm

The Mooses' operation is larger, with 400 acres and about 175 cows. They farm with their daughter and son-in-law, Sue and Doug White -- and with their dog Annie, the bright-eyed blue heeler, a dingo-Dalmatian-shepherd mix. ("If Gene didn't have Annie, we'd have to hire another hand," says Linda.)

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