Jeff Rasawehr isn’t the first farmer to take a group of hotshot chefs out into his fields for an up-close-and-personal introduction to where — and how — our food is produced.

But he’s one of the few who found a way to build a meat business that capitalizes on his use of cover cropping.

Rather than the conventional plow-plant-harvest system most growers utilize, Rasawehr’s fields are planted with a cover crop of daikon radish, cowpea, buckwheat and clover, which allows him to practice a version of no-till farming.

As a result, the soil on his farm is dark black, fertile, and easily crumbled, as a group of Detroit-area chefs observed.

“It’s kind of weird for all of us to be leaning over a piece of soil,” Aaron Cozadd, the executive chef at the Union Joints restaurant, told a reporter from the Detroit Free Press, who was writing a profile piece on Rasawehr.

“And you used the right term: soil,” Rasawehr replied. “Dirt is next door.”

Next to Rasawehr’s western Ohio operation is a conventional farmer who plows his fields each growing season, harvesting a crop of soybeans or corn. During the winter, that farmer allows the fields to sit fallow until the following spring, when the cycle repeats.

“In the fallow period, most farmers don’t do anything to sustain the [soil] biology,” Rasawehr told the newspaper. “So it shuts itself down. What we do is we mix our plant species ... to stimulate and maintain the integrity of that biology.”

Feeding the Soil
Over the years, Rasawehr built a business, Center Seeds, selling farmers seeds to plant their own cover crops. But he realized his system also provided a convenient byproduct: high-quality forage that produces beef and pork that is higher in nutrient density and omega 3 fatty acids, not to mention that it can be marketed as antibiotic- and hormone-free.

He partnered with Cozadd and Gino Baratta, a third-generation butcher at Detroit’s Fairway Packing, to launch the Cover Crop Ranch line of meat products. The company’s customer base targets chefs and restaurateurs who are educated about his sustainable meat production system that is a byproduct of his regenerative farming system.

Cozadd was quoted as saying that the key to educating chefs — and ultimately consumers — is understanding that there is an entire ecosystem in the soil.

“We just tend to think of soil as dead material that’s underneath our feet,” he said, “but there’s a whole world of life under there.”

Cover cropping with a variety of plants adds nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous naturally back to the soil. As the core of his business, Rasawehr analyzes the soil on a client’s farm, and then recommends a specific seed mix for a cover crop to address those deficiencies.

His process also pulls carbon back into the soil, a way of reversing the impact of greenhouse gas emissions. Healthier soil not only supports improved yields, but helps mitigate runoff. Excessive runoff triggers erosion and tends to contaminate surface waterways with excess nitrogen that produces damaging blue-green algae blooms.

Meeting the Meat Dilemma
But the more interesting part of Rasawehr’s story is how his meat business got started. As the newspaper reported, a friend told Cozadd about a “mad scientist farmer doing crazy stuff with beef.” He sampled the product, and as he put it, was “blown away” by the flavor and texture.

“There’s actually this sweetness to it, a ‘mineral-iness’ to it,” Cozadd recalled. (Remember — this is a chef talking). “It felt very light [and] tasted nutritious to me.”

He began buying Rasawehr’s beef and marketing it to other chefs in the Detroit area. At the time, as the story noted, Cozadd, a Buddhist, faced a moral dilemma over his “complicated” relationship with meat. Rasawehr’s product answered that dilemma.

“I can do more good for animal-kind if I’m a consumer than if I abstain [from eating meat],” he explained. “The meat industry doesn’t care about vegetarians. They’re not their target. So this presented an opportunity to affect positive change in an industry that I feel is very broken.”

Most people involved in animal agriculture would disagree that the industry is broken. But consider a different dilemma that any observant producer, feeder or rancher understands: Millions of people, especially younger people, link the environmental challenge of global warming directly with conventional livestock production.

Whether they’re right or wrong isn’t the question. The question is, how do you change their minds? How do you re-educate entire generations who are, or are about to be, tomorrow’s customer base on the issue of meat production’s environmental impact?

You don’t do it by continually denying that there’s a problem, by constantly parading statistics that contradict the widespread meme that raising beef is damaging the planet. Sure, that might peel a few people away from their negative convictions about the industry, but long-term change must begin with a fundamentally new way to connect livestock production with eco-friendly practices.

Rasawehr’s Cover Crop Ranch line of meat products isn’t the ultimate solution, but it sure is a great place to start.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and columnist.