Photo by Eliesa Johnson
Todd Churchill lives on a farm near Cannon Falls with his wife Dee and six children.
I. The Mission
The American beef cattle herd is at its lowest point since 1962. Feedlots are closing by the thousands. The cheap cheeseburger is in peril. So why is Minnesota cattleman Todd Churchill smiling?
Churchill is always smiling, or on the verge of smiling—a little bit of potential upward energy perking the muscles in his lean rancher’s face, as if he knows some good and pleasant news and just might share it when the time is right. Some of that good news is about his business: Thousand Hills Cattle Company, dedicated to marketing grass-pastured beef, has grown revenue by anywhere from 20 to 100 percent each year since 2003. The company zoomed from a gleam in Churchill’s eye to a hundred farmers independently raising cattle on grass pastures scattered across a dozen states and supplying beef to Super Targets nationwide, many Twin Cities grocery stores, and even the Minneapolis Public Schools. But it’s not the success, the profit, or the growth that make Churchill smile.
“It’s easy to be at peace when you wake up in the morning and you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing,” he says one afternoon in a Cannon Falls truck stop as we wait for hamburgers, burgers made from his own Thousand Hills ground beef, which he brought because it’s better food. “When what you have to do, what you should do, and what you want to do are all the same thing, life is really great,” he says, before leading us in a simple grace. The waitress who dropped off the pink and pure burgers sticks around for a quick but serious “amen.”
Churchill smiles because he feels a deep sense that what he has to do and what he can do is lead American cattle folk from a place of peril and degradation to a place of integrity and virtuous profit—as God would himself prefer. But to understand Churchill’s smile and the way out of this perilous, degraded place for American beef, you probably need to first understand the mess American beef is in.
II. The Market
Anyone who’s seen pictures of the cave drawings of magnificent bulls at Lascaux knows that people and cows have been together for a while. Evolutionary biologists have pinpointed various times in prehistory when people, especially those living both directly north and directly south of the Mediterranean, developed the lifelong ability to digest cow’s milk, thus pairing our two species forever. Since cave days, cows and people have been inseparable, due to the cow’s useful ability to convert things we can’t eat, like grass and scrub and wildflowers, into things we can, like milk and meat.
In Europe a fairly standard way of using the environment took shape: On the hillsides, on the steppes, or on the mountains ruminants grazed; in the fertile bottomlands grain grew. That’s how you got a sandwich: cheese and meat from up high, bread from down low. In the United States cattle and cowboy culture arose similarly, taking hold wherever there was enough water to grow grass but not enough to grow grain. In those grasslands the cows were set to roam. They ate what was around and moved on to uneaten areas. After a few years of grazing the cowboys would drive them to a roundup and—voila!—steak dinners for everyone on two legs.
Then came the Cold War, which changed the world in so many ways, down to our every cheeseburger. In 1959 Nikita Khrushchev, Soviet premier of what was then a perpetually famine-wracked country, came to the United States to tour the Corn Belt. He liked what he saw. By the 1960s the Soviet Union was buying hundreds of millions of tons of grain from the United States. It worked well—for the Americans.
The two superpowers couldn’t easily hit each other with nuclear weapons, so grain became a new and lively front, one where America could win repeatedly, if we kept corn prices low. Corn prices were not always low. For decades the U.S. government had paid farmers of corn and other grain to not plant their land, since an oversupply tended to destroy prices and thus harm the domestic economy. But in 1972 Richard Nixon’s agriculture secretary, Earl Butz, went all in for cheap corn to destabilize the Russians. He reversed longstanding U.S. policy and encouraged farmers to plant “fencerow to fencerow” while guaranteeing that no matter how much corn any farmer grew, and no matter how far the market price fell, the government would pay the farmer a set target price, making up the shortfall.
If the target price was $3 a bushel but the market price was $1 a bushel, the federal government would send farmers that extra $2. Harvest size ballooned. Prices plummeted. No one cared. No matter how much a farmer grew, he got paid.
When the American Midwest pushes the pedal to the metal for corn, we can make plenty. But what to do with all that extra plenty? Some of the corn went overseas, as food aid or for money. But that didn’t get rid of all of it. So what else? Now that corn was cheaper than chicken feed—feed it to chickens. And pigs. And cows.
Of course, there were problems with feeding corn to cows, mainly that corn makes them sick, giving them something called acidosis and also liver problems. But no one cared because corn also made beef cattle fat and profitable—fast. Cattle roaming around the prairie took more than two years to reach market weight. Cattle suffering from a corn-fed, hormone-implanted, chemical-growth-accelerant-fed, movement-restricted, deliberate plan of teenage obesity got to market weight in 15 months. The American beef feedlot system took off—all because corn had become cheaper than grass.
III. The Mess
A lot of what we think of as essentially American—McDonald’s and Burger King, prime rib at a supper club on a Friday night, Hamburger Helper in tough times—a lot of that was a mere byproduct of American foreign policy designed to keep corn prices low, which had a sloppy secondary effect of raising cows in feedlots. But times change.
Today foreign policy has ticked in a different direction, toward energy independence, toward making our own OPEC nation in the middle of the country, from corn. In 2005, the Renewable Fuel Standard was introduced, requiring all the transportation fuel sold in the United States to contain a certain amount of renewable fuels. In 2013 the target was 16 billion gallons of biofuels; in 2022 the goal is 36 billion gallons.
This new goal is radically transforming our square of the Midwest. Minnesota currently has 21 ethanol plants. Minnesota corn farmers harvested 1.386 billion bushels of corn in 2012, valued at more than $9.5 billion dollars, largely due to ethanol. The Minnesota Ag Statistics Service estimates that the average value of cropland in Minnesota in 2002 was $1,500 an acre, and in 2012 it was at $4,050 an acre. Corn prices are going up, land prices are going up, and it’s no longer cheap to feed corn to cattle. Simple math and complex foreign policy are ending American feedlot beef as we know it.
As feedlots close, Todd Churchill, and the ranchers and farmers who have joined him, are finding success raising beef cattle the way it was done before the Cold War. The cows are grazing in green pastures on marginal lands that can’t grow corn well. This means beef will cost much more than chicken or pork, like it used to in your great-grandparents’ day. Whether cheeseburgers will remain on fast-food menus is in question.
Human boom-and-bust exploitation cycles are well known. In medieval Scotland the rivers were so alive with wild running salmon that King James had to issue a decree forbidding his lords from feeding the servants the pink fish more than three times a week—or he feared they’d rise up in revolt. Today, if you can get it, actual wild Scottish salmon is one of the world’s rarest delicacies. In 19th-century New York City free oyster lunches were a staple of tavern culture; by the time of the Gold Rush the oyster beds around New York City were gone. Will the Saturday Night Live skit with everyone chanting “cheeseburger cheeseburger” seem as crazy to future generations as it would seem to us if John Belushi had been standing there saying “wild Scottish salmon” or “Blue Point oysters”?
IV. The Man
Todd Churchill cares about biodiversity. But does God? Nowhere in the Bible is the health of the soil microbiome directly addressed. But it can be reasonably extrapolated that it falls under the “every animal and insect” clause of Psalm 50:10, in which shallow, money-obsessed consumers come to annoy the Lord, neglecting true piety in favor of show-offy sacrifices.
In Psalms 50:9–12, God sets them straight: “I have no need of a bull from your stall, or of goats from your pens, for every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills. I know every bird in the mountains, and the insects in the fields are mine. If I were hungry I would not tell you, for the world is mine, and all that is in it.”
Churchill took the name of his company from Psalm 50:10, and part of the success of Thousand Hills has been in defining a place where Christian ethics, environmental stewardship, sustainable farm economics, and thoughtful eaters can come together. “God is reminding King David that, ‘Yes, you’re the king of Israel, but I own the cattle and a thousand hills,’” he says. “To me, that speaks about having long-term perspective and being a good steward, and only taking the interest, not the principal of a farm, so to speak.”
When Churchill speaks of the principal and not the interest, he speaks with ample qualification. Unusually among cattlemen, ranchers, and farmers, Churchill came to the world of cowboy hats and hooves on the prairie from a first career in, of all things, accounting. This cowboy was a CPA.
He was born in Moline, Illinois, to a family of lawyers and crop farmers. “There are a few cowboys in Illinois,” he says. “I’m a cowboy because my dad fell in love with horses when he was a kid. My grandfather, who was an attorney in Moline, bought a 40-acre farm 12 miles outside of town in 1942. He bought that farm because at that time the war was going very poorly. There was a possibility, a remote possibility, of the Germans ultimately being able to bomb the Rock Island Arsenal, an island in the middle of the Mississippi River, and, at the time, a big U.S. Army ammunitions plant. His house was only a mile or two from that plant. So he bought a farm so he could move his family to the country if it became necessary.
“He was not a farmer; he had no interest in it. There was a tenant there. He never went there. When my dad was 16, my grandfather wanted to sell the farm. My dad said, ‘Give me one year to see if I can make money with it.’ So at 16 he took it over and figured out how to make money with it and has expanded it and grown it ever since.”
Today the farm is 1,600 acres and farmed conventionally, edge-to-edge corn and soybeans. “By the time I was a kid, our farm, like most farms, had gone from what it was in the 1940s—a diversified Old MacDonald kind of farm with poultry, and dairy cattle, and hogs, and some beef cattle, and a fairly diversified row crop rotation with small grains and hay and pastures—to a modern farm growing corn and soybeans. We took all the fences out and we put in a feedlot for 500 beef cattle.
“I have a vivid memory from that period in my life when I was probably 14. We bought an 80-acre farm from a neighbor. This was a guy in his 80s—an organic by neglect type. He hadn’t ever gotten up to speed on the new chemicals and the new way of farming. He still had hedgerows. There were probably 100 different kinds of plants in these hedgerows. So we bought it and my job for two summers was to doze out all the trees, push them into piles, burn them up, and make it one big field.”
Modern fields can’t have fencerows or hedgerows, because they get in the way of tractors, combine harvesters, and the like. “The whole time I was doing this,” Churchill remembers, “I couldn’t put it into words then, but I just had this vague unease about the whole process. What I know now that I was experiencing is that farm had an abundance of life. It had a tremendous amount of biodiversity, which are words nobody would have even used back then. By removing all that biodiversity and getting it down to just flat, black soil so that we could run larger-scale equipment across it to be efficient and to maximize the revenue from it, we continued in that process of eliminating all that biodiversity. It didn’t feel alive anymore. After a year of that, it felt as dead as the rest of the farm.
“I could have taken over that farm, but farming to me was dealing with cattle in a feedlot, which is unpleasant in a thousand different ways. It was running a tractor, which is boring in a thousand different ways. And it was playing with vats of toxic chemicals, which is unhealthy in a thousand different ways. There was nothing compelling about that life to me. As Joel Salatin says, his goal is to create a farm that’s so beautiful that his children don’t ever want to leave. The farm I grew up on, like a lot of other farms, it wasn’t beautiful. It was efficient. It made money.”
It made money, but it also made children want to flee it. The place Churchill fled to was St. Olaf College in Northfield. “I don’t know if I can say exactly why,” he says. “I didn’t even apply to any other colleges. It just felt right. I went to Olaf and became a very reluctant accountant. It doesn’t necessarily suit my personality, but my dad, who is also a very successful businessperson and owns a number of different businesses, had always stressed upon me that accounting is the language of business. If you want to be self-employed, it’s a great advantage if you can speak the language. So I became a reluctant accountant and went to work for a big CPA firm in Minneapolis, and I hated every minute of it.”
He and his college sweetheart married, and then her grandfather died and left them nine horses. “It’s cheaper to buy a farm than it is to board nine horses,” notes Churchill dryly. The young couple bought a frozen farm in the dead of winter. When it thawed in the spring they discovered it was mostly swamp. And then Churchill was a reluctant accountant who was fired. “It was devastating because I was 21 and I had just bought a house. This was my career. I have already failed. What am I going to do now?”
V. The Meat
Churchill figured out what to do. He became a CFO for hire for small rural businesses, helping write business plans and run the finances for a dozen places, including Lorentz Meats, a small meatpacking plant in Cannon Falls. And then one fateful Sunday Todd Churchill picked up a copy of The New York Times Magazine and read Michael Pollan’s article “Power Steer” about the author’s experience buying a steer and trying to follow it through its journey to a feedlot. “That was really the seed, or the infectious agent, whatever you want to call it. I read that article and it was like, all of a sudden: ‘I think this is what I’m supposed to do.’”
He began buying grass-pastured beef through farmers advertising in the Minnesota Grown Directory and realized there was incredible variation in the meat. He wrote a business plan that involved two steps: 1) figuring out what the secret was to getting, as he says often, “a great eating experience” in pasture-raised beef, and 2) creating a company to market and distribute it. He started working with other farmers to raise beef cows as they were raised a hundred, and a thousand, and five thousand years ago (not counting the electric fences): raising the ruminant beasts on pasture, letting them fertilize the soil with their manure, moving them to fresh pasture every few days. Churchill used his connections at Lorentz Meat to get them to process and package the meat.
“People meet you and think you knew back then what you know now, but I didn’t,” explains Churchill. “You can compare it to the Gospels. At first, Mary comes to Joseph and says; ‘You know, I’ve got some bad news: I’m pregnant.’ He uses logic. ‘I know it’s not mine; there’s no way I’m marrying you.’ But then God sends an angel in a dream and says, ‘Here’s information you need.’ He doesn’t say, ‘Here are all the things you’re going to need to know for the next 20 years to raise this kid.’ All he says is, ‘You need to go ahead and marry.’ Basically I’ve found if you follow through on what you feel is the right thing, more will come slowly.
“I knew Thousand Hills was going to be about figuring out how to create a great eating experience, not specifically about the health benefits or the environmental benefits. Those are great things, but they weren’t the first things we were trying to do. The reason we don’t feed antibiotics is not because I’m morally opposed to feeding livestock antibiotics; it’s because I think any animal who is in a situation that got bad enough to need antibiotics is never going to produce a great eating experience. Then I say no hormones, because that’s not good for the eating experience. Now I have a product that has no antibiotics, no hormones, and is grass-fed, and I can meet your intellectual criteria to get you to try the product.”
Once customers try his beef, they come back for more. Why? “This is the entire secret to Thousand Hills’ success,” says Todd Lien, who has been with Churchill from the earliest days. “I’m in a store, sampling hamburgers. A family comes along, a mother, maybe a father, young kids. The parent says, ‘Don’t worry about him or her.’ The kid. ‘They don’t eat meat.’ But the kid grabs some anyway. Then the whole family circles back. ‘What did you do to that burger? What did you do, because he doesn’t eat meat, and he really liked it. Can we get another sample?’ Then they buy it. Then they buy it the next week. Intellectually, people understand it’s grass-fed, it’s better for the environment, it’s healthier. But what’s really happening is that their stomach is telling their brain: ‘This is really good food. I need more of that.’”
Science backs up this claim. The field of neurogastroenterology concerns the 100 million neurons that form our enteric nervous system, which some call a second brain, a sensing system and part of the peripheral nervous system, and an organ responsible for creating 95 percent of the body’s serotonin. Grass-fed beef has been scientifically proven to be healthier than corn-fed beef. It’s higher in omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin E, and an anticarcinogen called CLA. But the health effects are debatable, and we all know in the era of the Internet that anybody can prove anything.
The only proof Churchill needs is the success of Thousand Hills, which he attributes largely to the twin ideas that vitality can be created in meat and perceived by the eater. Chef JD Fratzke of The Strip Club Meat & Fish, the modern supper club on St. Paul’s East Side, bet his whole career on it. “I started buying Thousand Hills beef when I was at Muffuletta, and it ended up on a magazine cover,” Fratzke says. When he was approached about starting The Strip Club, he had one requirement: “I said, ‘My conditions are that we work with grass-fed beef, and it comes exclusively from Thousand Hills.’ I’m a Buddhist. I made the decision to follow that path when I was 19,” he says. “I find my spiritual connection to the world when I cook. If I can bring deliciousness and love and happiness to someone’s night, I feel like I’m doing my job in the spiritual chain of events.
“I was a vegetarian for a while, but I thought about Tibet, what was right for Buddhists there is to eat yak or what can live in their environment, and here we live in a grassland. How do you eat from a grassland and have a reverence for life? I grew up with German Lutheranism. I remember one of the first years I went duck hunting. I think I was 12 and my cousin was 13. My dad set us up on the far side of the creek in a boat. A duck went fluttering by. We both shot, someone hit it, it went fluttering and sailed into the woods. My dad was so pissed. He was mad at me for not knowing where the duck went. He took both our guns away, and we spent the day looking for that duck. If you take life from the world, you should have that reverence for that life. That’s why I’ve chosen Thousand Hills for the last half of my career.”
I stopped by The Strip Club one night for a New York strip from Thousand Hills. It was berry-bright, winey, tender, a little earthy, ideal. When I ate it, though, was I responding to mere flavor or something bigger? Can people tell the difference between a steak from a vital animal raised in a world of biodiversity and a flabby, ill one? Churchill is willing to give voice to many people’s deep sense that the answer to both those questions is yes. And he is finding support in the two places that matter: farms and markets.
VI. The Moral
“How do you measure abundance?” asks Churchill, pinpointing what he feels is the real question behind the questions that come at him daily now from customers and farmers. How do you quantify and measure something as loosey-goosey as abundance and then value it? “If abundance is maximizing the number of calories you can produce off of one acre, then abundance is genetically modified corn,” he says simply, as the sun dips down behind the highway out the truck-stop window. “But most people can feel abundance, like my memory from my childhood. I could feel the abundance in those hedgerows, but it didn’t lend itself to monetizing in the short term.
“What does abundance feel like? From a consumer standpoint, what does abundant life, which would be my definition of optimal health, what does that feel like? Is it just the absence of any clinically diagnosable diseases? Is that as good as it gets? Or is there something better than that? Is there a robustness, a vitality that’s greater than just the absence of disease? I’ve come to believe that there is. Few people have the ability to see what health looks like, but it’s become something I feel like I know. If you called me and said, ‘I want to sell you some cattle,’ when I come out and look at them the most important thing I’m looking for is that intangible vitality. I don’t even know how to describe exactly what it is. It’s like identifying counterfeit money. If you handle enough of it you just sort of know.
“If someone called me and said: ‘I’m still farming conventional, I don’t know or care about soil biology—and how much of a premium will I get with you?’ I’d find a tactful way out of that. I don’t trust people like that. If people have already gone through a philosophical transition to say, ‘I can’t wake up in my old world, I’m not excited about farming unless I can figure out how to farm biologically and with integrity,’ those are my people.”
We may all be those people soon, as the unforgiving math of corn as fuel continues to reshape the American beef cattle herd, and cheeseburgers transform into something very different than they were in the time of Sputnik, and Happy Days, and five years ago. What will our new American cheeseburger be like? If Churchill is right, it will be a rosy and robust vital creation of healthy soils, ethical stewardship, and sustainable economics. And it will be something King David himself would have recognized: just cattle, grazing on hills.
Grilling grass-fed beef: It takes a little longer, but it’s worth it.
The difference between cooking grass-fed beef and corn-fed has to do with how much intramuscular fat there is. Fat conducts heat (think of a deep-fat fryer—that’s also fat conducting heat). In a steak, fat conducts heat from the outside of the steak to the inside, so a corn-fed steak cooks faster, and since it’s essentially pre-larded with fat, there’s more wiggle room for a cook to goof up and still have things work out. In contrast, with grass-fed, your main goal is to not overcook.
“Grass-fed beef will cook slower,” says chef JD Fratzke of The Strip Club. “But I’ve never really treated grass-fed beef that much differently than corn-fed.”
Here are his five steps for a perfect steak:
- Get a steak that’s at least an inch-and-a-half thick.
- Build a fire that’s hot on one side (or get a grill pan very, very hot).
- Get caramelization marks and a nice crust on the hottest part of the fire (or the hottest pan you’ve got).
- Rest over low heat. After you’ve got your steak caramelized, move it to a cool part of the grill (or put it in the oven on low heat).
- Remove from heat and rest, like you would any steak, to let the juices redistribute. Slice and serve.