There is a Slow Meat movement ahoof in Sonoma County, and family-owned producers are raising livestock in ways that turn the corporate model on its head—basically slowing down production to a smaller, more localized scale and giving the animals more dignified, longer and healthier lives.
Two independent producers—Green Goose Farm in Petaluma and J Brand Cattle Company in Healdsburg—are among those that have embraced this philosophy.
Green Goose Farm: Farm animals contribute to rebuilding the land
Rebecca Black and Roy Smith of Green Goose Farm are living a dream, albeit a very alternative lifestyle, on 10 acres in Sonoma County that is not only environmentally sustainable but is also providing solutions to global climate change while producing humanely raised pork for the local community.
The couple, along with their daughters Siena, 10, and Lillian, 12—and two large dogs named Zorro and Moose—are working the small biodynamic farm on the outskirts of Petaluma.
We call it ‘Slow Meat,’” Black said. “But it’s really about restoring land and sequestering carbon.”
The small family farm raises pastured, grass-fed, grass-finished heritage breeds of animals for direct sale while working to bring the land back to life after decades of neglect. Green Goose Farm was founded on a principle known as “the 2 percent solution,” a farming philosophy positing that “a 2 percent increase in soil carbon, produced by 2 percent of a nation’s population, for only 2 percent of a nation’s gross domestic product, can make all the difference in the world.”
The difference it can make, according to Courtney White, founder of the non-profit Quivira Coalition, is to offset a large percentage of the CO2 being dumped into the atmosphere by industrial human activity. White’s nonprofit helps to build bridges between ranchers, conservationists, public land managers, scientists and others around the idea of land health.
“We’re taking it from an urban intellectual perspective,” Smith said. “We have to end industrial farming practices because we’re already over the breach.”
The urban intellectual perspective is the outgrowth of the work of people such as White and author Michael Pollan, who brought the dangers of large-scale corporate farming to the attention of the American people with the publication of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals” in 2006, where Pollan follows the production of food from farm to table.
What he found was that industrial farming reliant upon pesticides and petroleum-based fertilizers is adding an unsustainable amount of carbon to the atmosphere and creating virtual deserts in some of the most fertile parts of the planet.
At Green Goose, Smith and Black are working to reverse that paradigm, practicing organic regeneration, improving the health of the soil using purely organic farming methods. The 1920’s-era chicken farm sits on 10 acres that had been fallow for about 40 years when they bought it in 2012. Many of the buildings had been falling down for the past 10 to 20 years, and the property was overrun with thistles and Spanish oaks as well as a large stand of eucalyptus trees that had dropped a deep carpet of vegetation on the surrounding ground.
One of the things that stands out on the farm is the lack of heavy equipment, aside from a Caterpillar Smith uses to cut swales in the side of the hill the property occupies. The real “machines” that make the place function though are the pigs themselves, Smith said.
Smith manages the porcine machines by moving them from place to place with the use of movable electric fences. The pigs create firebreaks around the buildings on the property by clearing out vegetation, and they work vegetation and dung into the ground, which adds to the fertility of the land as well as providing a vehicle to sequester carbon.
As they work the property, the pigs are allowed to live like pigs in idyllic circumstances. In addition to grazing the grasses on the property, their diets are supplemented by food Smith and Black glean from local food producers, including leftover fruit and vegetables from local farmers markets and byproducts from local cheese manufacturers. They are also creating fertile soil by working seeds and nutrients—healthy pig dung—into the soil.
Green Goose also raises two species of sheep for sale, Dorpers and Blackbellies, that originated in Mediterranean climates and can survive well in the semi-arid local climate. There are also several types of fowl, including chickens, turkeys, geese, guinea fowl and heritage breeds of grouse that act to control parasites.
“It’s about effective management of the workforce and the workforce is the pigs. The pigs work the fields by eating the standing grass,” Smith said. “The chickens are not for production. When we first started working the property, we had hordes of ticks. The first year, we brought in a variety of birds and there are no ticks anymore.”
Through the auspices of the pigs’ work, natural grasses have returned to the property where the land had been heavily farmed; they also create mulch and add microbes to the soil.
According to Smith, one acre can hold 5,000 pounds of carbon; under natural conditions, it takes about 500 years to create one inch of soil. Due to the amount of vegetation on the site, they have been able to create about an inch a year, and they are also turning the land into a sponge, both to be drought-resistant and also to filter water that flows through the property into the watershed below. To do that, Smith is digging swales that follow the contours of the property and filling them with wood from the dilapidated buildings. Eventually, he will plant trees on the swales, which will filter runoff as well as “harvest” the fog. The trees will also create a windbreak that will reduce evaporation.
When the time comes for the animals to be processed, i.e. slaughtered, a mobile abattoir comes to the property and the selected animals are killed with a single shot to the head and taken to local processors to be prepped for the customers who purchased them when they were piglets.
“By eating meat, you ensure their survival as a species,” Smith said. “Eighty percent of all farm animal species have been lost in the past 100 years. We’re in the middle of a mass extinction.”
Though the work to raise heritage breed animals and restore the 10-acre property is very labor intensive, including time spent gleaning, to Smith and Black, it is very rewarding as well. “It’s hard, physical work, but we’re providing a real solution with just two people and two little girls,” Smith said.
J Brand Cattle Company: Grass-fed and Animal Welfare Approved
“Most people have no concept of where their food comes from,” Steve Jacobs of J Brand Cattle Company said. “Nine of 10 cattle go to feed lots for finishing. We really need to educate the public: a lot of grass-fed beef is finished on a feedlot with corn.”
J Brand is based in Healdsburg, and Jacobs and his wife Marci are dedicated to giving cattle a happy, dignified life while adhering to strict principles for producing purely grass-fed beef. His animals are never taken to feedlots to be fattened up with grain and, in fact, never eat grain in their lives, which reduces health problems and helps Jacobs avoid the use of antibiotics common to large-scale corporate farming practices.
Jacobs leases 14 properties throughout Sonoma, Napa and Marin counties, raising his Angus blacks and reds from St. Helena to Marin. He started raising cattle in 2000 with “six old farm cows” that his family used to control the grass on their Healdsburg property.
He has slowly increased production and sells to several local businesses, including Willowside Meats in Santa Rosa and Big John’s in Healdsburg as well as Cal Mart in Calistoga.
“Growth has to be slow and planned,” Jacobs said. “But to turn a profit, you have to grow.”
J Brand is the first meat producer in Sonoma County to be Animal Welfare Approved (AWA). AWA is a Virginia-based organization founded in 2006 that audits its members to ensure that animals have been raised “to the highest animal welfare and environmental standards.”
“It’s about food safety and quality of life for the animals,” Jacobs said. “The operation is audited every year at different times of the year for herd and health protocols and so that they know the animals have been humanely treated.”
Jacobs tracks his cattle from birth to slaughter and carefully manages their lives by rotating them from pasture to pasture. He also allows his pastures to “rest” for at least three months each year to ensure the health of the land.
“I have backup ranches for the sake of sustainability,” he said. “Too many animals in too small an area can ruin the land.”
Another unique aspect of J Brand is that Jacobs lets his animals age to two years before they are processed. The advantages to that for the animals are that breeding females have more developed pelvises, which makes birthing easier. It also helps the steer’s body develop more, and there is more marbling on the meat.
“People thought I was nuts,” he said. “That’s a year older than most conventional operations.”
He also calves twice a year, in fall and spring, which is counter to standard practice, and he sequesters pregnant females in calving pastures to ensure the births are as smooth as possible. After they are born, the calves are tagged; when they get large enough and have remained healthy for a week or so, they are moved to secondary pastures to get fattened up. Jacobs has learned to recognize health problems and can handle minor health issues, such as dehydration or pneumonia in the calves. He carries electrolytes and Pepto-Bismol with him to treat calves that get diarrhea because they can dehydrate fast. He’s also aware of when he needs to bring in a veterinarian.
“It’s very rewarding to save a calf in distress,” Jacobs said on an idyllic late summer day in September as he was feeding alfalfa hay to his animals on a large property west of Petaluma. Alfalfa is a legume, rather than a grain, and it is high in protein to help mothers that are producing milk.
“It’s another one of the cost drivers. It may not be what’s best for the pocketbook right now but in the long run it pays off,” Jacobs said.
Since J Brand beef is USDA-certified, the animals must be trucked to a USDA-certified processing facility, but Jacobs keeps production as close to home as possible, which means a 12-minute drive to the newly re-opened Marin Sun Farms Slaughterhouse—formerly Rancho Veal Slaughterhouse—in Petaluma.
The killing part can be tough for ranchers that have such personal relationships with their animals, but Black, Smith and Jacobs all see the process as a natural part of the lives of their animals.
“No one wants a slaughterhouse, but they do want a steak,” Jacobs said. “I try to give the animal the best life possible before they go on to meet their maker. It’s a 24-hour a day, 365-day a year job.”