Dan Gibson’s cows are on the loose, and he’s not sure exactly where to find them. We’re cruising around in a mud-crusted pickup truck looking for the things, but Gibson doesn’t seem too worried. For starters, they’re easy enough to spot: great, hulking creatures, each one a tar-black half-ton standing out against the snowy ground.
And beyond that, it’s the cows’ job to roam around. Gibson’s farm is called Grazin’ Angus Acres for a reason.
Having your livestock at large isn’t a sign of willy-nilly farming—it’s part of Gibson’s intensely focused plan to create the best possible meat. Grazin’ Angus produces one thing: premium, 100 percent grassfed beef. (To be fair, it’s also home to a few chickens, whose droppings fertilize the grass that the cows eat, but the focus here is undoubtedly bovine.) The farm is in the tiny town of Ghent, New York, about 100 miles north of the city. It’s a world away from Brooklyn, but also a world away from mainstream beef production. Gibson describes his meat as “different, better and special”—a marketing tagline that happens to be entirely true.
Dan Gibson is not like most farmers. Sure, he raises Black Angus, whose natural marbling makes them the beloved breed for American beef. But he literally goes against the grain, forgoing the feedlot and instead describing himself as “a grass farmer” who has spent years carefully cultivating a “clean grass” mixture, a living blend he will expound upon at great length if you let him: “The amount of solar energy captured by my grass—between the ryes and the orchards and the clovers—it’s incredible! Do you know you can get as much omega-3 in our grassfed beef as in wild salmon? That’s a result of all of the sun’s energy in the grass.”
Dan’s herds nibble their way across 450 acres of grazing land, moving to new paddocks with fresh grass throughout their com paratively long lives. As the saying goes, time is money, so, in livestock farming, the objective is to get your animals to slaughter weight as quickly as possible. Cattle are typically slaughtered at just 12–15 months, when they clock in at around 1,000 pounds. But Gibson thinks that’s far too soon. “At that point, the animal is still growing, and the meat won’t be as marbled,” he says. He lets his steers live to the ripe old age of two and a half to three years—twice the typical slaughter age for grassfed beef—and they only weigh 30 percent more, but Gibson wouldn’t have it any other way. “Some farmers can’t afford or won’t take the time to get the product to that size range, but I’ll go to the market without product before I take them in early,” he says.
When a group of cows is finally ready, Gibson drives them an hour north to Eagle Bridge slaughterhouse. There the animals meet their fate, and their carcasses are hung for 21 days, which allows enzymes to break down the cell walls in the meat. It all yields exceptionally tender and juicy meat, with a healthy dose of omega-enhanced fat.
Gibson took an atypical path to these atypical methods. Many farmers are born into the job, the latest in a long family line. Others are young and idealistic, scruffy hipsters determined to reconnect with the land or to green urban spaces. Gibson falls into neither category. For nearly a decade, he was senior vice president of global affairs at Starwood Hotels and Resorts, the international corporation with chic hotels like W and Le Meridien to its name.
“My life was dinner parties and traveling all over the place,” he says. Gibson and his childhood-sweetheart-turned wife, Susan, shared a comfortable home in Westchester, and raised two children, Christine and Keith. Then 9/11 happened.
Christine was living in an NYU dorm in the Financial District when the planes hit, close enough to leave her covered in ash from the wreckage. Keith, a student at Pace University at the time, announced that he was dropping out to join the military. And that’s when Gibson, needing a retreat, decided to buy an upstate dairy farm. “I had no idea what to do with it,” he remembers. But he made the smart move of keeping the farm managers, Jim and Ilene Stark, on board as partners. He transitioned from dairy into beef, buying top-breed registered Angus to sell to other farms. And all the while, he was still living mainly in Westchester, working full-time for Starwood.
In a strange twist, it took a 2004 lunch meeting with a Wall Street client to transform Gibson into a farmer. The client had two children with autism, which he believed was exacerbated by food allergies, and he offered to buy an entire steer if Gibson could guarantee that the animal had been exclusively grassfed. Shortly thereafter, Gibson read a just-released copy of Michael Pollan’s exploration of American food systems, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and it’s no hyperbole to say that the book changed his life. “This light just went on in my head. Not as a business idea—this is not a lucrative business. But it was so powerfully moving to me that I had to do something,” says Gibson.
In 2007, Gibson quit his job with Starwood and he and Susan moved to Ghent full-time. Their custom-built pastoral dream home, perched atop a hill with panoramic views of the pastures and the distant Berkshires, is a meticulously maintained, highly romantic version of a traditional farmhouse. The land below is almost impossibly picturesque, a sea of sloping green pastures with dots of black slowly lumbering to and fro. Keith and his wife, Nicole, moved into a smaller house on the property, and Christine and her husband, Chip, eventually left Boerum Hill (where Christine taught kindergarten at PS 261) and followed suit. Today, the entire family lives and works on the farm. “My family knows exactly what’s going on here, every single day, and that creates a contract of trust with our customers.”
Customers also trust the farm because it bears a seal of approval from a not-for-profit called the Animal Welfare Institute. “The primary standards to receive the Animal Welfare Approved seal are that the farm is pasture-based, family-owned, and operates with the welfare of the animal at heart,” says AWA program director Andrew Gunther. “Grazin’ Angus hits all of those points without question. I think their meat is fantastic. The Gibsons care so much about their farm and farming, and their meat comes out with a truly enhanced flavor. The quality of Dan’s product speaks to the hard work he puts in to it.” The AWA certification program was launched in 2006, and Grazin’ Angus was the first farm in the city’s Greenmarket program to be awarded its seal.
The Gibsons’ commitment landed them in as the main course in a very marquee event—Chelsea Clinton’s wedding reception last July up in Rhinebeck, where guests dined upon Grazin’ Angus short ribs. Bold-faced names aside, it’s city home-cooks with whom Grazin’ Angus does their best business. “Greenmarket provides an educated audience who are as passionate as I am about what they eat,” says Gibson. “I go to the market so I can look into my customers’ eyes. Michael Pollan says to ‘shake the hand that feeds you,’ and we take that seriously.
We’ve turned vegetarians, talked to people with high cholesterol, and guided broke college students toward the best values. The younger audience are now some of our best customers—they care. I wish that when I was young I knew as much about our food systems as young folks do today.”
Grazin’ Angus sets up shop at the Carroll Gardens Greenmarket every Sunday, in a small tent manned by Dan, Susan, Keith or Chip. Their customers are a committed breed: most shop weekly, arrive early and buy in large quantities. “Brooklynites are at the forefront of the food movement,” says Gibson, who also sells at Union Square and has come to appreciate what’s unique about the eaters on this side of the East River. “They’re a well-read, sophisticated audience that clearly understands the critical issues surrounding the responsible production of food. Our steaks are popular everywhere, but our Brooklyn audience seems especially interested in more project-oriented cuts, like brisket, osso bucco and roasts.”
“I’m astonished at how poor in quality and nutrition the meat that comes from the industrial food chain is, plus I’m concerned with humane treatment of animals,” explains regular Carroll Gardens Greenmarket shopper Alex Basson. “[My wife and I] made a conscious choice to eat less meat, but eat higher-quality meat from producers we know and trust. We talk to Chip every week, and I know how important it is [to them] to raise, feed and treat their animals well.” Basson stocks up on tri-tip (“The first thing we ever bought from them, and my wife still talks about it”), chuck and hamburgers each Sunday, and he and his wife are considering a weekend trip upstate to the farm. “We’ve been so enthusiastic that we’ve converted a lot of our friends, too,” says Basson.
“Grazin’ Angus didn’t come into the Greenmarkets with much farming experience, but that hasn’t prevented them from becoming very successful very quickly,” says Greenmarket’s director, Michael Hurwitz. “They have mastered the art of creating a 100 percent grassfed product with a taste that’s second to none. Their meat is extremely high quality, and it reflects their vision and values. They did incredible research and they know to market their products incredibly well, which has allowed them to really thrive.”
Individual shoppers aren’t the only ones devoted to Grazin’ Angus—their meat shows up on a handful of city menus, including Carroll Gardens’ southern-tinged Seersucker. “It’s kind of a no-brainer for me: they’re right across the street, it’s incredibly high quality, and they’re a small local farmer,” says chef/owner Rob Newton. Newton buys Grazin’ Angus ground beef every Sunday and uses it all over his menu: in a lunchtime chili, in a decadent brunch meatloaf with stone-ground grits and tasso gravy, and in a juicy burger kissed with pimento cheese. “It eats really clean—if you’re going to eat beef, this is the way to do it. And as a small business owner myself, I want to help support other small businesses and farms,” says Newton. “It just makes sense.”
Back on the farm, a world away from the city restaurant scene, Dan and Susan watch the sun set over the Berkshires out of their kitchen window. If it sounds idyllic, remember that they were up at 3:00 a.m. packing coolers of raw meat. But Dan, who traded blazers and late nights for overalls and early mornings, doesn’t regret it for a second. “We have invested our life savings in Grazin’ Angus and we’ve seen it grow.” And Gibson did finally have the chance to meet Michael Pollan at the Greenmarket when Pollan was doing a news piece with Natalie Morales. “When I was a hotel executive I met lots of ‘important’ people,” says Gibson. “But never have I been so impressed as that brief meeting with Pollan. He was modest when I told him that he completely changed my life and that I believed The Omnivore’s Dilemma was the most important book of our time. He simply said that I was being ‘extremely gracious’ and he thanked me!” Dan shakes his head. “I truly believe that we can change the world, one happy customer at a time.”
Bookwork Turns Bull Headed: The Omnivore’s Dilemma changed Gibson’s life.
Rob Newton of Seersucker buys Grazin’ Angus ground beef at the Carroll Gardens Greenmarket and uses it in a brunch meatloaf with stone-ground grits and tasso gravy, in a lunchtime chili and in a juicy burger kissed with pimento cheese.
The farm’s reputation landed their short ribs as the main course in Chelsea Clinton’s wedding reception. Bold-faced names aside, it’s city home cooks with whom Grazin’ Angus does their best business.
Photo credit: June Russell, Michael Harlan Turkell and Max Flatow.