Friday, October 22, 2010

Local and Grass-fed - Worth More?

Value is a term that is not often applied to food.  In this country, most of us seem more interested in affordability (some would say cheapness) when it comes to our food.  Indeed, we spend the lowest percentage of our income on food of any developed country in the world.  Our cheap food "policies," intentional and otherwise, have serious consequences for the environment and for the people who grow our food (farmers, ranchers, and the people who work for them).

We produce grass-fed lamb and beef for local customers.  What does this mean?  For us, it means that we feed only grass to our lambs and steers.  Producing a high quality and delicious product strictly on grass requires significant expertise in pasture management, animal husbandry, and animal selection.  Unlike producers who sell into the commodity market, this means that we must manage the entire process - from raising the animal to processing the meat to selling the final product.  As a example, for me to sell one package of lamb chops at a local farmers' market, I must spend 7-8 months caring for the lamb (and 12 months caring for its mother).  Because I'm required to obtain USDA inspection before I can sell my meat, I must make two trips to Dixon (to my processor) and back (once to have lambs processed and once to pick up meat).  Finally, I must store my meat in a county-approved facility before finally offering it for sale at a farmers' market.  In the industrial food system, each of these functions is performed by a separate entity; in a local food system, these functions are often performed by the farmer.  I believe strongly that the local system results in better food that's better for the land and the people who raised it; I also believe that it may be more "expensive" to produce food this way.

Among the challenges that we face in producing local and grass-fed meat is that these terms mean different things to different producers and customers.  For some, lamb that is produced in Idaho but processed in Dixon might be considered "local."  There are producers that insist that animals that are fed grain in a pasture (rather than in a feedlot) are "grass-fed."  While this lack of standard definitions for these terms is frustrating to me at times, I believe that the ability of individual producers to talk directly with customers about these definitions is more important than standardization.

What does this ambiguity mean for my customers?  First, I need to educate my customers about our values and production practices.  By grass-fed, for example, we mean that our animals are eating grass - nothing else!  We value this type of production because we feel that it results in a healthier product (for the eater and for the land).  By local, we mean that our animals were raised locally (in Placer and Nevada County) and processed as locally as USDA inspection rules allow (our beef is processed in Reno).

To return to the question posed in the title of this entry, I think local and grass-fed meat is worth more than conventionally raised meat for several reasons.  Local and grass-fed meat is more nutritionally dense - our customers get more (and higher quality) nutrients per dollar spent on our meat versus something that comes out of the industrial food system.  Second, because our product is processed in smaller batches (and generally at smaller facilities), more care is taken with its handling.  Our restaurant customers tell us that they don't have nearly as much waste with our lamb as they do with commodity lamb, for example.  Finally, because my customers can see my animals and the land that I manage directly, I have greater accountability to my community.  I feel obligated to take greater care because my neighbors are also my customers.

In many ways, producing and selling meat locally requires us to return to an older system while working within a regulatory and marketing system that favors large scale production based on cheap petroleum.  If we simply try to compete with the modern system on price, we'll fail.  If we compete in terms of value, flavor, nutrition, community and land stewardship, we'll succeed.

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