This post originally appeared in the monthly newsletter of Morris Grassfed Beef. It has been modified for localfood.wordpress.com. To sign up for our monthly newsletter, click here

We often hear about the large amount of water it takes to raise cattle. The numbers are huge but almost always simplistic. No doubt, a cow needs water to thrive, but we don’t see Morris Grassfed Beef as a detriment to the water cycle. In fact, we think Morris Grassfed Beef actually enhances the water cycle by producing healthy rangelands that capture and hold clean water, which then flows to the ocean and surrounding community. The question is not so much “How much water does it take to raise beef?”, but rather “Is the beef you are purchasing helping to slow down the water cycle or speeding it up?”  Our goal is to slow the water cycle down, capturing and storing this precious resource where it can nurture the soil.

Our cattle drink from natural springs and creeks, filled by rainfall (when we have it!) and consume approximately 10 gallons a day, per cow. (We had to haul water from the best producing springs to the herd in the Fall/Winter of 2013/2014, for there was no other water on the ranch, so we know exactly how much the cows were drinking.) That’s 3,650 gallons per cow, per year. It takes about two years to raise a cow, totaling 7,300 gallons. Divide that amount by the pounds of beef produced from a single Morris Grassfed cow, approx. 360, and you get 20.28 gallons of water needed to produce one pound of Morris Grassfed Beef (or 6.76 gal. for a 1/3 lb. burger). Our abattoir and butchers also use water to wash the carcasses and clean their facilities, which we factored in to our final calculation of 7 seven gallons per burger.

The average family of four uses approximately 360 gallons of water a day.* That’s 131,400 gallons a year, or 36 times what a cow uses. Granted, cows are not flushing toilets, taking showers or watering lawns … at least not with tap water, but it puts into perspective how much water daily life takes. Let’s compare how much water it takes to make a glass of wine, a cup of coffee, a head of lettuce and a conventionally raised pound of beef vs. grassfed. (We should note that finding reliable numbers for these things is difficult. Many of the sources that come up are ideological and have an ideological agenda to push. We tried to find the most un-biased, scientific evidence we could. And we know our numbers are correct because we monitor and measure them.) The following chart shows the water needed to make each of these popular foods:

Conventionally raised beef takes more water because the cattle are fed water-intensive corn and alfalfa crops, and drink from imported water in feedlots rather than natural springs and creeks. Unfortunately, as soon as cattle are placed in feedlots they can no longer contribute in a beneficial way to the water cycle. Consider also, the number of calories and nutrients each of these foods provide. Although a head of lettuce takes about the same amount of water as a pound of Morris Grassfed, while supplying only about a quarter of the calories, a Morris Grassfed burger packs essential Omega 3 fatty acids, amino acids, and other vitamins and minerals necessary for a healthy brain and body. We love a glass of red wine as much as the next person, but it takes more water to make than your Morris Grassfed hamburger.

Finally, if the more than 4,500 acres of rangeland that are managed by us is improved so that each acre, approximately the size of a football field, captures an extra inch of rainfall that would be an additional 27,166 gallons per acre, a huge net gain by management of Morris Grassfed Beef. This is not at all inconceivable. Your hamburger is a boon to your family’s health, your community and the water cycle. So, the next time someone tells you beef uses too much water, give them our number.

* Irvine Ranch Water District Study, 2011

Our team at Johansen's Quality Meats, Darren and Marco

Our team at Johansen’s Quality Meats, Darren and Marco

July is peak season for farmers and ranchers: crops need to be harvested, cattle need to be watered, and product needs to be marketed, packaged and delivered. Seasonal farmers markets are great examples of this annual celebration. For the farmer and rancher, it’s the culmination of months, sometimes years, of inputs.

In our case, a grassfed rib eye is three years in the making, beginning with securing – and paying – the lease for the rangeland. The cattle graze, gestate, nurse, and grow into beautiful two year-old finishing animals. In addition to our own calves, we sometimes purchase animals, called “replacement cows.” Their price is determined on a per pound basis, recently subject to steep increases in the live cattle market. Drought has been a recurring theme around the West for the last decade, and there are simply too few mother cows to raise enough calves to meet the demand from the U.S and around the world. Bulls are also purchased to breed the cows. Upon conception, it is our job to ensure the mother cows have plentiful and nutritious forage to graze and clean water to drink. The calves are born in March and April, nurse for six to nine months and are weaned when the mothers are ready for a break. All this is overseen by the physical labor of cowboys who fix fences, dig pipelines, and tend the animals every day: seven days a week. Mother Nature does not follow a Monday- Friday 9 to 5 schedule.

By fall, calves have grown into young heifers and steers. They are moved often to fresh pasture for their own health and growth and to prevent overgrazing of the plants they eat, leaving behind fresh fertilizer that nourishes the soil and creates deep roots that capture and store carbon. It’s a cycle that has repeated itself for thousands of years, initially in the wild when predators chased large herds of elk and buffalo and now by land managers who mimic those same patterns with electric fences and domesticated cattle. This process produces not only breathtaking landscapes, but nutrient-rich, delicious grassfed beef we distribute to Californians.

The processing side of grassfed beef is less harmonious. We begin talking with butchers in late fall to line up slaughter dates for the following May through September. As small, family owned businesses themselves, our abattoir and butchers need to plan ahead of time as well. They need to hire enough people to adequately and humanely process incoming live animals and carcasses. On our end, we have to time the slaughter dates with perfectly finished animals, the capacity of the butchers, and the needs of our customers. Throw in drought (aka: the need to find irrigated pasture) and a fast growing, competitive local meat market and things get complicated. In short, you can’t expect to call the butcher and tell him you’re bringing in a load of cattle in the morning. Aligning slaughter dates is more like nabbing orchestra section seats at a sold-out Broadway show: it takes a lot of planning, ability to pay the ticket price, and a little bit of good luck.

Once slaughter dates are reserved, we begin to watch the herd carefully, choosing the finished animals each week to be trucked to the abattoir. After the animals are killed, the carcasses are shipped to the butchers who have lined up their own teams to cut and wrap the meat, evenly dividing the steaks, roasts and ground beef into neatly packed boxes ready for delivery. By the time we pick up the boxes at the butcher, it has been between two and three years of work. We have paid our landlords, cattle brokers, ranch hands, supply and hardware stores, vehicle and trailer mechanics, fuel and transportation costs, abattoirs, butchers and cold storage facility. Payday has come for everyone but the rancher. All along the way, the local economy is thriving: a testament to the many benefits of local food.

Then there is delivery day, yet another wild turn on the path from farm to fork. Our typical route starts the day before deliveries when we drive from our ranch in San Juan Bautista, Calif. 300 miles north to the closest USDA-inspected combined butcher/slaughter facility that meets our standards in Orland, Calif. (Joe drove the live animals up a month prior. The carcasses hang to dry-age for three weeks before being cut up.) We arrive in the evening for a good night’s sleep to prepare for a 5 a.m. wake-up call to meet Darren, our butcher, at 6 a.m. and begin loading the trailer. Over the next two days, we work our way south to deliveries in Sacramento, Stockton, Tracy, Pleasanton, Berkeley, San Francisco, San Jose and Gilroy. The second day, we cover the Central Coast: Monterey, Aptos, Scotts Valley, back to San Jose and finally home to Hollister and San Juan Bautista.

Traffic patterns add to the complexity. This month, we were humming along in between stops when we saw the freeway sign: “Traffic Stopped on Hwy 17. Use Alternate Route.” (For those familiar with the Highway 17 corridor between Scotts Valley and San Jose, the “alternate route” is a two-hour detour along Highway 1.) Realizing we were going to be stuck in traffic for hours due to a fatal truck accident and 11-car pile-up, we immediately sent a group text notifying 25 customers in Portola Valley that we’d have to re-schedule their delivery. Sigh. At each stop, we meet customers and collect the balance due, based on a pre-arranged price per pound, minus customers’ $250 deposit, which we collect as “earnest” money and to defray some of the aforementioned costs.

It’s a celebratory day not only because it’s so much fun to meet our customers and know we are filling freezers with amazing healthy food, but also because it is satisfying to know that such a complex process has brought all of us to a community building and happy moment. Still, by the end of Day Three on our delivery route, I am more than ready to pair a glass of local Pinot Noir with one of our filet mignons.

Such is the wild ride of farming and ranching. In most industries, the customer pays for a product that has been developed, manufactured, marketed and delivered according to well-established and set production costs. The seller knows his cost per widget and sets the price accordingly, with a profit built in and collected at the point of sale. In local food production and delivery, the customer pays for a product that has been developed, manufactured, marketed and delivered in the context of a wildly unpredictable relationship with Mother Nature, traffic patterns, and other variables the seller has little control over. The majority of customers understand these complex twists and turns and happily choose to join us on the ride. They leave work to meet us, send in a deposit, tell fellow, waiting customers we’re running late and invite friends over for a BBQ of grassfed hamburgers. One of our customers brings us homemade biscotti to snack on along our delivery route. Another offered to meet us at a later stop this month to exchange her boxes after we realized we gave her someone else’s custom cut order. (Shout outs to Jane and Marsha!) Many jump in and help us carry boxes to cars, or bring extra brown shopping bags for people’s “extras” orders. These are not just “customers” they are our partners. Without them, none of this would work.

As we approach our 25th year producing and marketing local grassfed beef, it’s exciting to see the market exploding. Once considered a trend, grassfed beef has gained respect and popularity among meat lovers, chefs and environmentalists alike, all of whom are up for the wild ride. Hold on, because we don’t see it slowing down anytime soon.

 

 

 

 

All Things Connected

June 19, 2014

I recently saw a story about environmentalists’ relationship with meat that posed the question: “Can you call yourself an environmentalist and still eat meat?”   It featured Hollywood Director James Cameron and his wife, Suzy Amis Cameron, who have started an all-vegan school, the first of its kind in the U.S.  Amis Cameron said she believes that, “You can’t really call yourself an environmentalist if you’re still consuming animals. You just can’t.”  

Amis Cameron’s comment is not uncommon. I hear it often from well-meaning friends and fellow environmentalists. I respect their efforts to be responsible, but I am always amazed they don’t look at the environment in a more holistic way. The responsibility is on us to ask how our food is produced.

Animals play a crucial role in a healthy ecosystem. Eating meat is simply a final step in honoring – and utilizing – that part of the system. Managed properly, animals act as natural tillers, fertilizers and harvesters in the garden we call Earth. When moved often and not confined, like in the wild when being preyed upon by predators, cattle actually increase the growth of native, perennial plants whose deep roots hold soil and water in place, storing carbon underground where it belongs. They build soil health by tilling and aerating it with their hooves, fertilizing it and pruning the plants they munch on to keep them healthy and growing. It’s a microbial Oktoberfest! Their byproduct – hamburgers, rib-eye steaks and beef jerky – provide essential proteins. Meat is a nutrient-dense food  that nourishes bones, muscles, cartilage, skin and blood, all with minimal calories. Eating meat is a win-win when looked at as a system. The real question is: “Can you call yourself an environmentalist and not eat meat?”

Vegans may not eat meat, but they certainly consume animals. And their plants are often fertilized with manure from confined animal feeding operations. How’s that for irony? Further, vegans and vegetarians often believe that things don’t die to produce their food. This flies in the face of even the most basic understanding of the carbon cycle, aka the “life cycle.” If you are eating, you are consuming plants or animals that depended upon the deaths of past critters. As our ability to peer beneath the soil surface improves, we can see that even some of these critters have faces.

Amis Cameron won’t eat a steak, but she depends upon manure to fertilize her plant-based foods, cattle intestines and tallow for her beauty products, life-saving vaccines and medicines, hides for her furniture upholstery, clothing and accessories, and fatty acids to hold the tires together on the fossil fuel hungry private jet. She, too, participates in the carbon cycle.

MTM WEBSITE

Source: Tennessee Beef Industry Council

And why is it acceptable for environmentalists to shun meat, but consume fish? Do they not know that our oceans are also suffering and we need to be aware of how fish are harvested if we are to protect the environment? According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, “Over the past five decades technology has allowed us to fish farther, deeper and more efficiently than ever before. Scientists estimate that we have removed as much as 90 percent of the large predatory fish such as shark, swordfish and cod from the world’s oceans. In 2003, the Pew Oceans Commission warned that the world’s oceans are in a state of “silent collapse,” threatening our food supply, marine economies, recreation and the natural legacy we leave our children.”  Like cattle, fish need to be managed in a way that protects and nourishes the environment. Beef is one type of meat. Halibut and salmon are others.

Alternative protein sources have environmental effects as well. Industrial soybean production, required for every vegan’s Gardenburger, tofu, and glass of Silk soy milk, is responsible for the massive “Dead Zone” pollution in the Gulf of Mexico and deforestation in Latin America. Of course, there are responsibly sourced soybeans too. I wonder if most vegans ask how their soybeans are grown? Gulf Dead Zone

It takes huge amounts of fossil fuels and GMO seeds to produce vast monocultures of soybeans stretching from Minnesota to Louisiana. There’s no party in that soil. I’d rather get my protein from the humble cow hosting the microbial Oktoberfest.

It comes back to looking at life and our environment as a connected cycle, a system in which one action triggers another and so on. We’re all connected in more ways than we know.

 

Jean-Claude Balek’s e-mail signature is followed by his job title: Culinary Engineer/Locavore at Palantir Technologies. Palantir is a Silicon Valley software company that develops tools to organize massive amounts of  data. “We solve the technical problems, so (our clients) can solve the human ones.” And like any respectable Silicon Valley start-up, they also feed their employees well. That’s where Jean-Claude comes in.

I met Jean-Claude (or JC, as he is sometimes called) recently at a book signing for our mutual friend Douglas Gayeton in Berkeley. We are both featured in Gayeton’s new book: Local: The New Face of Food and Farming in America. Gayeton’s book profiles pioneers in the booming local food movement and defines the words we use to describe our work. Words that to many of us in the local food movement seem obvious, but need defining if we are to effectively communicate our missions. Words like “permaculture,” “grassfed,” and “biochar.” JC is featured not only for his commitment to providing the employees at Palantir with locally sourced, fresh meals, but for the eight tattoos across his fingers that read: Locavore.

JCBalek shows his tatoos

JC’s hands are beautifully photographed to accompany the pages defining “locavore.” The term was coined by his fellow Bay Area chef Jessica Prentice and chosen in 2007 as the Oxford English Dictionary’s Word of the Year. “The beauty of a local food system” Prentice says in the book, “is that it brings you back into a relationship with the source of your food, with the land, the animals, the plants, the farmers, and with each other.” Amen.

JC and got to talking and I learned we both grew up in San Francisco’s Sunset District and ended up in careers that promote and create healthy food. JC worked for years as a restaurant chef, enduring the long hours and little recognition so many chefs do. At Palantir, the hours are sane and his talents are celebrated. He sources as many ingredients as possible from farmers and ranchers in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“At Palantir we have a very diverse crowd,” Balek said. “We  have a large contingent of folks who want to know where the meat comes from, who raised the animals and how. This is a very exciting thing for me. The more people learn about the entire story, the better choices they will make when they choose to eat.”

Balek joins hundreds of other Bay Area locavores who are eager to learn the story of how their food is produced. At the beginning of his book Gayeton urges his readers to read it and then give it away so others can learn the language. “The intent of this book is simple,” he writes. “Seduce people with quirky collages and folksy handwritten notes that quietly introduce the tools to fix our crappy food system. The more people read, the more they’ll remember. Ideas can be powerful like that.” Powerful indeed. Now I’m going to get reading so I can give the book away.

A Shifting Landscape

April 8, 2014

There’s a messy food fight happening in kitchens across America. Like the disruptive innovators before them – Netflix, Uber and Square, to name a few – small farms and ranches are shaking the foundations of a powerful industry and sending shivers up the spines of their well-established, powerful competitors. Just five years ago, farmers’ markets and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) were minor annoyances to the Food and Beverage Industry. But that’s changing rapidly. According to a recent report by the Harvard Food Law & Policy Clinic by 2008 “the value of local food sales in the United States reached $4.8 billion, up from $1.2 billion in 2007 and $551 million in 1997.”

Sessions at the Produce Marketing Association’s annual Fresh Summit Trade Show labeled local as a “trend” and patted us on the head with a smile. Common responses to the scrappy dog, pulling at the pant leg of marketing executives, were that local could never compete. They said, “The price point is too high,” “The quality not uniform enough for picky consumers,” and my personal favorite, “You can’t grow spring mix in Michigan in the winter.” What these companies didn’t see coming was the consistent cry from consumers wanting to know more about their food. People want to know who grew the tomato and how it was grown. They care more about the “Who and How” than they do about eating summer greens in January. I call it “First person certified.”

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Joe and I started direct marketing grassfed beef to family and friends in 1992 after they dined at our home and asked, “Where can we buy this meat?” We worked with our local abattoir and butcher and within five years had developed a loyal following that came back year after year. They bought freezers to store a quarter cow and asked their mothers for Grandma’s Sunday roast recipe as they learned to use the whole cow. They brought their children to our Annual Field Day where Joe showed them how a border collie can gather a 100 cows and why perennial grasses and wildflowers can thrive where livestock have grazed. They liked that when they had a question, they could call us and we would pick up our own phone (or call them back if we weren’t in the office, which is often when you work in agriculture.) Twenty-two years later, we are still direct marketing and have a network of more than 900 members throughout California. When people from New York or Colorado call to ask if we ship, we direct them to a website that will help them find a local grassfed beef producer.

Innovation comes in many forms, often the result of an annoyed customer who says to herself: This should be easier! The old model is broken. Food based on cheap labor to grow and pack it, federally subsidized, imported water to grow it, plastic packaging to ship it, and $60-a-barrel oil to distribute it needs an alternative. Local networks are filling the space in innovative ways. Industrial, multinational food companies’ idea of a mobile strategy is making their websites fit on an iPhone screen. “New ideas” echo the 1950s: a coupon for participating in a survey or sweepstakes where you can win a shopping cart full of groceries, worth mere pennies to their bottom lines.

 

Meanwhile, local farmers are turning to a new model, one that makes it easier and more affordable to put good food on the table and actually adds value to consumers’ wallets and health. They’re using intuitive, interactive apps like Good Eggs, Whole Share and Farmigo that allow customers to add an extra dozen cage-free eggs to next Tuesday’s delivery. Working farm-centric communities, dubbed Agritopia, are replacing gated suburbs for nature and wildlife preserves as people realize the scarcity of water and opt for community gardens over golf courses. Marketing campaigns sponsored by local food advocacy groups such as Community Alliance with Family Farmers’ (CAFF) “Buy Fresh Buy Local” and the USDA’s “Know Your Farmer” raise awareness about the choices consumers have over their food purchases.

Joe Morris delivers boxes of Morris Grassfed Beef at Lake Merced in San Francisco.

Joe Morris delivers boxes of Morris Grassfed Beef at Lake Merced in San Francisco.

As people become more aware of their own decision-making power when it comes to food, the big guys are being asked about paying employees a living wage, challenged over inputs like pink slime and azodicarbonamide, aka the ‘yoga mat compound,’ or how many miles the spring mix traveled to Michigan.

Consumers want freshness. They also support organic, grassfed, local, no GMOs or antibiotics, and humane treatment of workers and animals. In the new model, you log on to your desktop or mobile device and order your favorite seasonal fruits, vegetables, meat and dairy to be delivered to your door (or picked up at a drop-off location) in a recycled cardboard box by your friend and neighbor. It’s either already paid for via your online account, or your delivery person swipes your credit card via Square and you’re on your way. The extra 50 cents per pound for meat employs your co-worker’s teenager, or better yet your own, who works for the local farm or butcher. That’s a win-win.

Packaged Food at Fred Meyer Store Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/lyza/49545547

Packaged Food at Fred Meyer Store                               Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/lyza/49545547

Ironically, the new model gets back to basics. All the labels that have emerged in the food industry can get exhausting. What ever happened to just going shopping? Does my chicken thigh really need to be certified by five organizations? The distance and anonymity of multi-national food companies has created another layer between people and their food, a whole new industry of third-party certification officers. If you don’t know who grows your food, you can outsource your relationship with the farmer to the USDA’s organic program or the American Humane Association’s animal welfare program who ensure that standards are being met. In the new model, your food is first person certified. If you want to know whether we feed our cattle grain or use sub-therapeutic antibiotics, you pick up the phone and call us. (We’ll tell you we don’t.) I answer texts and e-mails from our members every day. You can also come to our field day where we’ll show you the animals, the land and the people who produce your hamburger. The same goes for farmers who invite children to pick their own pumpkin at Halloween and strawberries in the summer.

The discussion among food industry leaders has gone from patting local producers on the head, to saying “there’s room for all of us'” to criticizing local as less efficient and unsustainable. Common battle cries are that “We have to feed the world.” and “Our food is cheaper!” But the innovators have shown there are farms and ranches all over the world that can feed their communities (recall pre-WW II?) and consumers don’t mind paying a bit more if it means their dollars strengthen the local economy. As industrial food marketers get more defensive, local food innovators are zooming past, coming up with even easier and cheaper solutions to getting their products on to kitchen tables, including adding a recipe for baked cauliflower in next week’s CSA box to replace that overpriced organic spring mix that’s been sitting in a truck for three days.

 

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I knew we had stumbled upon a gem when my daughter Sarah and I entered Range last night, in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood.  A bar with unknown microbrews on tap is a good sign. The ambience is old farmhouse meets cozy romance. A large fireplace graces one end of the space and warm light bulbs hang from the rafters. But the clean, white walls are a modern contrast to dark wooden floors and funky chandeliers made of cattle ear tags.

We started with the Quinoa soup, a delicious combination of spinach, mushrooms, quinoa and parmesan croutons. Sarah had the chicken sandwich glazed with orange pepper, vanilla bean aioli and white cheddar on a warm ciabatta roll and served with herb fries. She devoured it before I could take a bite.

cattle ear tags encircle the light fixtures

cattle ear tags encircle the light fixtures

imageI was tempted to try the hanger steak because I love to see how different chefs prepare this under-appreciated cut, but couldn’t resist comparing the range burger to our own so I went with that.  I’ve read about Tall Grass grassfed and wanted to see if it lived up to its reputation. I was happy to see it did. Cooked rare, the only way to eat grassfed, it was moist and tasted amazing. It didn’t hurt that they serve it on a warm spring wheat bun and slathered it with onion-bacon marmalade. I’m already planning to imitate the recipe for my next Morris Grassfed burger.

Range serves seasonal foods, constantly rotating locally-grown produce, beers and cheeses. Our waiter was friendly and looked like he had just stepped out of an ad for Mr. Porter in his skinny jeans and scuffed brown loafers (I know, that has nothing to do with the food.)  I love that they celebrate real food and offer items like “bacon fat fries” and garlic creme fraiche, served as a side with my burger. It’s hard not to like a place where the people are friendly, the setting is comfortable and attractive, and the food is prepared with care and high quality ingredients. All around, a winner if you’re near Lincoln Park.  Range:  11119 W. Webster Ave., Chicago, IL  60618 (773) 549-5747  www.rangechicago.com

Think big. Be informed.

March 2, 2014

Customers talk with farmers at Pinnacle Farms organic produce stand in Hollister, calif.

Customers talk with farmers at Pinnacle Farms organic produce stand in Hollister, Calif.

A recent Tedx Manhattan talk, “In praise of big organic,” given by the founder of one of the nation’s largest organic salad companies, defended big organic. She listed reasons to support big organic farms: less chemicals, essential part of the healthy food revolution, the organic industry is too small, and we need to grow it. All true. The benefits of organic farming are indisputable. Its farming methods nurture the soil and our bodies. Size matters: the more acreage that is farmed organically, the better.

Her impassioned plea to support organic – no matter the size – also talked about the “soul” of organic: “The last misconception I want to talk about is the criticism I hear sometimes that when organic gets big, it loses its soul. … What I have seen first-hand is that being part of the organic food industry often opens people’s eyes and transforms them.” She went on to describe how one of their growers happily transitioned to organic because he liked not having to worry about pesticides on his pants when his kids hugged him. It’s a jump to equate one pair of clean pants with an entire industry’s soul.

I worked in the big organic industry from 2005-2010 and while most of the 1,800 employees at the company where I worked seemed content enough, I saw lots of instances that gave me pause for reflection. Employees were not trusted enough to have Internet access at their desks. They were routinely excluded from the hefty profit sharing and annual bonuses enjoyed by owners and a select few in upper management. The then CEO routinely hired unqualified relatives for plum positions and earned more than $600,000 annually, plus a $500,000 bonus and stock options, while workers on the wash lines were paid $9.50 an hour, less than $30,000 a year. Salad wash line workers stood for eight hours in a 38 degree room while inhaling chlorine fumes. Half the workforce was laid off for five months a year when the lettuce crops moved from Salinas Valley to Yuma, Arizona. They collected taxpayer funded state unemployment benefits. Saru Jayaraman, who gave a talk at the same Tedx Manhattan series, on restaurant workers, summed it up: “We cannot have a truly sustainable food system without sustainable conditions for the workers who touch that food.”

The same CEO regularly made inappropriate advances towards female staff members and was eventually accused in a lawsuit of sexual harassment by a C-level officer. Big distribution also means big problems when there is a flaw in the production process.  A nationwide E.coli outbreak originating in one of our facilities led to the death of three people and sickened hundreds more. Although E.coli could happen to any farmer, small farms don’t bag it up and ship it to 50 states. Most recently, the company was named “Company of the Year” by our local Chamber of Commerce. When its name was announced, attendees described an awkward silence that filled the packed banquet room as they slowly realized no one from the company had bothered to attend the dinner. Framed and signed certificates, embossed with seals of the State of California and United States Congress sat at the podium, unclaimed and unappreciated. It was such a divergence from previous years’ winners who had bought new suits, prepared speeches and invited family members to witness such a big event for their businesses.

The company was sold once while I was there, to a Dallas based private equity firm, and flipped again four years later to a Denver based company that describes itself as “a leading consumer packaged food and beverage company that manufactures, markets, distributes, and sells branded Plant based Foods and Beverages, Coffee Creamers and Beverages, and Premium Dairy products throughout North America and Europe.” As with the private equity firm, profits from the company flow out of the local community and into the pockets of upper management and shareholders in Dallas, Denver, New York and anywhere-but-San Benito County. They do provide local jobs, but they are seasonal.

Workers check for foreign objects in spinach being processed at Natural Selection Foods in San Juan Bautista. The company was ground zero in the spinach fiasco. (PATRICK TEHAN -- MediaNews staff )

Workers check for foreign objects in spinach being processed in a San Juan Bautista facility.  Photo credit: PATRICK TEHAN

As organic gets big, so does its business-model. Just because an organic apple is displayed in a wooden crate, atop recycled brown bag shreds, doesn’t mean it was ethically produced. Big organic’s soul depends not upon its USDA certification, but upon its management. This isn’t to say you can’t be big and ethical. Multinational companies like Zappos and Patagonia put premiums on employees’ happiness and environmental stewardship. Nor is it to say that small equals ethical. In another healthy food revolution development this week, a small, local slaughterhouse in Petaluma, California was shut down by the USDA for processing diseased cattle. All the beef that went through the plant in 2013 has been recalled. No exceptions. Every ounce of meat remaining in the public food supply has to be turned in and destroyed. Owners of this small scale slaughterhouse, well known by farmers and ranchers in Northern California, chose to bypass federal food safety laws and jeopardized dozens of small to mid-scale farm and ranch businesses that have taken decades to build.  That’s nothing to celebrate.

So maybe it’s not a question of “Big or small?” “Organic or local?” but rather “Who and how?” It really comes down to management. If it matters to you, ask yourself: “Who is producing this food and how do they do it? Do they pay a living wage? Treat their employees with respect? Is their management improving the soil? My health? The community’s health?”  Think big, but be informed. 

Who Really Owns Organic? Source: http://www.cornucopia.org/

Who Really Owns Organic?
Source: http://www.cornucopia.org/

Our New Reality

February 19, 2014

Our New Reality

Blog guilt: it’s worse than binging on a pint of Ben and Jerry’s while watching old reruns of Friends. I fear I have no audience at this point, understandable considering my neglect. In any case, for my few subscribers I can only tell you that distraction and procrastination are cruel enemies of the novelist/ blogger.

I’ve been busy running our family business, starting a hyperlocal news site for my community, and – admittedly – avoiding being overcome with the self doubt Anne Lamott aptly describes. I’m still writing, it’s just not blog posts or fiction. I’m posting Morris Grassfed’s latest newsletter here: Our New Reality, which describes the effects of drought on our food.  I hope you’ll click on it to see how Mother Nature’s curve ball has caught us off guard this year. We are grappling with suspending our grassfed certification as we review our ability to abide by the standard of raising all our animals from birth.  The drought will affect more than grassfed beef, local food producers all over California are busy adjusting their business models. Our friends at Straus Dairy posted an eloquent explanation on their website today about how they will need to seek a variance for their organic certification. Drought is truly a game changer. Hopefully our members will understand the need to adapt, and continue to support us as we navigate this new reality.  In the meantime, I have not given up on the novel, it just needs a little dusting off and revising. Stay tuned … and thanks for reading!

Caring for the Cookery

December 17, 2012

How Fiction Works book cover

I’ve been immersed in a little, red book for months. It’s called How Fiction Works by James Wood. It’s 248 pages of pure gold for novelists. Wood covers essential elements of fiction: narrating, detail, character, language and dialogue. I’m using it as one of several on-call editors while I revise, revise, revise. I’ve stopped giving myself a deadline to finish my book, opting instead for a natural rhythm that works around my other responsibilities. Writing, I’ve decided, should not be a chore. Wood begins with a quotation from Henry James: “There is only one recipe – to care a great deal for the cookery.” I’ve neglected other tasks – this blog, included – to concentrate on revising. Even if it’s for just 15 minutes a day, I am caring for the cookery. Following is a little taste of the main dish, served up in a well-oiled, cast iron pot.

Excerpt from Exit Strategy

© Julie Finigan Morris

In the end, her son’s body couldn’t fight the deadly bacteria any longer, hanging on until his exhausted organs slowed to a stop. When he started losing consciousness, Ruth Malmquist climbed into the hospital bed to lie beside him, holding his emaciated frame close to her chest and wishing she could transfer her heart’s beats to his. She smoothed his blond hair behind his ear, holding her hand against his cheek and whispered to him. Don’t be afraid sweetie, the angels will take care of you.

Her resolve, that this was God’s will and he would no longer suffer unbearable abdominal pain, vomiting, and diarrhea got her through the night. She had to be strong for her other children. She had to show him that this would be a calm transition. She suppressed her anger. There was a reason for this. One day God will help me understand.

By the summer of 2008, the microscopic E.coli O157:H7 worked its way from a wild pig’s intestine, dropped in feces onto California soil, sucked up into the stems of spinach leaves to be harvested for packaging, and shipped across the country. Ruth had the misfortune of pulling a bag of the contaminated spinach off her local Hy-Vee supermarket’s produce shelves in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where it turned her young family’s life upside down. The tiny pinewood coffin was handmade, lovingly cut and sanded by the child’s older cousin, Liam, and Uncle Bob at the request of his grieving parents. It was a simple box, a reflection of his parents’ deeply held religious belief that salvation was not found in material things. The family arrived for the funeral dressed in their Sunday best, lined up at the front of the church to stoically acknowledge family and friends who had traveled to pay their respects. They had spent the past week by his bedside praying his frail body would overcome the bacteria that eventually shut down his kidneys. Three weeks earlier his mother had made him a smoothie, blending organic apple juice, bananas, and bagged spinach into a healthy snack. Ruth called it her “special green shake” to get the children to drink it. Now she stood at the altar of the small church they came to every Sunday, silent over her young son’s coffin.

This is the intersection of my life. A bubble, inside this church, between the “before” and “after.” Nothing will ever be the same after I walk out this church door today, into the glaring sunlight, his coffin sealed forever. What is the word for a mother who loses a child? Not widow. Not orphan. There is no word to describe what I am now. Maybe I’ll wake up and realize this is all a horrible dream. The most realistic dream I’ve ever had. Please, God, let this be a nightmare. Let me wake up. Let me have my son back. Our life back. I just want everything to go back to normal.

Anthony Morton stood uncomfortably in the back of the church, shifting his weight from one foot to another as he waited for the ceremony to end. He was sent to Iowa for the funeral from Bogey, Appell & Huffington’s law offices in Seattle by his boss, James Bogey, the nation’s top plaintiff lawyer in food poisoning cases. Bogey had a team of talented young paralegals who spent their days scouring the Center for Disease Control’s PulseNet website to study patterns of reported illnesses in the hopes of identifying new food borne illness outbreaks. It was a constant and profitable revenue stream for the firm. Bogey & Appell had made millions defending clients who had gotten sick from contaminated packaged salads, peanut butter and ground beef. They rarely went to trial, knowing that companies would opt for six and seven-figure settlements over negative publicity. It was the perfect formula for making a lot of money from a fluke glitch in the industrial food processing systems designed to prevent widespread contamination. All Morton could think of was his own two-year old son, running around in their spacious backyard as his wife grabbed and tickled the giggling toddler. He looked out-of-place in his gray, Brooks Brothers suit and polished brown wingtips, an obvious outsider in the dusty, simple setting of the Mormon Church. One of the family members approached him.

“Can I help you, Sir? This is a private service.”

“Uh, no, no,” Morton said. He put hands in his pocket and looked down at his shoes. “I am so sorry for your loss. I am here to let Mr. and Mrs. Malmquist know that my firm represents victims of irresponsible food companies that poison consumers.”

“Well, thank you, but we do not believe in suing anyone over this. Life is a gift and we are grateful we had him for the two years he was with us, but now he is with God. We do not intend to make money from this tragedy.”

“Of course. I understand. If I may just leave this with you in case they have any further questions. I would be happy to assist them with anything they need. There are strict product liability laws that make someone responsible for this tragedy.”

He reached out, offering his business card. The man turned and walked away. Morton walked to his rental car before he could meet the Malmquists. He at least had the decency to respect the family’s wishes on such a sad occasion. He’d follow up next week with a letter of condolence and his contact information.

The Radical Center

October 6, 2012

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta once lectured a class I took on public policy. He spoke of the ineffectiveness of politicians who hold extreme views, not just in Washington D.C. or Sacramento, but in cities across the United States. He said where good public policy happens is actually in the middle. He called it the “gray area” and said it’s really “the only place where anything gets done.” The most effective politicians work with their opponents to find consensus. They are the true leaders, the visionaries who can see beyond their own self-interests. The same is true in the local food movement.

CEO Joe delivering beef

Joe Morris delivers the goods to customers throughout California.

Our friend and colleague Courtney White of the Albuquerque-based Quivira Coalition calls it “The Radical Center.” I love that term because it brings to mind the passion and determination often associated with extremes, yet the wisdom and calmness of being centered and balanced. Morris Grassfed Beef Co-founder and CEO Joe Morris was recently awarded the Quivira Coalition’s 2012 Clarence Burch Award, celebrating his work to bring ranchers, environmentalists, policymakers and the public together on issues of food, climate change, and land management. If there ever were contentious groups, they would be the steak loving, property-rights proponent ranchers and the lefty, vegetarian, public lands access advocating environmentalists. Local food producers are both. We are rural farmers and ranchers who depend upon urban, city dwellers to consume our goods. We operate daily in “The Radical Center.” Local food producers can be seen as radical, especially when we compete with the larger, food manufacturing industry. We are a disruptive innovation to the national companies who have economies of scale enabling them to charge less and fund slick marketing campaigns. But we know our customers and they know us. We invite them to our farms and ranches. We are often family and/or employee owned and involved in our communities. We are authentic.

Nominated by the California Climate and Agriculture Network, Joe was recognized for his work in the gray areas Mr. Panetta spoke of to educate groups on our interdependence. I’ve heard him tell vegetarians, “If you drink water, you should care about how grazing affects your watershed.” and I’ve heard him tell ranchers, “If you want to maintain this culture, we need to work with our neighbors to preserve open space.” I am celebrating Joe’s 21 years of finding that common ground and collaborating with so many different groups to create a successful and sustainable model of local food production and distribution. When we started direct marketing Morris Grassfed Beef 21 years ago, we had a handful of customers who were family and friends that loved our beef: the taste, the humane treatment of our herd, and the environmental benefits they knew it provided. Today, we are selling to more than 900 individual customers from Sacramento to San Diego, all people who have opted to be a part of this amazing community. The “Radical Center” is getting bigger and bigger, and that’s a good thing. 

 

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