Bill Gale grew up in the dairy business, starting at age 10 by helping his dad milk cows. He eventually took over the family dairy in Middleton but says it was never quite profitable.
"I was pretty much going broke milking cows so I had to get out of that. ... If you can't make any money milking cows, then what's your next option?" he asked.
For Gale, it was grass-fed beef. He linked up with Ed Wilsey and Keith Huettig to form Homestead Natural Foods (homesteadnatural.com ), an agricultural cooperative that specializes in grass-fed, hormone-free beef but also sells all-natural pork and poultry.
"The philosophy of what we're doing is grass-fed beef, a much healthier product," said Gale. "Cows just live on the grass their whole life. ... We don't feed them any grain, ever."
Gale says that feeding grain to cattle might be more efficient--ranchers can get cattle ready for market in about 14-16 months, as opposed to 18-30 months for grass-fed cows--but it's taking a toll on health.
"Feeding grain to cattle has ... only happened in the last 50-75 years," Gale said. "Everybody thought it was the right idea because you could get cattle to market quicker. But it wasn't a good idea because it made for unhealthy cattle and unhealthy people."
Homestead contends that, in addition to containing more Omega-3 fatty acids, beta-carotene and Vitamin E, grass-fed beef is naturally lower in total fat and contains about 30 percent fewer calories than conventional beef.
"Some people say that grass-fed beef has a gamey taste. We call it robust," said Gale. "It takes time to put the flavor in beef. I've read quite a few articles on this; at about 18-24 months, beef starts having a 'beef' flavor. But before then, if you kill cattle at too young an age, they have kind of a liver-y taste."
Gale says Homestead waits for each cow to reach its proper maturity before it is sent to Northwest Premium Meats in Nampa to be processed.
"We just kind of let every animal grow at its own natural pace and when it's really smooth across the back and they're looking pretty fat, then it's their time to go," said Gale.
Gale says being a part of a three-farm cooperative has allowed Homestead to flourish.
"Most local producers, whether it's vegetables or whatever it is, are all kind of sole-proprietorship things--one person's got an idea and he's doing the marketing and the growing and everything," he said. "So the cooperative spirit that Homestead has, where we have three different producers coming from three different backgrounds, gives us some flexibility that other outfits don't have and gives us some insight that other outfits don't have."