By EMILIE THIESSEN
In 2004, Mike Stine set out to provide consumers with an alternative – an alternative to both how consumers purchase their beef and the actual beef they buy.
“That alternative is the kind of food that I think helps the environment, the community, farmers like me and our customers,” he said. “It gives people the opportunity to buy from someone they know and can talk to.”
Alongside wife and Stonebridge Beef co-owner Sue, Stine raises grass-fed, Devonshire beef cattle on his 160 acre farm just outside of Long Prairie. Stine bypasses distribution issues by selling directly to the consumer and making the deliveries himself. Seven years after starting, Stine said he can barely keep up with demand.
“The local food movement is just exploding,” he said.
Stine’s cattle eat only greens throughout the year, meaning no corn or barley in their diet.
All his cattle spend their days grazing on picturesque pastures. The animals are moved every one or two days to a fresh pasture, he said, ensuring they are getting all the fresh greens they need to stay healthy and to retain the integrity of the pastures without using fertilizers.
Stine said because of the low-stress environment his cattle are finished in, they are always healthy and are never in need of antibiotics or hormones. Stine carefully monitors the environment of the cattle to make sure they are living a high health life – naturally. So naturally, in fact, that Stine said he has not bothered to become organically certified, as his practices far exceed federal regulations making his farm “beyond organic.”
With a PHD equivalent in physics and many years of experience doing research and development for Boston Scientific and St. Jude Medical, Stine knew right away when purchasing the farm that much effort would have to put into rebuilding the soil.
For many years, the land was conventionally farmed with corn and soybeans and did not have enough nutrients to support truly healthy greens to feed the cattle.
Now, after seven years of work and maintenance, the soil is able to easily support a varied mix of forage grasses including rich clover and alfalfa.
Stine sells much of his beef to local, independent customers who can have the meat delivered to their home. Customers are also welcome to pick the meat up directly from the farm itself.
“I can sit across the table from Mike and have a face-to-face conversation about the animals,” said Staples resident John Makosky during a recent visit to the farm, picking up his half of beef. “That is very important to me.”
Makosky has been a stay-at-home dad for more than three years and said the nutritional quality of food he brings home and prepares for his wife and three daughters is very important to him.
“The flavor is exceptional,” he said. “And any time we can keep our money closer to home, I think that is very important.”
Makosky said he is glad to see the increased interest when it comes to local, sustainably grown food not generated by concentrated animal feeding operations.
“There is a fair amount of local growing going on, people are trying to market directly to customers, but some struggle with it – Mike is a success story,” Makosky said.
Stine believes much of his success comes from the boom of business he has seen in the Twin Cities.
Grass-fed Stonebridge Beef cuts are now featured on the menus of numerous restaurants in the area including Hell’s Kitchen – Stine’s largest customer.
“They are competing with each other, emphasizing they are buying directly from farmers,” he said.
Because of the great demand for his product, especially in the Twin Cities, Stine said his product has doubled in sale every year for the last four years. This year, Stine will finish 130 cows, up from 30 head of cattle during his first year of operation.
Stine said his main goal has always been to offer an alternative for people, not to chastise bigger, conventional farmers. But in the future, he hopes more farmers will go back to concentrating more on nutritional value rather than just quantity.
“Conventional farmers simply have to raise the stuff that they think has a probability about turning a profit,” he said. “I don’t think there is anything much un-American about that. And once you start down the industrial path where you are growing conventional commodities, the farm has to continue to get bigger … they just have to do more in order to keep the profit margin acceptable.”