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It all started last year, when I tried and failed to find a local turkey for Thanksgiving. I defined “local” as raised and processed entirely in San Diego County. This year, I decided to find local meat. I was up for anything: steer, chicken, lamb, turkey. Even buffalo would do.

It would be an understatement to say I had a tough time. Several local butchers told me that local meat didn’t exist because there were no United States Department of Agriculture approved and certified slaughter facilities in San Diego County. Chefs told me they used local beef and poultry and then explained that “local” meant from Brandt Beef, which is raised in the Imperial Valley, or Niman Ranch, which is headquartered in Alameda and buys from ranches all over the country, including Northern California. Vegetable farmers told me they hadn’t heard of anyone raising animals for eating. It seemed impossible. And that’s what I reported in the Reader’s October 7 “Restaurant Issue 2010.” I wrote that local meat didn’t exist in San Diego County.

“It’s a shame,” Jay Porter wrote on his blog, the Farm and the City, after reading my article, “because there might be people in San Diego who are thinking about looking into eating better food or local food, who then read some phoned-in nonsense and erroneously decide there’s no point in even asking for good food.”

Porter is the founder of the Linkery restaurant in North Park and generally known as the go-to local-food guy. When I contacted him, Porter told me that he serves local, sustainably grown food because it tastes better. “It’s a richer experience. It’s healthier, and it helps make our community stronger socially and economically.”

Curtis Womach, who began raising chickens commercially after taking a ranching course in Colorado from Holistic Management International, laughed when I told him I was looking for local meat. “Did you write the article Jay talked about on his blog?” he asked, and then laughed again. “You know, it is kind of impossible to find local meat. I only know of one other person doing this.”

When I ask him why so few farmers are raising poultry in San Diego, Womach says, “I don’t know why San Diego is behind the rest of the country.” Then he adds how hard the business is. “I have had problems with [chicken] health and with predators. And just the daily efforts of raising them. I sell at the Hillcrest farmers’ market, and feeding is every day. There is never any rest.”

Womach has about 1500 chickens that he raises on 12 acres of pasture in Boulevard. Unlike free-range chickens — which may never see the outside of a barn or a pen despite technically having “access” to the outdoors — pasture-raised chickens can roam in a grassy area all day. “When they are out to pasture, the chickens can take dust baths and they eat leaves and bugs and grass,” says Womach. “They have a more varied diet than most other commercial chickens. They have room to run around.”

Tamara Hartsten and Carl Hempel of Descanso Valley Ranch are the “other” San Diego poultry farmers Curtis told me about. “Our son got Carl the book Omnivore’s Dilemma [by Michael Pollan], and it had a huge impact on Carl,” Hartsten says when I ask her how they got involved in growing pasture-raised chickens. “After reading the book, Carl said, ‘I want to be a rancher.’” Hartsten adds that Hempel is an artist and understood the concept of bringing his wares to market. They sell their Label Rouge chickens at the Little Italy and Rancho Santa Fe farmers’ markets. “I don’t know why more people aren’t doing this. It’s strange.” Hartsten tells me she can barely keep up with the demand. “But it’s a good time for us to be in the business.”

Poultry growers with fewer than 20,000 birds who only sell their poultry within California to restaurants, household consumers, hotels, and boarding houses can qualify for an exemption from bird-by-bird federal and state inspection during slaughter and processing. Although these farmers are not exempt from the Poultry Products Inspection Act and from meeting Food Safety and Inspection Service and United States Department of Agriculture regulations, they do not need to take their birds to a USDA-certified slaughterhouse to be processed.

The situation is very different for the beef industry, which is more closely monitored. The U.S. Department of Agriculture regulates the production and sale of all meat in this country, and to sell beef in California, the animal must have been slaughtered in a USDA certified and approved facility. Most agree that the biggest hurdle to raising beef in San Diego is the absence of such facilities for the small producer. Zero facilities exist in San Diego County. “Processors are few and far between, which makes it difficult for smaller ranchers and farmers,” says Dena Leibman of Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education, a nonprofit organization funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Pete Kennedy, a lawyer for the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, explains, “Some of the USDA slaughterhouses only take the meat from big operations. It’s not worth their while to service the local producers. And if you do find a USDA house, it’s often two to three hours away and you stress the animal. From what I’ve heard, that affects the meat. Also, there are many reports of producers getting meat back from the slaughterhouse that isn’t from their animal.”

Nathan Rakov, who owns Happy Tummy Farm, raises cage-free Cornish cross chickens that have access to pasture on his 50-acre farm in Alpine. Currently, he has about 600 chickens, and he is ramping up to sell about 500 chickens a month, many to local restaurants such as A.R. Valentien in the Torrey Pines area and Stingaree in downtown San Diego. He also has about 15 pigs on his farm, but he is unable to sell his pork locally because there is no local USDA certified and approved slaughterhouse nearby. To sell his pigs currently, he has to sell the live animal to an individual and then arrange for a custom slaughterhouse to kill the pig and process the meat. The problem with this is that it is difficult for a single person or family to use all of the cuts of pork available. Restaurants can more easily use the entire animal for a variety of dishes, but because of the current USDA regulations, Rakov cannot legally sell the pork he slaughters to them.

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Comments

Visduh Nov. 20, 2010 @ 9:11 a.m.

Up into the early 90's there was a local, USDA inspected slaughterhouse. It was Talone's in Escondido. The place was still there, last time I looked. But in recent years I read reports that it was a custom slaughterhouse for those who brought their own animals in, such as goats and sheep. Back when it was processing cattle on a daily basis, it sold beef from a retail sales room. I don't know just what sort of beef it sold then, but I suspected much of it was dairy cow beef that came from local dairies such as Hollandia and a number of others in the San Luis Rey valley. (They are nearly all gone now.) If so, that sure wasn't restaurant quality beef, nor any sort of gourmet fare. It is very odd that in a county with a population of over 3 million, there isn't a single slaughterhouse remaining.

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David Dodd Nov. 20, 2010 @ 10:27 a.m.

Same thing happened where I grew up east of Los Angeles. The once-plentiful dairies are gone, the land is worth too much anymore. Sad testament to changing times. And without dairies, I reckon there's no need for slaughterhouses.

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MsGrant Nov. 20, 2010 @ 1:44 p.m.

Big agriculture works very hard to put the little guys out of business. One of the reasons I do not eat meat is the manner in which the animals are treated prior, during, and after the horrific process of raising them for consumption. The small slaughterhouses cater to the small farmers who humanely raise their animals and these places provide a far less traumatic slaughter. A few books, The Omnivore's Dilemma and Fast Food Nation come to mind, provide the back story as to why and how the USDA manipulates our food to the point of being criminal and why they want to eliminate small slaughterhouses. I would suggest to anyone who cares about their food and how it gets to their plate to read these books. You will be horrified. But most people in America do not give a sh*t about anything other than getting more food for less money.

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Visduh Nov. 21, 2010 @ 3:43 p.m.

WalMart's big selling point is that they sell food for less than just about any other grocer, butcher or dairy. If you love agribusiness and Chinese made artifacts, you'll welcome WalMart into your city. Hmmm. San Diego just made it hard for Walmart to open its supercenters that sell food. Any disconnect here?

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SurfPuppy619 Nov. 21, 2010 @ 8:08 p.m.

I find that many things are cheaper at Walmart, but not all. For some reason dog food is always 10% less at my local Stater Bros. Always.

And someone made the comment about the bakery-Walmart has AWFUL bakery/bread products. They must use low quality ingredients.

I also find their dairy products higher than the local grocey, but at least the dairy is the same manufacturer, so the qaulity is the same/consistant.

DO NOT buy bread/cake/any baked goods at Walmart from their bakery..........

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SurfPuppy619 Nov. 22, 2010 @ 7:42 a.m.

No, I buy the 40# Pedigree small chuncks dry food, which I usually mix with regular rice that I cook. I then add in chicken broth on top to mix everything and that is their basic chow menu.

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Founder Nov. 22, 2010 @ 11:04 a.m.

Have either of you seen the "make it yourself" dog food videos that use a meat grinder?

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SurfPuppy619 Nov. 22, 2010 @ 12:14 p.m.

No, I do know a person who does make her dog his own food, using raw foods. But I have never seen a DIY video on dog food.

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Joe Poutous Dec. 3, 2010 @ 9:29 a.m.

"And Homegrown Meats just introduced grass-fed beef hot dogs."

I want to try those dogs!

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RCCP81 Dec. 10, 2010 @ 2:47 p.m.

According to Iowa Meats Farm/Siesel's anyone who wants to find local meat is not a REAL foodie. I get their Newsletter and the December Newsletter and attacked this article and anyone who doesn't want animals to suffer or want to help their community and the environment by buying locally. Here is what they said:

In the November 18th issue of the “Reader”, there was a lengthy article called “Local Moo, Local Cluck For Foodies”. The author attempts to explain why “local” meat products aren’t available here in San Diego. Although she does a fair job of doing that, it’s apparent that neither she, nor the people she interviews, have a true understanding of what it takes to produce the kind of meats we want in the center of our table. What they say sounds good, but it ignores reality. When talking about beef, they equate “local” and “grassfed” with “good”. They ignore the four elements for tender, flavorful beef. They are youth, inactivity, proper feed, and proper aging. It’s all rational, logical, and posted on our website for the world to see! We have seen this lack of true understanding in articles, blogs, and posted comments on review websites. It prompted us to coin a new phrase: “FAUX (as in phony) FOODIES”. By definition, these are people who learn the terms, but don’t know what they mean! They are the “culinarily correct”. They don’t appreciate food, they talk about it! This is why we really, really appreciate all of you. You, like us, are the true foodies. Your knowledge and understanding are what make this whole thing work. You keep us on our toes and always make us strive to do things better and better.

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