Until he saw the light, Jon Taggart--6 ft. 5 in., jeans, white cowboy hat, Texas twang--was a rancher like any other in the southern Great Plains. He crowded his cattle onto pasture sprayed with weed killers and fertilizers. When they were half grown, he shipped them in diesel-fueled trucks to huge feedlots. There they were stuffed with corn and soy--pesticide treated, of course--and implanted with synthetic hormones to make them grow faster. To prevent disease, they were given antibiotics. They were trucked again to slaughterhouses, butchered and shrink-wrapped for far-flung supermarkets. "It was the chemical solution to everything," Taggart recalls.
Today his 500 steers stay home on the range. And they're in the forefront of a back-to-the-future movement: 100% grass-fed beef. In the seven years since Taggart began to "pay attention to Mother Nature," as he puts it, he has restored his 1,350 acres in Grandview, Texas, to native tallgrass prairie, thus eliminating the need for irrigation and chemicals. He rotates his cattle every few days among different fields to allow the grass to reach its nutritional peak. And when the steers have gained enough weight, he has them slaughtered just down the road. Finally, he and his wife Wendy dry-age and butcher the meat in their store, Burgundy Boucherie. Twice weekly, they deliver it to customers in Fort Worth and Dallas happy to pay a premium for what the Taggarts call "beef with integrity--straight from pasture to dinner plate."
Ranchers like the Taggarts are part of a growing revolt against industrial agriculture. With more consumers questioning how their food is grown and organic fruits and vegetables exploding into a multibillion-dollar market, grass-finished meat and dairy look like the next food frontier. In the past five years, more than 1,000 U.S. ranchers have switched herds to an all-grass diet. Pure pasture-raised beef still represents less than 1% of the nation's supply, but sales reached some $120 million last year and are expected to increase more than 20% a year over the next decade. Upscale groceries like Whole Foods and Trader Joe's are ramping up grass-fed offerings, including imports from Australia and Uruguay. Last month the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) proposed a certified grass-fed label to provide a federal standard.
Dr. Steve Atchley is one of many health-conscious carnivores fueling the trend. "I got tired of telling my patients they couldn't eat red meat," says the Denver cardiologist. So three years ago, he launched Mesquite Organic Foods, which sells grass-fed beef to 74 Wild Oats stores nationwide. The company, which contracts with ranches from South Texas to the Canadian border, has quadrupled sales since December. Mesquite's ground beef is 65% lower in saturated fat and its New York strips are 35% lower than conventional beef, as measured by the USDA. "Any feedlot-fattened animal has a much higher level of saturated fat than a forage-fed steer," says Atchley.