Home is powerful. It never leaves some people, even if they leave it. Home for Alex Chamberlain is Ohio—Columbus, and also the rolling hills to the south. That’s where her grandfather established his farm, where he introduced her to local food before it was a movement. Years later, she was inducted into it professionally, but that was far from here.
Her brother was filming a documentary about cultural homogenization, the big-box mentality and branded warehousing of every highway exit from here to Ventura. She had an epiphany when she realized the food system had become largely the same—prepackaged nuggets of questionable nutrition and unknowable origin. She researched food sourcing and debated getting an advanced degree in sustainability, but instead she wound up in Vermont working at the Farmer’s Diner. Like a blue-collar version of The French Laundry, it was one of the first bastions of local food for the general population, a place that offered the agriculture of the county at an affordable price. For the people of Vermont, it tasted like home.
After that, she sold organic seeds to commercial growers for farmers’ markets. Then she moved to Boston and worked for the Stone Hearth Pizza restaurant group, which focuses on sustainable, local food. By the time Chamberlain returned to her native state, she wanted to start some kind of hamburger venture featuring locally raised, locally processed, grass-fed beef. But there was a problem: she couldn’t find any. How was that possible in her beloved Midwest?
Phil Greenlee used to raise cattle in the way of his father, who in turn learned from his father, who established the family farm in 1907 in Bidwell, Ohio. Like Chamberlain, Greenlee’s journey first carried him away from home—to Tennessee, Alabama, and Pennsylvania—as head herdsman for several large cattle operations. He returned to the hills of southern Ohio in 2002 to take over the family farm and continue in his father’s footsteps raising beef cattle.
“Farmers, they get stuck on
tradition—‘Dad did it that way,
and I need to do it that way.’”
What his family tradition told him, what it tells nearly all cattle farmers, was to feed them grain.
“Farmers, they get stuck on tradition—‘Dad did it that way, and I need to do it that way,’” Greenlee said. “A lot of it, too, is it’s been pounded into cattlemen’s head[s] that you have to feed grain. Been that way since the 1940s and ’50s.” Chefs, cattlemen’s associations, and just about everyone else said that a diet of grain made the beef taste better, and they repeated the mantra until it became gospel. So Greenlee fed grain to his cattle from the time they were weaned until they were butchered.
That system lasted until 2006 when oil prices spiked and fertilizer skyrocketed from $200 per ton to $600. He decided that there had to be a better way, and he researched more sustainable methods until he came across the grass-fed ideology. He realized he was already adhering to most of its practices, and he and his wife Cheryl raised a couple grass-fed calves as a test run. The meat was denser, beefier, more flavorful. They were sold on the method and founded Greenlee Grass-fed Beef.
To most people, Bob Evans is a restaurant chain. To those who knew the man who established it, he was a restaurateur, a maker of sausage, and a farmer. His name now decorates the front of brick buildings across the landscape of 19 different states, overtop highways from Maryland to Missouri. To Alex Chamberlain, though, he was grandpa. She grew up in Columbus but spent ample time on his farm in Bidwell, where she learned about local agriculture at a young age. She watched him tend to his herd and listened to him champion the benefits of cattle raised on fresh grass.
While visiting family in the area a couple years ago, she stopped at the local butcher shop and struck up a conversation about her stalled burger venture. The butcher had simple advice: go see Phil Greenlee. She knocked on his door, and the two formed a quick partnership, which became Ohio Pasture Proud. Her mission was to take Greenlee’s beef to Columbus and make it available at a retail level.
In the years since he switched to pasture-raised, grass-fed cattle, the changes on the farm have been sweeping. First and foremost, the animals are healthier. Corn is such a dense, high-calorie food that it’s tough on the cows’ bodies and causes them to run a slight fever. Conventional farmers give them antibiotics to keep it under control, and though Greenlee opts for natural, homeopathic medicines instead, he estimated that he’s cut even those back by 95 percent.
The cows rotate pastures almost every day, which also reduces the occurrence of sickness and improves the quality of the soil. He breaks his fields into small plots to develop the pastures’ root mass, which makes the grass stronger and increases its sugar content to help fatten the cattle. He recently noticed that another farmer’s pastures nearby were shorter than his front lawn; his fields are tall and wild, long and lush and green.
“Since we’ve been sitting here, I’ve thought about a bacon cheeseburger about seven times,” Chamberlain confessed, laughing, three minutes into our conversation in The Angry Baker in Olde Towne East. It’s still all about the burger, and of course, the advantages of grass-fed.
First, the cattle take on the nutrition from Greenlee’s improved soil—the omega-3s, the essential minerals—that humans need from food. She asserted that the health of the cattle—or the lack thereof in conventional farms—can be passed on to people. Grazing is also healthier for the environment because corn requires lots of fossil fuel for planting, harvesting, and transporting the feed. It’s a shallow-root crop so it doesn’t replenish the soil like grass, which also helps to reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Economic considerations are equally important to Greenlee and Chamberlain, who said that buying a local brand from an Ohio farmer at local markets keeps all the money in state where it belongs.
Now in its second year of production, Ohio Pasture Proud meat is available at Weiland’s Market, The Hills Market, and Huffmans Market. Hamburgers made from the beef are sold at the Pride of Ohio concession stands in Ohio Stadium, and Chamberlain hosts pop-up dining events at both The Hills locations. “I started this with a burger in mind, and finally we’re cooking a burger to serve to folks,” she said. “And it’s a bit of a cross-marketing [tactic], so they can buy the burger there, and then go in if they like the beef and buy it at the store.”
Then there’s the meat. Greenlee’s still the only farmer in Gallia County doing grass-fed—tradition dies slow—and many of his peers don’t get his decision. Sometimes he gives one of his steaks to another farmer’s wife to help them understand, and they can’t believe the cow was raised on just grass. The flavor is more concentrated, how beef used to taste.
Chamberlain has been hearing its virtues basically her whole life. Her visionary grandfather espoused year-round rotational grazing in the same rural town where she now sources her meat. That flavor is still a reminder of those rolling hills, of home. It tastes how beef should—like cattle, like grass. Like Ohio. •
For more about Ohio Pasture Proud, visit www.ohiopastureproud.com. Greenlee Grass-fed Beef can be purchased on the family farm in Bidwell and at the local farmers’ market in Gallipolis. To learn more, check out greenleefamilyfarms.com.