From pasture to plate
The County’s beef production is ripe for a revolution, if it can survive the drought
By Chris O'Neal 08/28/2014
There isn’t much talk about the role beef production has on our dinner table, though there should be. Interest in sourcing locally grown food is a strong motivator for a growing portion of the population (“foodies” notwithstanding), and so too is the desire for quality beef.
But while the taste for higher quality beef has risen, overall production has seen a dramatic decline.
Since 1985, beef consumption per person has dropped from 79.2 pounds per year to 61.1, according to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. At the same time, prices have increased and herds have shrunk. There are currently 87.7 million head of cattle in the U.S., the lowest since 1951.
With that in mind, “Where’s the beef?” becomes a much more philosophical question.
The recent drought has caused ranchers either to cull their herds or move them elsewhere to places like Bakersfield, Lompoc or out of state entirely. Some ranchers bring in tanker trucks of water to quench the pastures and the cattle. The overlying factor, however, is diet. When the U.S. government made fat public enemy No. 1 in the 1970s, Americans moved away from red meat to leaner chicken or low-fat substitutes.
Photo by: Warren Barrett
The USDA’s decision was based on research conducted by Dr. Ancel Keys, a physiologist who built his theory by traveling the world, visiting seven countries in the east and west in the aptly named Seven Countries Study. What Keys discovered was that countries with a focus on a low-saturated-fat diet (i.e., less red meat) had a lesser risk of heart disease than their red-meat-eating counterparts.
In 1961, Time magazine ran his results, urging Americans to reduce their saturated-fat intake. Over the following decade, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration would codify the theory and a low-fat diet would become ingrained in the American kitchen. Margarine replaced butter, skim milk replaced whole and red meat became too much of a risk for an increasingly health-conscious nation.
But Dr. Keys’ study also became highly scrutinized. During his travels, Keys neglected to mention the 13 other countries he visited, including Greece, France or the then-West Germany, whose populations subsisted on a high-fat diet but retained a low rate of heart disease. Coincidentally, the nation’s rate of obesity began to rise — spurred on by artificial sweeteners and the false safety in “reduced fat” options on the supermarket shelves.
Fifty-three years later, Time magazine printed the contrary article, “Ending the War On Fat.” The cover: a stick of butter. Butchers everywhere proudly displayed the cover on their counters.
Michael Buckley isn’t a nutritionist, but like many young people turning 30, he had his personal health in mind. After six years selling microphones, Buckley bought a side of beef — a full quarter of cow — and learned how to butcher it himself. It was a love affair in the most primal of definitions.
“I never lacked confidence. I think I wondered if I had the guts for it,” said Buckley.
In 2011, at the age of 34, Buckley opened the Ventura Meat Company.
“This is a numbers game,” said Buckley behind the counter at his midtown Ventura shop. He stands with roughly 300 pounds of beef on two platforms, quartered, one hind and one fore. The beef had been delivered that morning.
“We’re really trying to appreciate this animal’s sacrifice. We don’t want to waste anything. We take this seriously,” he said.
Buckley portrays a classic style of butcher seen mostly in advertisements from the 1950s, replete with bow tie and bright white apron. As the day progresses, the apron bears the tales of the beef that has been laid out on the slab.
One cow can provide between 600 and 700 pounds of beef. Bones can represent 25 percent of the weight. Of all the cuts, more than a quarter of it will be turned into ground beef, between 25 percent and 40 percent, depending on demand or lack thereof.
Cuts like t-bones, filet mignon and especially tri-tip make up such a significantly small portion of the cow that during holiday weekends, Buckley sometimes must order extra. This past 4th of July, a case of tri-tip was specially ordered through a distributor that Buckley trusts for grass-fed beef. There are only two tri-tip cuts on an individual cow, and only one in the delivery Buckley received that day, which caused a dilemma when applying it to Buckley’s head-to-tail consumption motto.
“When only the popular cuts get sold, it creates an imbalance,” said Buckley. “We need to keep in mind what a whole cow has to offer.”
Buckley’s philosophy can be hard to manage when the factors governing the beef production are out of his hands.
The Ventura Meat Company’s beef is sourced locally, from Steven Carpenter of Carpenter Cattle Company. His cattle, kept on 7,000 acres of one of the last remaining, fully intact Spanish land grants in the Cañada Larga pastures toward Ojai, are raised on a strict grass-only diet, with the addition of a vitamin supplement. The cattle follow a strict no-antibiotic, no-hormone regimen. Carpenter has anywhere between 50 and 150 cattle at any given time, but the drought has forced him to lower the head count.
For over a year now, Carpenter has purchased hay to supplement the cattle’s feed. With the grass brown, nutrients are low. A single cow can eat a 90-pound bushel of hay in three days.
The Angus breed of cattle is free to roam the pasture, meaning Carpenter must undergo a sometimes two-hour horseback ride to their location, which he says is to keep the cows happy and relaxed. No motorized vehicles are allowed near the herd.
“When we saw a decline in the wild pig population, we knew we were in trouble,” said Carpenter. His cattle have been moved to various locations throughout the year, including Moorpark and other areas of California, in hopes of finding better grazing. “Used to be that we’d ride out and we’d see maybe 100 head of pigs; now you don’t see anything. They’re all gone; they’ve left the area to higher ground.”
No pigs means no water, a sign of the tough times during California’s worst drought since 1895. The U.S. Drought Monitor says that 82 percent of the state is suffering from “extreme” or “exceptional” drought. Ventura County falls under “extreme.”
John and Shane Watkins’ cattle at Watkins Cattle Company are raised similarly to Carpenter’s: grass fed with no antibiotics or hormones. The Watkins split time with their herd between 3,500 acres of Cañada Larga and a ranch in Utah. In years prior, most of the cattle would return to Ventura County for the winter through the middle of summer, but this year the ranchers chose to keep them in Utah. Only 25 percent of Watkins’ herd is in Ventura County.
“The whole thing,” said Shane Watkins of the hardest part about dealing with the drought. “Having to cull the herd that we’ve built for so many years, the extra outgoing capital for feed, the labor for hauling water. The rent still needs to be paid, too. It’s a big hit financially.”
When the rancher’s costs increase, so too do prices at the store. Over the past year, the price of beef has increased by 10 percent according to the Consumer Price Index, while at the same time cattlemen are receiving higher prices per cow. The price increase at the market doesn’t reflect an increase in profit but merely keeps ranchers afloat. Even when (or if) the rains return, one cow can only give birth to one calf per year, and that calf can take 18 months to reach market weight.
It isn’t all doom and gloom for the industry.
Ventura County Cattlemen’s Association president Tom Crocker says that a large part of their marketing focus is on “millennials” who are “highly sophisticated” and spend a “lot of time online researching.” Buckley, though 36 now, fits into this category.
“They really do their research; they do check their facts; and the facts are there that beef is not harmful to you as long as it’s being prepared correctly,” said Crocker.
Young people, Crocker says, are discovering that the health risks associated with red meat aren’t as damning as they’ve been made out to be.
In a majority of large cattle operations, cows will eat grass up until the final few weeks of life when the diet is switched to a mixture of corn, soy, grains and sometimes hormones and antibiotics. This causes an imbalance in omega-3 fatty acids but an increase in the kind of marbling prized by chefs.
When raised and finished on grass, the marbling is less distinct but the nutritional benefits are higher. The beef is lower in calories and higher in vitamins A and E, antioxidants and beta carotene. The taste profile is different, too, with a bit more gaminess than a grain-fed cut.
There are 150 paid members of the VCCA, which includes whole families, and 17,000 acres of land suitable for grazing in the county, according to Crocker. Of those, only five families are certified organic, but Crocker says that a majority of the members raise their cattle organically but choose not to become certified.
A taste for the gamier meat is growing as restaurants throughout the county move from grain-fed to grass-fed options. Watkins Cattle Company provides the beef for at least a dozen restaurants in Ventura County, but the cost is also greater. Grass-fed beef typically comes at a premium.
Stephanie Vermeychuk has her master’s degree in English and is a full-time English teacher. She moonlights as a trainer at West Coast Strength and Conditioning, though, and is well-read on the debate over saturated fat. Vermeychuk subscribed to the so-called Paleo diet five years ago and hasn’t looked back.
“We focus on the most nutrient-dense food we can find,” said Vermeychuk. “I don’t want to fill up on things that aren’t giving me the most nutrients I could get.”
On the trendy Paleo diet, meat, vegetables and saturated fats such as butter and beef fat are highly valued.
“Why would I want to eat an animal that is eating things I wouldn’t eat?” said Vermeychuk.
Buckley also subscribes to the Paleo diet, though he wouldn’t go as far as to turn down a piece of pizza while out with friends.
“The old adage that the fat you eat is the fat you wear is BS. It isn’t the quantity of the calorie, it’s the quality,” said Buckley. The key discovery that pushed Buckley over the edge toward the fat-is-OK mantra involved two things: high-density lipoids (HDL) and low-density lipoids (LDL), also known as good and bad cholesterol.
Science is still out on whether grass-fed or grain-fed beef provides more of the good cholesterol than the bad, but one thing is conclusive: omega-3s in grass-fed beef can be upward of 10 times as much as in grain-fed. Think of fat as a ferry across the strait of your blood stream carrying nutrients such as the omega-3s and vitamins throughout your body. Low fat means less nutrient absorption.
“The demonization of fat was on shaky scientific grounds to begin with,” said Buckley, and in a country in which heart disease is the No. 1 killer, Buckley understands the role fat has had on the American health debate.
Heart disease is the cause of one in four deaths, affecting both men and women, according to the CDC. One of the leading factors putting people at risk of a heart attack or coronary issues is a high level of LDL cholesterol. HDL helps to keep LDL levels under control by absorbing the thick lipoid that clings to arteries.
But Buckley believes that saturated animal fat is not the leading cause of heart disease.
“Heart disease is relatively new,” said Buckley. “It didn’t make any sense for me to blame habits that humans have had since the Paleolithic era [for heart disease] that we’ve only been dealing with for a hundred years. That alone should make everyone skeptical.”
And the Paleolithic era is the inspiration for the Paleo diet, which promotes eating as a caveman would. In other words, “If it doesn’t look like food, don’t eat it,” says Buckley; and Vermeychuk advises to “Just try to eat foods that are in their natural form.”
As the sun sets on another warm, dry day in this California summer — where the last noticeable rain drops in memory seem to have fallen a decade ago or so — ranchers continue to ponder the future of beef in Ventura County and California in general, butchers wrestle with the grain-fed versus grass-fed debate, and the health-conscious work on manipulating a dollar a little further at the counter.
The only surety is the growing interest in locally sourcing, which may in the end, above all else and despite the uncertainty of the weather forecast, decide which way the market will sway.
Rib-eye of the beholder
Let’s steer (no pun intended) clear of the trials and tribulations of raising cattle in Ventura County for a few moments to talk about the most important topic at hand: the best cut and the proper way to prepare said cut.
All beef is aged — but not all beef is dry-aged. Wet-aged beef means that the cuts are aged in their own juices. In dry-aging, the beef is hung or otherwise kept away from its juices removing the water weight and concentrating the flavors, making for a great depth in flavor.
Tom Crocker, President, Ventura County Cattlemen’s Association
“That’s a very simple question for me. I’m a bone-in rib-eye man, and I prepare it on the grill, medium-rare to medium. And I think you’ll find that every cattleman out there will give you the same answer. That’s our product and that’s my favorite product. I’ll probably take one to the grave with me so I’ll have something to eat on the way.”
On the seasoning end, Crocker is a minimalist, but prefers his beef dry-aged — and recently completed his own aging of a side of beef for 90 days.
“If you want to put something on your beef, then you don’t really enjoy beef. If we could outlaw steak sauce, we would.”
Steven Carpenter, Carpenter Cattle Company
“Rib-eye steak. Barbecued.”
Carpenter “needles” the steak by perforating it and then rubs it with a special seasoning created by his wife and cooks it to medium-rare.
Kent Short, Old-Fashioned Butcher Shop, Santa Paula
Short’s butcher shop doesn’t have a counter open to the public, but it cuts a lot of meat for ranchers in the county, including for Carpenter Cattle Company.
“My preferred cut is a rib-eye and I prefer it grilled, very rare. Still mooin’.”
Short is a true old-fashioned butcher — hence his shop’s name — and “won’t eat a piece of beef unless it’s dry-aged a minimum of 25 to 28 days.” But his preference for beef fed a combination of grass and vegetables is unique, and he says that gives it a sweeter taste.
Shane Watkins, Watkins Cattle Company
“I just like to eat meat, but I would say the rib-eye, and I love a good juicy burger.”
Watkins barbecues with a little olive oil and seasoning spice, but says there’s “nothing really special.” Simplicity is key due to his “crazy busy schedule.”
“We also do a shredded-beef sandwich with a shoulder roast in a crock pot.”
Watkins’ beef is dry-aged between 20 and 30 days before leaving the ranch.
Michael Buckley, Ventura Meat Company
“That’s easy, one-and-a-half-inch-thick bone-in beef rib eye.”
The Ventura Meat Company’s beef is all dry-aged and grass-fed. While the bone doesn’t necessarily impart flavor to the steak, it does make for a neat presentation.
If you’re looking for beef in Ventura County, you have a few good options:
Ventura Meat Company
2650 E. Main St., Ventura
Lombardo’s Gourmet Deli and Meats
695 Mobil Ave., Camarillo
Watkins Ranch Butcher Shop
105 E. El Roblar, Ojai
Green Acres Farm Market and Catering
2918 E. Los Angeles Ave., Simi Valley
Old-Fashioned Country Butcher
335 S. Fifth St., Santa Paula
Main Street Meat Market
3049 E. Main St., Ventura