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!).
Published: Wednesday, 05 August 2015 18:12
Written by Pati Jacobs
Recently, I’ve had an email conversation with another grass fed/finished producer. Surprisingly, the conversations have left me a bit uneasy. He is a strong advocate of “mob grazing”, thinks that land conservation, soil nutrition, animal humanness and water conservation are all important elements of a good operation. Everything that I believe in and advocate.
Unfortunately, we parted company on one key item. He flat out told me he didn’t agree with how BCC raises the calves to ten to twelve months and processes them while they are still suckling. He is a strong advocate of grass finished. This entails weaning, and placing them on grass for another twelve to fourteen months and processing a larger animal. He went on to say that he not only didn’t agree with our program but that he would not promote it or recommend it to anyone else. I was a bit taken back to say the least.
He did not consider it a viable “industry model”. Reason, it didn’t produce the beef he thought should be produced for the market. In other words, it didn’t taste the way he thought a perfect cut of grass fed/finished beef should taste.
He then went on to say that he thought most grass finished beef was substandard and that it was marketed as “lean” to hide the fact that it was poorly produced.
He naturally thought his method – which he maintained produced a much fattier product – was what people really wanted and that he was out to set the “industry standard”.
Now, I think everyone should be proud of their product – otherwise how could you look people in the face and sell it! And I don’t quibble with whether his product is good or not. It may be great.
My problem is the idea that there should be an “industry model” or “industry standard” for any kind of food. That’s what has put us in so much trouble to this point. Food turned into a “one size fits all” widget that can be “economically” produced using set standards to turn out large volumes. I don’t want to eat sneakers. I want to eat a steak!
I strongly believe that it is this attitude that you can “codify” taste that is far more detrimental to the development of a vibrant, healthy, regional food system. I don’t want all my cheese to taste like Velveta. I don’t want all my chickens to taste like Tysons. Can we stop thinking that diversity is the “hobgoblin” of a good business plan and embrace tastes in all their variations!
Aside from the hubris of thinking that one model is the only good model, I think it is insulting to the consumer to believe that they cannot be discerning to tell the difference between “good” beef and “bland” beef. Nor do I think that his concept of the “perfect” beef is that – “perfect”. Again, food should be appreciated for its nuances – created by such variables as region, practice, environment, and practitioner - and that applies to a great piece of meat as much as it does to a great cheese or wine.
When someone starts dictating “industry models and standards” for food it starts to cater to the least exciting taste of the most people – a sure way to reduce even a “great tasting cut of beef” to cardboard.
Published: Friday, 13 March 2015 19:58
Written by Pati Jacobs
Lately, there has been lots of talk about the need for local/sustainable ranchers and farmers to find more customers, make more sales, engage the public and have the public support the local/sustainable seen.
This is all exactly true ---- and false.
Yes, it is important that on this path to a more sustainable world, we all travel together. More people need to raise and grow local/sustainable/organic food and animals. At the same time, more people need to commit to buying and supporting local/sustainable/organic product if the market is to grow and be viable.
However, this doesn’t take the “real world” into account. I realize that while the saying,
“Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a pathway to your door”, is inspirational, it’s also pretty much antiquated!
There are plenty of other people building the “better mousetrap”, but the world would rather shop at HEB than have to travel out to my ranch and open and close two gates before they get to the house to buy beef!
This brings us to the real reason it is so hard to move the dial forward on the local/sustainable movement in Texas. We all love the better, high quality product that local/sustainable can supply. We just wish it was easier to buy it and it cost less.
I’ll talk about the second issue later, but let me address the first, first!
Farmers Markets are nice. I love meeting all my customers every week and talking about the product. Ranch events are great – it gives me a chance to show how I raise cattle and how I take care of soil nutrition. The trouble is, neither happens every day at the time and place convenient to the most people to put out the least amount of energy to buy what they need in the fastest way possible to fit into otherwise overly busy schedules. WOW.
Hey. I shop at HEB (don’t shop at Walmart, ever, but that’s another article!). I like zipping in and zipping out. I like the prices and I like the wide diversity of choices.
I should shop at Bastrop Producers Market.
I try to buy all my veggies and olive oils and other stuff at the Farmers Market on Saturdays. But I don’t always succeed. Either I don’t grab eggs before they disappear or I don’t have the money or I don’t think about it until one of the veggies I want is gone.
HEB represents a quick fix – I need dog food. I need toilet paper. I need beer. BPM has two out of three, but it’s twice as far up the road, and I still have to go to HEB for the beer.
I get it.
So, how does a local/sustainable farmer or rancher deal with this?
Well, first of all admit the problem. I have. I am just as guilty as what I say you are. I understand and know that it’s a really busy world and we all have limited time, and patience, and money.
But if you are going to survive and thrive as a businessperson, you have to deal with “what is”, not “what you want it to be”.
So, I sell at the Farmers Market (I do one – that’s all I can handle).
Can Farmers Markets be a raging success? Well, they have been for Richardson Farms and Johnsons Backyard. But these guys do multiple markets AND they couple those markets with other marketing techniques.
BCC does wholesale – and in a big way. Roughly 80 percent of our sales is from wholesale – grocery stores, restaurants, delivery services. The margins are smaller, but it’s made up with volume.
BCC does on-line sales. Our web sales accounts for about 5% of gross sales every year.
And BCC does retail. But let me be blunt, if we depended on only doing retail, I’d be selling one carcass a week, not five or six. I figured out a long time ago if I wanted to sell beef as a full time job, I had to do a whole lot more than one carcass a week!
And did I mention we SELL, SELL, SELL. You can dress this up and call it marketing or promotion or public relations, but it comes down to one thing – hard work, on the phone every day firming up sales, finding new accounts, and getting out and knocking on doors and taking samples by to chefs. And figuring out what is my break point and what can I charge and still make a decent profit.
This is the real world. There are chefs in Austin who don’t answer my text or phone calls anymore. I’m pushy. They don’t like it – and usually, they don’t want to admit they aren’t really buying local!
But then, there are the ones who buy from me every week. Like Johnsons and Richardsons, BCC is dependable. We make deliveries. We work closely with the butchers and chefs who buy from us. We constantly look for ways to help them afford our beef. When someone has a crisis and realizes they didn’t order enough beef, we make special deliveries.
And like Richardsons and Johnsons, I figured out a long time ago that volume really does matter. Yes, I am local and yes, I have a ranch and raise cattle for sale. However, if I ONLY sold cattle off of my ranch, I’d need a day job to pay the bills. I’m in this to make a living, and that requires enough volume (read carcasses) sold to cover overhead and go beyond breaking even.
This is where we come to the price thing. This is the dirty little secret that local/sustainable doesn’t want to talk about. Every business has overhead, and it doesn’t matter whether you sell one (one tomato, one head of lettuce, one t-bone, one egg) product or a thousand of the one product – the overhead is the price you start out with for getting in the game. Now I can load all the price on the one product (ha! Bet you wouldn’t buy that!), or I spread it across every one of the products I sell. The more I sell, the less overhead is billed to each unit.
I can process 200 carcasses a year and break even. I can process 250 carcasses a year and halve the overhead per unit and make a profit. Of course, if I process 250 carcasses, I have to sell 250 carcasses. But you get my point.
Small may be beautiful, but it doesn’t pay the bills. Every rancher and farmer, and every customer looking at that sticker on the tomato or t-bone needs to understand that like the laws of physics the laws of economics are set in stone. If I can’t pay my property tax and the electricity – and Brandon’s draw, I don’t stay in business – no matter how great the beef tastes.
Farms and ranches must be run as businesses and they must generate enough volume of whatever they are growing or raising to cover their overhead (including salaries!) and make a profit. If they don’t want to do the work to sell directly to push up those volumes, then they need to find ways to work through middlemen (yes, I am a middleman), or salespeople or cooperatives or whatever to help them accomplish the “breakpoint”.
That means that we must all realize (like every other product or service), that we as ranchers and farmers SELL to the consumer. And that to do so means embracing “what is” not “what we want it to be”. If the local/sustainable movement can’t grasp this, then it really is doomed.