Heading out to pasture at Marin Sun Farms
Up until now, my experience with "the range" has been derived entirely from John Wayne movies, Elmer Kelton novels, and the Little House on the Prairie series I loved as a child. So when I saw a tour advertised on the Marin Sun Farms website, I quickly grabbed the chance to gain some firsthand experience. Strictly speaking, Marin Sun Farms is not a farm but a cattle ranch, with a chicken operation and a few lambs.
I persuaded my sister, Surfer Queen, to accompany me by promising her that she would be able to pet a cow. (Which turned out to be a lie, although we did nuzzle a horse.)
About 50 of us farm tourists met up in the morning at Marin Sun Farms’ Butcher Shop and Eatery on Highway One just outside Point Reyes Station. The shop had been open for less than a year when it flooded last winter; it is set to reopen this weekend, in time for the Fourth of July Marin Organic festival. The assembled crowd was almost entirely white, a mixture of older San Francisco “successful idealists” (a creepy marketing term I encountered recently), 20-something neo-hippies, and non-branded regular folk, including a few families. To my surprise, there were only a couple of hybrid cars, and a few BMWs and Lexuses. Older Hondas like mine and Volkswagens were in the clear majority. That’s what foodie élites drive, I guess.
David Evans, the owner, was also not what I expected from a fifth-generation farmer. He’s in his early 30s, with a townie haircut (I’m sure there was product in it) and dark sunglasses. Swap the plaid shirt for a blue button-down and I could almost picture him getting up at dawn to sell things in a different kind of stock market. I read somewhere that producers from “The Bachelor” were after him to star a few years ago, but he reportedly turned down the chance.
Solar power to the people
Evans was our tour guide, and he did an excellent job. Talking nonstop for over two hours, he covered the history of the ranch, which started out as a dairy farm; how and where he slaughters and processes his beef; and why he’s less than enthused about organic certification and has no interest in his business getting big.
He was passionate and funny, as well as honest about the compromises he must make. I wrote down a few of his pithy comments from throughout the day:
- "If we can last until a comet annihilates this planet, we’ll have made it as a civilization."
- "Is world peace possible? I don’t think so, but isn’t it an admirable goal anyway?"
- "People always ask me, 'Are you in Whole Foods?' God no. Now, they have brought an awareness to the marketplace, but they’re still a corporate giant."
- "If our dollars represented the energy it took to grow something and get it to the store, an apple would never make it here from China."
- "We need to care for these lands, so they will in turn care for us."
- "I’m really in the business of harvesting free solar energy from the ball in the sky."
- "When people see a stamp that says 'Certified Organic,' they stop asking questions. It does have its function, because not everyone lives close enough to ask questions, but if you can, you should."
After we toured the butcher shop, including checking out the cold room where they carve and slice the beef, we all doubled up and carpooled the 20 minutes or so to the ranch, which lies at the northern tip of the Point Reyes peninsula. It was a hot, dusty, slightly gray day, with a fog bank obscuring the blue horizon I knew lay to the west. Grassy pastures stretched off into the distance, dotted with brown and black-and-white cows and heifers. There was a clump of one-story houses — Evans lives on the ranch, as do his parents and sister and I think his grandfather, too — and a bunch of barnlike buildings in front of a huge, tarp-covered hill weighed down with tires. Thistles and milkweed grew through rusting tractors and piles of old appliances. “My dad loves machinery, and there’s not exactly a spare-parts store just down the road,” Evans shrugged.
A black dog danced up to meet us. “This is Bueno,” Evans said, introducing his No. 1 helper, who proceeded to lick every hand and bare leg available. (Later, we saw him gobbling up a fresh cowpie with equal gusto, which was a little gross, but that’s nature for you, I guess.)
Evans’s maternal great-grandparents emigrated from Italian Switzerland in 1889 looking for work in a dairy, and ended up in California. They saved their money and managed to install five sons (they also had five daughters) on their own properties, including Evans’s grandfather on the H Ranch in Point Reyes. In 1960, John F. Kennedy Jr. declared Point Reyes part of the National Seashore system and seized all the property under eminent domain, leasing the land back to the farmers. The longer the lease they wanted, the smaller the up-front payout. Evans's grandfather was arouns 50 at the time, and took only a 20-year lease.
After that one ran out, the family exercised its option to renew, but could only do so for increasingly shorter periods. Like many others, they’re currently on a five-year lease, which is not much of an incentive to invest improvements to the land, Evans explained.
His parents started a beef operation in 1976, and now they run what’s called a calf operation: they breed 280 mother cows with a pool of 30 bulls, and raise the resulting calves for about 10 months. Then they wean them and sell them to feedlots in the Midwest for fattening in the conventional industrial manner.
I couldn't help but wonder if the heifers dream of their bucolic California youth as they mill around the manure pits of Cowschwitz.
Fields of dreams
Evans decided while in college that he wanted to concentrate on sustainability, and do things a little differently from his parents. He read about Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm in Virginia, a model of successful, sustainable farming, and persuaded them to let him try rotational grazing with some of their animals. The results were impressive enough for them to continue. And slowly, he started to buy his own cattle and land in order to raise them on grass from start to finish. (He couldn’t just ask for his parents to give him some, as their calves have been bred now for generations to be good feedlot beef: to get big and fat — fast — on corn.)
The Evans family now holds some 3,800 acres total, including land in Sonoma and other parts of Marin, with about half of that certified organic — a process David undertook a few years ago.
“The land was easy. It had never had pesticides on it anyway,” he shrugs. But he hasn’t yet pursued an organic certification for his beef. “I don’t want to write a check for $1,500 every year just for a stamp. As Joel Salatin puts it, ‘You can’t certify integrity.’”
Like many small ranchers that slaughter only a few animals each week, Evans has few positive opinions about USDA regulations. He said he was lucky in that he only had to drive his cows to a slaughterhouse in Petaluma, and then pick up the split halves, which he processed in the Point Reyes Station butcher shop; state certification allows him to do that for selling to individuals, but not wholesale. But the Petaluma facility’s owners are quite elderly, and a developer has eyes for the valuable downtown property. Soon, there may be no slaughterhouse nearby.
“East Bay ranchers spend a good bit of their time hauling their animals around, and I’m not going to do that,” Evans vowed. He said he would consider moving to private “buying clubs” rather than truck his cows to a slaughterhouse for hours every week. There was a brand new slaughterhouse built, around Monterey I think he said, that had been waiting to get a USDA inspector allotted to it for more than a year.
“If the government requires beef to be inspected, then they damn well better provide the inspection facility, one that’s not 200 miles away,” he complained, then joked, “That’s my libertarian side talking.”
There needs to be exemptions for small holders, he argued. I wonder why the USDA doesn't outsource any of its inspections to licensed third parties, the way the organic certification works. Surely, if there are not enough inspectors to go around, they could establish a third-party inspection system that would understand why animals raised this way pose much less of a risk to the food supply. Evans said that he has to slaughter his animals at 24 to 30 months of age (feedlot cows are put down around 18 months or less), because after 30 months, "the government keeps 20 percent of the animal — the whole spinal column," to lessen the risk of mad cow, no matter whether the animal ate grass its whole life or not. He also complained that slaughterhouses keep the animals organs and viscera: he has to buy back the oxtail and liver if he wants them, and they don't even guarantee they're from his animals.
As we walked around the farm and the fields, we heard about why broiler chickens are treated differently than laying hens — both of his are free range, but the broilers are more confined, in order to keep the meat tender. The mountain under the tarp, he explained, was silage: grass that had been “green chopped” in its prime and was being fermented for winter feed. He talked about the ecosystem of the pastures and the manmade lakes, and the species that coexisted all over the ranch, sometimes bloodily: he’d just moved his broiler chickens closer to the house after a skunk got in to the mobile pen and had chicken dinner. While we were there, numerous hawks circled lazily over a laying henhouse, not at all put off by the fake owl keeping watch above it.
The laying house was quite a trip. About 200 chickens flapped around the laying boxes and pecked in their feed troughs, eyeing us nervously and peeping and squawking up a storm. (Evans feeds them grain after the Salatin model, which says that "if you give them a salad bar" — outside — "they'll balance their own diet." I got close enough to almost touch one's feathered head.
Weighing the scale
Evans slaughters and sells less than 200 beef a year, a few hundred broiler chickens, and several thousand eggs, mostly at the San Francisco Ferry Building farmers’ market. Stanford University buys his ground beef in bulk, as does the DeYoung Museum; many smaller restaurants serve his meat, but it sounds like he personally makes each sale. It’s safe to say there’s way more demand than there is meat: I still haven’t been able to get a chicken from him, and he’s sold out of almost everything by the time I’ve made it across the Bay on Saturdays. Last time, he put me down for a chicken for the following week and then didn’t end up having any left.
This doesn't bother him. “I don’t want to get big,” he said. “I don’t want to kill hundreds of animals a week. Five or six to sell at the market is fine with me.”
As it is, he worked seven days a week for year until recently, when he quit the Marin Farmers Market in order to give himself a day off … which he was spending as tour guide.
“I don’t mind,” he smiled. “I believe in ‘relationship marketing’ — I tell you what I’m trying to do here, so you can understand that my prices reflect what it costs to grow beef in Marin.”
I had a cooler in my trunk filled with ice, and over a hundred dollars in cash. But despite saying ahead of time that he’d have some beef and lamb, Evans had nothing for sale; he’d been too wrapped up trying to get the store ready for the July 1 opening. I was both terribly disappointed and relieved. We hadn’t gotten close enough to pet a cow — their herd kept a safe distance from our human herd — but after watching the heifers munching on grass next to their moms, and the month-old broiler chickens pecking for grubs in the dirt, and the laying hens bobbing their heads in that crazy way outside the coop, high-stepping with their yellow Big Bird feet, I felt almost uncomfortably close to my food.
Yet when lunchtime rolled around, Surfer Queen and I gobbled up our roast beef sandwiches, brought by Evans in coolers in the back of his truck, with great relish. We wished it had occurred to us to get one beef and one egg salad to split. Had I been able to buy a steak for that night’s dinner, I know I would have eaten it too, but with so much more awareness of how it lived, how it died, and why it tasted the way it did.
Which is the point of all this. So I guess I’ll just have to get up earlier some Saturday soon, and hope that Evans brings enough tasty beef for me. At least until the Potato and I buy the chest freezer so we can split a half cow with Miss Steak.
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