Shortly after writing the cold cuts post, in which I gave Applegate Farms some praise for being “one of the good ones,” I received an email from a perceptive reader who had a slightly different appraisal of the situation. Applegate Farms, it turns out, doesn’t raise any animals themselves. There’s no farm to visit. They source all their animals from outside farms. Now, there’s nothing wrong with sourcing meat from outside sources, especially when you make a concerted effort to procure good meat from well-raised animals, but I’ll admit that this does change things a bit for me. My idea of the ideal meat producer, however romantic, outdated, or unrealistic it might be, is one that handles every single aspect of the business in house: from raising the animals to feeding them feed grown on site, to tending their pastures, to slaughtering them (or, as the law requires, having them slaughtered at a USDA-inspected “harvesting site”), all the way to curing, slicing, and distributing the meat and related products. I like shaking the hand that castrated the calf, scratched the pig’s snout, and collected the egg, as the other slides me a vacuum-sealed package of short ribs at the Saturday morning farmers’ market.
Am I being overly romantic about a messy, bloody process? Perhaps. Unimportant in the big scheme of things? Maybe the farming practices responsible for your burger don’t matter on some cosmic scale, especially next to wars, poverty, unemployment, or even your mortgage, but on a personal level they certainly do. Unrealistic, on a wide scale? For now, yes, but without customers demanding it become more common, it will remain so indefinitely. That means it’s on you and it’s on me to make it realistic.
There are also solid, less “idealist” reasons for supporting farms that do it all. For one, you know what you’re getting. Or, to be more accurate, they know what they’re selling. As much as a company pledges to maintain strict standards of quality and care, if they aren’t personally caring for, observing, and raising the animals, there is room for error. And as business grows and they’re forced to draw on more sources to maintain supply, things get dicier. Corners may be cut. That one ranch might feed grain on the sly to get weight up in time for slaughter. Or it might be that the truly grass-fed farmers simply can’t keep up with the demands of the distributor. Whole Foods just doubled their grass-fed hot dog orders for next month; what if the Uruguayan beef isn’t available in time? As one Paleohacks user noted, his package of Applegate Farms roast beef via Trader Joe’s was discreetly labeled “Vegetarian Grain-Fed,” contrary to their website’s strong implication that all Applegate Farms beef is grass-fed. He sent some emails and made some calls, eventually speaking to someone who confirmed that sometimes they will release grain-fed when grass-fed “is not available.” It’s a little odd that they push the grass-fed thing on the website only to discard it in practice. Well, maybe not odd, exactly, but it’s too bad that grass-fed isn’t always available. Ultimately, money wins out.
The reader who alerted me thought I could, and should, have focused on those meat producers that were really doing it the right way. I’m inclined to agree, with a caveat. Applegate Farms is serving a valuable purpose. They’re offering (mostly) grass-fed beef products and various other animal products (the sources of which vary in quality and pedigree) to large markets, and that’s a good thing. When the kids want to BBQ hot dogs, I like that grass-fed dogs are widely available. That said, let’s look at some producers who keep things in house. Surprisingly, they aren’t always tiny family farms with a distribution composed solely of high-end restaurants and farmers’ markets.
Like Diestel Family Turkey Ranch, located in the Sierra foothills and run by the same family that’s run it since 1949. While young turkeys are kept penned in for their own safety, after six weeks the turkeys live on the range, using shrubs and trees for roosting and shelter. In fact, the Diestels coined their own term – “range grown” – to differentiate their methods from “free range,” a term that frankly doesn’t mean a whole lot at this point. They’re fed a “vegetarian diet,” but I doubt the birds turn up their waddles at the delicious grubby bugs sharing the range with them. Diestel processes hundreds of thousands of turkeys. They raise them all. They process them all using their own facilities. This is a massive operation, but it’s run like a smaller farm. They distribute the whole turkeys themselves, make deli products from the meat, and distribute that, too. I’ve purchased whole turkeys (delicious), cases of frozen turkey hearts (Buddha’s favorite snack), and used their deli meat (wrapped around a slab of aged cheddar and some young goat cheese is the way to do it). In case you’re skeptical a massive operation can maintain quality while keeping everything in house, consider that when a Sacramento food co-op (think patchouli, a preponderance of vegetarians, smugness, and awesome bulk grain bins!) looked into Diestel’s practices (PDF), they left very impressed. (Full disclosure: I’m a big fan of Diestel farms so I reached out to them to be a sponsor of PrimalCon. They’re donating meat to this year’s event.)
Fork in the Road Foods is an example of the Applegate Farms-esque model done right. CA-based, they’re a bunch of chefs, foodies, and farmers who obtain only pasture-raised beef, heirloom pork, and pasture-raised chicken and turkey from small family farms and turn it all into delicious hot dogs, sausages, and deli meat. I’ve run across their miniature pastured wieners at Whole Foods before, marveled at the novelty of a grass-fed Vienna sausage lookalike, and was forced to make the purchase. I’m glad I did. It’s quality stuff. Knowing that they only work with real stewards of the land helps, too. Of course, they remain pretty small and agile, and if they reach Applegate Farms proportions, things might change. But maybe not. We’ll never know unless we keep supporting small operations like Fork in the Road Foods. To see if they distribute to your area, enter your zip and find out.
Going even more local, I wanted to give some love to one of my favorite beef and pork farms. It’s Rocky Canyon Farms, located in Atascadero, CA, so old-school that they don’t even have a web presence yet (if ever). They sell mainly at SoCal farmers’ markets and to high-end restaurants. The owner, Greg, is a husky, friendly farmer who feeds his cattle grass and leftover veggies and lets his pigs roam. His main representative at the Santa Monica market is a slightly crazy, extremely enthusiastic dude named Mike. Mike will often toss in some melons (they grow several varieties), squash (again, many varieties), tomatoes, or sweet potatoes with my meat for free. Mike will also eat sweet potatoes raw. Seriously, if you’re ever at the Saturday morning SM farmers’ market, look for the lanky dude with a sleeveless T and wild eyes hawking meat, fruit, and juice. If he’s selling sweet potatoes that day, casually mention that you heard some people actually “eat these things raw.” That should be enough of a cue to get him to chomp down on one, skin and all. It’s a sight that must be beheld before you die. As for the actual meat, highlights include pork breakfast sausage (buy it in bulk, rather than pre-made patties), chuck steaks (economical, flavorful, fatty, tendony cut), bacon (arrive early for this, cause it sells out fast), various jerkies, beef tongue, ground beef w/bacon, and the various roasts. The prices are really quite reasonable, especially compared to a place like Whole Foods, and you’re cutting out the middle man. The money goes directly to the guy who raised the meat.
Anyway, those are three examples from California. One’s a massive operation with national distribution that manages to retain its autonomy. Another is an up and coming confederation of idealistic farmers, chefs, and eaters who want to make food the right way with the right ingredients, while the last is a hyper-local entity that will probably never see wide-scale distribution but who likes it that way. All take personal responsibility for the quality of the product, from beginning to end. All are to be admired (and supported). These work for me, in my neck of the woods. If you don’t yet have your own go-to farmer, visit EatWild to search and find one today.
Now tell me about your area. Where do you get your meat? Your eggs? Whose bloodstained (in the best way possible!) hand do you shake? Is there a larger operation in your neck of the woods that you trust and can look to with pride and say, “Those guys are doing it right in a big way”? Tell me – tell us – all about it in the comment section, so others can support them, too.