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.