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Story of a Steak

How does one special steak served with beets, carrots and fingerling potatoes get from the ranch to the table? A writer follows the trail and discovers how one small network of Montana farmers and chefs is challenging the way the rest of America eats.

This is the story of a steak—a grilled rib eye served in an Armagnac sauce, with roasted beets, carrots and fingerling potatoes, to be precise—that came from a long-haired Scottish Highland steer raised nine miles outside Dell, Montana, and that ended up on a plate at the Savory Olive restaurant in Bozeman. It's a good steak too—deep red, lightly marbled, tender and aged for 28 days to deepen its flavor. So good that a chef once quit serving it because it caused his customers to complain about the quality of everything else on the menu.

The reason this rib eye is so good is that Skip Hougland and Wally Congdon have spent the past 10 years perfecting it. Skip, the fire marshal at Montana State University, and Wally, the Beaverhead County deputy attorney, together own and lease the 5,000 acres that comprise the ranch lands of Big Sky Natural Beef. Their hope is to avoid going the way of so many cattle ranchers in the American West, which is to have their land added to a larger piece of property or sold to a developer.

This is where Eric Stenberg enters the story—and it's not hard to see where he fits in. Eric, a co-owner and co-chef of the Savory Olive, wears his vocational philosophy on his favorite T-shirt: a white cotton Hanes with three black silhouettes across the chest—a chicken, a pig and a cow—and the slogan ANIMALS TASTE GOOD. Eric founded the Savory Olive with fellow chef Heather Hand last March after working at the renowned organic restaurant Higgins, in Portland, Oregon. The Savory Olive is at the forefront of the sustainability movement in Montana, offering a menu on which virtually every dish is made from sustainably produced ingredients—from artichokes to duck, bacon and blue cheese.

Defining sustainability is tricky. It's easier to say what it isn't: bad for cows, bad for ranchers, bad for the environment and bad for consumers. At least according to Skip and Wally, who are unimpressed with America's more mainstream cattle-ranching methods. For them, sustainability means preventing cows from overgrazing and thereby degrading the land, and fattening the cattle without using large doses of growth hormones, a practice they consider not only artificial but too expensive to maintain for long. For the farmers who grow the beets, carrots and potatoes that accompany Skip and Wally's steaks, sustainability means rotating crops to avoid taxing the soil, and eschewing chemicals. Ultimately, what these ranchers and farmers want is for customers to be able to "verify the source," in sustainability parlance: to know exactly where their food comes from and how it got to their plates.

In the case of the Savory Olive's rib eye, the beef comes from southern Beaverhead County—a fertile prairie just south of Dell, between the Beaverhead Mountains in the west and the Ruby Range in the east. To get to the Big Sky ranch, you head south along the Beaverhead River on Interstate 15 from Dillon, Montana, on a road that's bordered by hundreds of square miles of hills blocked in yellow and green grass and scattered pockets of Douglas fir. Twenty miles or so south of the ranch, over Monida Pass and across the state line, the Idaho desert takes control before giving way, 95 miles off the interstate, to an even more desolate landscape: the black, inhospitable lava flows of Craters of the Moon.

Wally, who grew up in Missoula, Montana, and spent his summers cowboying on local ranches during high school and college, bought his land outside Dell—population 12—in 1996. In 1999, Wally met Skip, who had worked as a cow trader on and off for 12 years and, like Wally, considered ranching his true calling. They decided to join forces, with the idea that there had to be a better, more environmentally sound way to produce beef. Big Sky was incorporated in 2000.

Together, Skip and Wally figured out an alternative to traditional ranching, which aims to get cows fat as quickly as possible, shipping them long distances to feedlots to be "finished," or bulked up with grain and hormones in a final, frenzied 90 days. Skip and Wally decided that raising Highland cows using sustainable ranching methods and selling the meat to local customers was a better solution.

"People call them 'hippie cows' because of the long hair on their foreheads," Skip says. "But that hair, along with their thicker hides, keeps them warm during our six-month winters. Because they put on less fat for insulation, they produce better, leaner meat. They're not like commercial breeds that have been extensively cross-bred. Plus they've just got nice dispositions."

To improve the quality of their beef, Skip and Wally raise the cattle for 36 months before slaughter—twice as long as the industry standard. They supplement the herd's natural diet of grass with a small amount of grain to enhance the flavor of the beef. And since their animals are less prone to illness than those raised on a crowded feedlot, the ranchers save money on antibiotics.

Skip and Wally are also devoted to protecting their land. They allow the cattle one grazing in a given section, then let the grass regenerate. And they avoid killing coyotes, badgers and gophers, the classic enemies of Western cattlemen—badgers and gophers because they dig holes into which cows can stumble and break their legs, and coyotes because they occasionally kill calves.

"If you kill the badgers," says Wally, "then the gophers get out of control because there aren't any more badgers to eat them. So then you have to poison the gophers, which also poisons the mice. That kills all the hawks and eagles who eat the mice. And because the coyotes also eat the mice, when the mice are all gone, then the calves start looking really tasty." Big Sky's ranch is also elk-friendly: "We have elk all over our ranch, because we keep the cattle from decimating the grass," Wally says. "Our cows eat the marginal grasses that would otherwise block the growth of the more succulent grasses that elk prefer."

This symbiotic state of affairs, Wally says, makes for a rib eye that is not only tastier than others but as recognizable to him as each of the 160 head of cattle he raises each year. If asked to try 10 steaks, he says, he'd know which one was his. The distinctive flavor of the beef and the care that goes into producing it makes what's beneath the drizzling of Armagnac sauce that much more appealing, in the same way that, say, a hand-carved armoire signed by its maker is more pleasing than a mass-produced dresser from Ikea.

Where Ikea has it over the woodworker is where distributors like Sysco have it over Wally and Skip: getting the product to the consumer. If your food travels an average of 1,500 miles to get to your plate (and it does), it's hard to believe that Skip and Wally, who lack the infrastructure of a major trucking company, can have more trouble getting their steaks the 150 or so miles from the ranch to the Savory Olive.

But if Eric doesn't get a side of beef the day he's been promised it, he's willing to improvise. "I'm a chef," Eric says. "I cook because I like to make things up." Without this understanding between chefs and producers, the sustainable-foods movement would probably not go far. Eric wants badly for ranchers like Skip and Wally to succeed, not just because he has linked his livelihood with theirs, but because he appreciates how hard their lives can be.

"The ranchers and farmers don't make much money—and their work is brutal. They do it because they believe in the right thing. I'm happy to pay a bit more for their products," Eric says.

"Eric knows that at some point a storm will hail our crop of beets to death the day before we're supposed to make a delivery," says Matt Rothschiller, who, with his wife Jacy, started Gallatin Valley Botanical in March, the same month the Savory Olive opened. "But he knows the Sysco truck can't beat that-day fresh."

Matt has seen the producer-restaurant relationship from both sides. He worked for seven years as a waiter at a Montana restaurant where he sold the chef vegetables from his garden. "Eventually," he says, "I had to assume that since everyone was telling me how much better my vegetables were, there'd be a wider market for them."

By rotating the crops to allow the soil to remain healthy, and by using only organic herbicides, Matt and Jacy end up with carrots and beets that are sweet, tender and nonstarchy. Brad and Kim Bauerly, who own the organic farm Gaia Gardens, follow much the same procedure in growing their potatoes.

By Matt's reckoning, he and Jacy need six restaurants as customers in order for Gallatin Valley to make it. Right now they have two: the Savory Olive and By Word of Mouth, in Big Sky. Add to this that all six restaurants must be nearby and that Bozeman and Big Sky are both relatively small and relatively isolated, and it's easy to see why Matt still works as a waiter and Jacy has a second job replanting damaged wetlands.

Skip and Wally don't have plans to quit their day jobs either. They couldn't survive just by ranching. Still, it's clear what keeps them going. "Some people love dogs or horses," says Skip. "I just love cows. People say you're nuts to go into ranching. Well, I'd be crazy without it."

Nick Reding, a freelance writer based in New York, is the author of The Last Cowboys at the End of the World: The Story of the Gauchos of Patagonia.

Published November 2003
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