Christina Traeger’s “Grillin’ Meats” Honor the Animals She Raises and the People Who Consume Them

Christina Traeger and her daughter enjoy the expanse of their farm in Avon, MN.

Christina Traeger is a livestock farmer in Avon, Minnesota, who, by her own admission, “does a lot of things the old way.” Her chicken coop, for example, was owned by her grandmother. “I think my dad was involved in building it, maybe 45 or 50 years ago,” she says. Inside, a dozen or two of her hundreds of chickens, including some very attractive guinea hens, cluck and bustle around. “[The guineas] come in something like 50 colors,” Traeger says. “I just think they’re cool.”

Next on our tour, she calls the pigs: “The black ones are Berkshire, and the reddish are a Tamworth-Mangalitsa cross,” she says. Traeger crosses and breeds the animals to optimize meat to fat ratio and flavor. “All of my pigs are always corn- and soy-free,” she says. The feed she gives them consists of peas, barley, flax, minerals and several other ingredients, all of which she orders and is ground every two weeks, “because the animals eat it a lot better that way. The reason I started doing that is that I was allergic to pork. Many of my customers are, too, but most people aren’t allergic when the animals are corn- and soy-free,” she says.

Traeger and I next visit with the British white cows, which she has been breeding for over 20 years. She is very purposeful in her cattle breeding practices, as she is in every aspect of raising her livestock. Traeger’s cows generally calve on their own, usually in May. “The deer and buffalo have their babies in May,” she says, “so that’s when we have our babies. We work with nature. Nature knows.” She avoids the early, traumatic separation of cow and calf by simply allowing the calves to be weaned later than generally practiced. “When left to their own devices, cows naturally wean their own babies,” she says. Her larger animals—Berkshire, Tamworth and Mangalitsa pigs and the British white cattle—are “produced all the way from conception,” Traeger says. All of her animals are pastured “so they can graze and express themselves the way they like.”

When pasture is not available, Traeger feeds her cows hay from her own land or purchased from organic or transitional-organic farmers (who are working to achieve certification, a process that takes three years) and who don’t use artificial fertilizers or grow GMO products. While she has her own standards (often higher, in particular regarding “certified humanely-raised” conventions, she says), Traeger has chosen not to “go down the road of organic certification.” Her practices have, however, allowed her beef to be labeled “certified grass fed.” She sells all of her meat online and in farmers markets under the brand name Grillin’ Meats.

“Every little thing I can do to make the meat quality better, every year, I’ll do,” she says. Tactics include keeping the animals from undue stress and letting them live as freely and naturally as possible. In the barn, there’s a perfect counterpoint to the commonly-seen sow confined to a gestation crate: a large, hay-filled area in which two sows live, freely, with their many piglets. They’ve formed the hay into piles and nests, which protects all the animals and is clearly a less stressful environment. In the barn is another testament to Traeger’s compassion for her animals. A cow, who lost a calf to miscarriage, now fosters a calf from another farm. The way in which Traeger describes the mother cow’s depression after her loss and how she did what she could to ameliorate that loss, could bring a city girl to tears.

Customers tell Traeger her beef is tender (not stereotypically true of grass-fed beef), has less bone and a good degree of marbling and fat. Kirsten Bansen Weigle is the manager of the Maple Grove Farmers Market. “We were excited when Christina expressed interest in selling at our market,” she says. “Shoppers were interested in her methods. We like her hands-on, first-person knowledge of what it takes to raise an animal.”
Joy Anderson was serving on the board of the NE Minneapolis Farmers Market when the organization learned Traeger was interested in being a vendor there. “We were thrilled,” she says. Now, Anderson buys all her eggs and chicken from Traeger. “They are top quality,” she says. “The best ever, and I know everything from Christina is sustainably and humanely raised.”

Chris Schleicher of south Minneapolis found out about Traeger through a natural foods newsletter to which his wife subscribes. Right away, he ordered a fourth of a cow and some of the “odd bits” he finds difficult to purchase elsewhere: liver, tongue, bones and heart (all of which he uses for food). He likes the fact that Traeger’s cows are grass-fed and dry-aged. He’s read that corn-fed beef is not as healthy for people as grass-fed and likes the particular flavor of Traeger’s beef. He says, “I’ve always instinctively known that food should be humanely grazed and pastured.”

Traeger runs the entire farm by herself. Her daughter helps, but she is still in high school. “We don’t live luxuriously,” she says, “but every morning I get to wake up at look at all of this,” she says, sweeping one of her arms across a scene of her animals and acreage. Traeger gets good support, she says, from local veterinarians, and she even has good words for meat processors she uses and the USDA inspectors at that facility. Her own intellectual curiosity, her education “in the school of hard knocks,” and on the family dairy farm on which she grew up, and her 20-plus years of experience on her own farm keeps her constantly on the look-out for better ideas and ways to experiment for better results.

“A lot of farmers market farmers have small farms, and that’s great—that’s what the farmers market is about,” Traeger says, with her usual (and remarkable) equanimity. But with her larger production scale, she says, she can provide beef more regularly across the seasons. “Farmers markets are fun for me. I like to meet people,” she says—and to have a meaningful relationship with the consumers of the food she produces.