Fitger’s Brewhouse gets into the ranching business

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With cold winters and short summers, Duluth is not the first place people think of when it comes to locally grown, sustainable food. But the movement is picking up steam in the region.

Twenty local organizations — including the City of Duluth itself — signed on to a “local foods charter.” This charter is part of the Good Food Network, which is coordinated by four organizations: Lake Superior Sustainable Farming Association, Duluth Community Garden Program, University of Minnesota Duluth-Sustainable Agriculture Project and the Institute for a Sustainable Future.

Six local restaurants belonging to the Good Food Network recently pledged to source 20 percent of their food from local farms by 2020. And Fitger’s Brewhouse just bought its own cattle ranch.

This fall the Brewhouse purchased a 60-acre ranch near Beaver Bay, along with several cattle from Grey Owl Farms. The company will supply more of its beef for all its restaurants in-house. Co-owner Tim Nelson says that while local food has just recently become trendy, the project was started well before those trends.

“Right now it seems obvious,” Nelson said. “Two years ago it wasn’t about [going] local.”

Nelson says the seeds for the idea were planted back in 1997, when the brewery started giving away its spent grain to cattle farmers. Spent grain, a byproduct of beer brewing (basically, the husks left over after the sugars are leached out to make wort), is commonly used as animal feed; and since the brewery now produces more than 3,000 pounds of spent grain a week, it made sense to complete the cycle.

“Our goal is to go local and sustainable,” Nelson said, “try to get as much efficiencies built back into that system as possible.”

So far the herd has six cattle (each is good for around 500 pounds of meat) and there is talk of starting a breeding program to get an entire herd. The cattle are Scottish Highland, a hardy breed originally from Scandinavia that can survive Minnesota winters. The long hair gives them a unique look, and their long horns mean they can hold their own against predators found in Minnesota.

“If a wolf pack comes in and surrounds a herd, the bulls and the steers will go out and circle the wolves,” Nelson says. “They’ve got those long twisty horns and the wolves are like, ‘Let’s get out of here.’”

Currently taking care of the cattle is Rob Strom, the facilities manager for the company. The cattle are staying on his 80-acre property in Twig until the Beaver Bay land is ready to be used. Strom has a background in environmental science and says that the techniques Fitger’s is using are a far cry from the slash-and-burn agriculture seen in the third world or the feedlot approach used by big U.S. agribusiness.

“It’s kind of funny that an environmental science guy is doing cattle ranching,” Strom says. “We really run a non-cliché business.”

The cattle are mostly grass-fed (spent grain is used primarily later in their lifecycle). To control wear and tear on the land, Strom has the cattle doing rotational grazing, where the pasture is segmented off by fences and the cattle graze only one area at a time. This kind of agriculture actually replenishes the soil over time.

Raising cattle isn’t always easy. When two of the cattle got loose, Strom spent the entire day driving around looking for them. To get them to follow him back to the farm, he tossed out a handful of grain, ran a few feet toward the farm while they butted heads over it, and repeated the process — for three miles. But, Strom said, the work is worth it if it means providing more sustainable options for customers.

“It’s … a lot harder than just getting your beef at the cheapest market price,” Strom says. “But we’re going to hold strong to our beliefs.”