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Science and Innovations

Satisfying Grass-Fed Beef Demand, Not So Easy for Ranchers in Northern Arizona

Melissa Sevigny

Demand for local, sustainable beef is on the rise. But getting into the alternative beef business isn’t easy. In drought-stricken Arizona, grass and water are in short supply, and the infrastructure—like processing plants—isn’t in place for robust local markets. So how does grass-fed beef get from pasture to plate?

Credit Melissa Sevigny
A Diablo Burger made with free-range beef.

Chuck McDougal’s cheeseburger just came off the grill at Diablo Burger in downtown Flagstaff. For years he didn’t eat beef. He didn’t trust how commercial ranchers raised their cattle. But the burgeoning business of grass-fed beef has brought him back to the carnivore’s side of the table.

“Places like this started to open,” McDougal says, “you know your rancher, your farmer. Yeah, I feel much more comfortable eating it. And I love it.”

Credit Melissa Sevigny
Kit Metzger (left) and Ellen Parish (right) at the stock pens at Flying M Ranch.

That’s just what Derrick Widmark was hoping for when he opened Diablo Burger six years ago. He wanted to serve a “taste of place” with local, grass-fed beef. “It tastes different,” Widmark says. “It tastes clean, it tastes lean, you can pick up the grassiness. You are literally eating the open range of northern Arizona.”

Grazing is the dominant land use in Arizona. According to a University of Arizona study,  almost 500 farming operations sell cattle in Coconino County.

Credit Melissa Sevigny
Part of Flying M’s summer pasture on Anderson Mesa.

Kit Metzger runs about 900 head of cattle on the 90,000-acre Flying M Ranch, on Anderson Mesa south of Flagstaff. “It is a challenge in Arizona because it’s dry,” she says. “But we’ve been raising livestock here 100 years and we’ve seen the cycle, we know what we’re getting into.” 

Metzger sells most of her calves to larger beef producers, who fatten them up on grain for a few months before slaughter. That’s how she pays the bills. But she’s started to hold back some cows to sell locally. These cows are finished on grass, meaning they graze the open range their whole lives.

Ernesto Castro checks the well that pumps water for the ranch.

“These cattle are born and raised right here in northern Arizona,” says Ellen Parish, who markets Flying M beef to businesses in Flagstaff and Williams. “They’re not being trucked in or shipped out. All the feeding happens right here on the land we’re looking at.” 

As appealing as that is to customers, raising grass-fed beef doesn’t make the ranch a lot of money. That’s partly because infrastructure isn’t in place to process and store local meat. Nationwide, grass-fed, natural and organic beef make up only about 3 percent of the market.

Credit Melissa Sevigny
The irrigation ditch that brings water from Oak Creek at Tres Hermanas Ranch.

That doesn’t mean ranchers aren’t giving it a try.

Ernesto Castro raises purebred Angus cattle on 70 acres of emerald-green pastures in Cornville. The cows at Tres Hermanas Ranch are entirely grass-fed.

“When we go to farmer’s markets, of course, that’s what we get asked a lot: where’s the grass? There’s no grass in Arizona,” Castro says. “Then they see the pictures that we have . . . everybody thinks we Photoshop them.”

The demand is there, we just don't have enough grass to get more cows. -- Ernesto Castro

Castro keeps his pastures green with irrigation water from Oak Creek and Page Springs. His biggest challenge is a lack of land. Cornville is close to Sedona and filling up with subdivisions. “The demand is there, we just don’t have enough grass to get more cows,” he says.  

Credit Melissa Sevigny
The irrigation system at Tres Hermanas Ranch.

Castro’s already sold out of beef until next spring, and he sells only at farmer’s markets and directly to customers. So far, he hasn’t turned a profit.

So, why get into the grass-fed beef business at all? “Well, cause I’m crazy,” Castro says. “This is just a little part of Mother Earth that I guess we were chosen to take care of. We’re going to try to keep it as long as we can.”

And for ranchers like Castro, it’s all about giving customers a chance to taste their local landscape.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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