A recent study by Kansas State University concluded that in terms of presence of E. coli O157:H7, there was no difference between "organic," "naturally-raised" and conventionally raised beef. Feedlots provide all of the conventionally raised beef and the vast majority of organic and naturally-raised beef. Only a small percentage of organic beef is grassfed and finished on pasture. The study reported that feces from 14% of the organic and naturally-raised cattle contained the pathogenic strain of E. coli, and that this number was comparable to conventional systems. What the study did NOT include were samples from cattle that were pasture-finished or grassfed, surprisingly, not a requirement of either organic or naturally-raised systems. I imagine that there are many consumers who will be surprised to learn this.
John Whiteside got his start as a cattle rancher by accident in the mid-1980s when he bought a few steers to help graze down overgrown pastures his horses had unevenly eaten. After successfully replacing his Bush Hog mower with steers, John decided to start experimenting with raising cattle for food, too.
Although he began by grain-finishing his animals, John quickly learned that he preferred the taste and texture of grass-finished beef. This led to years of genetic selection to produce a cattle herd that was best suited to thriving on pasture alone without grain supplementation, a six-year search for the right farmland on which to expand his herd, and a lifelong commitment to animal welfare, sustainability and land stewardship.
In 2000, John bought Wolf Creek Farm, which overlooks historic Wolftown in Madison County, Virginia, on the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah National Park. Although the soil was depleted, and took years of natural amendment to reach the nutrient status required to grow the lush grasses necessary to produce healthy animals and superior beef, the land had never been treated with agricultural chemicals. The farm’s location against the mountains also ensures the cattle have access to a fresh, clean water supply.
Today, John owns and leases a total of 1,600 acres and runs 600 head of cattle at any given time: “Our mission is to create a sustainable farm that produces health and enjoyment for our livestock, our community, our customers, and ourselves.” AWA certification helps John make the important connection between himself, his animals, and his community. “The AWA label is really helpful in getting people to stop and ask questions,” he says. “It gives us an opportunity to explain how our practices are different. We were looking for a certification that could communicate quickly what takes a long time to explain—the involved and thoughtful practices that we adhere to at the farm.” John also appreciated that AWA is an organization that keeps its farmers informed of the newest science and methods on animal husbandry, as he continually strives to develop and improve his own practices.
Since establishing his beef operation, John has created a system that prioritizes the health of the land, animals and people. To accomplish this, John and his herdsman, Steve Lamb, keep a closed herd of Red Devon and Aberdeen Angus cattle, meaning that no calves are purchased and that all Wolf Creek Farm beef comes from cattle that were conceived, born and raised on the farm. The cattle never receive subtherapeutic antibiotics and are never given hormones. The pastures receive no chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides or fungicides, and all feed for Wolf Creek cattle is grown on the farm.
These practices ensure consistent, nutritious and safe beef for his customers, but John is also dedicated to protecting and enhancing the health of the land he stewards. His commitment to water quality, soil fertility and wildlife habitat was recognized by the Commonwealth of Virginia’s Culpeper Soil & Water Conservation District, which honored John and his wife, Mihye, with the 2007 Conservationist of the Year Award. The award is “given to an individual or individuals who demonstrate outstanding leadership, hard work and investment in conserving soil and water in the Culpeper District.”
In 2009, the Commonwealth of Virginia’s Department of Conservation and Recreation further honored Wolf Creek Farm with its prestigious Clean Water Farm Award and the Bay Friendly Farm Award programs. These awards help to promote the Commonwealth’s water quality goals by “recognizing farmers actively engaged in nutrient management and other important conservation management practices.” In recognizing Wolf Creek Farm, the Commonwealth of Virginia specifically commended its “exemplary efforts in implementing best management practices in the Rappahannock River Basin.”
In 2015, Wolf Creek Farm became the first farm in the state of Virginia to be Certified Grassfed by AGW for beef cattle. This is the only certification and food label in the U.S. and Canada that guarantees food products come from animals fed a 100% grass and forage diet, raised entirely outdoors on pasture or range, and managed according to the highest welfare and environmental standards on an independent family farm.
“Farming was a sustainable, healthy, and naturally enjoyable endeavor before the post-war chemical revolution in the 1940s, the surge of fossil-fuel driven mechanized farming, and the establishment of feedlot beef finishing,” says John. “Our objective is to not only provide our customers with nutritional sustenance for their bodies, but also to feed their souls with the knowledge that they are part of a growing movement to reconnect people to a more natural, wholesome, and healthy existence.”
Wolf Creek Farm grassfed beef is available direct from the farm, as well as at local farmers’ markets, specialty grocery stores, and through local community buying clubs. Visit www.wolfcreekfarm.com for further details.