“For local farming to work,” Rakov tells me, “the USDA needs to change the rules for small farmers. They need to come up with a program [for hooved animals] that is similar to the one they have for birds.”
Dutch Bergman of Palomar Mountain Ranch tells me that his family has been raising grass-fed cattle on Palomar Mountain since the mid-1800s. Enos T. Mendenhall, who came to the area in 1860, was the first family member to run a ranch. Back then, the mountain was known for renegades and cattle rustlers. Ever since, the Bergmans and the Mendenhalls, have been raising cattle on the acres of pastureland they own. Bergman’s son Wes is a sixth-generation rancher.
Today, Bergman has about 100 to 150 mother cows that produce about 100 calves each year. If half of those calves are male and good prospects for grass-fed meat, he’ll have 50 animals per year that could potentially be sold for beef. Calving typically occurs in the spring and fall.
When I ask him about the stringency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, he says, “There is nothing wrong with the USDA ensuring that we’re not cutting up the meat in the dirt. But no one can afford the cost of an inspected facility if they are only producing one steer per week.”
Because profit margins on beef are so slim, Bergman does not sell his beef commercially on the retail market. Instead, he slaughters some of the cows for himself and his family, and the rest he sells to other ranchers for breeding or to larger commercial finishing yards, where they are fattened up for slaughter. All of these methods are allowed under USDA regulations, as long as Bergman does not sell the meat he slaughters and processes.
Bergman adds that sometimes people purchase a steer from him and have it slaughtered themselves. I ask Bergman if he thinks this practice or beef co-ops will become more popular, and he isn’t sure. He reminds me that 300 pounds of steer does not equal 300 pounds of steak. “If you have a family, how many cuts of meat do you use? How much can you eat?” he asks. “There are roasts and secondary cuts. These are things people aren’t used to seeing. In my day, people knew what to do with beef shanks and chuck roasts. But now, beyond steaks, people have gotten away from using the secondary cuts. That’s the issue.”
Jeff Jackson, executive chef of A.R. Valentien, is a pioneer in the San Diego Slow Food movement. “I’ll take anything local,” he says. “I’ll take half a cow.” Jackson says that 5 years ago only a few chefs served the secondary cuts. “You have to understand that the local food movement has only been going on for 10 to 15 years here. San Diego was a chain restaurant town for years. It takes a long time for chefs to learn to use the whole animal, to use the offal. We’re playing catch-up.” Offal generally refers to entrails and organ meats.
Bergman’s nephew, Joel Mendenhall, together with Matt Rimel, owner of Rimel’s Rotisserie, found a unique way to make a profit on local grass-fed beef. Matt Rimel opened Homegrown Meats/La Jolla Butcher Shop. Most of his grass-fed beef comes from Joel Mendenhall’s ranch, which is certified by the American Grassfed Association and Animal Welfare Approved, a four-year-old organization that audits family farms for compliance with animal welfare standards.
“The cows are born on Mendenhall’s ranch and spend 12 to 15 months there. They are raised on grass and water their whole life.” About 100 beef cows live on Mendenhall’s 13,000-acre ranch on Palomar Mountain, and another 400 replacement heifers live on leased land on Camp Pendleton. He explains that all cattle are started out on grass, but most — and always steer slated for prime beef — are sent to be finished on feedlots for up to 350 days in order to add fat to the meat. Not so with Joel Mendenhall’s steer, which remain on grass up until the day they are taken to Manning Beef in Pico Rivera to be slaughtered.
“We wanted to go back to the basic ways my family has done ranching for the last hundred years,” Joel Mendenhall tells me. “We’ve done this for ourselves. Then we thought, why not let people buy from us the way we want to do this. They [the animals] don’t go into feedlots, they aren’t packed into trucks and jostled around. They’re not pushed and prodded.”
Mendenhall tells me that it was difficult to find a USDA-certified slaughter facility that would take his steer. “Most places don’t want anything new. They don’t like change. If a new producer comes around and they aren’t doing things right, it can fall back on them.”
Rimel and Mendenhall tell me their business is growing. They are adding ranchers to their group, including five local ranchers who are getting ready to be audited by Animal Welfare Approved and American Grassfed Association. And Homegrown Meats just introduced grass-fed beef hot dogs.
“There’s no money in beef,” Rimel says. “You have to understand, you’re looking at a whole cow. And every cow only has two filets and two New York strips. But hot dogs are going to bring the steaks to market. The hot dog is made from the whole cow. It’s the first hot dog that is actually good for you. They have everything from omega-3s to CLAs [conjugated linoleic acids].” Omega-3 acids have been linked to blood pressure reduction, and conjugated linoleic acids have been shown to fight cancer. Both are a result of the steer’s grass diet.
When I ask if they know of other ranchers who are currently raising grass-fed cattle and selling it on the retail market, Mendenhall and Rimel tell me no. “We’re the only ones doing this legally,” Rimel says. Mendenhall adds that he knows a lot of ranchers, but they sell to the standard market, meaning their cattle ultimately go to feedlots.