The Wild Wild West of Local Food

July 21, 2014

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.

 

 

 

 

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One Response to “The Wild Wild West of Local Food”

  1. dwingp Says:

    Ugh I can’t believe you guys had the supreme misfortune of a delivery day coinciding with that horrific accident on 17! Of all days of the year!!

    Debbie

    PS – Nice post! I always enjoy reading your articles.


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