AT THE CARMAN Ranch drop-off in July, the three brawny men—Lucian Baker, William Pickard, and Shawn Piper—tick off their reasons for buying grass-fed beef. Pickard, a semiconductor technician, lauds the meat’s higher amounts of “good fats”—conjugated linoleic acid, an anticarcinogen. Baker, another technician, finds solace in the greater safety of pasturing cows—a corn-fed diet gives cattle an acidic gut, making them more susceptible to E. coli. Piper, a designer at a technology start-up, cites Lierre Keith’s The Vegetarian Myth, which argues that eating grass-fed beef helps the planet more than eschewing meat altogether because the cows actually rebuild the topsoil. Pickard and Piper are also adherents of the “paleo diet,” a strict regimen of foods our paleolithic ancestors would have eaten, namely pastured meat, vegetables, fruits, and nuts.


Caveman-diet faddists, Michael Pollan acolytes, health nuts and foodies have caused grass-fed beef to “explode”—averaging more than 100 percent market growth annually—says Allen R. Williams, a Mississippi-based food industry consultant who specializes in grass-fed and organic beef. Yet it still makes up only 2 percent of the US beef market. Most experts agree that there’s a lot more room for growth. “We actually have quite a bit of grassland available out there. The key is knowing how to utilize it properly,” says Williams. Graham Meriwether, the director and producer of a new documentary called American Meat, agrees. He has calculated that the US would need about 193 million acres of land converted to grass-based ranching to feed our current appetite for beef (an average of 60 pounds per person, annually). According to USDA statistics, the country has over 1 billion acres of pasture and farmland—it’s just that currently much of that land is devoted to corn and soybeans.


Carman’s professor from Stanford, Wally Falcon—now 75 and retired, but still very much keeping his eye on the world’s food production—puts the fate of grass-fed beef succinctly. “There’ll be specialized ranches producing for upper-income groups,” he says. With corn prices skyrocketing—and commodity beef prices at an all-time high as a result—what Falcon calls the “bottom billion” may not be able to afford any beef at all.


The rising price of beef, in some ways, is good news for Carman Ranch. “If you look at our little world, where we’re committed to raising animals this way, it’s great,” Carman says. But while the ranch is blissfully unaffected by rising corn prices, market surges squeeze in other ways: for instance, the cost of calves. And, so, like the efforts of four previous generations who have operated the ranch, her new-old way of raising beef—along with her idealism—faces the age-old search for profit.


Set on charging her customers only what it costs to produce her meat plus a margin to support her family, Carman says she has no plans to raise her prices, at least not more than a few percent per year. Instead, as she continues to scale up, she’s focusing on improving efficiencies like switching to a big cattle truck instead of a trailer to save $30 an animal—an annual savings of $21,000.


“Our family is not going on a vacation for the next several years,” she says. “Last year, we finally got a savings account.”