I’m about a week late with this news: Thundering Hooves Ranch, which I think was the largest Washington State grass-fed beef supplier, has closed. We still have many great local grass-fed meat producers (Skagit River Ranch, Olson Farms, Sea Breeze, Stokesberry, etc, plus many who don’t sell at Seattle farmers markets but do take orders for CSAs or parts of/whole animals). Still, I’m curious what this says about the current state of (and the future of) access to grass-fed meats in Washington State.
There are two good Seattle Times pieces on the closure, here and here. Someone commenting on one of the articles wrote, “As I understand it from those who were involved, they would have been unable to survive as a small company given the position they were in.” There was a lot of demand for the meat, but there were debts, which seem hard to avoid in the risky business of farming and ranching, and with quick growth.
What does this mean? I’m curious to hear your perspective, especially, but not exclusively, if you’ve been in the business of raising/selling pastured meats yourself. Is the answer to support the growth and sustenance of many smaller grass-feeding ranches, so none is overwhelmed by scale or quick growth, or has such a wide-reaching effect if it closes? Are there ways to bring down the costs for producers? Is the issue that it’s much more expensive to process meats as a small, family ranch than just to sell one’s livestock to a feedlot or intermediary?
Ideally, our system of food subsidies in this country would change. Instead of subsidizing wheat, corn, and soy, contributing to the abundance of cheap-and-unhealthy food that’s costing us more in the long run as we get sick––obesity-related illness makes up a large share of medical costs in the U.S.–– I’d rather we subsidized sustainable producers of vegetables and of pasture-raised livestock for meat, dairy and eggs. That doesn’t seem likely to happen anytime soon, especially given current agricultural priorities. The U.S. House Agriculture Committee, for instance, just endorsed a letter to the budget chairman advocating for saving grain subsidies and cutting food stamps. However, defeatist attitudes aren’t going to get us anywhere; the unlikelihood of succeeding in advocating for different subsidy/spending priorities doesn’t excuse us from the need to try.
The bottom line seems to be that we need more producers of sustainable meat, and we need to find ways to support those producers, whether that’s via subsidies or increased purchasing, or another means. I’m going to start talking to farmers I know, but, in the meantime, I’d love to hear your perspective.
Terminology note: You may have noticed Thundering Hooves’s website used the term “pasture-finished” to describe their meat. In case you’re not familiar with this, that means that the cows weren’t just raised on grass (or hay in winter) and then sent to a feedlot, they was raised on grass for their entire lives. Cows that get sent to a feedlot typically only spend 3-6 months there, but that’s enough to change the fatty-acid profile of the meat pretty significantly. Some producers advertise their meat as grass-fed, or mostly grass-fed, and then find euphemistic ways to say the cows got sent to a feedlot for a while. Grass-finishing, or pasture-finishing, means that the cows weren’t sent to a feedlot.
Cows frolicking video: I adored this video from Tom Philpott of Grist.org. It shows cows in England frolicking as they’re let out into the spring pasture for the first time after a winter spent eating dried grass and hay when there was no pasture to munch. Remember, the fat from animals on spring pasture, when the grass is growing quickly, is particularly high in vitamins like vit A and vit K2 (MK-4). It’s also very yellow and extraordinarily delicious.