Growing Pains - Local/Sustainable Befuddles

In an earlier e-newsletter, I referred everyone to an interview with Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack.

I expressed my confusion over his excitement about the export activities of the Agroindustry while pooh, poohing everyone else involved in agriculture.  He divided the agricultural sector in this country into three segments; hobby farmers, the struggling middle group, and the "aren't they wonderful" successful top.  He did note the USDA figures that roughly 2.2 million people are in the business of agriculture, but then went on to label 1.3 million as the "hobby" farmers.  The "struggling middle group" constitutes another 600,000 people.

The hobby farmers are people with an acre or two of homestead that happen to sell a couple of thousand dollars a year at some farmers market and most likely (at least according to Mr. Vilsack) just using it all as a good tax write-off while making their real money at another better paying job.  The struggling middle group are "real" farmers and ranchers, but 'gee' can't seem to make a living at it and have to have a second job to make a go.

I don't know about you, but everyone I know selling at the Farmers Market isn't doing it for a 'hobby' and they sure aren't writing it off a tax break!  As for Bastrop Cattle Company -- this is our 'real' job.  And since I don't have a second job, I guess I better make a go of this one!

So, with this in mind, my suggestion to Secretary Vilsack is it would be much better if instead of seeing lemons, he would realize the lemonade potential of the other 85% of the agriculture population.  After all, unleashed they represent an amazing opportunity to create new categories of professional careers, technology and unlimited numbers of jobs.  However, this requires thinking 'outside of the box'.  We may be in the 21st Century, but it sure doesn't feel like it sometimes!

Consider this.  The local, sustainable movement is growing exponentially.  It seems to be the only paort of the food industry that is growing.  We need to reduce commuter traffic from the rural areas (and suburbia) to the urban areas; both to reduce traffic congestion and fossil fuel use.  Rural areas need to be repopulated, but people, if they move or move back, need jobs.

Well, why not encourage food production on a regional basis around urban areas?

As an example.  Here we sit in Central Texas, one of the most fertile soil areas in the US, with a growing population (read 'market') along the IH 35 corridor, as well as the Houston and Dallas areas.  Our state leaders say we have 1,000 people a day moving into Texas -- and their all headed into the corridor!  This is not sustainable.

Yet, we have all this agricultural land east of IH 35.  We have two choices.  We can concentrate everyone along the IH 35, depopulating our rural areas (and moving water -- another blog!), or we can shift the paradigm.  Why not concentrate growth and jobs around our smaller rural communities - and regionalize our food system?

I don't need to export my beef to China (let Cargill do that!) to make a living.  I just need to grow my market in Austin!

I do need a better processing plant and another butcher.  I need people who want to learn the art of chartutarie.  I also need a company that can do labels, and one that does plastic film and another that manufactures and services vacuum sealing equipment.  Then there are paper sacks . . . and I bet if we started growing, raising and processing more food here in Central Texas there would be more than enough work to keep such complimentary industries busy.  There is also a need for hydrologists, hydrobiologists, and hydraulic engineers because we will be (and are already) using limited resources of water.  We'll need animal husbandry experts - and agronomists.  How about agro-economists (as long as they do a better job than the regular economists!)?  And since there will be lots of organic waste, how about fish farms and more orchards and groves?

A lot can be made out of a little.  And everything creates technological knowledge and jobs.  This leads to one more thought - if we see mini-centers for food production built all through an area, then we would have the opportunity to re-think the whole idea of food processing.  We could build facilities that would have a small "footprint" within the ecological area in which they are located.  No more massive agricultural run-off.  Instead, what is processed could interlock with another agricultural endeavor to be re-used.

Couple a meat processing plant with a fish farm and a fruit orchard.  It would use and re-use water, organic fertilizer and energy.  And think of all the new specialties in job technology we'll need for that!l

Local/Sustainable Feels Growing Pains

March has been an interesting month.  I started out with a round table meeting sponsored by Edible Austin.  It had been brought together so producers and buyers could talk about how we all move this new and developing local/sustainable food system forward.  The month is ending with Bastrop Cattle Company doubling the number of animals we are processing per week.

While it is great that BCC is growing, we are running into the same problems with which all our fellow local/sustainable meat producers are coping.  As we grow, we need more processing capacity, but most of us are using third party processing facilities.  We all do our own deliveries and are outgrowing our limited vehicles!  Storage is a big issue as we try to have enough inventory to meet the growing needs of our wholesale and retail customers.  And, of course, none of us has access to any large sources of financing.

So what to do?

Well, a couple of us are talking about a cooperative processing plant.  It would be great if we could do this, but even a cooperative has drawbacks - especially when you realize that the potential members are spread all over Central Texas.  Where would we set up that would work for all of us?

And just to throw some more issues into the mix, gas is going up in price!

Through all of this, I've been re-reading Michael Pollen's excellent book, The Omnivore's Dilemma.  Reading the description of the big feed lots in the midwest reminds me why I do what I do.  I can look out my window and see my cows grazing on green grass and know that they and their calves will never be contained in such miserable conditions!

Listening to Fresh Air, on National Public Radio yesterday I heard once more how so much of what we do to these animals comes back to haunt us in one way or the other.  With the continued over use of antibiotics - over seventy percent of all the antibiotics used in this country are administered to animals in their feedstock - nastier antibiotic resistant bacteria are showing up in our hospitals, in the general community and in our foods.  Meanwhile, the processing plants that treat animals like widgets continue to deal with problems of contamination.

No system is perfect, but the local/sustainable way is more humane, healthier and certainly more personal.  Animals bred, raised and nourished in their natural environment don't need antibiotics or growth hormones.  Smaller processing plants working at a sane pace - both for the humans and the animals - are far less likely to experience contamination issues.

Still, I will admit, this comes at a cost.  Local/sustainable will never be able to compete with the large producers on price.  So much of their price advantage is built on the twin pillars of subsidies and economies of scale.  Cheap corn drives the massive feed lots and makes it possible for them to "feed out" animals.  Large processing plants slaughtering and processing  400 cattle an hour will always be able to turn out more cheaply cut beef than my little operation doing individual work on one carcass at a time.

So as I move into April, I have to work with other meat producers to find ways to reduce overhead costs, increase the efficiency and economy of my operation and hope that you, my customers, are willing to pay a higher price for a really great cut of meat from humanely raised and handled cattle, a product that is thoroughly inspected, safely handled, healthier for you - and tastes wonderful!

Contamination Not a Necessary Evil

You can tell when the gnat is bothering the elephant!  Several months ago, I mentioned a provocateur, James McWilliams, who was trying to be the big agroindustry's equivalent of Michael Pollen.  He touts the idea that only massive agroindustry can possibly feed the growing numbers of people on the planet.  He likes to state that local and sustainable agriculture is simply a rich person's conceit and that only rich people can afford good, healthy food.

Well, he is back.  In late January, he wrote an article for Slate on-line.  The new argument against grass fed beef (oh, and by the way this article appears neatly right after the latest recall of more than half a million pounds of E. coli contaminated beef) is that all cattle - feed lot or grass fed - have E. coli bacteria in their intestines.  Also, that the really virulent E. coli that is now showing up is also found in grass fed beef.  He goes on to state that, therefore, grass fed is no safer to eat than the beef being fed out in the feed lots.

He does grudgingly admit that grass fed does have more omega 3 fatty acids, is higher in minerals and vitamins and is lower in saturated fats - BUT - it's just as dangerous to your health as feed lot beef!

Of course, Dr. McWilliams, who is an associate professor of history at Texas State University, is being disingenuous.  All cattle - and people - have E. coli in their intestines.  We could discuss where this latest strain of E. coli comes from and how it developed (all connected to the current feeding of corn and the excessive use of antibiotics), but the real issue is how to prevent the bacteria from contaminating the meat we eat.

And here is where Dr. McWilliams is is being evasive and a ready mouthpiece for the agroindustry elepant.  Contamination is not inherent in the meat itself - contamination occurs in the processing of the meat.  The reason that there is E. coli contamination occuring on such a regular bases in our meat supply in this country is because of the large numbers of animals being processed, and the speed at which they are processed in the massive plants that supply the majority of meat being consumed.  When a plant processes 400 animals an hour, it is inevitable that someone will be careless with the carcass and manage to drag it through contamination (feces and blood) on the floor, or will manage to nick an intestine during the gutting process.  Even if such an incident only happens one percent of the time (we could only hope!), the practice of mixing meat from multiple animals to make hamburger, stew meat and chili means that contaminatikon from only a few carcasses ends up being spread throughout the meat of many batches of ground.

So why is grass fed, natural and organic meat not likely to experience the same exposure to contaminates?

Well, speaking from experience, grass fed beef is not processed on the same scale or at the same breakneck speed as feed lot beef.  In the smaller plants that handle specialty labels there is time to "kill and clear" the floor thus eliminating the "drag through" accident.  Carcasses are usually handled one at a time and inspectors are constantly watching the process (not randomly testing one out of every hundred or more carcasses) to make sure that carcasses are clena beforee they are gutted and dehided.  The people gutting the carcasses have the "luxury" of time to make sure they don't nick intestines or contaminate the inside of the carcass.

Finally, when cutting takes place on the cut floor, meat from different animals is not mixed for the production of ground, stew and chili.  Batches come from one animal, thus eliminating the danger of cross-contamination.

The large processors will tell you that mass production is necessary and that, therefore, contamination on some level is inevitable.  Their answer - and Dr. McWilliams - is to irradiate the meat.

Basically, they are not interested in eliminating the contaminates (feces) and contact of the meat to those contaminates.  Rather, they just want to make sure the contaminates are "bacteria free".  At this point, you can make your own inference as to what this means you are eating!  Note this is a high tech (and questionable) answer to a low tech problem.  The big processors also consider the USDA responsible for such contamination and consequent E.coli outbreaks and recalls -- if the USDA would just approve irradiation -- there would be no problem!

Here's a radical alternative answer to E.coli contamination in the nation's meat - stop killing 400 animals an hour.  Down scale processing plants and build way more optimally sized plants (and by the way create more jobs!) that can effectively and sanitarily handle the number of carcasses in such a way that there is no E.coli (or any other bacteria) contamination.

Such an answer would mean cleaner, healthier and yes, I readily admit slightly more expensive meat.  However, the current system is now making thousands of people sick, is inhumanely treating animals, and is creating horrific working conditions.

It's time for a change - and that requires a bigger discussion than how much E. coli bacteria is in a cow's gut!

Cold Weather, Warm Recipes!

Yes, food is for comfort; both physically and emotionally.  It's getting dark earlier and staying dark longer.  Add to that cold rain and a bit of wind, and, let's face it, who wouldn't feel a little blue.  But instead of letting it get me down, I cook.  I flood the kitchen with deep fragrances of broths and breads.  I warm up the kitchen with a hot stove and listen to meat sizzle and pop as I baste, brown and broil!

So pull out those favorite recipes.  Pull up a stool and start peeling those potatoes.  It's time to warm the hearth and the heart -- and save a little money along the way.

London Broil with Lime & Ginger Marinade - serves 4 to 6
2 to 3 pounds of Bastrop Cattle Company Round Steak or Flank Steak
3 cloves of garlic - minced                 1/2 cup of soy sauce
4 tsp. sugar                                        2 tsp. sesame oil
juice of 1 lime                                     2 Tbsp. Sherry
1/2 tsp. pepper

Combine all ingredients except steak and mix well.  Pour over meat and marinate for at least 6 hours but preferably overnight.

Broil in oven or on grill.  Remember, grass fed beef cooks faster than the grocery store stuff, so as you grill or broil spoon the marinade over the meat to keep it moist and juicy.  Either on the grill or in your broiler, you can place the meat on aluminum to retain the juices.


Braised Beef with Tomatoes & Herbs - serves 4 to 6
3 pounds Bastrop Cattle Company chuck steak - cut into 1/2 inch cubes
Salt & Pepper                           Cayenne to taste
3 Tbsp. olive oil                        1 bay leaf
2 Tbsp. minced garlic                1/4 cup flour
1/2 lb. onions - chopped           1 cup dry red wine
1/2 lb. mushrooms                   24 pitted, stuffed green olives (optional)
2 cups roasted tomatoes          1/2 tsp. thyme
1 1/4 cup finely chopped parsley

Cut up meat and sprinkle with salt and pepper.  Heat oil in large skillet, add beef and cook, stirring often.  Add garlic, onions and mushrooms and stir.  As onions turn translucent, sprinkle mixture with flour and stir to coat evenly.  Add wine, tomatoes, olives, bay leaf, thyme, cayenne, salt and pepper.

Cover and simmer on low heat for 1 1/2 hours.  Sprinkle with parsley and serve.


We have even more cold weather recipes in our recipe section.  Check out

Beef Cabbage Soup                          Osso Bucco for Veal Shank

Lots of roast recipes, and more cold weather recipes with hamburger.

Growth of Farmers Markets Signal Change in Central Texas

Three years ago, when Bastrop Cattle Company first started selling at the Farmers Market in Bastrop, it was a small market with maybe six or seven vendors on any given market day.  There were two markets in Austin, both on Saturday.  That was three years ago.

Today, the Bastrop Market has over twenty-one vendors, is open Friday and Saturday and averages over two hundred people walking through on a weekend.  Austin, itself now has five different markets on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays.  A new, big farmers market has opened in San Antonio, and there are now markets in Georgetown, Round Rock, Manor, Lockhart and out in the Hill Country.

 The growth in farmers markets is unbelievable.  The number of markets in the US is increasing at a staggering twenty-three percent a year.  It doesn't look like that trend is slowing down, either.  And, it's not just the number of markets increasing.  It's also the average size and variety offered in the markets.

With more markets come more producers.  Certainly, some of this is driven by the downturn in the economy - after all, farmers and ranchers who were holding down second jobs to make ends meet, may no longer have those second jobs.  So they double up on what they know best.  The markets offer them an opportunity to sell their meats and produce directly, bypassing the bigger distribution system.  It is longer, harder work with many producers now doing two or three markets a week.  Hoever, the financial results are often better than the old way of doing business.

This, though is not the only reason for the fast growth of the farmers markets.  Such markets are definitely consumer driven.  And while the motivation may vary from person to person, the general causes are clear.

People want to know where their food comes from, what it does (not) contain, how it was raised or grown and who took the responsibility to bring it to the market.

There is a genuine feeling running through the population that the bigger system of food delivery is distant and unaccountable (and unknowable!).  There is also a sense that much of what we are told through marketing and advertsing is not always as truthful as it should be.  So many people find the farmers markets refreshing in the straightforward way farmers and ranchers sell their products.  There is also a sense that artisans working with those foods - to make cheeses, soups, breads, sausages, etc. - share the same sense of pride and integrity.  This is also an attitude shared by the other artisans selling at the market.

So as we approach the holiday season, take a break from all the hype.  Visit a farmers market in the Central Texas area and visit with the people who raise the food.  Talk with the food artisans that make the bread and cheeses, and admire artisanal works done by people who take pride in what they make and offer. 

Not Again? Let's change it!

So we're talking about making the food system in our country safer.  The Vice President has taken this up as a major cause.  There are more committees in Congress investigating the trouble.  There is more legislation being introduced and . . . .yet . . . one more recall on hamburger tainted with E. Coli.  This time it's the East Coast -- over half a million pounds of ground beef.  The thing is, this meat was sold in early September.  At least two people have died after eating it - and now, two months later, the company has issued a voluntary recall.

Have we really made any progress protecting the food system in this country?  It's time to shift the discussion.  Stop trying to patch a system that is beyond saving.  A new paradigm is needed and that paradigm is built around a decentralized food production and distribution system.

A lot of people - both city and country - are coming to this conclusion.  More restaurants are seeking out local producers.  In Austin, we are seeing many chefs now doing their own smoking and curing of beef and pork, roaming the weekly farmers markets in and around the city, and seeking out the unique local made cheeses, sausages, forced meats and sauces.  Farmers markets are growing at the amazing rate of twenty-three percent a year - and Central Texas is no exception with over ten large and small markets spread between San Antonio and Round Rock (don't forge the Bastrop 1832 Farmers Market slightly to the east!).  More and more consumers are asking for local produce and meats to be sold in the major chain grocery stores - and its starting to happen!

One of the latest trends is "signature" hamburgers.  Due to so much concern about where ground meat is coming from and what is in it, there is now a growing craze among restaurants to procure whole sections of beef from one animal at a time and then actually grind their own hamburger to make a unique signature hamburger for that restaurant.  Oh and by the way "we know exactly where the beef came from" is also a good selling point!

So we're seeing changes happening in the delivery part of the food system.  Retail places are now reaching out to local producers to be able to offer their customers the freshest, healthiest produce and meats.

But what is being done on the production side?

There is a large infrastructure in place that most of us take for granted that also has to be changed.  Many of you have heard me talk (and write) about the need for smaller, more Quality and Humanely Economical meat processing plants to be built.  That's true in regard to the development of packing plants and collection warehouses on a smaller scale (cooperatively owned perhaps) for fruits and vegetables.

If we want to see the development of olive groves for example, then we need to consider the development of presses, packing facilities, bottling facilities - all those things that require either a producer to be really large to be able to economically justify investing in, or a more collective type of arrangement that can service many small producers.  The same for vineyards, fruit processors, etc.

And, of course, all of this requires investment.

This is an issue that is now receiving important consideration.  This past week, I attended a meeting for a group called Slow Money Alliance.

This is a new group of investors, philanthropists and like-minded individuals that are exploring how to create funds that invest in local and sustainable agriculture.  They want to encourage the creation of a new system that shifts back to the decentralized model for food.  I urge you to visit their website at and look over their principles and goals. 

We need to foster this kind of thinking in Central Texas if we are ever going to make our food system safe, healthy and humane again.

Forget all the Labels, Just Go Local!

Yes, I Twitter.  I still haven't actually figured out how to use it, but I do find it a great way to get an unfiltered impression of people's interests.  I've been following a Twitter board on grass fed beef.

I've come to a couple of conclusions; people on the West Coast love to talk about what they're eatign.  Nobody from Texas ever Twitters on grass fed beef, but the Houstonians have their own board to Twitter about their restaurants.

And the Californians have a bizarre idea of what local means!

I make this last observation based on a running Twitter that led to a story in the San Diego News  It seems thater there is a restaurant that is touting how it uses healthy, grass-fed, free-range beef in San Diego.  The chef goes into a detailed commentary on how the meat is healthier because it has more vitamins and minerals than grain fed beef.  It is higher in the good fats and has a wonderful taste (we know all that!).  Then he starts waxing about how he's reducing his carbon footprint by buying grass fed instead of grain fed beef out of a feed lot . . . . even though he's buying his grass fed beef from ARGENTINA!

Now if this were downtown New York or maybe Anchorage, I could understand him maybe not having immediate access to local, grass fed beef.  Bus this is San Diego, for gosh sakes!

California is the original state for the local, sustainable movement, and they've been raising grass fed beef for well over twenty years.  Even if he couldn't find local grass fed beef within 100 miles of San Diego (and there are plenty of suppliers within that radius), some of the top raisers are just up the road in Northern California!

I couldn't help myself.  I sent an email comment to the journalist who wrote the article.  I tried to be nice . . . .really!  I pointed out that this guy needs a head slap (I was nice!).  I pointed out that we have lots of grass fed beef ranches in Texas - just like California.  I told them, they needed to buy local -- we do!

So forget the label.  Forget all the hype.  The best beef really is local!  Come on down to the Farmers Market and visit all our vendors for the freshest tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers -- and pork, chicken and beef - and eggs.  Have fune and reduce your carbon hoofprint -- all at the same time!


Too Big NOT to Fail

Sunday morning a good friend and fellow market vendor sent me an alert to a Page 1 article in the New York Times.  You owe it to yourself to read the article "Trail of E. Coli Shows Flaws in Inspection of Ground Beef"

The jest of this article is that our meat industry needs more inspection and testing to deal with the dangers of contamination of our meat supply.  As a producer who already has every carcass we process inspected, I do not disagree with this assertion.  However, this will not solve the basic problem.

Inspection and testing cannot be preventative measures.  They are diagnostic of a symptom, not the solution to the problem.

In the article, one of the plants described is slaughtering 2,600 cattle daily.  They are moving half a carcass into the meat cutting side of the slaughterhouse every 5 seconds.  The slaughterhouse itself is the size of four football fields.  All of this begs a deeper question.

Are these plants really too big NOT to fail?  How can any plant this size contain, never mind prevent fecal and bacterial contamination?

Over the last thirty years the food industry in general and the meat industry in particular has undergone the same economic and financial dynamics as many of the other major businesses in this country.  They have consolidated and centralized.  Any MBA will tell you there are good financial reasons for this.  The larger a manufacturing facility and the more it produces, the more you reduce your fixed cost per widget.  This is Economics 101 and the meat industry has implemented this theory with stunning success.  A large, USDA plant can process an entire animal for around $100.00 (our little operation requires around $300.00 per animal).  Mass production pays.

There is one problem.  Animals are not widgets.  Animals excrete waste.  They bleed.  They are messy.  At this point let me please apologize to my more stomach sensitive readers - buy you really do need to know this for your own health!

In the case of cattle and pigs, large and unwieldy carcasses are moved around.  The kill weight of our average calf is over 600 pounds.  Now imagine doing this at the rate of 7 carcasses per minute with them swinging from overhead tracks, and add another 400 pounds.  Add to this copious amounts of blood, guts and . . . . well you get the point.

With these numbers, moving at this speed, there are never enough inspectors.  There is no way to look at every live animal, every carcass, every gland, every liver.  Once the carcasses are moved to the cutting floor, there is no way to follow every batch of meat.

So how to solve the problem?

Stop the insanity.  Decentralize the process.  Go back to smaller state and local processing plants.  Reduce the number of animals that can be processed in a given plant - my guess is that a workable number is 200 cattle a week or around 10,000 head a year.  This is a number that two or three inspectors - one on the kill floor, one in the cutting room and one rotating between both operations can handle effectively to make sure that animals are healthy when they arrive, that they are killed humanely, that they are effectively handled throughout the process to minimize (in fact eliminate) any exposure to fecal contamination.  Make arrangements to do on-site testing for both E. Coli and Salmonella.  Don't mix meat between animals - the ground you get in a package comes from only one animal.  Finally, bar code packages in such a way that you can tell where the meat comes from; not just which processing plant, but which country and which ranch.

I can hear the big processors and the MBA's screaming.  This can't be done.  This is no way to supply "cheap" meat to over 300 million people.  This model will drive the price of meat too high for the average person to afford.  The poor couldn't have any meat at all.  

Yes, meat will cost more, but not substantially more.  Bastrop Cattle Company and everyone with a private label uses this model now.  Our prices are cost competitive with the higher end brands in the grocery stores.  Go check it out.  If you buy 90/10 hamburger, my prices are within .25 cents.  My high end cuts come in competitively against the choice and Natural lines.  I charge less than prime.

I am talking about a radically alterted way of doing things.  I am not talking about the economy of scale, but about the efficiencies of quality.

Reading the New York Times article shows the down side of "cheap" meat; 

  1. A system rife with contamination
  2. Sourcing and mixing of raw material in such a way that makes accountability impossible
  3. Necessary use of antibiotics and growth hormones to make feed lotting of cattle feasible
  4. Massive subsidizing by the USDA of corn feedstocks to make feed lots financially feasible
  5. Gross over consumption of meat - and a country where people can be morbidly obese and malnourished at the same time, and
  6. A system where the majority of meat processing is controlled by only four companies.

If we decentralized the meat business (and frankly any other part of the food business), we would foster rural economic development, and create a large number of wide ranging skilled jobs, and I'm not just talking butchers.  We would have the bases for a 21st Century agricultural industry. 

Finally, I don't need the government to implement any of this.  I don't need any subsidies, or regulations or inspections or testing.  As a producer using a State Inspected facility, I already have every carcass inspected.  I like this oversight and I want it so I can prove to you, my customer, that I'm doing it right.  Testing is coming.  I'm not afraid of this.  My meat will pass.

What I do need is you and a populous revolution.

Read the New York Times article, then make a promise to yourself to do the following:
  1. Stop buying your meat at the grocery store.  Tell them why and tell them when they start sourcing locally, you'll come back.
  2. Stop eating at any restaurant or food establishment that won't tell you where they source their meat - and if you don't like where they source their meat, tell them and don't eat there until they start sourcing locally from processors who can account for the meat.
  3. Start buying at local stores and Farmers Markets who do carry local meat and produce.
  4. Start buying meat from local producers -- AND I DON'T JUST MEAN BCC.

I mean the following:

   Betsy Ross

   Fredricksburg Beef

   Coyote Creek Farms

   Indian Hill Farms

   Burgundy Grass Fed Beef

   Richardson Farms

Finally, write your Congressperson and tell them that our insane subsidizing of the agribusiness industry needs to stop. No!  High fructose corn syrup is NOT a food!