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Published August 05, 2013, 11:14 AM

Fresh meat

Jacky Wright last bought beef from a grocery store nine years ago. She didn’t go vegetarian and didn’t have a beef with a supermarket. She noticed a difference in taste.

By: Kyle Roerink, Star-Tribune (Casper, Wyo.)

Jacky Wright last bought beef from a grocery store nine years ago.

She didn’t go vegetarian and didn’t have a beef with a supermarket.

She noticed a difference in taste.

Wright is part of a growing movement of consumers in Wyoming who are buying their steaks, roasts, burgers and other cuts of meat directly from a rancher.

Wright knows a lot about the food she’s putting into her body. She leases 140 acres of land in Thermopolis to a ranching family that grows the cattle she eats.

“We know where they’re born and raised,” she says. “We know what they eat, and we know where they are slaughtered.”

Once a year, her family buys half of a steer and pays for it to be processed. The amount of meat they get when it comes back from the slaughterhouse fills three refrigerator-size freezers.

“It tastes so much better,” she says.

Charlie Scott, a Wyoming lawmaker and local rancher, has dabbled in selling cattle for consumption. He sells most of his cattle at auctions. But in the past couple of years, there’s been an increasing demand for his beef. It’s grass-fed and raised without hormones, antibiotics and genetically modified crops. A few years ago, he would save six cows every year for friends who wanted meat. Since then, that number has jumped to nearly 50, he says.

Casper resident Stacy Johnson hasn’t bought beef from a grocery store in six years. Her sister owns the Joe and Michele Simmons Ranch near Newcastle and sells Johnson beef that she takes to a slaughterhouse in Sundance. She prefers to buy her beef from her kin rather than local retailers where meat from Australia, Mexico, Canada and the U.S. all can be mixed in the same package.

Like Wright, Johnson knows the quality of life that her cattle had before going to slaughter. Between 30 and 40 families buy a part of a steer or heifer from Johnson’s sister.

“The beef is leaner, cheaper and it helps support a local family,” she says.

Buying from a local rancher helps cut out the middlemen. For any cut of beef, she pays $4 to $5 a pound.

“There’s no feedlot, no truckers and no stores,” she says. “Every single person in line needs to make a profit. With us, we only pay the rancher and the slaughterhouse.”

The tools grocery stores use to market their meat — friendly labels, value packs — are there to mislead customers, says Colt Adams, owner and butcher at Grant Street Grocery.

Consumer skepticism

Consumers should be skeptical when they see phrases like “Angus Select” or “Angus Choice” on a package of beef, says Vinny Lupo, manager of the Brattis Meat Market in Casper. Much of the meat sold in stores doesn’t grade high when inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, so chain stores use the welcoming stickers to give their product airs of quality, he says.

“For supermarkets it’s all about marketing — not grading,” Lupo says.

Lupo gets his beef — Gold Canyon Gourmet — from a ranch in the Black Hills of South Dakota. There are no steroids, hormones or antibiotics in the beef, he says. Lupo doesn’t use ersatz labels. USDA gives his product the highest grades: USDA Choice and USDA Select.

Grant Street Grocery buys its meat from a rancher in Alcova. Adams has a long-standing relationship with the man who raises the cattle that is sold in his store. It’s his father.

“It’s frustrating what the supermarkets do,” he says. “But it’s refreshing to see that consumers are becoming more educated.”

Adams doesn’t wrap his meat in plastic nor does he freeze his product.

“It takes away from the taste,” he says.

Adams says his father is like a chemist, figuring out formulas to make the best-tasting beef. His beef is all-natural and fed a vegetarian diet. He started feeding his cattle less corn and began mixing their feed with peas. It’s a trick they use for when the animal is slaughtered. The chemicals in the small, green vegetable help keep muscles moist while the animal sets into rigor mortis.

“It’s amazing the little tricks that make a big difference,” Adams says.

Adams is selling two cows worth of meat every week, he says. It’s been selling so well, his freezer was nearly empty on a recent Friday.

“People are going crazy for our beef,” he says.

Judy McCullough sells six steers or heifers every year to families who want home-grown beef. One goes to a family with health problems that wants to eat meat raised without chemicals. McCullough is the director of the Independent Cattlemen of Wyoming, and only sells the animals as a side project.

“When people want clean beef, I can get it for them,” she says. “And what they always notice first is the taste. It’s like the difference between a home-grown tomato and a store-bought tomato. It gives you that home-grown flavor.”