Ed Jonas, a Florida lawyer turned Flathead rancher, spent the last four years creating a specialized low-fat, low-cholesterol breed of cattle. His pricey HighMont beef is slow on the hoof in Montana markets but picking up in New York and Los Angeles.
I met Dolly when she was 10 minutes old, suckling in the dim blue light of a barn on Flathead Lake. Her legs were shaky and her dusty charcoal coat still wet from birth. As far as farm animals go, she was kind of cute.
The moment didn’t last long. I stepped around a gate and my boot came away heavy. Turns out, amniotic fluid is a bit like a giant loogie. The added mix of straw and cow crap made me squeamish. Ed Jonas, founder of the Blacktail Mountain Ranch, thankfully failed to notice my brief departure from the momentous occasion.
Dolly represents the ranch’s hundredth head of cattle. Four years ago, critics told Jonas he’d never make it when he first talked of crossbreeding a novel strain of heart-healthy beef. Today, his operation has outgrown its modest acreage. And though he’s found local meat markets tough to chew, Jonas says his beef is selling for top-dollar in Los Angeles and New York restaurants.
“There’s a growing demand by families to know where their beef comes from,” Jonas says, “know how it’s raised, and to be kind of guaranteed about nutrition.”
Nutrition is the ongoing concern among meat producers and consumers. Beef tops the American Heart Association and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) lists for dietary importance, and growers like Jonas answer new research on heart disease and obesity by making cuts ever leaner.
Perri Walborn, a bureau chief with the Montana Department of Agriculture, says beef cattle have significantly slimmed down over the last 20 years. While the popularity of leaner beef isn’t late breaking, she says few producers focus their efforts on hybrid cattle like Jonas’.
“If you’re taking two breeds to try and create a whole new breed, that’s not entirely new,” Walborn says, “but it doesn’t happen very often.”
Jonas calls it HighMont beef, an all-natural breed born of his imagination. The stuff has less saturated fat than turkey, and Joe Withey, owner of Withey’s Health Foods in Kalispell, has carried it for more than three years.
“We try to explain to people, this is safe meat,” Withey says. “Especially if your doctor says, ‘You have to quit eating all that saturated fat, all that cholesterol.’ Less fat, less cholesterol—you can eat this meat three times a week safely.”
HighMont might not ring any bells in Missoula. Few stores in the region carry it partly due to the high number of in-state beef cattle operations and a competitive market. Approximately 11,000 Montana farms produced over 16 million pounds of commercial red meat in 2008 alone, according to the USDA.
The Blacktail Mountain Ranch story begins with a single fat-marbled chuck roast in late 2001. Jonas’ three boys flew out from their respective eastern metropolitan homes, and Jonas wanted to play grill-savvy provider.
“I look in the freezer and I’ve got a chuck roast,” Jonas remembers. “I pull out the chuck roast and start to thaw it when I think, ‘It’s got so much fat in it, I’m not eating this garbage.’ So I opened the backdoor, whistled to the dogs and threw it out for them to eat. I have to be able to produce something better than that.”
After months of research, Jonas embarked on an experiment in barnyard genetics: cross the tasty, low-fat Scottish Highland breed with its leaner, less savory Italian Piedmontese cousin. In 2003, he bought a Highland bull at a Denver stock show and five Pied cows from an outfit in Saskatchewan.
Now the Rutgers alum and ex-lawyer is cattle crazed. The license plate on his rig boasts “THEBEEF.” He greets his animals every morning, and they bellow back. Connie, his wife of three years, was a vegetarian before she met Ed. Western ranching purists have derided Jonas’ hybrids, but he’s quick to retort with wit born from years in Florida courtrooms.
“I had a guy tell me in Oregon the other day, ‘Real cowboys raise Black Angus,’” Jonas says. “I felt like saying, ‘Smart cowboys raise HighMont.’”
Since Jonas uses local oats and flax meal to reduce cholesterol, HighMont ends up a costly alternative ($6 per pound for burger) to more traditional ranchers. That hasn’t deterred John Borghetti, co-owner of the Farfalla restaurant chain in California’s Westlake Village. He says a shift by his patrons toward healthier menu items like organic wine and local produce has carried over to meat, prompting him to sign a deal with HighMont in May.
“We’re going to take a chance,” Borghetti says. “The stuff is expensive, quite expensive. But we are willing to take a chance because we believe in the trend, more conscious eaters out there [concerned] about their cholesterol and fat.”
Health is the impetus for the Blacktail Mountain Ranch concept, though Jonas isn’t shy about making a tidy profit. Losing his mother to colon cancer years back hit him particularly hard and he’s determined to keep himself and those around him in top form.
Dolly will be well cared for, too. Jonas was close-by for her birth and plans to watch over her and deliver her calves until he drives her to White’s Wholesale Meats in Ronan for processing.