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Thousand Hills Cattle Co. owner Todd Churchill expects to herd 3,500 grass-fed animals through his meat company and distribution network this year. -Submitted photo

Grass fed beef: Described by diners as 'the way beef used to taste'

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CANNON FALLS - Since 2003, Thousand Hills Cattle Company in Cannon Falls, Minn., has experienced slow and steady growth. That just changed. In early July, the small firm went nationwide, selling a limited showcase of its products at Super Target locations across the nation. What's so special about their beef? It is 100 percent grass fed, and proponents of grass fed beef tout its health benefits, not to mention the flavor.

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"My responsibility is to be sure that it's the most amazing eating experience they've ever had. I spend most of my time worrying about that."

~ Todd Churchill

Slate.com, a robust online magazine, performed an unscientific study with a panel of tasters and summed up the results of grass fed beef this way: "Never have I witnessed a piece of meat so move grown men (and women). Every taster but one instantly proclaimed the grass-fed steak the winner, commending it for its 'beautiful,' and 'extra juicy' flavor that 'bursts out on every bite.'"

This isn't news to Todd Churchill, the co-owner of Thousand Hills. He set out almost 10 years ago to get grass fed beef in front of customers where they were already shopping. Getting the product into stores took all kinds of effort, but that's not what he obsesses about. Rather, he works hard to be sure that when someone tries his product, they don't go back.

"My responsibility is to be sure that it's the most amazing eating experience they've ever had," he said. "I spend most of my time worrying about that."

Apparently, he is accomplishing that goal. Their business has tripled in the past three years to 3,500 head of cattle handled in 2012. That constitutes just 1 percent of the beef sales in the seven-county metro region, so there's plenty of room for growth, but Churchill is encouraged.

To handle the growth, Churchill is working hard to sign on more producers. Cattle for the company are raised primarily from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota. The producers all must meet requirements set forth by Thousand Hills.

Among the protocols: there can be no hormones or antibiotics; calves must remain on their mother's milk for at least 90 days; the cattle must be put to pasture to graze on grasses and legumes upon which no pesticides or herbicides are used; in the winter they eat hay; and feeding in confinement lots is prohibited.

The cattle are then all transported to Cannon Falls, where they are handled by a local butcher, Lorentz Meats.

The price for all this, as you can imagine, is passed along to consumers. The going rate for a pound of grass fed ground beef is about $6.50, about double the price of what you'll find in a major supermarket. But they must be doing something worth spending a few extra bucks on - they've tripled the business in three years, all during a recession.

In part, the growth is due in part to the purported health benefits. Grass fed beef is higher in omega-3 fatty acids, something we typically think we get from fish, like salmon.

Locations

Sales at Minnesota-based Super Targets are strong, prompting the chain to stock the products across the nation. Target, though, is new to the grass fed game.

Churchill remembers his company's first retail location, Fresh and Natural Foods in Shoreview, Minn. It wasn't long before that store's location in Hudson, Wis., picked up the products. They were the fifth location to stock Thousand Hills beef. Nowadays, many markets in our footprint boast the same beef, from small independent co-ops to some chains.

Here is where the products are available in the region:

Minnesota

Hastings - Spiral Natural Foods

Woodbury - Kowalski's Market and Tailor Made Nutrition

Red Wing - River Bend Market Co-op and Simple Abundance

Lake City - Hope's Harvest Natural Foods and Deli

Apple Valley - Super Target

Wisconsin

Hudson - Family Fresh Market and Fresh and Natural Foods

Hudson - County Market

River Falls - Family Fresh Market and Whole Earth Grocery

New Richmond - Family Fresh Market

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