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Let's eat.

From Big Sur's killer cliff-clinging eateries to Salinas' unparalleled produce, this blog aims to sniff out all things Monterey County can stomach, via picture and prose, curiosity and appetite, hand and mouth.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Powerful Lessons From TLC Ranch's Recent Closure

When an ex-marine beats a horse in a 50-mile race, you know he's up to a challenge. So that tells you how hard it is to keep small organic poultry and livestock farm afloat.

One-time horse-versus-human champ Jim Dunlop and his wife Becky just announced that they are closing up shop at Aromas' Tastes Like Chicken Ranch to travel the country working at small sustainable farms. That sucks.

My first introduction to TLC locked in my adoration immediately. I was committed to a 150-mile-radius diet for a Weekly cover story on eating locally and quickly learning that local bacon was as easy to get a hold of as a greased pig. Dunlop hand delivered some. It wasn't cheap, but it was wonderful. I didn't know if it was from the free-range grass diet, the strict organic upbringing, the expert butchering or the right amount of fat, but I didn't care. It was too good to care.

Now the amazin' bacon and delicious eggs and superior chops are being sold off to their loyal shareholders one last time. The crucial thing in this loss, though, is not to lose the valuable look into what makes such a pasture-fed, organic operation—the kind we want more of in our communities—work or not. That was the priority of the Dunlops' announcement:

"After 6 years trying to create a sustainable farm and a sustainable business, we are throwing in the 'farming towel,'" they wrote to their newsletter subscribers. "Some of you may have already heard, but we wanted to give you a more detailed story of WHY. It is our hope that by understanding why it didn't work for us, you will have a greater appreciation for the farmers and ranchers that continue to provide you amazing food and that you might work even harder to build a mutually beneficial relationship with them.

"We also think it is especially important to support farmers/ranchers that are local to your watershed because they not only provide a huge economic engine to your watershed but they also protect the farming and ranching lands around you by simply being able to continue what they do.

"Likewise, support the new, fledgling, and limited-resource growers who may not have the privilege of land or monetary wealth, but have the drive and creativity to try farming for a living."

The reasons provide passionate and potent (albeit one-sided) insight, and look to me like required reading for anyone with an interest in viable small farms—which, really, should include all of us.

Here's their reasons for closing, in their words:

We rent land in North Monterey County, California. Half the land we rent is in an active floodplain and is under water for half the year. The other half of land we rent is a steep, overgrazed, parched hillside with no water to help bring it back to life. For all 48 acres we rent, we pay about 10 times the going rate for pasture.

The best grazing lands in this region are locked up by a handful of long-time cattle ranchers, the fertile bottomland locked up by capital-intensive berry farming, so we are left with the dregs. To top off the over-priced land, our leases are too short to build a long-term business, the landlords too inflexible, and ultimately, we are building no equity for all the effort we put into the land.

What can you do to help solve the land problem for farmers? Make sure your city and county planners don't pave over any more good farmland in your county and don't let them rezone farmland for things like rural "ranchettes" and other developments that carve up viable farmland. If you or your family own farmland, consider offering a low-priced, long-term lease to a good farmer to help them build their business.

This topic warrants a much longer post, but basically California has only a handful of USDA-inspected slaughter and butcher facilities. Because there are only a few, it is hard to even get an appointment to bring your animals in (one place we called had a 7 month waiting list!).

Also, because these abattoirs don't have much competition, they don't have to provide high-quality customer service to ranchers. They can charge what they want, they can choose not to follow your detailed butchering instructions (for example, put nitrates in the hams that you asked for "nitrate-free", cut all the fat off your pork chops when you asked for 2 inches of fat on them, etc.). These abattoirs charge you by the carcass weight of your animal and then sometime they won't even give you the whole animal back that you paid for, such as taking the head, the organ meats, the feet, etc.

So we work our butt off to raise this amazing animal and then the butchers devalue your hard work. Having zero control over our processing is extremely frustrating and costly. To top it off, the rules for ranchers processing their own meat are different than those for small custom butcher shops.

They can take their meat products to farmers markets without a USDA-inspection but we cannot (Corralitos Meat Market or El Salchichero is an example of this). This is a double standard that most customers are oblivious too.

We certainly have some amazing customers, some who have been with us since the beginning, others who have loaned us money, and many who put faith in us when purchasing an egg share. We also had over 100 amazing individuals donate to help replace our stolen laying hen flock. We get the occasional compliment like "your eggs changed my life" or "I feel comfortable eating meat again when it is from you".

Yet we have other customers who want our products to be cheaper, for us to stop using organic feed, or for us to lower our standards in other ways. There are people who want us to use a soy-free feed, but yet are not willing to pay the added price that a non soy feed will cost (it takes longer to grow out an animal without soy and laying hens produce fewer eggs when not on soy).

Many customers, in fact, will choose to get eggs from several states away from a farm they have never seen in order to get a soy-free egg or they will buy bacon or sausage that is sugar or nitrate-free but happens to come from some nameless farmer in Iowa. Many people prioritize their personal dietary preferences du jour (I say "du jour" because these preferences change often over time) over supporting an actual local farmer or perhaps over humane animal care, environmental sustainability, etc. I encourage you all to look at the bigger picture and think about what values you want to support.

Added to this, the bleak economy is encouraging many of our former customers to pinch pennies and discard their values for foods that are organic, local, environmentally sustainable, etc. While I understand the need to be budget-minded (we haven't seen a movie in over a year), I don't think people should skimp on the food they put into their bodies and the kind of planet they want to see. If we want local farmers to stay on the landscape, we must support them over the long term.

When we shop around, try to save a few pennies, or preference our dietary fads over the realities of local livestock production, we are taking away that vital support that keeps local farmers around.

We both used to be avid mountain bikers, backpackers, rock climbers, all around adventure-lovers. Since starting a farm, we have had almost no time to do anything fun. Our daughter's only 'fun' time is when all three of us are washing and packing eggs to music at night.

We live next to a highway because that was the only land we could find to rent that also had a house for us to live in. We farm in an area rife with criminal activity and had 300 of our laying hens stolen in the spring, but it is the only place we could find that would rent us land.

To top that off, we can't find any good employees that would enable us to work less than 80 hours a week and have some semblance of a life ('cept for Loren & Felicia). So unlike the beautiful, joyous life that many romanticize for farmers, we don't have that. We need a better life.

So off they go, loading their daughter Fiona in the RV to volunteer on farms and ranches "around the country that we admire and hope to learn from."

Just as we have learned from them.