The cowboy life: Joe Morris and his nephew herding cattle.
LOCAL GRASSFED RANCHES
Making healthier choices for
animals and people alike
BY SUSAN DITZ
PHOTOGRAPHY BY TED HOLLADAY
A century ago, raising grassfed beef was one of the Central Coast’s biggest businesses, and the sight of cattle grazing on natural forage in the shade of oak trees was a common sight. It was simply the way things were done.
Then came the industrialization and centralization of meat production at so-called factory farms. Also known as CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) or feedlots, these operations have dominated meat production for the last 40 years, providing consumers with low-cost cuts and the companies that owned them with big profits—but all at great cost to public health, the environment and the well-being of the animals themselves. (See sidebar, p. 55.) But in recent years, local ranchers—notably in San Benito County—have joined a growing nationwide network that is promoting the return to a more holistic and healthy approach to raising cattle.
They’re committed to spreading the word that pasturing cattle on local ranches, rather than shipping them off to fatten up at a feedlot, is much healthier for humans, far more humane for the animals, better for the environment and also a real benefit to the local economy.
For Joe Morris, owner with his wife, Julie, of San Juan Bautistabased Morris Grassfed Beef/T.O. Cattle Co., making the choice to pasture his cattle for the last 20 years has been a matter of values and heritage. “I was born with my boots on, and nothing else has attracted me in the same way,” he says of the lifestyle he chose early on. Morris’ ranching background dates back to his great-greatgrandfather, Richard O’Neill, who owned a butcher shop in San Francisco during the Gold Rush. In 1881, O’Neill, together with partner James Flood, purchased Rancho Santa Margarita (now Camp Pendleton) and formed T.O. Cattle Company. In 1927, Joe’s grandfather, J.J. Baumgartner, moved to San Juan Bautista, where Morris first learned about cattle raising.
Morris, a native of San Francisco, said that during summers growing up, he was “as attached to his grandfather as a flea to a dog.” But before taking over the ranch with his wife Julie, then a journalist, in 1991, Morris took an unusual route: He graduated from the Great Books Program at Notre Dame, worked as a missionary in Venezuela and studied at the Graduate Theological Union at the University of California, Berkeley. A stint at the Spanish Ranch in Nevada helped him hone his approach to range management and affirm that he was meant to be a rancher.
As some may notice from his particular cowboy-style gear, Morris is influenced by the vaquero and buckaroo traditions that strongly emphasize a low-stress approach to caring for one’s land and animals, as well as a code of accountability. “The work is done elegantly,” he explains, likening it to fly fishing. “They [the vaqueros] used their brain as well as strength—it’s all performed as a dance: the cattle, the land, the people.”
The benefits of a grassfed operation to the land and the environment are extensive.
As they forage, cattle cultivate and fertilize the soil and encourage new plant growth, which reduces erosion, captures moisture and and builds stronger ecosystems, ultimately creating, Morris says, a “carbon sink” that sequesters carbon from the atmosphere and stores it in the soil.
This is critical because, according to research from the Rodale Institute, agricultural carbon sequestration has the potential to mitigate global warming and can be accomplished with no decrease in yields or farmer profits. In fact, those who are managing soils organically can convert carbon dioxide from a greenhouse gas into a food-producing asset.
At the time that Morris decided to adopt a grassfed model, he admits a lot of people thought he was a little crazy. But at the same time, meat recalls were increasing and consumers were starting to take a closer look at the entire food system.
In 2006, Morris formed a partnership with Liz and Everett Sparling, whose family has been ranching in San Benito County for seven generations. In addition to helping run Morris Grassfed, Julie Morris has become executive director of Community Vision San Benito County, a community development organization.
Morris provides consulting for others who want to go down the same path, and his holistic approach—in which the ranch and environment are an interconnected whole—has inspired additional local ranchers, like Sallie Calhoun of the nearby Paicines Ranch, to adopt similar practices.
Calhoun, a former software consultant who has owned the historic Paicines Ranch with her husband, Matt Christiano, for a decade, says she invested a lot of time studying the cattle business and determined that raising beef on grass “is just the right way to do it,” and conventional beef practices are “a fossil fuel-intensive, unsustainable model for agriculture,” referring to the immense amounts of fuel required to feed and transport conventionally raised cattle.
So instead, she follows an approach to running her 7,000 acres that is focused on managing natural grasses and legumes without requiring supplemental feed.
Part of Calhoun’s mission with the ranch activities is to reconnect people—particularly those living in urban and suburban set tings—with the land by opening the ranch as a facility for such things as fundraisers, weddings, seminars and horse-training clinics. “People often see ranch land like it’s just empty space—they need to understand that land must be carefully managed,” she notes. In the Panoche Valley near Paicines, the Douglas family has for 16 years been raising Angus Beef cattle, white Dorper sheep and several varieties of pigs on large natural pastures. Dedicated to sustainable agriculture, they’re also committed to giving their animals a good life.
“Cattle weren’t meant to spend their life on concrete in a feedlot— it’s inhumane,” says Rani Douglas.
Instead, the Douglases’ animals are continually rotated on pastures to ensure that nutritious native grasses thrive. It also means that no chemicals, manufactured fertilizers or any other unnatural amendments to the land are ever used. The first time their animals are put in a truck is when they’re going to the processor.
Douglas isn’t just a rancher. She’s also an enthusiastic consumer. “I’m partial to a leg of lamb with a curry crust,” she says. “For steak, you can’t beat a rib eye and for pork, my favorite is a slowcooked shoulder roast, which makes great pulled-pork sandwiches the next day!”
Grassfed beef has become increasingly common in area supermarkets, but currently much of it originates from out of the area or even out of the country.
Most local grassfed ranchers market their products directly to consumers via their websites, as many small vegetable growers are doing with Community Supported Agriculture subscriptions. In fact, Morris runs a meat CSA, and all do some selling at seasonal farmers’ markets in Monterey, San Benito and Santa Cruz counties. Some use buying clubs, such as Santa Cruz Local Foods and Field to Feast, or deal directly with local butchers and chefs. But in all cases, the margins are very tight.
Indeed, the pricing of grassfed meat is a key challenge facing the rancher, the chef and the consumer.
For example, pastured animals cost more to raise and process, and meat can only be sold commercially if it is slaughtered and packaged by a U.S. Department of Agriculture-certified abattoir. Meanwhile, the facilities are governed by strict rules and those that were once located nearby, in Hollister, Gilroy and Santa Cruz, have been closed, as meat slaughtering has become more centralized. Today, there are just a few in California.
As a result, ranchers have to spend time and money hauling animals to be processed—as much as 10 hours one way—only to have to haul the meat back and then pay to keep it in a temperature-controlled warehouse.
“People need to understand the real cost of food,” says Loren Ozaki, known to many people on the Central Coast as a teacher and chef for Lightfoot Industries and The Rib King at local farmers’ markets.
A skilled butcher who does everything from curing meat to making sauces, Ozaki is a strong supporter of pasture-raised meats and buys only from small ranchers and farmers.
“A big operation can deal in volume, creating lower costs, but high-quality meat is grown on a small farm,” he adds.
At Tassajara Natural Meats in Carmel Valley, Mark Shelley and his family estimate that $3 of every pound of beef they sell goes to processing.
“That doesn’t take into account any of the other costs to raise this meat,” he says.
Tassajara’s cattle graze on ranches in Big Sur and Elkhorn Slough, and are processed at a newly reopened abattoir in Newman (Sallie Calhoun was the driving force for getting it going), but it is still a three-hour trip one way.
“The processor is raising prices, so we have to increase the price of our ground meat to $7 a pound,” he says, and filets are much higher. Ranchers make some adjustments to try to keep prices as low as possible.
For the Shelley family, that means processing cattle when they are young, about 700 pounds (what some have called free-range veal), which are raised on mother’s milk and grass. “That also enables us to sell every edible part; calves’ liver, sweetbreads, bones for stock and tongue,” he explains. They dry age (let it hang so natural enzymes tenderize) the meat for two weeks before it is cut and frozen. Other ranchers in the region finish cattle longer to make what they consider the most advantageous weight and quality. Calhoun says she keeps her beef three years to finish properly and is limiting her grassfed herd to 20 until it becomes more economical to expand. The ranchers also offer pricing discounts for buying a whole, half or quarter animal, which range from $6.30 to about $8.50 a pound. The challenge to the consumer is having enough freezer space to handle that much meat.
Meanwhile, people like Ozaki are encouraged to see more and more people develop what he calls a “better food value perspective,” or greater recognition of the higher value of healthful food versus less healthy food.
“After all,” Ozaki says, “isn’t your health worth it?”
Julie Morris agrees.
“If you want a protein-rich meal that is good for your body and good for the planet,” she says, “you’re going to choose grassfed.”
Throughout her more than 30-year career, Susan Ditz has enthusiastically worn three professional hats: writer, communications executive and organic herb farmer. She currently heads the Food/Ag Practice at Communications4Good in Santa Cruz.
TIPS FOR COOKING GRASSFED BEEF
FILET WITH CARAMELIZED ONION
PUREE AND BRUSSELS SPROUTS
|Morris Grassfed/T.O. Ranch||www.morrisgrassfed.com|
|Tassajara Natural Meats||www.tassajaranatural.com|
Researchers have been examining the health benefits of grassfed beef vs. grain-fed beef for several years.
One of the most recent studies conducted was published in 2010 in the Nutrition Journal and reported important findings about the value of grassfed beef.
University of California and California State University at Chico investigators studied decades of other research and ultimately concluded that grassfed beef may have some hearthealth benefits that other types of beef don’t.
Cynthia Daley, Amber Abbott, Patrick Doyle, Glenn Nader and Stephanie Larson determined that grassfed beef has more beta-carotene (vitamin A), vitamin E, conjugated linoleic acid and omega-3 fatty acids than beef produced using conventional cattle-feeding methods.
Mayo Clinic Cardiologist Martha Grogan, M.D. noted that this is significant because less total fat, higher levels of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids and higher levels of CLA are thought to reduce heart disease and cancer risks.—Susan Ditz