Getting To The Meat: Survival and Supply

If you've heard panicky reports about a shortage of ground beef (or any meat) because of plant closures due to COVID-19, just remember that those reports refer to places where factory-farmed animals are slaughtered in mind-boggling numbers on industrial-scale production lines. The alternative can be found right here in our own back yard, from ranchers dedicated to improving their soil, raising animals on pasture and treating them humanely, not to mention sequestering carbon in the soil, building rural communities and a vibrant, resilient local food system. Cory Carman of Carman Ranch in Wallowa, Oregon, wrote the following in a recent newsletter.

It’s hard to miss the headlines about meatpacking plants and slaughterhouses closing throughout the country. At least 48 plants have reported cases of COVID-19, and 2,200 workers are infected. Beef production alone is down 20 percent since this time last year, and commodity prices continue to increase. At the same time, cattle prices are the lowest they’ve been in a decade.

If you’re interested in what’s happening in large-scale meatpacking plants, USA Today, the New York Times and Civil Eats have great coverage. But rather than speculate about whether we'll see a meat shortage on retail shelves, or if plants will choose to stay open and continue to put workers at risk, I want to highlight what we do know: our own plant.

To build a supply chain of like-minded folks who share our values and vision for the future has always been key to Carman Ranch's mission. That supply chain begins with our producer group and ends with our customers. In between, there are a handful of key players, one of which is Kalapooia Grassfed Processing, a family-owned processing plant in Brownsville, Oregon.

Kalapooia has nearly perfect marks on its annual food safety audits, and on a comprehensive animal welfare audit. Built by Reed Anderson (right, center) to process his own Anderson Ranch lambs, Reed also processes cattle for a few companies, including Carman Ranch. Reed’s son Travis oversees day-to-day operations, and I’ve worked with Pete, Kalapooia's plant manager, for over a decade. The Andersons think of their processing plant as a family business, an ethos that extends to include their staff and customers. Anderson Ranch employs fewer than 50 people, and they took the safety of their workers seriously early on in the COVID outbreak, in part because Pete and Travis work side-by side on the line with their employees. They already required protective clothing, and their small size allowed them to create distancing more easily and effectively than larger plants.  

We’ve harvested our animals at Kalapooia 50 weeks a year for the last three years. At a time when many meat companies have had to shut down, or are nervous about supply, we continue to be confident and proud of our partnership with the Andersons.

As we move through this crisis, we’re learning more about the vulnerabilities in our incumbent systems. Affordability in food is important, but saving a few dimes can come at a cost none of us should have to shoulder, including our own health and safety. Across the country, those costs are now coming to light.  

I won’t pretend our beef is cheap. But when you factor in the positive effects on the climate, community and supply chain that your purchase supports, it becomes an important investment. And, when you subscribe to our philosophy of smaller portion sizes with tons of flavor and nutrition, the dividends on that investment become immeasurable.

The final benefit? We can give our customers the same peace of mind we find in knowing that we'll keep working with partners like Reed Anderson and Kalapooia to provide nourishing food, regardless of how the headlines around large-scale meatpacking plants play out.

Get a guide to buying meat, eggs and dairy from certified pasture-based Oregon farmers and ranchers.

Read my interview with Cory Carman about why she chose to raise her animals on pasture, and how she sees it as a vital tool in reversing climate change and building a more resilient and vibrant local food system.

Read about Revel Meat Company, a processing facility that serves small to mid-sized Oregon farmers and ranchers and provides markets for their products.

How an Oregon Rancher is Building Soil Health and a Robust Regional Food System

This is my second contribution to Civil Eats' monthly series of profiles of farmers and ranchers who are changing our food system for the benefit of our communities, our health and the environment.

Fourth-generation rancher Cory Carman
holistically manages 5,000-acres
which serve as a model for sustainable meat operations
in the Pacific Northwest.

When Cory Carman returned in 2003 to her family’s ranch in remote Wallowa County in eastern Oregon with a Stanford degree in public policy in hand and a stint on Capitol Hill under her belt, her intention was to stay for the summer, helping her uncle and grandmother with ranch work while she looked for her next job working on public policy. By that fall, though, it was obvious that if she left, the ranch wouldn’t be there for her to come back to.

“They were the only ones left on the ranch,” she said, recalling the heartbreaking specter of how hard her uncle and her grandmother, who was then in her 80s, had to work to barely scrape by. “I think I felt the weight of what they were trying to hold together, and I thought how unfair it was for me to expect that they could just keep it together until I came back someday.”

So she decided to stay.

Carman Ranch began as a few hundred acres Carman’s great-great-grandfather Jacob Weinhard—nephew to the legendary Northwest beer brewer Henry Weinhard—bought for his son Fritz in the early 1900s. Under Carman’s watch, the operation now spans 5,000 acres of grasslands, timbered rangeland, and irrigated valley ground nestled against the dramatic peaks of the Wallowa Mountains. Hawks, eagles, and wildlife greatly outnumber people in this isolated northeastern corner of the state, originally home to the Wal-lam-wat-kain (Wallowa) band of the Nez Perce tribe.

Distinct from most cattle operations in the U.S., Carman’s cattle are 100 percent grass-fed well as grass-finished. (The term “grass-fed” is not regulated, so it can mean that animals have only been briefly pastured before they’re sent to a factory feedlot to be finished.) The ranch primarily produces cattle and pigs, which it mostly markets to wholesale accounts, though it sells a lesser amount of meat as “cow shares”—or quarters of beef ranging from 120 to 180 pounds purchased directly by consumers.

Equally if not more important to Carman, however, is the focus on what she calls the “holistic management” of her land. This involves constantly moving the cattle and paying careful attention to the rate of growth of the animals and grasses. By this system, the steers select the forages they need to grow and gain weight, and the grasses get clipped, trampled down, and fertilized with manure, resulting in fields that are vibrant—they retain water, resist drought, contain abundant organic matter, which contributes nutrients and carbon, and are highly productive without the addition of fertilizer.

Amanda Oborne, vice president of food and farms at Ecotrust, a regional nonprofit organization working on social, economic, and environmental issues, said Carman inspired Ecotrust’s food system work by helping her understand the challenges of creating local beef and pork markets, the complexity of scaling an agricultural business with integrity, and the importance of grasslands and large grazing animals in fighting climate change through carbon drawdown.

Oborne remembers Carman walking her around the fields of the Zumwalt Prairie, a preserve owned by the Nature Conservancy that is on the western boundary of the ranch, and picking at blades of bunch grass as she explained how the native species create pockets of nutrition for migrating birds through the winter, and how the long, perennial roots scaffold a whole cathedral of structure and life under the soil.

“It’s Cory’s ability to tell these stories, to explain the flaws of the dominant system without imbuing judgement or animosity, and to partner across every divide—be it age, gender, class, political philosophy, or hometown—that makes her such an effective and innovative thought leader,” Oborne said.

Introducing Holistic Management

Within a year of returning to the ranch, Carman met and married her husband, Dave Flynn (the couple have since divorced), and started a family, which includes three children, Roan and twins Ione and Emmett.

With a fifth generation of the family living on the ranch, the challenge became not just figuring out how to maintain her family’s business and regenerate the land, but how to leave a viable legacy to pass on to her children.

“You don’t have a ranch so that you can sell it and retire; you have a ranch so you can pass it on—that’s sort of in the DNA,” Carman said. “It’s what gets priority, and [you] grow up knowing that there’s something more important than all of you as individuals.”

While Carman respects her family’s history and that of her neighbors, she is pursuing the inverse of the methods used on most of the nation’s cattle ranches since the middle of the last century—methods also used by her father, who died in a ranching accident when Carman was 14, and by her uncle who took over.

“It was the fertilizer era,” Carman noted of her uncle’s initial resistance to the idea of leaving forage in the pastures. “It’s like in those first few decades when fertilizer worked really, really well. You could just take everything off of the land that you could possibly grow and sell it—and then pour more fertilizer back on. And it worked. Until it didn’t.”

With an eye toward her legacy, Carman went to her uncle with the idea of raising grass-fed beef. “I will never forget what he told me,” she said. “He said, ‘Why don’t you do something people like? What about jerky?’”

The thing that she knew—and that her uncle didn’t—was that there were people in more urban areas who were willing to pay a premium for healthy food. “He had no context,” Carman said. “It’s a paradigm shift.”

Read the rest of the article to find out how Carman has begun to build a robust regional food economy with beef as the elegant nexus of the issues.

Read more of my articles for Civil Eats, including a profile of dairy farmer Jon Bansen, and an examination of the damage that factory farm dairies have done to communities in Oregon and around the country. Photos of Cory Carman copyright Nolan Calisch; photos of cattle and sign by John Valls; used courtesy of Carman Ranch.