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The Foodshed:
Going Against the Grain

First published in the March-April 2011 edition of Edible Manhattan

Comment | March 9, 2011 | By | Photographs by June Russell

An exec-turned-farmer raises some of the city’s best beef.

Dan Gibson’s cows are on the loose, and he’s not sure exactly where to find them. We’re cruising around in a mud-crusted pickup truck, looking for the things, but Gibson doesn’t seem too worried. For starters, they’re easy enough to spot: great, hulking creatures, each one a tar-black half-ton standing out against the snowy ground. And beyond that, it’s the cows’ jobs to roam around. Gibson’s farm is called Grazin’ Angus Acres for a reason.  Having your livestock at large isn’t a sign of willy-nilly farming—it’s part of Gibson’s intensely focused plan to create the best possible meat. Grazin’ Angus produces one thing: premium, 100 percent grassfed beef. (To be fair, it’s also home to a few chickens, whose droppings fertilize the grass that the cows eat, but the focus here is undoubtedly bovine.) The farm is in the tiny town of Ghent, New York, about 100 miles north of the city, and it has about as much in common with mainstream beef operations as it does with Midtown. Gibson describes his meat as, “different, better and special”—a marketing tagline that happens to be entirely true.

Dan Gibson is not like most farmers. Sure, he raises Black Angus, whose natural marbling makes them the beloved breed for American beef. But he literally goes against the grain, forgoing the feedlot and instead describing himself as “a grass farmer” who spent years carefully cultivating a “clean grass” mixture, a living blend he will expound upon at great length if you let him. (“The amount of solar energy captured by my grass—between the ryes and the orchards and the clovers—it’s incredible! Do you know you can get as much omega-3 in our grassfed beef as in wild salmon? That’s a result of all of the sun’s energy in the grass.”)

Dan’s herds nibble their way across 450 acres of grazing land, moving to new paddocks with fresh grass throughout their comparatively long lives. As the saying goes, time is money, so in livestock farming, the objective is to get your animals to slaughter weight as quickly as possible. Most cattle are typically slaughtered at just 12-15 months, when they clock in at around 1,000 pounds.  But Gibson thinks that’s far too soon. “At that point, the animal is still growing, and the meat won’t be as marbled,” he says. He lets his steers live to the ripe old age of two and a half to three years—twice the typical slaughter age for grass-fed beef, and they only weigh 30 percent more, but Gibson wouldn’t have it any other way. “Some farmers can’t afford or won’t take the time to get the product to that size range, but I’ll go to the market without product before I take them in early,” he says.

When a group of cows is finally ready, Gibson drives them an hour north to Eagle Bridge slaughterhouse. There the animals meet their fate and their carcasses are hung for 21 days, which allows enzymes to break down the cell walls in the meat. It all yields exceptionally tender and juicy meat, with a healthy dose of omega-enhanced fat.

Gibson took an atypical path to these atypical methods. Many farmers are born into the job, the latest in a long family line. Others are young and idealistic, scruffy hipsters determined to reconnect with the land or to green urban spaces. Gibson falls into neither category. For nearly a decade, he was senior vice president of global affairs at Starwood Hotels and Resorts, that international corporation with chic hotels like W and Le Meridien to its name. “My life was dinner parties and traveling all over the place,” he says. Gibson and his childhood-sweetheartturned wife, Susan, shared a comfortable home in Katonah, Westchester, and raised two children, Christine and Keith. Then 9/11 happened.

Christine was living in an NYU dorm in the Financial District when the planes hit, close enough to leave her covered in ash from the wreckage. Keith, a student at Pace University at the time, announced that he was dropping out to join the military. And that’s when Gibson, needing a retreat, decided to buy an upstate dairy farm. “I had no idea what to do with it,” he remembers. But he made the smart move of keeping the farm managers, Jim and Ilene Stark, on board as partners. He transitioned from dairy into beef, buying top-breed registered Angus to sell to other farms. And all the while, he was still living mainly in Westchester, working full-time for Starwood.

In a strange twist, it took a 2004 lunch meeting with a Wall Street client to transform Gibson into a farmer. The client had two children with autism, which he believed was exacerbated by food allergies, and he offered to buy an entire steer if Gibson could guarantee that the animal had been exclusively grassfed. Shortly thereafter, Gibson read Michael Pollan’s just-released exploration of American food systems, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and it’s no hyperbole to say that the book changed his life. “This light just went on in my head. Not as a business idea—this is not a lucrative business. But it was so powerfully moving to me that I had to do something,” says Gibson.

In 2007, Gibson quit his job with Starwood and he and Susan moved to Ghent full time. Their custom-built pastoral dream home, perched atop a hill with panoramic views of the pastures and the distant Berkshires, is a meticulously maintained, highly romantic version of a traditional farmhouse. The land below is almost impossibly picturesque, a sea of sloping green pastures with dots of black slowly lumbering to and fro. Keith and his wife, Nicole, moved into a smaller house on the property, with Christine and her husband, Chip, eventually following suit. Today, the entire family lives and works on the farm. “My family knows exactly what’s going on here, every single day, and that creates a contract of trust with our customers.”

Customers also trust in the farm because it bears a seal of approval from a not-for-profit called the Animal Welfare Institute.  “The primary standards to receive the Animal Welfare Approved seal are that the farm is pasture-based, family-owned and operates with the welfare of the animal at heart,” says AWA program director Andrew Gunther. “Grazin’ Angus hits all of those points without question. I think their meat is fantastic. The Gibsons care so much about their farm and farming, and their meat comes out with a truly enhanced flavor. The quality of Dan’s product speaks to the hard work he puts into it.” The AWA certification program was launched in 2006 and Grazin’ Angus was the first farm in the city’s Greenmarket program to be awarded its seal.

The Gibsons’ commitment landed their short ribs as the main course in a very marquee event: Chelsea Clinton’s wedding reception last July in Rhinebeck. Bold-faced names aside, it’s city home cooks with whom Grazin’ Angus does their best business.  “Greenmarket provides an audience who are as passionate as I am about what they eat. Our shoppers are educated and sophisticated, and they care about where their food is coming from,” says Gibson. “I go to the market so I can look into my customers’ eyes and address any concerns they might have, so we can work through them. Michael Pollan says to ‘shake the hand that feeds you,’ and we take that seriously. We’ve turned vegetarians, talked to people with high cholesterol, and guided broke college students toward the best values. The younger audience is now some of our best customers—they care. I wish that when I was young I knew as much about our food systems as young folks do today.”

Dan, Susan, Keith or Chip always personally staff the little tent at the Union Square Greenmarket every Friday and Saturday, and on Sundays at the market adjacent to the American Museum of Natural History. Their customers are a deeply committed breed: Most shop weekly, arrive early and buy in large quantities, loading up backpacks and canvas bags with meat. Many have formed personal relationships with the Gibsons, greeting each other by name and asking how the kids are doing. All of them care intensely about the food they put in their bodies.

“I grew up on a small farm in Poland where the cows were naturally grassfed,” explains one regular shopper, personal trainer Rafael Masiewicz. “I don’t mess around with the quality of food I eat—almost all of the meat I ever eat comes from these guys. They raise their cows right, they way it should be done. On top of that, it tastes great. I come to their stand in Union Square every week from my house on 118th Street with an empty backpack to fill up with meat, and sometimes I’ll bring my clients here to shop, too.” That day, he was loading up on beef liver, ground beef (both $8 a pound) and skirt steak ($19 a pound) to cook at home. “I’d go to Staten Island for this stuff if I had to,” he tells me before shaking Chip’s hand and walking off.

“The Gibsons didn’t come into the Greenmarkets with much farming experience,” says Greenmarket’s director, Michael Hurwitz, “but they did incredible research and quickly mastered the art of 100 percent grassfed beef with a taste that’s second to none. Their meat reflects their vision and values.” Individual shoppers aren’t the only ones devoted to Grazin’ Angus—their meat shows up on a handful of menus across town, including Print, Jimmy’s No. 43 and the Union Square Heartland Brewery.

“I saw Dan speak on a Slow Food panel about slaughterhouses about a year ago,” recalls Johanna Kolodny, Print’s in-house forager. “We like to work directly with farmers who are sustainable and humane. Dan had said something about sometimes having extra meat after slaughter, so I approached him after the event.” The restaurant buys Grazin’ Angus short ribs (the same cut the Clintons did), which chef Charles Rodriguez slowly braises and serves alongside mashed potatoes, radishes, turnips and carrots with a horseradish gremolata. “Our menu changes all the time but that item has become one of our signatures,” says Kolodny. “It’s that popular.”

The Heartland Brewery in Union Square recently debuted the Grazin’ Angus Acres burger, which at $13.50 costs just a buck or two more than the standard alternative, and has proven to be worth the price for diners. “I’ve tried their meat at home and thought it would be good to turn our customers on to it, especially since the Greenmarket is right outside our front door,” says Rich Pietromonaco, Heartland’s vice president of food and beverage.

Back on the farm, a world away from the city restaurant scene, Dan and Susan watch the sun set over the Berkshires out of their kitchen window. If it sounds idyllic, remember that they were up at 3:00 a.m. packing coolers of raw meat. But Dan, who traded blazers and late nights for overalls and early mornings, doesn’t regret it for a second. “We have invested our life savings in Grazin’ Angus and we’ve seen it grow. We can change the world, one happy customer at a time.”

About Jamie Feldmar

Jamie Feldmar is a Brooklyn-based writer and the Managing Editor of Serious Eats. She has worked as an archivist for the late Gourmet, a blogger for Gothamist, and a farmer’s market manager, among other things.

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