Piedmontese cattle offer heart-healthy beef in mid-Michigan

Mid-Michigan rancher Jerry Chapman is happy to share the story about how he reluctantly ended up in another Piedmont cattle business partnership after being burned more than once, but he starts with an apology: "I have no filter between my mouth and tongue. So I hope I don't offend anyone."

No mind; Chapman is friendly, but frank, knowledgeable, accomplished and colorful, what you'd probably call a character. He describes how he'd opted for the life of a farmer after time in the burbs and a career at General Motors: "I told my wife I had to smell cow shit."

He goes on to say he doesn't care much for "city slickers," so it was with all the more hesitance that he considered a proposal from downstate entrepreneur Rachel Leemis when she approached him about two and a half years ago about marrying her idea for a healthy, humane, all-natural beef company with his rare herd that comes from Italy and is known for being as good for you as a piece of swordfish.

Chapman, owner of Chapman Farms in Eagle, about 60 miles west of Flint, put his past and personal feelings aside and finally, finally made time to hear what Leemis had to say about her Monty's Beef Co.

"I had been told Jerry was the guy I needed. People said I had to talk to this guy. I drove to his house several times. He really wasn't interested at all. One time his wife had me sitting up on the patio while she swam in their pool. She called him and he said, 'It'll be an hour.' I said I'd wait. She called him back and told him to take two," Leemis remembers, laughing now that it's all worked out.

Chapman had ignored the many phone calls, email and in-person visits mainly because he had traveled this trail before, the one pocked with failed partners promising to get Piedmont beef onto restaurant menus and into grocery stores by showing the public how tender, how fat-free and how pure the meat is that originates in the Piedmont region of Italy.

"These guys meant well," recalls Chapman, still chapped about the failure of the fleeting business partnerships. "But they didn't know baloney."

He had invested in the cattle by purchasing the Italian government-controlled semen that confirms pure lineage and committed to raise the stubborn and challenging breed exactly as dictated by the Italian certifiers.

"I just wanted to get out of it. Had to. It was costing too much. I sold half my herd to Nebraska… I had enough of it. About that time Rachel came along. I said, 'Oh lord, what does she want?' "

What Leemis, who comes from a long restaurant background and a family with a history of diabetes and heart disease, wanted was to turn out an amazingly tasty and healthier burger and steak by starting a company that would provide premium, healthy, organic beef from humanely treated cattle. She wanted to let people enjoy a burger or a steak without the guilt--and even better, with benefits.

Leemis happened on Piedmont while planning a restaurant. "I thought I was passionate about restaurants, but the Piedmontese is what I really fell in love with," she says.

She began her research locally, nationally and internationally and spent a month in Italy learning about the breed. She learned there that the guy she needed was right in her back yard--almost.

"People know me. I'm not bragging, but I was a hottie in the show ring," Chapman says. "When she was in Italy she was told you have one of the top Piedmont breeders in Michigan right at Chapman Farms. When we finally met, Rachel went out with me while I flushed a cow. She listened to what I said, and what she said made sense… I did a little checking on her, and with her background and expertise, I thought if anybody can do it, she can."

With the foundation of trust laid, Chapman and Leemis became partners in Monty's Beef Co., which is based in Royal Oak and sells beef from the herd that roams Chapman Farms. It's sold to restaurants and grocers, by online orders and through a monthly meat club and at the store in downtown Royal Oak.

They started selling last June, opened the store last August and are now trying to figure out how to raise enough cattle to meet demand as sales increase and the product line-up gets longer.

After Chapman's first-hand experience of falling in love with not only the taste of Piedmont but also seeing his cholesterol drop until he went off Lipitor, he was a convert. He comes from a line of men with a history of heart attacks by age 60. He is 72. A Hereford cattleman at the start, a friend convinced him to try Piedmont in 1997.

"Absolutely no fat and so tender. That got my attention," he says.

"The Angus beef people did their job, but if the American people could learn about Piedmont and people like Monty's Beef, they wouldn't have anything else," says Chapman. "If anyone is going to get the word out, it's Monty's Beef, but my worst fear is once she gets the word out, God help her, I don't know where she's going to get all the beef."

At the recent Island Fair in Grand Ledge, Leemis brought 240 of her soon-to-be released seasoned burger patties and "people couldn't get over it," Chapman says. The organizer asked if next year, Leemis would bring more.

What the pair is focused on, now that they get along, is keeping up with demand.

You won't find many Piedmont ranchers to begin with and working with Leemis, who allows no use of growth hormones, chemicals, mixing of other cattle and who makes regular quality control visits to ensure the cows are treated properly and who is present for every slaughter, can be demanding. It can also be a costly endeavor to build the herd, with the insemination using the strict certified standards, but Monty's pays a premium price per pound.

Their success is a buzz among other farmers, in Mid-Michigan and beyond, and Chapman is part of a rent-a-uterus program that lets would-be Piedmont ranchers start their own herd by renting out part of Chapman's.

"They're partners. They're getting what they deserve and more to help us really grow this breed," Leemis says, "and to do it the right way. We need more people like Jerry."

Kim North Shine is a Detroit-area freelance writer and the Development News Editor for Metromode.
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