Rupert Murdoch’s Montana ranch is at the center of an effort to get grass-fed beef into mainstream grocery stores; others are using investments to build new markets entirely.
Rupert Murdoch’s Montana ranch is at the center of an effort to get grass-fed beef into mainstream grocery stores; others are using investments to build new markets entirely.
January 31, 2024
When two small Western grass-fed beef brands combined forces in the name of growth in fall 2022, Jeff “Trip” Tripician was tapped to lead the newly formed company, Grass Fed Foods. As CEO, one of his first actions was to send an employee on a quest: Find the “most regenerative” ranch, he instructed. “But they have to be big. Do not bring me a small ranch,” he said.
That’s how, a year later, he ended up at the largest cattle ranch in Montana, where the only thing more vast than its approximately 380,000 acres is the wealth and power of the man who owns it: one Rupert Murdoch.
“Cream Co. is the first one that we worked with in the beef space. It’s not gonna be the last.”
On a sunny September afternoon, Tripician stood in front of a small crowd to present Bert Glover, the managing director of Impact Ag Partners, an Australian firm that helps people like Murdoch make and manage regenerative agriculture investments. Glover’s eyes gazed out at an audience made up of a few dozen representatives of America’s largest grocers and food-service companies from beneath the brim of a straw cowboy hat. Behind them, green pastures stretched into the distance toward looming, sand-colored peaks.
“How do you make the best beef business in America?” he asked, crossing one brown leather boot in front of another. “How do you do that and create ecological change, economic value, and social benefit? That’s what you’re gonna learn over the next 12 or 14 hours.”
Buyers from Costco, Sysco, and Whole Foods climbed onto a hay wagon, eager to get started.
Tripician dreamed up the tour of the Matador Ranch in southwestern Montana to sell the buyers on the idea of stocking their meat cases and commercial food service kitchens with an up-and-coming supply of domestic grass-fed beef.
And it’s a more radical idea than it may at first sound.
While health, environmental, and animal welfare concerns have contributed to an increase in demand for grass-fed over feedlot beef over the past decade, the last reliable data estimated it accounted for 4 percent of the commercial market in 2016—and nearly all of it is imported from Australia, New Zealand, and other foreign countries, where grass-fed production costs less. (Experts say those numbers have likely increased somewhat, but good data is hard to find.)
Tripician projects that Grass Fed Foods will buy 2,500 head of cattle from the ranch in 2024, 4,500 in 2025, and 7,000 in 2026.
Meanwhile, grass-fed beef from U.S. cattle is primarily sold regionally at farmers’ markets, through meat shares, and in restaurants. And despite an abundance of optimism in recent years, countless efforts to shift more domestic production toward grass-fed have failed.
Now, despite numerous policy and economic hurdles, Murdoch’s money is not the only pot of capital flowing into what many consider to be “better” beef. In August, Oakland-based Cream Co. Meats raised $4 million in funding with the help of Provenance Capital Group, an investment bank that works primarily with extraordinarily wealthy families.
“Cream Co. is the first one that we worked with in the beef space. It’s not gonna be the last,” said Adrian Rodrigues, Provenance’s CEO. Will Harris’ White Oak Pastures in Georgia recently raised $1.2 million, and Old Salt Co-op in Montana raised $1 million through Steward, an alternative lending platform for regenerative agriculture.
There is no doubt that globally, methane and other emissions from beef production are contributing to climate change. And in Western countries, reducing overall beef consumption is one of the most effective climate interventions available. Yet advocates for regenerative grazing, like Tripician and the Impact Ag team, believe the right practices, which can store carbon in healthy soils, can balance out a significant portion of those emissions while providing other benefits. Many experts imagine a future that includes both shifts: less—and better—beef.
Although all of the companies mentioned above want to shift more beef production toward systems that employ regenerative grazing, eliminate the need for commodity grain as feed, and produce healthier meat, they have very different ideas about how to create success in the industry. Tripician is hoping one big supplier can catapult him toward plugging more grass-fed beef into the same efficiency-obsessed system that currently runs on a cheap supply of commodity beef provided by four large meatpackers. Think American grass-fed ground beef and steaks in the trucks of UNFI and the other distributors that supply large grocery and restaurant chains.
But many in the industry say that will never work, because American producers can’t compete on price with cheap imports. And while they may be able to command a premium among buyers who prefer domestic, that pathway is stymied by the fact that loopholes in federal policy have allowed imported meat to be labeled “Product of USA” if it is packaged stateside—even if the animal was born, raised, and slaughtered elsewhere. (The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) proposed changing that last spring, but the agency has not yet finalized the rule.)
Instead, businesses like Cream Co. and Old Salt are working to create new systems entirely, to change not just how cattle are raised, but how the meat is sold and who benefits as it moves from field to plate.
“For our entire food system, not just grass-fed beef, we really need to move . . . to a more localized and regionalized model,” said Allen Williams, who trains farmers on regenerative systems, including intensive grazing and grass-fed finishing in all 50 states through his consulting company, Understanding Ag, and is a founding partner of the regenerative agriculture certification Regenified. “Every economic study you’ve ever seen shows that the way to true prosperity in our country is a vibrant rural economy coupled with a strong small-business infrastructure, not a handful of major mega-corporations. None of their money turns over in any of our rural communities.”
Not only has Tripician heard that argument, in the past he has labored in service of it. In the 15 years he spent at Niman Ranch, he increased the network of small family farms raising animals on pasture from 160 to over 850. “We positively affected the lives of those people, but all their land added up . . . it’s smaller than the Matador,” he said. His tune has changed because, in his mind, “We didn’t solve the problem.”
The goal, as he sees it, is replacing as much conventional feedlot beef as possible.
But one thing that became apparent on the tour is that even at the Matador, which is being presented as a model for grass-fed, the ranch’s bottom line is still reliant on the ongoing production of a lot of conventional beef. The more expansive side, called the Beaverhead division, makes up more than 80 percent of the acreage and still sends all of its cattle to conventional feedlots. Murdoch bought Beaverhead from none other than the Koch brothers in 2021 for $200 million.
He combined it with a smaller ranch called La Cense, which he bought the same year. There, ranch manager Race King had already been implementing a paddock-based system referred to as regenerative, mob grazing, or intensive grazing and finishing the animals on grass instead of in a feedlot. The idea, the Matador team said, is to gradually spread the practice of combining regenerative grazing with grass finishing throughout the entire ranch.
Tripician projects that Grass Fed Foods will buy 2,500 head of cattle from the ranch in 2024, 4,500 in 2025, and 7,000 in 2026. And while those numbers are a drop in the bucket, Tripician said that right now, he can only guarantee so much demand. Not only does he want to get to a place where he’s buying tens of thousands of cattle from the Matador, he said the ranch operators also know neighbors who are interested in raising grass-fed cattle nearby.
“I fully expect those numbers to change,” he said, as he signs on more customers. That was the point of inviting retailers and distributors to the ranch, after all.
At one stop on the tour, shiny black cattle huddled quietly in the center of a pasture, watching the noisy group of humans with still curiosity. Then, a skilled ranch employee removed a line of polywire fence in one fell swoop, and the cows charged forward as fast as they could, together, like a group of 5-year-olds playing soccer. Instead of a ball, their target was tall, fresh grass; their enthusiasm created a symphony of mooing.
“Chow time!” yelled King, with gusto.
King described how the ranchers move the animals to fresh paddocks daily, as Lora Soderquist, a colleague of Glover’s at Impact Ag Partners, explained how that movement prevents overgrazing, keeps living roots in place at all times, spreads the manure to stimulate grass regrowth and microbial communities, and sequesters carbon in the soil.
“Soils that hold a lot of carbon hold a lot of nutrients; they hold a lot of moisture, and they are able to adapt,” Soderquist said. “That bank account of soil carbon we’re building is a buffer to make us more resilient.”
Rich, healthy soil is unquestionably a good thing, but grass-fed beef’s status as a climate-friendly food is up for debate. How much carbon the soil holds and how long it stays there is still an open question with many variables; the Matador is currently involved in several projects to measure carbon in its soils for that reason. Whatever the number, another big question is whether it’s enough to counter the methane emitted by burping cows as they munch away.
Still, at another stop on the tour, a researcher from the University of California, Davis, showed off the first in-field trial that involves feeding seaweed supplements to cattle to reduce methane. While he spoke, one cow wandered over to the hulking metal machine, stuck its head in a chute, and was fed a pellet while emissions measurements were taken. So far, they’ve seen about a 50 percent average reduction in emissions, he said, although those results are preliminary and the study is small. It’s also not clear how ranchers would deliver the supplements to a herd of thousands of grazing cattle on a regular basis.
During the wagon ride, a buyer from one company that runs corporate and university cafeterias confided that she heard feedlot beef production emits less methane than grass-fed production, since feedlot cattle live shorter lives and have less time to burp methane. That’s a message the commodity meat industry is investing time and resources in promoting and which some studies support. One recent analysis found higher emissions from grass-fed systems primarily due to increased land use. At her company, the buyer said, regardless of other impacts within the supply chain, cutting carbon (or its equivalents) and sharing those numbers on menus was all that the higher-ups cared about.
Glover and other members of the Impact Ag team spoke openly about questions related to climate and other production impacts related to grass-fed beef and the challenge of communicating what they see as the best approach. But they largely dismissed questions about pitching a climate-friendly product born on a ranch owned by a public figure who has made a fortune on media that regularly peddled climate denial and misinformation. Just a week prior, as the news that Murdoch was stepping down from News Corp and Fox spread, climate scientists from all over the world told The Guardian that no other person in the world had done more to delay climate action.
“Murdoch will be looked back on by historians as someone who used their media monopoly to influence the destabilization of the Earth’s climate,” said Joëlle Gergis, an Australian climate scientist. (Not to mention the fact that in 2022, the Murdoch family’s private jet flights alone produced more planet-warming emissions than 280 average Americans’ annual carbon footprints, according to ClimateJets.)
While billionaires owning ranch land in Montana is apparently about as surprising as billionaires owning homes in the Hamptons, the staff insists Murdoch took on the project out of passion and is intimately involved in the environmental mission. And while he didn’t attend the gathering, his son-in-law, Alisdair Macleod, did. Macleod owns multiple regenerative ranches in Australia, one of which recently generated $500,000 of carbon credits purchased by Microsoft, and he made the rounds at all the important international climate gatherings last fall.
As to the Murdoch family’s legacy of climate disinformation, Macleod said, “We’re all learning that we’ve all got to be doing our bit . . . and so what we’re doing here is ensuring that people that are concerned about decarbonization are getting a product that they can put on their plate that’s suitable for a decarbonized world.”
For some grass-fed beef entrepreneurs, however, reaching climate-conscious consumers isn’t the end goal.
“There’s one philosophy that says, ‘Well, better agriculture is just about a better product. It’s got this set of attributes that a conventional product doesn’t necessarily have,’” said Cole Mannix, the founder of Old Salt Co-op, over the phone recently as he scraped ice off the windshield of his pickup truck. “But we feel that it’s not just the better product that’s important—it’s a better process to get it to people.”
“What’s important is to move away from the ‘move fast and break things’ model when it comes to regenerative agriculture and to instead move slowly and with intention.”
Mannix created Old Salt to build a regional meat supply chain that bypasses the consolidated food system and keeps dollars and ecosystem benefits within local communities. Based in Helena, Montana, about two hours north of the Matador, the company currently sells meat from four family ranches and runs on relationships with neighbors through local pick-up and delivery and two restaurants, the larger of which he expects to open by March.
All the beef Old Salt sells is grass-fed, but Mannix bristles at that simplified descriptor. If you think of the larger agricultural system as a canal, he says, he’s trying to turn it into a stream. “A canal gets water from point A to point B just like a stream does, but it strips out the inefficiencies where life exists. It doesn’t have the ripples and the logs and the rocks and all the life that feeds fish,” he said.
In agriculture, the grizzly bear habitat and soil microbiology—and also farm families and farm labor—are inefficiencies to eliminate if you’re just trying to get a product from field to consumer. “But we want long-term, enduring agriculture,” he said, “and some of those inefficiencies are actually critical.”
Mannix thinks one reason other companies have failed at expanding grass-fed beef production is that they’ve tried to replicate the commodity approach to distribution and marketing. “It’s like, ‘Let’s get a better product with better labels and then go sell it through the same channels,’” he said. “There are a lot of people who are recognizing how vulnerable that can leave a food system,” because after years of building up supply, those buyers might demand lower prices. Or, “consumer trends,” which drive the whole tractor in big box grocery, may change. This year, The New York Times says being a “regenivore” is in; next year it might be out.
At Provenance Capital, Rodrigues said that despite what he sees as growing demand for grass-fed beef, he thinks many have failed because companies took on the wrong kind of investors. Venture capital, for instance, works on a time frame and return rate that is impossible for agriculture to keep pace with. That’s especially true when an approach invites inefficiencies for the sake of health and the environment.
“What’s important is to move away from the ‘move fast and break things’ model when it comes to regenerative agriculture and to instead move slowly and with intention,” in terms of investment and scale, he said. That’s what Cream Co. has done, growing from a network of three small to medium-size family ranches in California in 2016 to about 30 on the West Coast today. Aggregating the meat has allowed him to get regional grass-fed beef into tech company cafeterias and 30 school districts. With the new investment, there’s more growth ahead.
Aside from competing on price, one of the biggest challenges companies like Cream Co. and Grass Fed Foods face is that they have to buy whole animals, despite the fact that grocers and restaurants only want certain cuts. Tripician said he needs a buyer like Whole Foods to buy steaks for its meat counter and a customer like Chipotle to buy ground beef for its burritos. Grass Fed Foods has created a line of processed products—including a new line of vegetable-infused hot dogs designed for school food service—to make use of what’s left.
“I’m in a race to be able to have you go anywhere you want in this country and order the kind of food I can be proud of. And for that, I need big partners.”
When companies order grass-fed beef from Australia, on the other hand, they can ask for the cuts they know they can sell. Despite that, both companies currently bring in some grass-fed beef from Australia to increase their volume enough to access larger buyers.
Tripician said he isn’t worried about it undercutting his business as he works simultaneously to expand domestic production. But Allen Williams was adamant that the practice is strangling the economic prospects of the farmers and ranchers he works with across the country. “It sends mixed signals to all of us [domestic producers],” he said.
Williams was involved in a 2017 report that predicted bold, fast growth for American grass-fed beef, but that has yet to materialize. He pointed to the fact that grass-fed beef imports increased dramatically after Congress repealed a law in 2015 that required meat to be labeled with its country of origin. “It’s been a major, major factor,” he said.
Carrie Balkcom, who has run the American Grassfed Association (AGA) for the past 20 years, agreed. The group has been working to bring about policy that promotes truth in labeling for the past two decades. This year, its work to get the USDA to change which meat can be labeled “Product of U.S.A.” finally paid off. In March, the agency proposed a rule that would update the regulations to allow the claim only on meat “derived from animals born, raised, slaughtered, and processed in the United States.” Now, Balkcom and other advocates are pushing the agency to finalize it.
But even if that happens and it charts a better economic path forward for American ranchers dedicated to regenerative grazing (she believes it will), Balkcom said that within the AGA, most producers still won’t be able to get their products on the shelves of large, conventional retailers. In fact, even those who have made some in-roads seem to be pulling out of those relationships, she said. At the same time, companies like New Zealand’s Silver Fern Farms are ramping up their imports; in 2022, it launched a “Net Carbon Zero” grass-fed beef line in 1,600 Costco stores across the country.
On the day we spoke, Balkcom had just arrived home from a conference where, she said, Will Harris of White Oak Pastures, “an icon in our industry,” had told attendees that his wholesale business isn’t penciling out because he can’t compete with imports. She said most producers she works with are doubling down on building their own regional supply chains and direct-to-consumer online sales.
That’s where Mannix at Old Salt is investing his energy. “It’s not as if I believe there’s a one-size-fits-all scale where everybody has to sell direct to consumer. . . . It’s just that our food system has gone so far down the path it’s on that there’s very little opportunity—in the form of wholesalers that will buy from us at the prices we would need, distributors who will work with us, or regional processing capacity that is easily accessed.” he said. “We’re really starting at the ground level to rebuild.”
He’s interested in how the Matador Ranch’s plan for the future turns out, but personally, he’s not up for investing in a system that ultimately depends on the shifting demands of packers, distributors, retailers, and landowners who historically have cut and run if the numbers didn’t quite work the way they wanted them to.
Tripician, on the other hand, is intent on making Grass Fed Foods a part of that production, and at the Matador, where the landscape seemed to continuously unravel in every direction, he looked out and saw only opportunities ahead for American grass-fed beef.
In the past, buyers from Costco, Kroger, and Sysco would look at his products and ask if he had the volume to meet their customers’ demand. “And for grass-fed beef, that answer has always been ‘no’ domestically,” he said. “I’m in a race to be able to have you go anywhere you want in this country and order the kind of food I can be proud of. And for that, I need big partners.”
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