Sourcing, Cooking & Eating Sustainable Beef is Possible.
Here’s How We Did It.
What happens when farmers, ranchers, chefs and activists come together to tackle one of the world’s most misunderstood industries.
by Taylor Lanzet, Head of Supply & Sustainability, Dig Food Group
I spend 95% of my time thinking about vegetables. I’m literally at my happiest when I’m rolling through acres at a broccoli farm or pulling sweet peppers off the vine at Dig’s farm in Chester, NY. I text farmers more often than I text my mom. Most recently, I made an Approval Matrix-style chart of all the winter squashes (check it out below).
At Dig, we serve other things along with all these vegetables. Our menu has always been inclusive and I love that. One of the most thoughtfully-sourced dishes is our mac and cheese. We spent a year working with Jasper Hill Creamery in Greensboro Bend, VT to perfect a Select Cheddar that is less expensive to produce and easier to process, but still sweet, nutty and savory. It makes our mac true comfort food, but it won’t make you feel like crap. We serve our vegetables and tofu next to fish, chicken and beef.
Honestly, I struggled with the beef on our menu. I’ve personally gone back and forth in my own activism and in my diet. Every day, I read about the damage beef was causing the environment. And I was bombarded with articles (and samples — perks of being a buyer) about Impossible Burger, Beyond Meat and all the other plant-based substitutes grown in labs, not in the soil.
Why was our choice either plant-based meat alternatives or “all meat is bad?” That just seemed…lame.
There had to be a better way to support the whole system — a way that would support independent ranchers doing good work, not kill the environment and allow people to have the occasional skirt steak at an accessible price. I source vegetables by looking at all these factors, why couldn’t I do the same for beef?
So, I started researching and talking to just about anyone who would give me time. But mostly, I listened to our partners. I listened to Pat from Pat’s Pastured explain the challenges of small-scale grass-fed cows in New England and to Dan from Happy Valley Meat Co. explain why everything is not always grass-finished. I literally screamed over the engine as I rode gators with George from Thistle Creek Farm while we moved cows from one pasture to the next. I tasted a lot of beef from Fossil Farms and began to learn the nuances and terroir of grass-fed, grass-finished and the dynamics of imported and domestic beef.
What I heard from our partners — and what frankly I felt was missing from the bigger conversation happening about beef — was the potential role that grass-fed beef plays in carbon sequestration. Ecosystems needs cows to manage the land; the moment a cow takes a bite of grass, the plant sends signals to its roots, which forces it to grow deeper, which ultimately pulls carbon out of the atmosphere. It goes without too much explanation that if cows are on the feedlot, then none of this is happening.
This represents regenerative agriculture practices — a set of farming principles that increase biodiversity, improve soil health, and capture carbon from the atmosphere. So yes, while industrial cattle farming has been an incredible contributor to increased carbon in the atmosphere, well-raised grass-fed cattle can actually reverse the trends of climate change.
Now I had to find a supplier who could work with Dig’s scale. We serve 150,000 people a week across 32 restaurants in New York, Boston — and soon, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C and beyond. With vegetables, we always find ways to work with small and independent farmers to meet our demand — could we do the same for beef?
Then I met Cory.
Cory Carman is the fourth-generation owner of Carman Ranch in Wallowa, Oregon. Carman Ranch has a female-led team that cultivates 100% grass-finished beef and runs a network of 12 ranching families on over a million acres in the West, all who practice regenerative agriculture (and keep cattle out of industrial feeding lots). Because they’re a collective, they could flex to our scale. They’re also truly great humans.https://medium.com/media/757aec432a9c283977d24d6ea486e233/href
As I do with all the farmers I work with, I started my conversation with Cory with a question: What did she need? The answer: Buy different cuts of beef and work with limited quantities.
This approach seems near-impossible. How do you train our chefs to work with cuts of beef they’ve never seen before and will have limited quantities of? How do you help guests understand that if beef isn’t on the menu every day, that’s actually a good thing for them and for the environment?
With vegetables, I buy whatever my farmers are having a hard time selling: mixed varieties of apples, bottom-of-the-bin root vegetables, cauliflower that the sun striped a deep purple. So, basically, I just had to do what we do every day, except with beef.
For a year, we worked with Carman Ranch to develop recipes and a supply chain. We started by adding their trim to our meatballs. We swooped in when one of their customers canceled an order last minute and we found a way to use their diced beef. This summer, we sold out of a steak salad in four days. One of you emailed us and said, “I want to say that it was the best I’ve ever tasted.” Thanks Kristine (I think so too). And this week, we’re introducing two new limited-edition cuts to our restaurants — a skirt steak with a coffee spice rub and a bavette steak with roasted garlic and rosemary.
Our commitment to intentional sourcing means that the beef you eat at Dig one week might be a different cut than the week before, or maybe not even on the menu the week after. But, every time you do get to eat beef at one of our restaurants, you’ll taste something rich and complex that’s the result of well-raised cows, ranchers who care about the longevity of the land, brilliant chefs and a yearlong experience that literally changed my life. [cow emoji].
I’d love to hear what you think. Find me at [email protected].