You may know it for its immaculate beaches, fine arts scene, and enduring sunshine, but Sarasota is also home to lush green farmland – open space that’s good for grazing. In fact, conditions here make it one of the most efficient cattle-raising areas in the country.
We spoke to this month’s Locavore, Chuck Johnston, and after one conversation with him, our food assumptions were challenged to the core. “I like to say farmers were the first environmentalists,” says Chuck Johnston, who with his wife Peggy, owns and manages 2J Farms in Sarasota. “It’s our job to practice sustainable methods, so we stay in tune with the environment.”
Past president and current director of the Sarasota Cattlemen’s Association, chairman of the Beef Advisory Council for the Florida Farm Bureau, and vice-chair of the Soil and Water Conservation District Board of Sarasota County, Johnston loves the land and his animals. His cows graze on the open range, a beautiful plot of earth that Johnston works hard to preserve. Who knew grass-fed beef was raised right here in sunny Sarasota?
“The truth is,” says Johnston, “all beef is grass-fed, so the term doesn’t have a lot of meaning.”
Well, that’s confusing. We’ve been hearing grass-fed beef is the way to go: more nutritious, humane, and environmentally sensitive. Turns out we may not understand the whole story.
“Here in Sarasota, we have conditions that make it an ideal cow/calf area,” says Johnston. That means the land grows grass with the correct nutrition for a momma cow that is nursing her calf. Calves stay in pasture for about six months before they move north – to a state such as Alabama, Georgia, or Kentucky – where the land is able to grow high-quality grasses, clover, and rye. From there, they move out west to the corn belt to be finished and harvested.”
Johnston says it bothers some people that he raises cattle but doesn’t sell his beef to the public. “They say, ‘I want grass-fed beef. Why doesn’t Chuck Johnston grow me some grass-fed beef?’” he laughs. “But the land here is sandy and light. It can’t produce what those growing calves need.
Imagine this stage in a cow’s life as the teen years when kids eat you out of house and home. The calves want to eat everything in sight. It would be inhumane to make them forage out here, so we send them to up north where they can get what they need. Think of it as boarding school.”
There was a time when this wasn’t the case. Before the highways came through, people ate what the land could provide. But with the interstate, it became possible – and economically feasible – to ship the cattle to the feed. Shipping the herd to the proverbial greener pasture meant the cattle grew fat in much less time. Beef was suddenly accessible to the masses, and the demand skyrocketed. The public demand is still high – astronomical, in fact – and now some consumers want beef to be raised as it used to be: off the local land.
“I think that’s great,” says Johnston. “But a lot of times the local land can’t keep up with the demand, as is the case here in South Florida. Consumers should know the care and nutrition we’re giving our cattle, regardless of whether it’s labeled grass-fed.”
JOHNSTON SAYS HE OFTEN DISPELS THREE MAIN MYTHS:
Other farmers don’t care for their animals; they’re only out for profit. “Farmers do care about profit; this is a business. But we’re also concerned about our land and animals. If we don’t care for them, we’ll put ourselves out of business.”
ANTIBIOTICS ARE BAD TO FEED TO ANIMALS.
“We take antibiotics when we’re sick. Why would it be different for an animal?”
BEEF LABELED “GRASS-FED” IS BETTER FOR THE ENVIRONMENT THAN OTHER BEEF.
“Here’s a true story: a large piece of land has been purchased in North Florida. Beautiful grasses and grains have been planted so cows can stay in one place from birth to harvest. The problem is, Florida can’t sustain that grass naturally. Thirteen million gallons of water must be pumped in every day so the grass will grow. Thirteen million. Every day. I don’t think that’s really helping the environment.”
Johnston’s mission is to raise nutritious, safe beef on land that will thrive for generations. He understands he is the current land manager, but many will follow. He lives with a commitment to pass the land on better than he found it. We appreciate Johnston’s respect for our land, our community, and our food, and we’re proud to feature him as this month’s Locavore.