Published: Sunday, 05 March 2017 18:35
Written by Pati Jacobs
My father use to say, "If you want to make money raising cows, have them grazing between oil wells". On my more pessimistic days, I tend to agree.
Cattle are a "life cycle" product. Take one heifer, wait for appropriate breeding age, add one bull -- wait approximately three years to get return on initial investment. Needless to say predictions on where the market is for beef at any given time tend to be more wishful thinking than actual cash flow projections.
So what are ranchers to do?
First thing – break free of the current market model. I haven’t sold calves through the auction in years. I have developed a direct market program that allows Bastrop Cattle Company to sell wholesale to several restaurants and grocery stores in Austin. We also sell direct retail through a shopping cart on the internet and off the ranch directly to our customers.
This means better prices for our consortium of family ranchers (better than market), control of our wholesale pricing and better prices for our retail customers.
It does mean more work for me – I am the marketer, the shipper, the delivery service (and chief bottle washer) – but that’s what it takes in a new type of food market. It also means that I’m competing with the likes of Ben E. Keith and Sysco, and grocery stores like Whole Foods and HEB.
I would have to hold down a second job to support this ranch if I used the traditional way of selling beef. This ranch is NOT a hobby. It’s a business and it must make a profit to survive.
Now, Brandon and I are looking for more means to increase the revenue streams off of the ranch. The first one has proven reasonably easy. We sell hay. We have a pretty good following – our hay is chemical free – no herbicides and all organically fertilized. There is a growing group of people who consider this important. Either they have gardens that they need mulch for or they have cattle and horses that they don’t want ingesting chemicals. We sell several hundred bales a year and are moving our numbers up over the next year of hay cutting.
Still this does not represent a major amount of money. It pays to fix fences and will help with repairing the barn. But new fences, more cattle and serious construction of dams and irrigation systems are more expensive.
We are doing several events and sharing the ranch with different groups. All have their advantages and disadvantages.
1. Liability insurance.
2. Wear and tear on the ranch itself.
3. Scheduling – not just what works for people doing events, but what fits into the life cycle of the ranch itself.
4. Increased permitting
5. Added overhead costs.
6. Competition – there are plenty of other farms and ranches that are trying the same thing.
And we’re looking at additional agricultural uses for the ranch. Currently, we’re exploring (meaning research, research, research) lavender, olive trees, fruit trees, fish – both stocking and farming, tree harvesting and gaming hunting.
Joel Salatin estimated for his six hundred acre farm in Virginia that he had to gross $3,000 per acre annually in revenue to justify not selling it off for development. That amount is higher here in Central Texas.
I love my ranch and the beauty of the big oaks and the bull mesquite. I consider myself a steward not an owner of this land. For it to survive as a ranch, I must push it to pay for itself. On the one hand is is mystical and full of peace, on the other hand it is a “factory” that needs to support a going business.
Think about this the next time you visit a working farm or cattle ranch. By supporting local/sustainable agriculture, you are also supporting the preservation of open land and creating jobs that keep someone on that land to keep it open for the next generation.
Published: Tuesday, 02 August 2016 20:14
Written by Pati Jacobs
Lately, if you do any eating out in Austin, you are seeing and hearing the term “local/sustainable”. With more people demanding accountability on where their food is coming from and how it is being raised, “local/sustainable” has become the new catch phrase for “assuring” people that all is well with the food they are being served.
But is it really? Don’t count on it!
First, let us agree on what the words “local” and “sustainable” are suppose to mean. Or at least imply.
Local is meant to mean from somewhere close. This is a difficult one as “local” in Texas can mean something very different than “local” in New York. Distances are greater. Growing seasons are different and, frankly, much of what “local” can mean is pretty arbitrary.
If you are buying “local” you would assume that it is supporting farmers and ranchers in your area – but how big is that area?
So how about what it doesn’t mean.
“Local” does not mean out of State. I can accept “local” in Texas meaning anything in state – with some caveats - We have a Rio Grande Valley that can grow avocados in the winter, as well as oranges, watermelon, grapefruit and a host of vegetables. Those farmers should be able to sell their produce throughout the state with pride labeled “Grown in Texas”. One could argue that they are “local” to Corpus Christi, Houston, and even San Antonio. Distance in Texas is way more than say New York, where one can argue that “local” is the Hudson Valley to Manhattan.
“Local” is not corporate headquarters in Austin when all your farms and ranches that supply you are outside Texas. Having your headquarters here doesn’t make the Kiwis from New Zealand and strawberries from Mexico “local”. It doesn’t make the eggs from Arkansas “local”.
“Local” is not sourcing from an Austin distributor who is getting all their meat from a supplier in Colorado.
I know we don’t grow Kiwis in Texas and that much of the produce we want out of season has to be grown in warmers climates somewhere else. I understand – just don’t lie to me!
“Sustainable”. Well here is a loaded word. What is “sustainable”?
My guess is that if you are growing produce or raising livestock in a way that neither exhausts the soil nor does damage to it, and that you are adding back to the soil and the environment with your practices at the same time – thus keeping the ecology in balance – that is sustainable.
But while one can make the argument that what any given farm or ranch does is sustainable, how much of that “sustainability” is negated as you move away from self-contained practices.
As an example: If a ranch or farm raises animals on their own property and feeds them grain, one could make the argument that they are sustainable if they grow the grain themselves for their own animals, but are less sustaining if they are bringing the grain in from somewhere else and that the farther the grain has to come transportation wise, the less sustainable the feeding of those animals is.
One could argue that feeding cattle grain at all when they should be eating grass for their best health is not a sustainable practice. On the other hand, pigs and chickens need feed.
Frankly, my personal opinion is that “sustainable” is a loaded word that in reality is too complex to tell the consumer anything. It is a “feel good” word that is used more often to put up smoke and mirrors and allows the seller to not answer the real questions the consumer is asking.
Where was my food raised or grown?
How was it raised or grown?
Was this done humanely? Was it done with additives? Chemicals?
Is this producer organic?
Was this a family farm or ranch?
Grass fed? Grain fed? GMOs?
I understand that the majority of restaurants, grocery stores, food trailers, and any other food outlets are wincing as I write this. This is a lot of information that may or may not be what any given consumer wants. And, in fact, the majority of consumers still don’t want to be this engaged with their food sources.
However, more and more consumers are beginning to ask questions.
So here are some suggestions:
Just be transparent. Post in plain sight who supplies you.
One sentence underneath identifying where the ranch or farm is located, or if it’s a bigger producer that uses multiple producers, post the region in the state.
Say if they are organic (thus identify that there are no chemicals, antibiotics, hormones or GMOs). And list any certifications that the producer may have: American Grassfed Association, Humane Certification, Whole Food Level Certified.
Say if they are Grass fed, Grain fed, etc.
All this can be done with one sentence. Do it for each producer and post it. You’re done and the customer can see what is going on with their food.
I know two grocery stores – Wheatsville Coop and Whole Foods – that do this. I know a couple of restaurants – though most of them just list the producer and don’t usually list any additional information.
I also know a large number of restaurants and grocery stores that are now playing the “local/sustainable” buzz word game. Many of these places are doing it precisely because they DON’T want to list the other information.
So it is up to you – consumer – to ask for a “posting of transparency” to know about your food. And when someone tells you they don’t know or that is just too economically “unsustainable” tell them “just post it”.
Published: Tuesday, 22 March 2016 17:38
Written by Pati Jacobs
Let me warn you before you read further, this is a militant blog.
If you are a vegan or a vegetarian you may want to stop here. If you are offended by reality, you may want to stop here. Some verbal descriptions in this blog may be offensive to people with weak stomachs. Stop here.
I am a rancher. I raise cattle and at some point in the life cycle several animals a year out of my herd will go to the processing plant where they will die – swiftly, humanely, respectfully – but they will die.
Why do I bring this up? Well, its reality and I am tired of people telling me that if we just stopped eating meat this could all be done away with.
First, the vast majority of people are not going to become vegans. We’re omnivores and we both crave and need meat. Secondly, in the worst (or a vegan’s estimation best) case scenario if everyone stopped eating meat, not one cow, pig, chicken, turkey, fish, whatever – not one – would be saved.
Here’s what would really happen. Big ag gets bigger – because they are the ones with the economy of scale to create all that synthetic food and supplements and whatever that will still be needed to feed the world. All the small ranchers and farmers and fisheries, etc. will go out of business and they will sell their land to some big real estate guy who will crowd four substandard built starter homes on each acre so he can make lots of money to move to that gated (and guarded) community. All the trees will be mowed down (they’re in the way). All the tiny lakes, estuaries and places for wild ducks will be filled in (they’re in the way) and open space will disappear (it will now have no value except maybe as a farm or ranch theme park). And all those cows, pigs, chickens, etc who have nowhere to live will be carted off to the slaughter house to be dispatched.
What did you think? They’d be adopted by all those nice people buying the substandard built houses!
And if you think that not eating meat will help the environment, consider this. It is now becoming an acknowledged fact that the greatest disaster to befall the Great Plains was not the arrival of people (although this does usually preclude most disasters!), but the demise of the great buffalo herds. The great animals were an integral part of the environment. Their removal (by people – again that precursor!) and almost extinction led to massive degradation of the Great Plains. The same symbiosis between domesticated animals and their environment can be observed on a well-run ranch or farm. Just ask Joe Salatin or Allen Savory.
May I suggest an alternative to your current meat eating concern.
Conscientious Meat Eating
If you really want to help domesticated farm and ranch animals eat them – but with a conscience.
What do I mean?
Eat animals that are grass fed, or (if you must have grain finished) organically grown animals. This ensures two things; 1. The animals are raised humanely – with pasture and space in (for the most part) a natural environment, and 2. The animals are healthy because of how they are raised and what they are eating. I would prefer grass fed completely, but under certified organic you know there are no gmo’s in their system and no herbicides or pesticides on the pastures they are in.
Check to see where and how they are killed. Small processing plants have the time to kill animals properly – preferably by head bolting for the big animals (which causes instantaneous brain death), or in the case of chickens throat cutting – one stroke across the carotid arteries and the chicken (who is suspended in a cone upside down) is bled out in less than 2 minutes but goes unconscious in less than 30 seconds.
One of the other advantages to an animal being killed in a smaller plant is that the State Inspector or the USDA Inspector actually has time to do a thorough check of the animal before and after death to make sure it is healthy and has no contamination.
Become militant and ask questions. The whole grass fed/ natural / organic movement in meat is growing exponentially, consequently, people look to cut corners and make more money. We all need our feet held to the fire! Make sure that what you are buying in a grocery store, restaurant, farmers market, whatever is really what you are being told it is. Look for names and be aware of who is in the market and what their reputation is.
I know I’m asking a lot, but if you really are concerned for the state of the world’s domesticated animals, it’s worth the effort. And your effort will make a difference. Sarah thanks you!
Published: Friday, 19 February 2016 16:04
Written by Pati Jacobs
Recently, a restaurant in Austin that has old roots in the city, announced that it was moving much of it’s sourcing to a large distributor in San Antonio. Kirby Lane, which has been an icon in Austin since the 1970s, decided to place most of its food sourcing with Ben E. Keith. While Ben E. Keith is a Texas based food distributor, its rules, profit margins and insurance requirements are similar to the other large distributors like US Food and Sysco.
There are reasons for this move. Kerbey Lane has grown from the one restaurant on Kerbey Lane to seven restaurant spread throughout the city. They serve tens of thousands of customers every year, and buying from one food distributor is logistically and economically easier.
However, this move eliminates yet one more group of restaurants that no longer source locally. Additionally, while Ben E. Keith will consider working with local producers, their rules and the volumes they demand make it pretty much impossible.
It is an irony that the more people demand local, sustainable food, the more likely the goose laying the golden egg is slain!
This started happening back in the eighties when organic became a major player in the food industry. Once, people demand more of something, it starts to become attractive to the big players to take over and crowd out the smaller players. In the process, the essence of what made that item – be it organic, or grass-fed, or local/sustainable – disappears under the weight of logistical and profit making motives.
The only way to survive in our capitalistic economy is to grow; to become big enough to “play ball” with the big boys. Larger means bigger volumes to meet demand. Larger means being able to push back on profit margins. Larger means being able to afford demanded liability insurance, delivery trucks, distribution centers.
Larger means losing the very essence of what made you appealing in the first place. The consumer wants your product, but they want it the same way that they want the conventional products --- lower pricing, convenient access, easy pick up.
We kill with love all we value in this country when it comes to food.
We can point a finger at Kerbey Lane or HEB or the big food distributors, but they are only meeting a demand that we as consumers make. If you start to see that by 2018, forty percent of a multi-billion dollar market for meat will be grass fed, you’d be crazy (and killed by your shareholders) not to move away from your conventional products into the new niche. Free enterprise and capitalism works remarkably well in addressing economy of scale to decrease prices, improve logistics and tap down overhead costs. If more people want tomatoes in winter, then entrepreneurs will find a way.
It’s not their fault that we want “immediate”, “always available”, plenty at an “affordable” price.
Our demand for organic has driven countless small producers out of business. In their place are large, corporate farms that are organic, but practice production methods that are only slightly less destructive to the environment than their conventional counterparts.
However, we now have less expensive, easily accessible, on demand (you can even find organic produce in Walmart now!) organic produce. It’s organic. It’s marginally better for the environment and for your health and it has the same bland taste as the other stuff.
Killed with love!
We’re now making the same demands on meat. Soon, large segments of the animals we eat will be raised in better circumstances than what conventional agro-industry does. The cattle will inhabit massive “grass-feedlots” fed on harvested grass. They will have more room to roam and they won’t be eating chicken feathers or poop, they won’t be eating gmo corn or soy, and they won’t be receiving hormones or antibiotics (though they probably will be receiving probiotics). But is that really grass fed? Can an animal, still contained eating harvested grass and organic supplements really capture the taste or essence of an animal on pasture eating living grass? Can it capture the regional taste?
The same can be asked of pastured pigs and free-range chicken.
Is our demand for “immediate” killing the golden goose? Unfortunately, the answer is yes.
Scenario: What if Kerbey Lane had continued to carry lots of seasonal, local product on their menu. You walk through the front door sit down and order local bacon. Unfortunately, it’s Friday. The quota of bacon that the local producer could deliver was delivered on Wednesday and its all gone (very popular item!). Do you give something else a whirl or do you go somewhere else?
How you answer that question determines how committed you are to small, local, sustainable – and to the restaurants that are prepared to take the extra work, cost and risk of working with local farmers and ranchers.
Published: Tuesday, 15 December 2015 16:31
Written by Pati Jacobs
I'm talking about the ideal life of grass (not your last relationship!). As all of you know, I'm a rancher, but I'm also a grass farmer. In fact, the better a grass farmer I am the better a rancher I am. Grass is pretty amazing stuff. It is a great carbon sequestering engine.
But for grass to really excel at sequestering carbon it needs to be harvested. Why?
Well, when grass is eaten (one bite), it pushes it's roots deeper and consequently sequesters more carbon. Then because cows do what cows do - along comes the fertilizer besides. Great working partnership. Cows turn something pretty much inedible into major calories and the grass gets exactly what it needs. The side benefit is both help the planet.
Don't take my word for it -- here's the data Just add compost how to turn your grassland ranch into a carbon sink.
The world doesn't need a bunch of politicos in Paris, it just needs Sarah.
Published: Tuesday, 01 December 2015 18:26
Written by Pati Jacobs
I just posted an interesting article on Facebook. It’s an NPR segment from Feb. 2015 and basically discusses the health of Farmers Markets in the country. You can see it at:
Are farmer market sales peaking? That might be good for farmers.
The conclusion is that Farmers Markets have peaked as a venue for selling local/sustainable products. I don’t dispute this. I’ve seen this trend over the last year.
The real issue is why?
The segment talks somewhat about “buyer’s fatigue” that maybe local/sustainable has just hit its saturation point. It also notes that any new customers beyond the traditional “local food buffs” that are starting to look at local foods are going to look for local/sustainable or for that matter organic want it in a more traditional venue – like a grocery store.
So here are some observations:
The market for local/sustainable – be it veggies, fruit, meats, whatever is growing. Organic alone is growing at over thirty percent a year.
That market is now of interest to more people including the more traditional shopper who wants the convenience and price of the big grocery store.
Small farmers and ranchers who have used the farmers markets need to find other venues if they are going to continue to sell into the market.
But here’s the rub – small farmers and ranchers – who are usually way too small for a traditional grocery store to be interested – don’t have any other venues.
As a grass fed, local beef provider BCC has developed a wholesale market of non-traditional grocery stores – Wheatsville Coop, Royal Blue and Bastrop Producers Market – along with several restaurants in Austin. However, this represents a substantial investment of time, money, energy and transportation. It means constant negotiation with chefs and butchers. Even then success is not assured.
I question whether or not this approach can even be done today in Central Texas on the
“shoe string” budget we started out with eight years ago. I have competitors coming into the market today – but with much deeper pockets – and still only finding limited success in breaking into the market.
Meanwhile, I see the “big boys” – Cargill, Tyson, ADM, and the like – “suddenly seeing the potential size of the market for grass fed beef. They have an infrastructure of distributors, wholesalers, and groceries already in place. Often what they don’t have is the “local” beef. But grass fed can be had in Uruguay, Australia and Argentina. Chilled meat that meets the standard for grass-fed, free-range, hormone and antibiotic free with plenty of traceability can be killed, processed and transported into the US chilled and ready to sell “fresh”.
Where does the small provider fit into this picture? Can the small local provider even compete with either end of this food chain?
The truth is that meat is headed the same way that organic vegetables and fruits went back in the late 1990’s. Grow bigger or die.
Some labels will develop a following of people who will happy continue to trek out to the ranch or farm to buy their meat, milk and eggs. These are the people who really want to know where their food comes from and would like to see the actual operation. Additionally, these private labels will augment their revenue stream by developing “Buyers’ Clubs”, select retail outlets and even restaurants. Within their purview they will do well, but will never be more than a hyper-local label in a narrow market region. And it will require constant, sustain hard work in both their production and their marketing operations. The vast majority of small operators have neither the time nor inclination to do any of these things.
How will this sit with the US consumer? Probably just fine. In the end, the basic consumer may want healthy grass fed beef from happy, humanely raised cattle but that same basic consumer wants it as inexpensive as possible and more importantly as convenient as possible. The vast majority of people do not want to traipse out to a ranch or farm. They want a recognized brand that gives them the satisfaction and security of buying locally (organically, grass-fed, free-range) without the hassle of actually checking out the particulars.
What this means is that the vast majority of small local private labels will disappear. Many already have.
So how does a small farm or ranch do any of this?
The answer always gets back to volume and if you can’t do it yourself – find someone to ride with. Meat – be it beef, pork or poultry – needs certain volumes to justify the processing, transportation, branding, marketing (and don’t forget – salaries!) that bigger cost efficient operations must have to succeed. This means that ranchers and farmers who want to continue to sell their products as anything other than commodities will need to think about cooperatives, consortiums and even food hubs to reduce the overhead costs to a manageable part of the sales price.
Consolidation is the key word. It is how the US market works – like it or hate it – we may love the underdog and the unique product, but it’s when it reaches a critical stage of sales (bigger is better) that products – even organic food products – take off and make the big bucks.
Americans love efficiency and convenience. We will never be Europe where everyone spends twice the money and time buying cooking (and enjoying) and eating their food.
If this scenario bothers you – than get yea back to the farm (or ranch) and the farmers market. Otherwise, expect to see you favorite organic food at Whole Foods, or HEB and when you pick them up – go look on the Internet to find out just how small and local they are (not!).