Interested in being on a first-name basis with your dinner? Look no further than the M4-D Ranch in the Oakland area, just outside Memphis via Highway 64.
M4-D owners David and Paulette Mastin think it's important to get at least a little personal with their beef. "All our cows have names," David tells me as he opens the gates to let the cattle feed. "We don't want to treat them like commodities."
An afternoon at the M4-D demonstrates that these cows are more than just a product. Even "cow depression" is a concern here. "We keep the cows with their calves as long as possible," David says. "Cows get depressed when you take their calves away. You can see a difference. They don't eat or move as much."
Happier cows make for healthier cows, which, in turn, make for tastier beef, according to David. Taste is also affected by diet. The residents of the M4-D enjoy healthier meals than do their commercially processed counterparts: nutritious grasses and hay.
A visit to the M4-D website explains the difference between grain and grass diets for cattle and what it means for the consumer. Grass-fed beef tends to be less fatty and is richer in Omega-3.
"And there's a secret ingredient," David adds of the cows' diet: flax seed. The benefits of flax seed for the consumer are no secret, though. It lowers bad cholesterol, harmful blood triglycerides, and blood pressure.
Also, the cattle here have plenty of room to move. Unlike commercial herds that live in cramped feedlots (which also produce environmentally toxic runoff), these cattle roam freely on an 80-acre farm.
Every element of a visit to the ranch is a reminder of two things: The Mastins' treatment of their cattle is filled with TLC (tender loving care ... not some dastardly chemical) and their operation is a family affair.
David handles most of the farm work, while Paulette covers marketing (though word of mouth has kept business moving swiftly with very little advertising), correspondence, scheduling, and deliveries. There is also a ranch manager, the mysterious Mr. Scrap, described by Paulette as a "cow whisperer."
David and Paulette have three daughters, Rebekah, Morgan, and Kelsie, who range in age from 2 to 9. The girls are home-schooled. The running of the ranch is used as an educational opportunity, with each of the girls owning at least one cow.
Eldest daughter Kelsie, who was away during my visit, helps with deliveries and can advise on the best way to cook the different cuts of beef. Youngest daughter Rebekah is a bit too young to participate in the interview, but middle daughter Morgan, an aspiring photographer as well as beef magnate, is eager to get the message out about the M4-D. She takes me by the hand to show me her own investments.
"My baby cows are Scooter and Teddy Bear," she tells me as we traverse the field. "The first Teddy Bear died, so Dad got me a new Teddy Bear."
I ask David and Paulette if there's a problem with the girls growing attached to the cows, since they place such an emphasis on naming and personalizing them. "Oh, yes, they get attached," Paulette tells me. "But they handle it. They love the cows, but they'll also ask, 'Who's for dinner tonight?'"
The Mastins sell privately — mostly to families with health and environmental concerns similar to theirs.
"We wanted to make sure we were eating the best possible food," Paulette says. "You can't do that if you don't know where it's coming from." So they started raising their own cattle as healthfully as possible. "Pretty soon friends and family wanted the kind of beef we were eating, and so we grew. Our business has been growing ever since."
Come fall, lamb will be available at the M4-D, and this summer will mark the Mastins' first foray into pigs, which will be similarly spoiled with the healthiest possible diet.
Oh, and what does "M4-D" mean? Meat-4-Dinner. For more information on the M4-D Ranch, go to m4d-ranch.com.