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Local ranchers working hard to promote meat

By: Kat Sunlove and Layne Winklebleck, Special to the Journal
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The advantages of consuming meat and produce from local sources has been in the news lately with First Lady Michelle Obama’s White House garden and the recent appearance of famed Berkeley organic restaurateur Alice Waters on CBS’s “60 Minutes.” Heading the list of reasons to seek out locally sourced foods are support of the area economy, humane treatment of animals compared to factory farms, environmental impact, health and the superior taste of products known to be free of pesticides, antibiotics, steroids and added hormones. As a practical matter, however, there are roadblocks for small ranchers in providing year-round, large volume, unfrozen quantities of meat with consistent cuts and quality as required by restaurants, grocery outlets and consumers. From the perspective of the small rancher, one ongoing problem is simple supply and demand.  ”We only sell what we raise and Mother Nature doesn’t always stay on schedule, said Shirley Field of Coffee Pot Ranch in Sheridan. Logistical problems also bedevil small ranchers, Field added. “A recent problem came up with the closure of one of our processors for lamb and beef,” she said. “There are only a handful of USDA plants that are available for the small producer, and it has proved difficult to find another one on short notice.” Fields said Coffee Pot Ranch currently harvests lamb in Dixon, hogs in Orland and beef in Reno. Coffee Pot Ranch, it should be noted, is among the most prominent local advocates of the farm-to-table movement. Coffee Pot would like to increase product availability to chefs with their special needs. Presently, they market retail cuts through Blue Goose, Newcastle Produce, Sierra Foothills Meat Buyers Club, Riverhill CSA, Foothills Farmers Markets and Sierra Fresh. Consumer attitudes toward frozen meats are also an issue. Problems arise because lamb slaughtering, for example, tends to be seasonal, which makes it impossible for area farmers to provide year-round fresh lamb cuts for restaurants or retail outlets. Although there is general consensus that there is little or no difference in taste between previously frozen and fresh lamb, customers demand fresh meat. This is one area where a change in public attitudes could directly benefit local producers. “We buy everything we can locally including beef, lambs, pigs, rabbits and chicken,” said Phil Kattenhorn, manager of Auburn’s Longhorn Meats. “But even then, probably only 20 percent, maybe a little more, of our meats are from local sources. “We can’t just go out and buy from lots of small sources,” Kattenhorn explained. “First, there are legal issues. Meat has to be [USDA] inspected. Even then, a major problem is consistency of quality. Buying from numerous small sources is risky, because sometimes the meat is great but sometimes it is stringy or tough.” A little-known source for meats sold at Longhorn is 4-H Club beef that the store buys at auction. Each fall around California State Fair time, the meat counters at Longhorn are decorated with fliers featuring photos of the proud 4-H members and their animals. Rancher Ashley Coughran, who owns two purebred Maine-Anjou bulls and more than 25 Angus and Shorthorn cows, each year breeds 25 to 30 beef calves at Spanish Corral Ranch in Newcastle, primarily for sale to youngsters who raise them with tender loving care for 4-H competitions and eventual auction. Coughran is herself a former 4-H member and still owns her first cow. Which is now retired from breeding and living a life of leisure on a nearby ranch. However, while ranchers like Coughran can supplement the availability of local meat in butcher shops, it is generally not feasible for them to sell whole animals to restaurants. Most restaurants want relatively large quantities of a specific cut, and are not equipped to deal with a whole animal. Consequently, most restaurants are not able to purchase Fair animals as a consistent supply of quality meat. Despite these challenges, many area eateries are interested in helping promote the farm-to-fork trend. Customers like seeing local farm products listed on menus, assuring them of quality and freshness, and restaurant chefs and owners would love to include more of that. “Our restaurant is a barbecue joint, and we really cannot buy much in the way of local meat or produce for our regular menu,” said Linda Mason of Drooling Dog Bar BQ in Colfax. However, Mason does use locally grown meat as well as local produce and wines in their DogGone Good Catering service, and is motivated to find ways to include more local meats in the restaurant. For Longhorn Meats’ Kattenhorn, however, one key is in how you define “local.” “In a way, we think of all of our meat as local, if by local you mean U.S.A., and mostly from co-op sources, which means small farms, only humanely treated, all natural, no factory farms,” he said. “But we do wish we could buy it all within 50 miles.”