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Bull Market for Organic Beef

Mad Cow Scare Raises Awareness

IAN SHAPIRA / Washington Post 1jan03

The beef stew at the Hunter's Head Tavern in Upperville, a spot of a village in northern Fauquier County, has always been one of the restaurant's most popular indulgences. Regular customers at the English pub in the heart of horse show country crave the unusual concoction made with Guinness Stout and cabernet instead of plain old water.

Now, in the wake of the nation's first confirmed case of mad cow disease, the $12 dish is popular for another reason: The diced beef in the stew is organically raised.

The restaurant is owned by Sandy Lerner, co-founder of Cisco Systems Inc., and her nearby farm supplies the restaurant with beef from a rare Scottish breed raised on grass and organically grown grain.

"I can't keep up with the customers," chef Brett Thomas said. "With all that's going on in the mass-quantity farm market . . . the customers just trust us now, and people are more aware that organic foods are much healthier and safer. And there's more of a robust beef flavor."

For the small but strongly united group of organic farmers along the outer edges of the Washington area, the news about mad cow disease isn't uniformly grim. Many of them sell their beef at farmer's markets or to upscale restaurants, and they anticipate increased sales to people who care more this week than last about the origins of their food.

Now, they say, beef eaters want to make sure their hamburger or filet mignon comes from a cow that roams free and has never eaten feed containing animal byproducts such as brain or spinal tissue that scientists say can cause a mad cow disease outbreak. That feed has been banned, but some cows on the market were born before the ban, and the disease has a long incubation period.

There are about two dozen organic cattle farmers in the rural Virginia and Maryland suburbs. David Cole, chairman of Sunnyside Farm Market in Washington, Va., said those farmers are experiencing increased demand for another reason. The mad cow case has alerted the public to the way cattle are raised for the conventional meat market: being injected with growth hormones and eating in confined spaces that hinder their fitness and result in a "nutritionally poor product," Cole said.

John Schied, vice president of the Fauquier Farm bureau, a political lobby organization, said that locally at least, many conventional farmers allow their cattle to roam and feed on grass. "As far as I'm concerned, regular beef can be every bit as healthy as organic," he said.

Cole sells organic Kobe and Angus beef at the Dupont Circle Sunday farmers market and at Harry's Tap Room in Clarendon. "We're getting cleaned out," he said. "Our chef says there's a strong surge of customers" since a Holstein cow was found to be infected in Washington state last week.

As a result, organic cattle farmers are raising prices, according to Bruce Mertz, executive director of the Maryland nonprofit Future Harvest-Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture, which conducts educational clinics for farmers in the region. The popularity of organic food has been rising for years, he said, so finding a source of meat now could be difficult.

"People have already been buying organic food for a while, but now the demand is going to be even higher and higher. Many of our farmers have sold out of their products this year," he said.

Not Tom Davenport, 64, a Fauquier farmer who advertises his "natural beef," which, unlike USDA certified organic beef, comes from cattle that feed on soybeans and corn grown with the aid of herbicides. But he contends that there isn't much difference, in the animal's health or the meat's taste, between natural and organic beef.

The cows raised at Davenport's Hollin Farms are allowed to walk around freely instead of being penned, and they mostly eat the area's abundant, nutritious orchard or bluegrass.

"Niche farming is the future of farming in the metropolitan area," Davenport said. "You can't compete with these places out west with 5,000 animals and thousands of acres. The wonderful thing about Northern Virginia is that you have customers in the suburbs that want to connect with the agricultural lifestyle."

Customers can order a whole cow, a half or even a quarter through Davenport on the Internet. Then they pick up their packaged meats at the Guard Hill slaughterhouse in Front Royal, Va.

The only thing left on the grocery list?

A deep freezer.

source: http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn/A46271-2003Dec31?language=printer 31dec03

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