And bring hither the fatted calf . . .

We usually get our beef delivery about this time of year. It used to be we bought meat in the market just like everyone else. For some time now we’ve been getting our beef directly from the ranch, a very small-town thing to do. The outfit is called Prather Ranch and their main operation is near the town of Macdoel in eastern Siskiyou County, about an hour’s drive from Yreka. When we called this week to inquire about our beef, we were told that the long, cold winter (and it was indeed a long, cold winter!) meant that the animals didn’t grow as fast as projected and were “too small.” Now that spring is here and we’ve had warm days and sunny blue skies things should pick up. “A few more days like these” they told us and the cattle would be ready for processing.

Prather Ranch is unusual in that they have a closed herd. The last breeding cow was introduced into the system in 1975. Originally they raised cattle for hides, bones, tissues, and organs for the pharmaceutical industry. The beef, in essence, was a by-product! We purchase a quarter of a steer, called “half of a half” for some reason, and split it with another couple. In good years we get about 120 pounds of meat. In the lean years maybe only 80 pounds or so. (When you place your annual order you are actually assigned a specific calf.) It’s grass-fed and dry-aged and thus tender and delicious. The animals are slaughtered on-site as the ranch has its own USDA-certified abattoir. They maintain both an “organic” herd (no hormones or antibiotics, no animal parts in the feed, raised on organic pasture) and a “natural” herd (minimally processed, no artificial ingredients, but sick animals can be treated with antibiotics and some may have eaten conventionally-raised feed).

I’ve become so used to eating this high-quality beef that I rarely eat beef anywhere else and avoid ordering beef in restaurants. It mostly doesn’t compare. Even the ground beef is exceptionally flavorful and I’m not much of a hamburger fan. The steaks, roasts, and ribs are always delectable. It’s nice to know that sustainable practices and an ecological outlook are compatible with a superior product. I appreciate that these guys are open to the public—I’ve yet to visit, though—and interested in transparency. There’s a talk by one of the family members about the relationship between food consumers and producers at TEDxRedding. You can see it here.

Growing up in the supermarket and TV-ad era makes food seem just like any other consumer product, no different than t-shirts or televisions. But food is a lot more important than stuff, don’t you think? We know much more about our stuff than we do about our food, and it’s amazing how little we know about our stuff. We are a rich country, wallowing in abundance, and we can afford to be fussy about what we eat. Places where the food supply is uncertain don’t have the luxury of demanding “natural” or “organic” products. They are fortunate if they get enough to eat! We live on the other end of that spectrum. We can turn our noses up at food that doesn’t meet our particular desires for freshness, healthfulness, or sustainable agricultural practices.

In this modern world of agribusiness and factory farms there’s a desire by many to embrace a farm-to-table approach. Buying fruits and vegetables at farmer’s markets, for example, is one way to do that. It’s not always practical. One of the reasons we have massive corporate producers is economies of scale, that little bugaboo you learned about in Econ 101. To feed the millions of hungry mouths requires a huge system that can deliver safe, abundant foodstuffs across the country throughout the year. One of the results of this techno-industrial marvel is consistent supply. You can go to the store any time of year and get almost anything you want.

This delay in our beef delivery got me thinking about the old days. People had to live in the boom-and-bust cycle of nature. Lean years meant just that. You didn’t get the yield from the farm due to the vagaries of weather and thus you weren’t as well fed, didn’t make as much money, or encountered rising prices as a consequence. Even fat years could have a negative impact as over-production could cause prices to fall and the market to drop on the product you raised. In today’s world we see the prices of food go up and down but, unless we are commodities traders, we are usually disconnected from the cause-and-effect.

It’s fashionable these days to overlook the good part of our food production system. Yes, all the critiques are true, we are too energy-intensive and use too many petrochemicals for example, and we only nod in the direction of sustainability instead of embracing it. But we are well fed. We have, in comparison to poor countries, cheap, healthy food in abundance. Many of the health problems of our nation are due to our eating habits. We have obesity and heart disease in abundance as well! Having too much food is a problem, too. (But it beats not having enough, eh?)

There are about 3.2 million farmers in the States out of a population of about 320 million. One in one hundred is one percent. One percent of the people grow ALL of our food! One hundred years ago there were ten times as many farmers but only one-third as many mouths to feed. It’s not often we get reminded that our food comes from somewhere other than the store. Living up here in farm and ranch country gives me that chance.

 

. . . and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry. (Luke 15:23)

 

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