David Evans talks about the global food market, tips on how to buy the best meat, the evolution of organic certification and why the cost of ethically raised meat is so expensive.
This is the second part of our interview with David Evans, founder and owner of Marin Sun Farms. David oversees operations of his ranch properties in Marin County and also co-produces livestock with ranches within the Bay Area food-shed 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.
You can read the first part of the interview here.
One of the things that I’m learning in all of my research is where organic stops—its limitations—and what other people have decided to do to go beyond them.
Well, this is the evolution. Organic production was a huge step, and then organic mirrored the industrial model. It spread, it grew, just in the way that the industrial model grew.
There are some good things in that, but then there are some things I would say got away from the original organic intent—which was small-scale, which was locally-based, which was relationship-based. Some of that’s been lost, and a lot of the organic products represented by a label and signed off third-party—these aspects of the original intent were lost in the final rules because you can’t build a rule that’s universally applied about ‘what is a food-shed?’
Well, food-sheds are different for everyone. We define ours by the [San Francisco]Bay Area because that’s where our market is. That’s Marin Sun Farms’ market. We’ve had to define reasonable boundaries to the area that we bring animals from and that we do business in, and the food-shed seemed like a very logical way to put parameters around it.
Each person is going to define their own food-shed. Somebody who has a nice big garden might eat more locally than somebody else. It doesn’t mean that they’re better or there’s some kind of competition, ‘I eat within two miles,’ or ‘I eat within one mile.’ That gets down to who has more dollars in their pocket, potentially. It’s arbitrary.
By thinking in these terms we become more responsible consumers, if you will. I don’t even like that word, but we become more responsible community members. Therefore we seek to work with others in our community before we reach out globally, and I think that’s just a good principle to operate on.
That’s going to ebb and flow like the weather. Food-sheds have to ebb and flow. When a hurricane overtook New Orleans, New Orleans’ food-shed grew, didn’t it? They would have to pull food from farther areas on the earth because a lot of their local production disappeared.
I use that as an example because that’s what happens every winter in certain places in the country; their food-sheds grow. There’s nothing wrong with that as long as we’re putting it into some kind of context that’s measurable and understandable.
When I buy a banana—I like bananas, I think bananas are great—they don’t ever come from anywhere around here. So every time I eat a banana—and I don’t eat bananas that often—every time I pick up a banana, I think about it; but that’s a little bit of a spiritual context. I believe, if I’m thinking about it, I know that I am contributing to a farther away food stream—or a cup of coffee, for that matter.
What would you tell customers to look for when they’re evaluating which meat to buy?
I think they need to ask critical questions. The person behind the counter should be knowledgeable of their meats—all of them.
What matters to you?
Number one: what’s your most locally-sourced product here? Is it organically-raised, and if not, why? What else do you have here? Is this grain-finished or grass-finished? Has this animal been on pasture its whole life?
The job is getting a lot harder for the butcher or the person behind the counter—as it should be, because it’s been really easy for a long time. People never asked any questions. This is becoming somewhere where they need to be knowledgeable, and they need to be able to give you all of the the provenance of their product.
If they can’t, they should be willing to take your name and number and get back to you ASAP. That’s what we do in our company.
So if you’re not prepared, you don’t guess, you don’t make something up, you take a name, a number, take an email, or talk to them next Tuesday when they come in—but you let them know you’re going to find out the answer to their question if you don’t know it. That’s how we approach it.
Another thing to ask is where is it coming from? Does that matter to you? If it matters to you, you should ask. If it doesn’t matter to you, then what can I say? You aren’t connected. But I think it does matter to more people.
Organic was a big change, right? We went from just conventional production, probably at some of its worst, to organic. So organic was the salvation, and for a lot of people it still is—but that’s kind of too easy now. It’s too easy to just say, ‘I don’t care how the animal was killed, I don’t care where it was raised, as long as there’s an organic label on it, I’m fine with that.’ That’s just like ignorance is bliss.
It’s not that easy anymore. Things evolve, and you need to ask more questions. You need to be diligent and just keep putting the pressure on and keep demanding more.
If people didn’t demand that soy was an issue—I had no idea soy was an issue, I don’t have a soy allergy—I would have figured that if a chicken ate soy, how would you get a soy allergy? It’s metabolized.
I haven’t pulled any science on this yet—but there are enough people who care about it. Even if science says it’s wrong, there are enough people who care about it so I’m going to see what we can do to reduce soy. That happened through people asking questions.
I could just buy the organic soy, get organic certified, put the organic label on it, and do like a lot of organic producers are doing; but I’m not. I’m taking feedback.
Through Marin Sun Farms you sell the products of your own farm, but also that of other local farmers. What kind of relationships do you have with these local farmers?
We call them ‘co-producers’ because we work together on bringing stuff in. Basically, we put together this network of co-producers because of seasonality constraints. Not all of our product is year-round, but our beef and lamb is.
We have butchers on staff, we have to keep people busy, and we’ve got those parameters of running a business. So we’ve had to put together a network of people—that ebbs and flows also—of relationships to be able to bring these animals to market.
Beef is probably the most challenging and most complex because the animals are two-years-old before they come to market, or older. So there are several seasons they have to move through. To keep them gaining, we have pastures from my ranch in Point Reyes to other co-producers around the state within the foodshed.
Chicken—which is one of our seasonal products—we don’t do over the winter.
I know this first-hand from going into your store, looking for chicken.
We experimented with it. We tried a couple of years doing it year-round, but the results weren’t great.
I’ve got one co-producer up in the northern valley, California Central Valley, who has a good balance in season for us. We still don’t produce in the winter, but he’s got good land, it’s a good relationship, we’re of the same philosophical mindset—which is really important for us.
We do this for similar reasons; it’s not just money. We want to see the ground do better, we want people to do better, and we’re in it for all of its complexity. In my ranch in Point Reyes, I can only produce a certain number of chickens, and we have market for more of them.
We of course want to grow more of the good things that we grow. So he’s raising chickens for us, and some ducks and turkeys—and those are coming to market under the same protocol that we have. We all operate under the same protocol so we make sure we are bringing product to market of the same quality.
Did you create this protocol?
Yeah, I did, and it’s on the website for each species. There’s a ruminant protocol, which covers the ruminant animals. Then there’s a pork—pig—protocol. Then there’s a chicken protocol. Each of them have their own. They’re not similar enough to combine into one protocol. Pigs and chickens can eat grains; ruminants can’t.
So going back to the cows’ diet, I’ve talked to some other meat producers and I know that a lot of them feed grass most of the cows’ life and then they finish them off with grain. You talked about the nutritional difference in that. Is it just the nutritional difference that made you decide to do 100% grass-fed or was there another reason behind that?
Just for one clarification, the whole conventional beef model in this country and going on globally: cattle are fed on grass the majority of their life, and then the last o120 to 150 days they’re fed in a feed-lot on grain.
It’s been because of the grass-fed movement they’ve decided to explain it a little differently. They say, ‘Well, they’re grass-fed almost their whole life.’ The almost is what should be the indicator. And then it’s, ‘Oh the last one-hundred-twenty days they’re finished on a really good vegetarian diet of grain.’
You think, ‘Oh, that’s wonderful!’ Well, it’s a feed-lot; that’s what that is.
Another reason why I didn’t go organic is because, if you feed the cattle organic grains, it’s an organic piece of meat—even though a high concentration of grain has not ever been part of the bovine’s diet—evolutionarily speaking. I don’t like the way the organics handled that, but that rule was thought to be the right rule and then along came grass-fed.
I think most people recognized that the real way to grow beef, for instance, is all on grass. But the rule has now been co-opted by industry, and I don’t think they’re going to break the rule. They’ve now decided that they can’t be in a feed lot, they have to been in a pasture, but that’s grain on pasture—that’s what that means.
I come from a production background; I grew up on a beef ranch, and I wanted to see us keep our animals ’til slaughter rather than sell them to feed lots at their weaning time. I wanted to have more of a relationship with the customers rather than just sending this beef off.
We would just send our beef off on trucks, and we wouldn’t know where it went. It would go to some feed lot somewhere. I don’t know if it went to China or showed up in the Palace Market in Point Reyes. I used to always wonder. I’d see meat in a supermarket, and I’d be like, ‘I wonder if this is one of ours?’
Of course the chance is one-in-a-billion. I grew to realize the size of that sector of the economy and the consolidation of the industry—and the fact that, back on the farm, income is pretty volatile. You don’t always have good years.
I wanted to stabilize income. Then I had this really big thing, I really wanted to do better by the environment, and that probably basically comes from where I live. These issues have been paramount here during my lifetime, and I love this place. I love where I live; it’s beautiful here. I live in a national park.
I manage public land that we used to own, so it’s very special to me. I want to continue farming here. So if you follow my argument: I love it here; it’s on land we used to own; I want to continue farming and living on this land. If I’m going to guarantee that, I have to be the best producer and the best caretaker of this land. That’s the way I see it.
Having 100% grass-fed cows is part of the larger ecosystem because their feeding cycle has an effect on the soil, on the wildlife etc.
What we do as ranchers or farmers with livestock is: we grow grass. We happen to use cattle to harvest it.
We grow grass, which means we’re in the solar energy collection business—and we use grass to grab it. The grass builds the soil so we can have healthier stands of grass.
Then, we have the energy stored in grass. How do we harvest it? We can’t eat the grass, so we use an herbivore to eat it. That makes it into something we can market and get value out of. So that’s the little chain; that’s how we operate. I would run more animals here, if it was in my lease. I’m allowed to run cattle and chickens. I want to run some sheep and goats because it’s a good diverse mix.
I can do better with more tools. If I have more colors to choose from, I can paint a better picture, follow me? Each one of those herbivores operates a little different on the pasture. I can better manage the pasture with more tools, but it’s all about growing grass and harvesting solar energy.
Do you castrate your male calves?
We do castrate the males in the beef, otherwise they produce too much lean muscle. They’re really lean and not enough fat and not of good eating quality. A bull is just really a bunch of lean, muscly, tough meat because of what the testosterone does to their muscle growth.
But when you castrate them, that makes them tender and juicy. The dairy industry, they’re in their business for milk; that’s their commodity. It doesn’t matter whether you’re organic or some non-organic, conventional dairy—bull calves don’t really have a value because they don’t give any milk.
I beg to differ. We’re starting to use some bull calves from some of the local dairies to produce veal. A lot of people are opposed to veal. I don’t know how you feel about it, but the fact is most of these dairy calves are taken away at a couple days of age, and they go get killed somewhere and boned out for whatever meat they have, and it ends up in ballpark franks or something.
What we do is, we’ll take some of those bull calves and we’ll put them on a surrogate mother, usually an older dairy cow who gives enough milk to raise two or three calves. Then she’ll raise out those calves for four months and bring them up to four-hundred, five-hundred pounds, and then we’ll market them for veal.
They have a pretty ideal life for a calf. They have a normal life. They have a mother. They actually have siblings, which a lot of calves don’t. They look like they enjoy it.
They’re raised out on pasture. The primary part of their diet is mother’s milk at that age, but they are eating grasses—and they give a nice rosy color to their meat, which is different than that pale gray—raised in the dark and fed formula crap that they sell in veal.
The prices of sustainably-raised meat are considerably more than conventional.
To get a beef animal to market-ready, if you’re feeding them on grass, it’s a much lower energy diet than grain. So they have to eat longer. They have to be older for you to take them to market before they’re going to be finished.
People using expensive grain can fatten them quickly. People using cheap grass will harvest them a lot later. So we’re at two-years-of-age, where the conventional feed lot industry is at fourteen to fifteen months. So we’re about a ten month difference. That ten months is immensely costly when you have this thousand dollar animal out there.
You’re putting slow weight on it rather than fast weight. You could be turning over another animal in the amount of time that you did that one. That’s part of it, waiting.
Of course, what comes with that is really good quality because older animals have better flavor, they’re more balanced. It’s just a better piece of meat; quality is much higher. Quality always costs more. That’s a fundamental of the marketplace.
The other thing is, because of the size of operation we are, all of the other costs to get that live animal to a state that we can sell to you is more expensive per pound. We don’t have an economy scale; we’re operating on a small scale.
So all of the processing fees, all of the cutting, the wrapping, the packaging, we do that on a small volume. Therefore, the cost per pound is much higher. As a matter of fact, I have trouble competing in the marketplace because there are more people doing grass-fed meat now who are outsourcing all of their processing. We don’t outsource anything. We do everything ourselves, and that’s going to be costly.
But we know we bring the highest quality to market. No one else is putting their hand on our meat. No one’s changing things. Nothing is disappearing. We do it all ourselves, and I’m very proud of that.
We’re totally integrated; but a lot of other companies will send it somewhere to get killed, then they’ll send it somewhere to get cut and wrapped, then it’ll go to a distributor who will distribute it out to the supermarket. They just basically load the live animal in the truck, and it disappears down the train.
That gets done cheaper because other people with economies of scale are doing the processing and distribution.
You use a USDA-certified facility as a slaughterhouse in Petaluma.
We’re not allowed to actually kill the animal. That’s the only thing that we don’t do ourselves is the kill, but we see the animals to the facility, and we see them out of the facility.
I’ve got a very close relationship with the people who run each slaughterhouse that we use. They’re species-based, that’s why I say there are a few of them. Petaluma does beef and pigs. Then there’s one in Stockton we use for our chickens, for poultry. Then there’s one in Dixon we use for our goats and our lambs and sheep. I have very good relationships with all three of those, and I’ve seen the process many times. I’ve seen the facility.
We work on things together at the facility. All of them are relatively small-scale, especially the one in Petaluma. They do low-volume, so animals are treated very humanely. I feel very fortunate that we have these slaughterhouses here for us. There are very few of them around. They’ve been dwindling across the country like crazy.
We actually thought the one in Petaluma was going to go out of business a few years back, but now they’re thriving thanks to people like us. We’re really excited about that.
Are their numbers dwindling because there’s not enough demand?
Well, I think number one—no one is taking over the businesses. A lot of small abattoirs are family businesses, and the next generation is not embracing that as a way to make a living. That’s one problem.
Number two—85% of all beef is owned by three companies. They consolidated a lot of the processing into the Midwest where the feedlots are. So a lot of these small slaughterhouses are just barely making it on whatever they find, and they can’t really compete. They don’t have markets because of that 85% consolidation. They’re just struggling.
Fifty years ago, you’d be like ‘There’s no future in this.’ But now with a lot of the small start-ups and some of the more sustainable movements, that’s helping keep them alive. A lot have disappeared in the past fifteen years.
How do you raise your egg-laying hens, and what makes them different from store-bought eggs?
That’s an easy question. My hens are raised out in the pasture. I have moveable pasture shelters for them that we move every day or two to a new piece of pasture, and they actually forage out in the field unrestricted.
So the fact that they’re able to pick up bugs, scratch the ground, eat grass, do everything that a chicken does, they produce really, really great eggs.
When I was doing some research on eggs, something really interesting caught my eye. That’s that the California Department of Agriculture strongly advocates against allowing birds to be free-range and have outdoor access because of the risk of avian influenza transmission.
It’s asinine. I’ll tell you exactly why the USDA feels that way, and it’ll be your job to get one of them to admit this.
They feel this way because my birds that are out in the field might make friends with black birds, because black birds are a carrier of avian influenza. And then one of my birds might get avian influenza and it might infect Foster Farms—who have several million chickens in a house and might be astronomically impacted by that.
It’s total bullshit. It’s to protect big, big, consolidated poultry producers.
My chickens live and die in my field. They don’t go and make friends with the Foster Farms chickens. I don’t take a truck over so they can run through the thousand hen houses.
The vet tests the birds every couple months, and I ask him, ‘What happens if you find avian influenza?’ He says, ‘We’re going to kill your whole flock.’
I’m like, ‘Really? Even though they’re not going anywhere. They’re not going to infect anybody anywhere.’ They’re like, ‘No. it’s too much of a health risk. It’s a vector blah, blah blah.’
Well, he did this for a whole year. He tested them, of course they never found anything, and they just stopped coming back. So I don’t know what it’s all about.
It seems like this fear of the avian influenza is because we have the concentrated livestock and chicken facilities.
All the more reason we shouldn’t be raising chickens in big confinement houses. And the fact is that they’re all immunodeficient because they’re being pumped with antibiotics, and successive generations have never had to encounter any kind of immunoresistance.
Seriously, they’re babied. They’re tortured. But at the same time, their immune systems are just not ever given anything to work against. They’re defective, and they’re vulnerable.
This is why—as a national security issue—food national security should not allow food to be raised this way. And the only reason they do is because it pumps out real cheap. People want cheap food, cheap food, cheap food, cheap food.
I’m sorry, I think people should spend 10-20% of their income on food. Whether you make ten dollars a month or you make one-hundred-thousand dollars a month, people should spend more money on food.
Tell me about your CSA. Does it differ from produce CSA boxes?
Slightly, because it’s frozen meat. It’s a subscription program. You sign up for six months or a year, and you’re going to get a box once a month—where with produce you usually get a box every week.
And that’s what we do. You’ve got all these different boxes you can choose from; you can exempt species. Anything from a small box to a big box, and we deliver a box once a month to a designated location near you, and you pick up your box.
Certain times of the year you won’t get chicken in there because we do our chicken seasonally, but we usually freeze a bunch of our chickens for that part of the season. So things vary depending on what we have in abundance. But it goes year-round, and we have meat year-round thanks to freezing.
We do a CSA pickup in the store too. You can pick up a box, but it all depends. This CSA is our most discounted program, so it’s how you can get the meats at the best price. Our best prices are given to the CSA, and we’re working on other stuff to give the CSA members.
We’re trying to get more creative with it and really build the community a little bit more. We’re trying to do an online forum for people to share experiences, recipes, and all that. We just haven’t gotten there yet, but that’s all in the pipeline.
We love the CSA. I’ve always said that we need to keep the CSA growing; this is our most direct relationship. The CSA folks are investing in us through that subscription.
We’ve touched on a lot here. Any last thoughts?
If I had to put it in a nutshell, I would say take a look at the whole model we’re putting together and how it contributes to building a more sustainable food model. That’s really what our mission is.
We don’t claim to be a sustainable farm. We’re working on becoming a more sustainable farm everyday; that’s what we do. I don’t know that we can reach sustainability, but we’re working on becoming more sustainable all the time, and we feel that mission is very noble and I think the model we’re putting together with the food-shed with our co-producers is a way to feed a metropolitan area in a more sustainable way.