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We Grilled A Rancher And A Mushroom Grower On Colorado's Latest Meat-Filled Feud

Dryland cattle graze on the Great Plains in Colorado.
Scott Bauer
Dryland cattle graze on the Great Plains in Colorado.

Gov. Jared Polis declared Saturday, March 20 MeatOut Day, encouraging Coloradans to go one day without eating meat. The proclamation spurred backlash across state lines from some in the meat industry and allied politicians. Having heard from diametrically opposed politicians for weeks on the matter, we wanted to see where actual meat and meat alternative producers in Colorado stand on the matter. Do they feel as opposed as the predominant narrative suggests?

Aaron Rice is owner and operator of Jodar Farms, a sustainable, pasture-raised meat operation in Wellington, Colorado. Tyler Huggins is co-founder and CEO of Meati Foods, a Boulder company that makes a fungi-based meat alternative. This week, both were guests on Colorado Edition to discuss the Meat-out day and the meat and alternative meat industries in Colorado.

Interview Highlights:
These interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Aaron Rice, Jodar Farms

Erin O’Toole: Can you tell us a little bit about your farm? How big is it? What do you raise? Where does your operation stand in relation to larger meat-production landscape in the state?

We run a small family farm just north of Fort Collins, in Wellington. We have about 70 acres that are pasture for chickens, pigs, a little bit of lambs. We're pretty small.

I understand that you practice something called rotational livestock management, some times also associated with regenerative agriculture. Can you explain what that’s about?

Yeah. Our practices are based on rotating animals through the pastures and letting the pastures rest before the animals are out foraging and taking advantage of being outside. Our mindset is to utilize the natural habitat and try to create a system that really matches the way that the animals — especially chickens and pigs — are meant to be raised.

What was your reaction first of all, to Gov. Polis’ declaration of a meat-free holiday, and second, to the backlash that we’ve seen against it?

Yeah, you know, when I first heard about it, it kind of went right off my back. I didn't think much about it — was pretty indifferent. But it doesn't bother me as much as I think it bothers others. It feels like it's just pandering to a certain part of Polis’ demographic that he's looking to gain some political points with.

I think it was a little shortsighted. He could have used this as an opportunity to, instead of demonizing the whole ranching industry, maybe he could have said, hey, this is a great place for us to be supporting sustainable and regenerative agriculture.

Can you talk a little bit about the sustainable meat industry in Colorado? How important is it to the state’s economy?

The sustainable meat industry is a big part of farming and ranching in Colorado. It's a growing segment. In terms of the economy, I think it's still a small segment, but it is growing. And as the consumer base decides that this is what they want, we are starting to see an increase in demand year after year.

Clearly, some see a meat-free holiday and a push for more plant-based diet as a threat to the meat industry. Do you agree with that?

I can see where people would find that and could make that connection. And you do have to be on your guard a little bit as our industry has made it very difficult for small-scale ag. But I didn't see it as a threat so much as just another day that they decided to push some agenda, you know? But I think unfortunately for them, it's maybe created more attention for meat instead of vegetable-based and plant-based diets.

One thing that puts sustainably raised meat out of reach for many Coloradans is the cost. It’s a lot more expensive than conventionally raised meat. Why is that? What are the barriers to reducing that cost to make this higher-quality product more accessible?

When it comes to the price of sustainable and regenerative ag products — when it comes to meat in particular — when you see those prices, I think there's a lot of sticker shock at first. People don't quite understand that our products aren't the same. You can't compare them side-by-side with a lot of the meat and eggs that you find in the grocery stores. You have nutrient density differences. You have quality differences. You have flavor differences.

Part of the problem right now is that industrial agriculture is subsidized greatly through the federal government. So it doesn't reflect the true price that it takes to raise these animals and produce the products. Once people decide that it's important that they're eating quality meat, that's when we start to see them understanding that you really do get what you pay for.

Advocates for a more plant-based diet tout the health, environmental benefits, as well as the horror of industrial agriculture’s treatment of animals to make a case for the plant-based lifestyle. As a sustainable meat producer, how do you respond to those arguments?

Don't get me wrong, I think people should be eating vegetables and I think they should be out eating a balanced diet. People probably shouldn’t eat as much meat and maybe they should eat better meat. It's the quality over quantity theory. If you're going to be eating meat, you should be eating the good stuff.

Now, when it comes to plant-based diets, I think to each their own! One of the things that I hear a lot is how good the Impossible Burger or some of these lab-grown meats are. But I think people forget those don't just come out of thin air. They come from soybeans and peas. These different vegetable-based protein sources are being grown on a mass scale using monoculture and monocropping, across the country. How many pesticides, insecticides, herbicides are applied to these fields due to this new demand? Is that better for the environment? Is that better for our immune systems and things like that? I say, no, it really isn't.

What really people ought to be doing is supporting the ranchers and farmers that are rotating their animals through grass and they're capturing carbon through better grass growth and healthier fields and topsoil retention. Those are the ways that I think that we could have a better environmental stewardship and healthier people.

One more question — do you see the MeatOut holiday as an opportunity to raise more awareness around the true cost of meat and raise the profile of sustainably produced meat?

Yeah, I hope people hop online and start looking for their local farmer-rancher and understand that, like, hey, maybe the better thing isn't to have a meatless day, but let's have a better meat day.

Tyler Huggins, Meati Foods

Henry Zimmerman: I want to talk about the alternative meat market at large. But first, I need to wrap my head around your mycelium-based food. We're not quite talking about, you know, toadstools or like a supermarket portobello mushroom. It's based out of this stuff called mycelium. Explain what that is.

You can think of mycelium as like the muscular root structure of mushrooms. We all know the mushroom cap. That's the above-ground structure. But down below in the soil is this threadlike structure that helps provide nutrients and is really the main body of the fungi. And actually the mushrooms themselves are made of mycelium that goes above ground.

So we've been consuming mycelium ever since we've been eating mushrooms. Our particular type doesn't produce fruiting bodies, the mushroom cap, and it is packed full of protein. So it has the same amino acid profile as beef, plus a ton of fiber and other vitamins and minerals that really make it even in a more nutritional source of protein than your traditional mushrooms you find at the grocery store.

Explain in as much detail — knowing that you’ve got a proprietary process — how the sausage is made, so to speak.

We grow our mycelium in what we call our urban ranches. And essentially it looks like a brewery, using a lot of the same equipment. So we basically provide (the mycelium) a very clean, nutrient-rich environment that basically helps it grow super fast. This process takes literally overnight. So 12 to 18 hours from the original start of the process to the very end. Where, as we know, cows take up to up to two years before harvesting. So incredibly fast growth and production, then we essentially harvest it and use very simple forming processes in order to produce the finished goods that looks like a steak and a chicken breast. So really, these urban ranches look like a combination of a brewery and a cheese factory together.

Products like yours really have been like a flash point in the state lately and maybe over the last five, 10 years — and a few years ago, Gov. Jared Polis ate a made-from-plant burger at his desk at the Capitol. What do you think about that public display of approval? And did that positively affect the meat alternative market here in Colorado?

I think it's very helpful. I don't think it should be this all or nothing, us versus them sort of mentality. My parents own a bison ranch out in central Nebraska. I grew up in rural agricultural communities. Many of my friends and families and colleagues are in the cattle industry. We don't see them is the enemy. We view this as helping.

You know, what we're doing is helping to create a more robust American driven protein infrastructure. Global population is going up extremely rapidly. The demand for protein is going up rapidly. This growth of alternative needs isn't going to take away from that industry at all, but it provides additional diversity in people's diets and diversity to our agricultural system.

So I feel like we're part of this just like chicken versus beef versus pork producers. You know, we're just part of that mix. I mean, make no doubt about it. I think when you potentially might be threatening someone's way of life, something that's been part of American jobs and agricultural community forever, that feels real. I don't think, again, it should be overblown. And I think politicians have a role to help describe it, to let people know, hey, this is a new emerging category that could help bring jobs to this state. And I think that's where Gov. Polis has done a really, really good job.

Don't consumers ultimately decide who the winners and losers are here?

For sure, 100%. In the end, it's all going to come down to: is this an enjoyable user experience? Is it delicious? Is it filling? Does it satisfy this demand and is it affordable and accessible? That's really who's going to win this. This thing in the long run is being able to satisfy all of those things for consumers.

Have you observed attitudes changing around this in your life, in your circles, whether it's business or personal? Do you think things are changing?

I do, yeah. My parents, I go out and visit their ranch on a regular basis and I bring the product out there and I talk to them about it. And I think it's very clear that people want to have a healthier diet. I think they understand that eating red meat every night probably isn't the healthiest thing for them, but it's just part of their way of life and there aren't a lot of other options. So providing another option that's enjoyable and delicious and accessible, affordable, all those great things, they're like, yeah, this sounds great, why wouldn't I want this? So I think it's just the tone of voice.

I think that's something that we're trying to do differently is saying like, hey, we're not here to replace animals from the supply chain. We're not trying to tell you how to eat. But here's an option. And if it works for you, then, you know, that's awesome. That's what I was hoping for.

You know, we had the opportunity to build this company anywhere in the U.S. and we chose Colorado because we love the location and the work-life balance here, but we also love the people. Ultimately, what we're doing, we're hoping to benefit people and we hope to benefit the Colorado community. So, like, this is a Colorado-born company and we want to embrace that. So we're always looking to help and engage with other folks in the Colorado community.

These conversations originally aired on KUNC’s Colorado Edition for March 18. You can find the full episode here.

Corrected: March 22, 2021 at 12:05 PM MDT
Spelling of Tyler Huggins' name has been corrected.
KUNC's Colorado Edition is a daily look at the stories, news, people and issues important to you. It's a window to the communities along the Colorado Rocky Mountains.
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