A Stroll Through Devils Gulch

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Can you imagine owning 65 acres of beautiful property in Marin County by the age of 19?

Yeah…neither can we!

But that is how Rancher Mark Pasternak came to Nicasio, CA. The year was 1971 and Vietnam was in full swing, the Kent State Shooting was still fresh in mind, and Mark did not feel the beckoning call to return to UC San Diego for his junior year. He spent that summer visiting his sister in Northern California and soon found himself shopping for land rather than text books.

Luck would have it that the SF Chronicle advertised a 200-acre piece of land at the same time Mark was in the market. He joined forces with two other friends and together secured the property with a down payment of $984. Since the age of two, Mark, originally from LA, wanted to be a rancher and this land was the key to his dream.

Forty-three years later and the dream continues. Now, however, Mark is joined by his wife Myriam, two daughters, and hundreds of animals from pigs to sheep to rabbits to dogs. The rolling hills of his property boast a vineyard where he grows grape varietals and the barn yard bounces with excitement of children who attend day camps made possible by a partnership with the local YMCA.

We spent roughly four hours with Mark pacing the property and talking livestock. During our long stroll, we learned how Mark first started by raising a few pigs but achieved chef/restaurant notoriety with rabbits. Mark’s wife, Myriam (a graduate from UC Davis with a veterinary degree) began the rabbit program as a 4H project with their eldest daughter. It did not take long for classically French-trained chefs to catch wind of the superior product. Soon chefs like Alice Waters and Thomas Keller were knocking on the Devils door.

Mark and Myriam have grown their operation through not only consistent and ethical animal raising practices but also a passion to educate. In addition to kid camps, Myriam heads an agribusiness initiative in Haiti, where she works to pool agricultural resources and empower Haitian farmers.

There is something truly refreshing in talking to people who are evidently happy and passionate about their lifework; Mark and Myriam provide that refreshment. Maybe it was the way the sun was shining or my surprise in how fast four hours flew by, but I left Devils Gulch feeling re-energized and further excited about AgLocal’s own mission to provide and educate consumers about responsibly raised meat, and the farmers who produce it.

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We like PIG butts, and we cannot lie…one of my favorite photos of the day.

Post by Emma Porteus, AgLocal Farm Sourcing Team

Visit date: April 15, 2014

Sustainable Farming 101: Fence-Line Weaning for Cattle

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(Dam and Calf at Lucky Dog Ranch–Dixon, CA)

One of the most stressful moments of an animal’s life is when it is separated from its mother.  Not only the environment but also the feed source (i.e. milk from mother) change in a short amount of time. Understandably, such massive changes in an animal’s life can induce high amounts of stress.

Think about times when you were stressed, and what ensued—sleepless nights, crying, no appetite, or in other cases…entire pints of Ben&Jerry’s ice cream consumption (guilty!), and inevitably sickness. When livestock undergo periods of high stress, they have the same reactions. They vocalize (bawl) more, walk tirelessly around, and eat less. As a result, the animals gain less weight and become more susceptible to illness.

As we visit our farms, one question we make sure to ask is “How are the calves weaned?” In a conventional system, calves generally are separated from their mothers (dams), put into corrals, brought to auction, and sold to live in a different farm/lot. Other weaning tactics include clipping a nose-ring to the calf to prevent it from nursing (a calf can graze and drink water with ring but not access mother’s milk) or preconditioning the calf to eat grain before full separation from the dam.

All of the farms we are working with use a low stress, more humane method of “fence-line weaning.”Fence-line weaning is the method of separating the calf and dam on the same pasture space by a wire fenced system. In an effort to familiarize calves with water sources and landscape, calves and dams are typically brought to the same pasture and then gradually separated and moved to adjacent pastures.  With this method, the calves can still see and hear their mothers and don’t go through the same amount of stress as would be the case with farms that completely separate the cows to different pens or lots.

Fence-line weaning requires a large amount of pasture space and occurs when the calves are about 6-9 months old. A typical grass finished cattle matures to about 2 years (compared to 12-14 months in conventional beef lots.

We endorse this method as the most humane way to reduce stress and move animals onto fresh grazing pasture.

 

Post by Emma Porteus, AgLocal Farm Sourcing Team

AgLocal Visits SunFed Ranch

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One day of renting a Zipcar Prius- $98

2 bottles of water, granola bars, and a bag of trail mix – $11.50

Spending 5 hours in Los Molinos, cruising along 40,000 acres of pasture with Chris and Matt, ranchers and owners of Sun Fed Ranch—priceless.

Part of the AgLocal farm approval process includes bi-annual visits to our partner farms to verify farming practices and get to know our farmers better. Each farm (and farmer) has their own personality and we love truly getting to know each one of them. Plus, we don’t own cowboy boots just to own them…

This past week we road tripped to Dye Creek Preserve in Los Molinos, CA to visit Matt Byrne and Chris Donati of Sun Fed Ranch. Lying at the foothills of Mount Lassen, Dye Creek Preserve is protected by the Nature Conservancy, which leases land out to responsible ranchers.

Enter Chris and Matt, a young ranching duo that come from generations of family cattlemen. Both sport a uniform of blue jeans, boots, and cowboy hats and have a sharp wit about them that makes for continuous laughter.

These cowboys teamed together out of interest for the livestock, for the land, and for the larger picture of changing the status quo of the meat industry.

Bumping along the dirt road in Chris’s Ford truck, we visited pasture after pasture of Angus cows and Angus-Hereford crosses, ranging in age from calves to yearlings to a mature two years. Luckily, rain graced Los Molinos the prior week, and the pasture bustled with green grass and wildflowers.  In a year of severe drought, Chris and Matt have made conscious decisions to build the herd slower than usual to avoid overtaxing the land. As a result, they have succeeded in keeping their herd 100% grassfed and finished.

Driving along,  we observed cows roaming and grazing the same land that they were born and raised on. Cows are tranquil animals, with stress keenly affecting the quality of their meat. By allowing cattle to graze in solitude, the animal can lead a healthier life, without the need for antibiotics and, as a result, have lower cortisol levels and more tender, flavorful meat.  Additionally, the environment wins. Grass is met to be mowed and the cattle naturally decrease soil erosion and increase soil fertility.

When asked what makes Sun Fed Ranch different, Chris spoke about the ecology of the land saying, “We are not trying to maximize production per acre. It’s not about that. It’s about being sustainable and more conservative. A happy benefit is it’s the right thing to do for the land too.”

Chris and Matt have been graced with knowledge and land that make them well equipped to be leaders in sustainable farming and grass-finished cattle. Best of all, they exude a contagious energy; you can’t help but leave feeling a little bit better about the future of our food systems.

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Post by Emma Porteus,  AgLocal Farm Sourcing Team

Farm Visit: April 11, 2014

 

Climate Change and the Future of Farming

In a press release issued on March 31st, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) described the future risks associated with climate change, particularly in relation to the world’s food supply.  The following infographics from the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), which were based on the IPCC report, detail the current effects of climate change, the expected decline in crop production by 2030 as a result of climate change, and what farmers can do to mitigate some of the negative impacts.

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Sources: IPCC Press Release, Full IPCC ReportNYT, NPR, Forbes

 

“The Fat Drug”

In a recent New York Times opinion piece, contributor Pagan Kennedy discusses the ways in which low-dose antibiotics may have “affected our size, and shape, and made us different people.”  As Ms. Kennedy highlights in her piece, numerous scientists are now wondering if our nation’s obesity epidemic is due to constant exposure to low-dose antibiotics.  In other words, can the antibiotics that we feed to animals “cause the same growth promotion in humans?”

Humans are exposed to antibiotics through a variety of sources but low-dose antibiotic exposure is largely due to eating animals that have been fed low-dose antibiotics and when runoff from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) enters the water supply.  Although the mechanism through which antibiotic exposure could impact obesity rates in humans is not fully understood, many scientists, including Dr. Blaser of The Blaser Lab, are investigating how antibiotic exposure can alter the composition of the human microbiome and result in various health consequences.  According to Lita Proctor of the Human Microbiome Project, the human microbiome is “all the microbial microbes that live in and on our bodies but also the genes – all the metabolic capabilities they bring to supporting human health.”  Many of these microbes reside in the human gut and as a result of antibiotic exposure, we may be killing off the bacterial strains that protect us from excess weight gain.

Although this research is still in its infancy, the fact that antibiotic exposure may be linked to the obesity epidemic suggests that we need to think critically about our existing regulations for antibiotic use in agriculture.

For more information on the human microbiome, this NPR video provides an excellent overview.

 

Sources: “The Fat Drug”, Understanding Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations and Their Impact on Communities, Human Microbiome, NPR Microbiome Video

“The Meat Racket”

In his latest op-ed, The Unhealthy Meat Market, writer Nicholas Kristof discusses the ways in which industrial agriculture has negatively influenced the quality and safety of US meat products.  According to Kristof, “industrial meat has an acrid aftertaste.”

Citing Christopher Leonard’s new book, The Meat Racket, Kristof concisely summarizes the advent of our consolidated meat industry and its related consequences.  As a result of the prominence of Big Meat, the use of low-dose antibiotics in animal feed, and factory farming, meat products in the US are cheap and widely available but at the expense of independent farmers and the humane treatment of animals.

Kristof’s opinion piece serves as an important reminder that we need to support independent farmers if we want to move away from a meat industry that “privatizes gains but socializes health and environmental costs.”  As consumers, we need to remember that the hidden costs of industrial agriculture are steep and unsustainable. With technology that enables us to reconnect with the farmers and ranchers that grow our food, we have the capacity to ensure that our dietary choices are in support of healthier animals, a healthier planet, and a more sustainable future.  

Sources: New York Times, The Meat Racket

Sustainable Livestock Production and Climate Change

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), 14.5% of all greenhouse emissions are attributable to the livestock industry.  This calculation takes various stages of the livestock supply chain into account, which includes animal feeding, farm energy use, and post-slaughter animal transport.  As a result, eating less meat or adopting a vegetarian diet are often touted as ways for individuals to decrease their carbon footprint, particularly in developed countries.

But what about developing nations?

As certain developing countries, particularly Brazil, Russia, India and China (BRIC), experience rapid population and income growth, demand for livestock products has also increased.  According to United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), meat consumption in developing countries is expected to increase by 2.4% each year over the next ten years, compared to a 0.9% increase in developed nations; this increase in meat consumption would significantly increase global greenhouse gas emissions.  Given that, is it possible to meet the rising demand for meat without exacerbating environmental problems?

According to researchers Havlik et. al., the answer is yes.  In a recent study, the researchers claim that improving the efficiency of livestock production systems would limit land conversion from forests to grazing areas and could potentially minimize an increase in greenhouse emissions.  Additionally, if farmers shift to poultry and pork products that produce less emissions than ruminant animals – such as sheep, goats, cattle –  it is possible to temper global greenhouse gas emissions from livestock, even as the demand for meat increases.

 

Sources: FAO, USDA, Havlik et. al., NPR

 

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