Prepare yourself before meeting organic beef farmer Scott Lively. You may never want to eat fast food again.
“So you put the trim into a tray, dump the tray into a bucket, and every few hours that bucket gets turned into a bag of meat,” explains Mr. Lively, describing the journey of a hamburger from barn to bun. Trim refers to any and all off-cuts from the animal, once the more favorable parts have been extracted.
“That bag of meat gets stored in a freezer. For years, maybe,” he says in the sunny front room of his home off the Edgartown Road; from here the 35 year-old entrepreneur runs the largest organic beef business in the U.S., Dakota Beef LLC.
Back to that raw material which will become the business end of a conventional burger. “You’re dealing with blood, you’re dealing with brains, spinal cord, manure, with body waste,” he says. “You’re dealing with things you can’t imagine.”
By the time it reaches an end manufacturer, things have got even murkier, he says: “Trim shows up at the door of patty plants, typically frozen, from any number of processing plants. The average pound of conventional hamburger could have thousands of cows’ DNA, without even exaggerating.”
Little wonder that McDonald’s and Burger King leave this out of their official publicity. Mr. Lively goes on to detail the many bizarre and macabre measures taken during the cattle-rearing process, all part of an unhinged rush to maximize time efficiency and profit. His account benefits from a little censorship. “So you’re dealing with living enzymes [in the meat],” he concludes, taking a ruminative sip of morning coffee. “Stuff’s living in there. How many people eat steak well done? Unless you cook the thing to death, you’re going to be digesting that stuff and there’ll come a time when antibiotics won’t work on you.”
Mr. Lively is determined to help change all this, and quickly. Purchasing a disused slaughterhouse in Howard, S.D., in 2003, he built his company into a pioneering force in U.S. organic cattle farming in the time it takes to complete an agriculture degree.
Before that Mr. Lively was doing well in the software business in Chicago. Having started as a lowly telesales agent, he progressed to management and consultancy positions at several firms by the age of 26. “I could have pretty much have picked a job like vice president of global sales, ridden it out, retired and been happy.” But with disarming honesty, Mr. Lively concedes that he didn’t understand a lot of the technical stuff, and consequently found it boring. “You didn’t wake up in the morning and go ‘God! Look at this at this great CD, full of all this wonderful application software . . . whoa!’ ”
Sitting forward, he grasps the shrink-wrapped pound of beef in front of him and brandishes it: “Now I can pick this up every day and say ‘I freakin’ made that.’ ”
He regards the prop as if it were a gold ingot. And if gold and Dakota Beef’s beef aren’t quite synonymous, in some stores Mr. Lively’s product is expensive enough to warrant semi-precious status. In a conversation about his company’s market niche, he is the first to admit it.
Wiping the frost from the pack he says, “I mean people look at this and they go — ” He stops to pick at the price tag he has just revealed. “$6.50 for a pound of ground beef! Come on. That is a ridiculous amount of money for ground beef. That’s what rib eye should sell for.
“It is criminal that we charge this,” he says. “My wife wouldn’t buy it unless I made her.” He continues: “The thing is, organic beef should not cost much more than commercial beef. The myth that it’s expensive is perpetuated by the retailer.”
Mr. Lively has the casual honesty of someone who knows that, ultimately, his story sells itself.
His company manages the same cattle from bull sperm to slaughter. They are fed organic corn, given adequate roaming and granted longer life spans. “When you raise an animal and you put antibiotics and pesticides into it — those things aren’t free. Now, your other costs do go up — organic corn is more expensive, there’s more time on feed — but it’s a bit of a wash,” he says.
While organic remains a small part of the beef industry and a consumer tipping point may still be a long way off, Mr. Lively feels it is inevitable.
The beef industry is rocking on its heels in the wake of this summer’s massive recall of E. coli infected beef, an issue arising directly from conventional processing methods.
He claims that his company has the scale of production to carry off a move into the mainstream fast-food market. “I’m ready for a Wendy’s right now,” he says.
He has taken an unusual path to success. Prior to his software career, he spent a few years as an educator, made a brief turn in roofing and had a stint in Mount Bachelor Academy, a school for delinquent teenagers.
“I was just a bad kid, a nightmare,” he says. “Everything you could think of that’s bad, I did it.” Though spending a lot of time in West Glendale, Ariz., a poor area of Phoenix, as a child he moved around frequently with his stepfather’s rapidly changing jobs. “We lived in a lot of different states. I did a lot of drugs and I was pretty violent. If there was a fight I was in it, if there were drugs I was doing them,” he says.
But he excelled during his senior year at the academy and decided to go to college. “I just knew I wanted to make money and I wanted to work for myself,” he recalls. “But somehow I also got it into my head that I wanted to be a teacher.” He adds, characteristically deadpan:
“God knows why. I don’t even like kids . . . apart from my own.”
Ironies abound. Today Mr. Lively’s former principal works as general manager at Dakota Beef’s Oregon ranch. “Scott is a brilliant young innovator,” says Dennis Crowell over the telephone from Oregon. “Kids who come through a program that helps change their lives often want to give help to give that to others,” he says. “It doesn’t necessarily last a lifetime.”
Mr. Lively met his wife Julie in Chicago when they were both starting out in the software business. On a trip to her home town in South Dakota in 1999, he witnessed first hand the effects of layoffs on a small community, and by the end of that trip knew he wanted to do something to raise economic awareness for rural America.
“Chicago’s got jobs. Detroit’s got jobs. When unemployment falls a percent there, it’s rough. But in a small town, they lose their high school, that kind of thing,” he says. “It ruins the town.”
Dakota Beef has provided 60 new jobs for Howard — which, in a town of 1,100, gives a significant boosts to institutions such as banks and the transport authority, and to the local economy generally.
“I thought, this organic thing is growing like crazy, I love beef, no one’s doing organic beef . . . It just made sense. I went home, told my wife, she said, ‘You’re crazy, you work in software.’ And it just went from there.”
The couple married on the Vineyard and then decamped from Chicago to Windsor, U.K. for a consultancy job; while there Mr. Lively developed his business plan, immersing himself in the world of beef and eventually writing the book called A History Of The American Beef Industry. “I knew it would help,” he says, “to walk into meetings with investors and say I, ‘Hey, I wrote a book on this.’ ”
Mr. Lively took the plan to potential investors but found nobody wanted to give money to a high-cost venture in a nascent business sector. Finally in 2002 a progressive New York venture capitalist group showed interest, and with a second child on the way, the Livelys returned to the U.S. Finding Chicago too crowded for a family in the summer, they decided to rent a house on the Vineyard. They have been here since.
Mr. Lively has become involved in local farming here, specifically the Island Grown Initiative, helping to fund the launch of its mobile poultry processing unit this year. Now with four children attending Vineyard Montessori School, Mr. Lively channels his teaching experience into coaching his daughter’s soccer team, which he prefers. “I just shout at eight-year-olds and go home,” he says. He spends half the month off-Island tending to Dakota Beef and the other half in Edgartown, where the family has begun what he calls home churching.
“I am an evangelical Christian,” he says. Although a believer since childhood, Scott became a serious Christian after meeting his wife. He feels that the Vineyard can be a difficult place to have strongly held views, “Except,” he says with a grin, “No to the wind farms, yes to Hillary.”