SPARR — Pay no attention to the buffalo. The two shaggy beasts are magnificent and rare even in the low hills of Florida horse country, but they'd do better at home on another range.
Consider this pair a romantic distraction.
Focus on the familiar cattle under the trees instead. They are a common local breed called Black Baldies and a few Red Angus, all remarkable not for their breed but for their feed. These cows and calves are among the rare cattle in Florida raised in pastures and nourished on mothers' milk and grass all their lives.
If that sounds normal, the way you think cattle are always raised and fed, you are out of touch with modern farming. Today's beef operations truck 700,000 calves a year to feedlots in Texas, Kansas and other places where they fatten them on grain to produce the corn-fed beef that many steak lovers brag about.
Not so these specimens lounging under the live oaks in the fork between U.S. 441 and U.S. 301, just north of Ocala. They belong to Al and Erin Rosas, champions of a small group of organic ranchers with a sense of evangelism and an unabashed taste for grass-fed meat as much as for artisan farming.
The couple will raise perhaps 70 cattle without hormones and antibiotics this year on their grass pastures. It's a small "free range,'' a hundred or so acres in pasture and forage, but friendly and homey.
They get premium prices, up to $16 a pound for Delmonicos at retail, from eager chefs and home cooks who prize grass-fed beef as more flavorful, healthful, natural and old-fashioned, good for people, animals and the environment.
"It's phenomenal. I've used it from beef cheeks to the tail and everything in between,'' says Sarasota chef Tommy Klauber of Pattigeorge's and the Polo Grill in Lakewood Ranch, where Rosas Farms burgers are always on the menu.
Meat is the master
Beef is not all that Rosas Farms can put on the center of the plate. They raise wild boar from litters orphaned by hunters in the nearby forest. Hundreds of Barred Rock and Red Star hens wander between the back door and the coops, chewing up any thoughts of a garden. But the eggs they leave, brown, cream and sunrise blue, will go far down the road to the kitchens of the Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress in Orlando.
The eggs are beauties with yolks as orange as marigolds and as thick as syrup. At $3.99 a dozen, they are bargain jewels.
Plus, the freezer is stocked with venison, artisan Berkshire and Red Wattle pork and bison, too, in steaks, roasts, sausage, even kielbasa, all raised by very small producers. Many of them Erin has known since her childhood in Wisconsin. They also get cheese from Amish dairies, wild salmon and other favorites of green consumers, but they are raised elsewhere.
"Meat, meat, meat,'' says Erin, standing in the big rambling kitchen she calls Proteinville, where Al has just served up a tasting of wild boar, ribeye steak, venison sausage, bison bratwurst, hamburger and eggs sunny-side up.
This generation of whole-earth growers differ from the old-school health food fanatics in more than omnivorousness.
Al has branded himself the "Organic Chef" but he and Erin and other contemporary growers no longer see abstaining from fertilizers, pesticides and hormones as their most salable competitive edge.
They are quick to make the health arguments of the grass-fed movement — food that is gluten-free, lower in fat, calories and E. coli, but higher in Omega-3 fatty acids and vitamins A and E.
They call the megacorporations that sell organic brands "opportunists'' and insist that their kind of farming is more than organic. It is slow, sustainable, green, low-impact and grown on small holdings where locals can buy directly from the farmers and see where their food came from.
The organic way
"We're the last frontier,'' Erin says, referring to the national fashion linking restaurants with the revival of small farming. In other cities, menus often tout nearby sources of lettuce, mushrooms and pork chops. But in Florida, most farmers cater to the national market while sophisticated chefs and diners must forage to find local produce, and many don't care.
The Rosases were surprised and disappointed about the state of food when they moved to Florida 20 years ago. Erin had grown up on a farm south of Lake Superior and had been around cattle, hay and race horses all her life. "Everything we ate was fresh,'' she says. Al, who had been transferred from Milwaukee, was a corporate chef, and he too was dismayed.
After a year in Tampa they bought the farm north of Ocala, raised hay for horses and have been selling grass-fed and artisan livestock and dairy to chefs in North and Central Florida ever since.
They are the perfect poster couple to make the pitch, photogenic 40-somethings who homeschool their children, love to barter, brag on the health benefits of a natural lifestyle and dub themselves the hippies on the hill. They are also city-slick enough to have been Arthur Murray dance instructors and martial arts competitors.
Al was named culinary entrepreneur of the year in the Cordon d'Or ceremony in St. Petersburg in January. Erin has been Stonyfield Yogurt's Woman of the Year and Rosas Farms has just been named a finalist in the national Small Business of the Year competition.
To promote their cause, they publish a magazine, do a radio show, are publishing a book and have created a corporate retreat in a back field. For hands-on motivating, they rehabbed a double-wide trailer in a far pasture as a corporate retreat with reclaimed Chinese farm furniture plus DSL and HBO, and garnished with a five-course dinner and breakfast fresh from the henhouse. No other amenities except an open sky and country quiet, it is rented to groups as diverse as mortgage bankers and cruise ship chefs three nights a week (at $1,500 a night for eight).
The revival of organic farms and community supported agriculture, where families buy shares in large vegetable gardens, has grown slowly in Florida. It now includes a dozen other farmers who raise cattle as the Rosases do.
They stretch from the Panhandle as far south as Dade City and Wimauma, with most of them clustered in the center of the state. Some sell directly to families that buy half a steer or a quarter in advance and pick up hundreds of pounds of meat after slaughtering. A few, including the Rosases, cater to top-dollar chefs of ingredient-driven restaurants, such as Klauber and others in Sarasota.
Besides their main wholesale business, the Rosases have a small retail outlet in the hay barn off U.S. 301. It's jammed with freezers, a cooler for eggs and cheese, plus meat and fish. Much of it is not local but grown on small farms in Wisconsin and elsewhere. "It's as close as we can get and we guarantee the artisan farmers a good price they can't get from the big boxes,'' Erin says.
And even their coolers in Sparr are not close enough to Florida's larger populations to feed very many locavore purists conveniently or cheaply.
But every herd starts with a few head, and Florida's grass-fed cattle are on the way back.
Just like the buffalo.
Chris Sherman can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8585.