SUSTENANCE AND SUSTAINING A LOCAL ECONOMY

NMU partners with Superior Angus

MARQUETTE — Brian Gustafson comes from a family of farmers.

In 1902, his great-great-grandfather established a farm in Rapid River, which has since grown into a three-farm operation that is today called Superior Angus LLC.

For about the past year, Superior Angus has been providing pasture-raised beef to Northern Michigan University Dining Services, an arrangement that was just recently made public.

Gustafson said the partnership has provided a “significant boost” for Superior Angus and has allowed the family farm to grow.

“With the help of NMU last year, we’ve doubled our production,” he said. “That’s been about three years now in a row we’ve been able to double our production.”

Gustafson said his farm also supplies meat to other businesses in Marquette County, including Superior Entertainment Center and the Marquette Food Co-op.

“It’s neat to see my family’s product on the shelf, and it’s really exciting to see someone purchase it and bring it home for their family,” he said. “That completes the circle.”

Superior Angus doesn’t claim to be “organic or all natural,” Gustafson said, but the methods the family uses are pretty pure.

“We raise our animals like our grandparents used to raise them,” he explained, “before all the hormones, antibiotics and that type of stuff … It’s back to the basics.”

The farm’s 200 or so cows, along with some sheep, are pasture-raised within the roughly 13 miles of fence line covering three distinct farms, where the family makes their own hay and grows their own corn. The cattle have access to well water all year, and for a small portion of their lives, their diet is supplemented with grain, something Gustafson said helps with marbling and improves the quality of the meat.

“We raise happy cows,” he said, hinting at a phrase his mother coined. “It’s a pretty stress-free environment.”

Superior Angus’ cattle are marketed year-round, unlike some of the bigger producers, Gustafson said, which focus on raising calves quickly, occasionally with growth enhancers, so that the farm can market and sell off a group of grown cattle every fall.

“We ship our animals year-round based on what our customers need,” Gustafson said. “Animals are like people; they mature at different times, and as our animals mature, we sell them.”

NMU’s Executive Chef Nathan Mileski said the university was drawn toward the way Superior Angus raises its animals, as well as a way to support a local economy.

“Students really are asking to know where their food comes from and what we can do more sustainably,” he said.

Through Superior Angus, NMU has the ability to track exactly where the animal originated, Mileski explained.

“We can buy grass-fed beef and those things local through some of the bigger manufacturers, but they’re pulling from slaughterhouses within the Midwest … and they can’t trace the animal,” he said. “We can tell the story that we can actually trace the animal to the farm. We have customers in catering that ask those questions; like brides come in and they say, ‘I only want local beef and I want to know which farm that beef came from.’ And they’re willing to pay that extra cost because they feel better about purchasing that meat because they know how it was raised and how it was treated.”

In early 2016, NMU announced a partnership with Skandia-based BSB Farms to supply the university with eggs laid by cage-free, pasture-raised chickens.

“By doing things like beef and eggs — and we’re hoping to start looking at dairy at some point — those things that are year-round up here, those make the most sense for us to make those partnerships,” Mileski said.

NMU has been averaging about one to two heads of cattle per month, Mileski said, but that could pick up as the use of Superior Angus’ beef spreads to other NMU operations and more on-campus dining locations, outside of those within the University Center.

Mileski said NMU was also drawn to Superior Angus because it’s a local operation, as the university wants to more than double the percentage of what it purchases annually from local businesses.

“The definition of local is 250 miles,” he said. “It’s hard in the U.P. to do that, considering we’re on Lake Superior, but again, I think right now we’re at about 4 percent local purchasing; we’re shooting for 9 percent of local purchasing by 2020. I think that’s a realistic goal over the next couple years.”

Though the cost may be a little higher for NMU than contracting with larger farms and producers, Mileski said the university has taken steps to balance the expense, including transitioning to small-plate meals at student dining facilities, rather than a buffet style setting.

“What we’re doing is we’re portioning it,” he said. “So we know that we’re serving anywhere between 2 and 4 ounces of protein, say beef for example, … and by portioning that, even though the cost is more expensive, there’s less waste and we know exactly what’s going on the plate, so we’re able to balance that cost that way.”

Another way, he said, is by using the entire animal that’s purchased.

“We get everything from nose to tail and we’re using those parts,” he said. “From the livers to the tongue, the bones, we’re making stocks, all that stuff is being incorporated into menus. We do bizarre food days, so that’s our outlet for liver and tongue and oxtail and those types of things, and the students have been really receptive to it, and they’re willing to try it.”

Ryan Jarvi can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 270. His email address is rjarvi@miningjournal.net.