David Evans, founder and owner, oversees operations of his ranch properties in Marin County and also co-produces livestock with ranches within the Bay Area foodshed, who are critical in filling in his own seasonal gaps and limitations in production. Marin Sun Farms (MSF) is an extension of his family’s farming heritage, nestled in the rolling grasslands of the Point Reyes National Seashore in Northern California.
What led you to forgo organic certification?
Well, my primary focus has always been 100% grass-fed and pasture-raised. I started from a commercial, or more conventional approach, on the farm that I grew up on. In trying to add value to the farm and change things to build a more sustainable food model, grass-fed and pasture-raised was always more important to me than organic certification as far as which goals to reach first.
A lot of customers look for the certified organic label—and don’t really look any further. How do you promote your products without the use of a recognized label?
Those aren’t my customers. People who are label-minded will look at labels, and that’s all they’re going to look at. I encourage my customers to be more in-tune with the farm, come to farm tours and have a relationship with what we do.
Our certification is our farm tour program , our transparency and our sourcability. I believe that trumps third-party labeling, which is all a removal from that first-hand relationship.
How do you educate your customers, other than the farm tours?
We use social media. We use our website. We train our staff; each week we have discussions about the different meats that we offer. We train the employees every week on a rotating basis; where our meat is coming from each week, how it’s being produced, recipes, cooking methods, and any information we can put together. That is then carried forward to the customers that come into the shops, and that’s how we spread our information.
A lot of times we do a weekly newsletter to our employees explaining new aspects, new information, providing resource materials, and training employees to be more knowledgeable of the product. When they interact with customers, they are loaded with information to share with them.
Have you had a lot of success with blogs and social media?
We believe so. The number of people paying attention has been growing every week for the last many years.
We deal on a first-hand basis—through our retail shops—with customers who are coming to look for specific items they can’t find elsewhere. A lot of those items are pasture-raised meats and 100% grass-fed ruminants; pasture-raised animals that are fed certain diets, things they want restricted from the diets that aren’t addressed by the organic approval.
Like soy for instance. We’re going from a soy reduction to a soy elimination program with my lane flock. By April first, we will have taken their soy consumption from 50% of their diet to 10%, and we feel proud of that. On poultry first, and then pigs—we’re switching over to all certified organic or organically grown feeds.
The reason is that we don’t want to be feeding any GMO’s, and that’s the best way for us to accomplish that. To guarantee no GMO, or to get as close to no GMO as we can, we have to use certified organic.
Why reduce soy?
We’ve got a lot of customers who have soy allergies, and apparently their allergies carry through. So, if a chicken is fed a high-soy diet, they get soy allergies from the chicken—and there’s hardly any chicken raised in this country without any soy. So we’re attempting to do our best at that.
We may not be able initially to just take away the soy. But we’ve been able to reduce it significantly by giving other choices of feeds. So we feel like we’re doing a pretty good job, and hopefully in the future we can find the alternatives we need and learn enough to potentially eliminate soy from the chickens’ diet.
It’s such a perfect protein for the birds—and the pigs, for that matter. It contains all the necessary amino acids. There is not a readily available, well-rounded protein like that. So you end up having to combine multiple protein sources, and that becomes extremely expensive, far beyond what certified organic prices are.
It becomes really cost-prohibitive and also resource-prohibitive; it’s hard to find that stuff. Then you end up shipping it from farther distances, and that’s not what we’re about at all. Also, because we use meats, we’re able to use our good meats as part of the diet for the chickens, non-cannibalistic meats.
Chickens and pigs are omnivores, and they can make use of a certain amount of meat in their diet, as they do when they’re out in the pasture eating bugs and rodents and so forth.
Soon, we won’t be taking anything to the tallow company, it will be used by the birds, or in composting or fertility building. We’re pretty proud of that.
So those types of topics have always trumped getting certified organic for a label.
That being said, none of our pastures receive herbicides or pesticides. Our pastures are all certifiably organic. Our whole processing system—the slaughter of all of our species is done in organically certifiable facilities using organic processes, using lactic acid washes on the carcasses rather than chlorine, and we’re doing the same thing in our process of cutting the animals up.
As far as the different species go, the only thing preventing us from organic certification is that we still use, with the beef and the sheep and the goats, an internal parasite medication if the animal is showing difficulty. So it’s done as a spot treatment, and if the animal is showing that it’s suffering from parasite problems we will use that.
I also have an antibiotic policy that wouldn’t meet organic certification. Organic certification is a ‘never-ever’, and I understand why that is because when you are supplying people who just rely on third-party labeling, it has to be a hard edge.
For antibiotics, we hold the right to use an antibiotic if an animal is suffering. We rarely ever have that happen. As a matter of fact, on my ranch, we haven’t given an antibiotic in two years. But if an animal does get an infection, it is the quickest and most humane way to solve the issue.
That being said, this happens on organic farms too, but the animal is then shifted into the conventional channel just because it doesn’t meet the ‘never-ever’ criteria.
I find it very disturbing that an animal is cared for its whole life in the manner that we take care of them, and if they get a sticker in their eye and get an infection where we have to use a very localized, targeted dose of antibiotic (not a low-dose, feed type of product) to solve the problem—and plenty of months are given to the animal to have metabolized—it’s [antibiotics] gone out of the system, it’s free of antibiotic. I don’t see any reason why that animal should be condemned to the industrial system, and I’m very clear about that in my marketing—about how we handle our antibiotic policy.
Like I said, it almost never gets used, but that’s my policy.
My antibiotic policy mirrors the same way most people would treat their children. That is, if you have an isolated problem, antibiotics are very good and strong tools, and we want them to continue to be good and strong tools into the future.
What’s happening in the industrial system is going to make antibiotics not as effective in the future because they’re giving low-dose rounds to animals in their feeds and then falling into an environment where bacteria are being allowed to adapt and become resistant.
Isolating a bacterial infection, giving it an initial high dose of antibiotic, killing the infection, removing it, then allowing it to metabolize over time—is a completely effective way to use antibiotics responsibly.
Is there a certain amount of time after an animal has been given antibiotics that you won’t use the animal for any sort of meat?
It’s specified by the USDA as ninety days after an antibiotic is given, and we give it twice as long as that. That just gives assurance and no room for error, but there’s good science behind that ninety day rule. It means that on the last day antibiotic was in the system, ninety days later, there will be none left; it will all be metabolized.
But to be sure we’re providing enough of a time period so no mistakes happen, we’ll go double that time—just to ensure that nothing happens. But again, we’re talking very rare occurrences that we need something like this.
Returning to the reduction of soy in the grain that you feed, has there been any other feedback that you receive from customers that has made you or the farmers you work with change your style of farming?
That’s a good question. Soy is the big one right now; I’ve been working on it for months.
Everything else would be meeting customers’ expectations: making sure the beef are 100% grass-fed, making sure they’re out on pasture and rotating the pasture. I think people have been very interested in that too. They don’t want to know just that it’s grass-fed, they want to know that the land is being taken care of also.
We’re one of the few, if not only, meat companies that can actually have transparency from field to fork because we are involved in raising the animals. Most meat companies are just distributing meat, and we’re integrated from the farm all the way to the distribution and the retail sales end. We deal with the retail customer, and we deal with the on-farm practices.
So what I’ve been carrying through—this is where social media has been really great—is when I’m out moving the cattle in the morning or the afternoon, I can take a bunch of photos of what’s going on. I come in and, over my lunch period, give a nice explanation over the photos of what’s going on in the field: ‘Here they are grazing, they grazed here yesterday, they’re grazing here tomorrow, here’s why, here’s the different terrains.’
I explain what’s going on with my decision-making and how it’s good for the land. That is so above-and-beyond what most people are doing. Being able to convey that information in such a way that it’s readily accessible to our customers has been pretty powerful.
What are the benefits of grass-fed beef, for both the cow and the consumer?
Cows have evolved to live in herding groups out on a landscape, bunched together, moving from place to place. There’s an evolutionary process, the way that large herding animals (herbivores) roam the landscape. In the period post-World War II, we started to confine them and started to bring feed to them rather than allowing them to move to feed.
Herbivores were designed by nature to digest grass and forage—they do a great job of converting solar energy into lean protein and fat for our consumption, and for the other carnivores and omnivores in the food chain. So adhering to those principles, which are evolutionary principles, we can best treat the land and the animals by understanding how they have co-evolved. That’s how it’s good for the cows.
They’re also extremely healthy. What comes out of respecting that process is nice, shiny cows. They’re vibrant. They’re kicking up their heels. They’re fat. They’re, by all of our measurements, doing well—as is the land, through soil-building. All this is taking place, community dynamics are expanding, seeing more wildlife in the fields by managing the animal in this way.
Clearly, if you manage these domestic animals in a way that benefits the environment, it benefits humans as well just in the fact that you have better ecological processes going on through good land management: making sure that underground aquifers are being refilled, soils are vibrant.
There are also nutritional benefits in comparing grass-fed and finished meats to grain-fed and finished meats—specifically with ruminant livestock that were designed to eat grass and not grain in high concentrations. There’s a better balance of nutrients—higher levels of different things, like higher levels of omega-3′s.
The ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acid in grass-fed and finished beef is in balance with what we evolved eating. Grain-fed and finished meat has a much higher ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids, which has been shown to not be in sync with our evolutionary diet and has caused us lots of problems.
There are plenty of studies out there that show what a high omega-6 fatty acid diet would do and what a properly balanced omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acid diet does, and it’s outstanding. There’s also conjugated linoleic acid in grass-fed and finished meat, which is a very beneficial acid. It doesn’t exist in grain fed meats. It’s just better balanced nutritionally.
Talking about eating a balanced diet, the cholesterol levels are another aspect. The eggs from poultry raised on pasture have a different cholesterol profile. They have a very balanced and good-for-you cholesterol profile.
Confinement-raised chickens in cages that we feed a really cheap grain diet and treat like slaves, (That’s probably even putting it nicely. They’re just used.)—Guess what? They don’t give us a very good nutritional profile in their eggs; they make us sick to a certain degree. Go figure.
It’s just such common sense; don’t beat up what’s feeding you. You take care of these animals.
There’s a spiritual aspect too. I believe it is our job to care for these animals. They are domestic livestock; they depend on us. And what we always forget is we depend on them. How can we think that they’ll take care of us if we don’t take care of them? These are creatures that are just like us. They have all the basic needs that we do, and to deny them those is to deny ourselves the nutritious food.
That kind of ties into what you were talking about before—that you treat your animals how you would treat your children.
I’m all about prevention. Don’t get me wrong, the principle behind organic production is to prevent a problem before it happens so you don’t need some of the witch’s potion to fix the problem or the latest chemical technology to fix the problem, and I completely adhere by that—but things do happen.
I think isolated instances of things happen, and that’s where we need to use those very powerful tools we have, but we need to use them very humbly. We need to use them only when we need them; don’t use them irresponsibly. That’s kind of where I bridge that gap. I tend to try to steer away from the orthodoxy.
This is important; I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. I try to steer around the orthodoxy, around local food and organic food. A lot of folks really get their blinders on, and they only rely on the label. ‘I only buy organically labeled food.’
In that statement, it doesn’t matter where it comes from; it doesn’t matter if it’s from a local organic farm or a global organic farm.
There are things that aren’t taken into account in organic certification. I think it’s wonderful that people in China are embracing organic production, if we can truly say that they are. There’s been a lot of shady stuff around the Chinese organic, but I don’t know. I don’t have any proof.
For the sake of conversation, I’m going to assume that there are people in China who are responsibly producing organically. I am really happy they’re doing that, but it loses value to me when it gets put on a container ship or a jumbo jet and immense amounts of fossil fuel are burnt to get it to a supermarket near me so I can buy it at a cheaper price than from the farmer down the road.
I have a fundamental problem with that. I don’t believe that global economic comparative advantage should apply to organic production. That’s a really anti-economic theory statement, but I have values that go beyond the cheapest price and the market price and that go beyond the globalized shipping of organic food around the world.
photo credit: Marin Sun Farms