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.
“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.
Eric Larson, executive director of the San Diego Farm Bureau, tells me that the reason Curtis Womach, Carl Hempel, and Joel Mendenhall are succeeding is that they aren’t trying to compete with big producers in Imperial Valley or the Midwest. He says that most poultry farmers in San Diego sell only eggs because they can’t compete with larger producers like Zacky Farms. “But it’s all about local now. Local, local, local. Whatever the farmers can do to find a niche will make a market. The way to be successful is not to compete with the conglomerates.”
Despite a slow start, San Diego’s local meat industry does seem to be growing. Both Tamara Hartsten and Curtis Womach tell me that demand is high for their chickens, even at a price of over $15 per bird. Curtis Womach provides chicken to the Linkery, but Tamara doesn’t sell her chickens to local chefs. “We can’t produce the chickens fast enough,” she tells me. “With the price we get at the farmers’ markets, why would we want to go wholesale?”
Chef Jeff Jackson is equally optimistic about the future. On October 31, he held the eighth annual “Celebrate the Craft” event, which connects local farmers, chefs, vintners, and local foodies. He thinks that the local food movement — including meat — is going to continue to grow. “These guys are so intelligent that it makes your head swim a bit,” he says. “And they’re working like hell to live their life. If they figure it out, it’s a great life.”
Curtis Womach, who was a home brewer and stay-at-home dad before he started raising chickens, says his seven-year-old son likes to hang out on the chicken farm. The boy thinks the chickens are lucky to live on his 12-acre, oak-dotted farm. Womach is quiet for a moment. “Yeah,” he adds, “it’s nice where they are.”