Wednesday, July 27, 2011

“Open-doorness is our certification” – a tour of Marin Sun Farms, part 1

Cattle "in training" at Marin Sun Farms' Rogers Ranch

In early July I took a tour of the 'headquarters' of Marin Sun Farms, a company that is best known for grass-fed beef, superb eggs, and pastured chicken and is a regular fixture at the renowned Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in San Francisco.  The word headquarters is important here, because over the years Marin Sun Farms has adapted its business model so that the company sources meat from a handful of farms in Northern California that pledge to follow its stringent animal husbandry rules (summarized on MSF’s Who We Are page). 

The Fifth Generation
Our tour guide was David Evans, the owner of Marin Sun Farms, who represents the fifth generation of farming and ranching in his family.  His maternal great-grandparents came to the United States from Switzerland in 1889 and found their way to California. Sometime in the early 20th century, one of his relatives bought some land at the edge of Marin County and began ranching.  In 1962, the land became part of the Point Reyes National Seashore (truly one of the most magnificent places in Northern California, a place that manages to astound in a new way each and every time I visit it), but the pre-existing farms were allowed to lease back their land from the Federal government and continue agricultural operations (the National Park Service website has a detailed history of agriculture in the park).

The tour is part of Marin Sun Farms' open door policy, something that Evans sees as superior to organic certification for his business – "open doorness is our certification," he said.  Certification would give the company a recognizable label, but for a small, locally-based company like Marin Sun Farms, the certification process ends up being a lot of paperwork and expense. In addition, it can shut down the conversation between farmer and eater – in a post by Bonnie Azab Powell at the Ethicurean, Evans was quoted as saying "When people see a stamp that says 'Certified Organic,' they stop asking questions. It does have its function, because not everyone lives close enough to ask questions, but if you can, you should."    

Cattle In Training
During our tour of the Rogers Ranch, no cattle roamed the grasslands even though the late rains had led to unseasonably lush pastures of native bunchgrasses and European grasses that stowed away with the Spanish centuries ago, many with full seedheads.  However, the cattle-free pasture was just a temporary situation, as Marin Sun Farms had just received a new herd (Hereford and Angus breeds) and the animals were “in training."

In order to be compatible with Marin Sun Farm’s model of frequent movement of animals to fresh pasture, the cattle need to learn to come when called (as a herd, not individually), learn about electric fences, and slightly reduce their fear of humans.  The last part is a tricky business, because a too tame animal is hard to move – it is content to stand there with you instead of heading to the next area or into a trailer.  During our visit, the animals were definitely not used to humans, and would have mini-stampedes across their training area when our group of 15 came close.  Training was expected to last about 3 weeks.  Evans was disappointed by that reality, as they were currently "overwhelmed by grass" and every day that the cattle were training was one less day of gaining weight from the seeds and vegetation in the rolling hills of the ranch.

Once the herd is fully trained, the ranch hands set up enclosures using single-wire electric fence.  Every day or two they move the fence to provide the cattle with new grass to eat, allowing the previous area to recover (and absorb the nutrients from the manure).  In all, they will spend about 3 months on pasture, increasing their weight from 800 to 1,200 pounds.  At slaughter time, the animals are about 24 months old.  In contrast, a feedlot animal is only 15-16 months old at slaughter, having eaten grass in its early days at a "cow-calf operation" and then spending its later days on a feedlot eating corn, low doses of antibiotics, and all sorts of processed feed devised by meat production experts (who are generally most concerned with economic efficiency, not animal welfare or sustainability).
If you are interested in small-scale livestock operations and can get to the western edge of Point Reyes by 10 AM on a Wednesday (60-90 minutes from San Francisco or Berkeley with the possibility of traffic jams in southern Marin County), the tour is definitely worthwhile. The setting is magnificent – if you get there early or stay around afterwards, there are trails and beaches nearby (including one that goes through a field of lupine bushes with pale yellow flowers) and the lighthouse is just a few miles farther down the road.  Dates and sign-ups are at Marin Sun Farms.
In part 2, I’ll cover Marin Sun Farms egg and meat chicken operations at Rogers Ranch.

Getting back to the subtle and in-your-face magnificence of Point Reyes, here are two photos taken within a few miles of the Rogers Ranch, the first near the Bull Point trail head while the marine layer was thick and cool, and the second from near the North Beach after the fog lifted (one of those classic Bay Area beaches where half of the visitors are wearing fleece and almost no one is in the water because of its frigid temperature and highly dangerous currents (and also Great White Sharks).

Photo of lupine bushes at Point Reyes National Seashore
Lupine bushes near Bull Point trail, Point Reyes National Seashore

Photo of North Beach dunes at Point Reyes National Seashore
Dunes above North Beach, Point Reyes National Seashore

Random link from the archive: The Eat Local Challenge

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Mid-Michigan Blogging

I recently took a ten day trip to Michigan, so here's a random round-up of some highlights.

Old and New Buildings
Over the last few years, “Old Town” Lansing been greatly improved with spruced-up buildings, antique shops, art galleries, dining spots, a river trail and a truly amazing pet store.  Although it is a tiny collection of old buildings compared to Chicago or other larger established cities, I found it cute and a good example of the turn of the 20th century architecture for the region.

Photo of Lansing River Trail from Old Town Bridge

Not far from Old Town, a pair of connected buildings near the capitol made a strong impression: the old and new buildings that make up the headquarters of the Accident Fund.  The old building is the Ottawa Power Station, a power plant built in the 30s and 40s that operated for many decades.  The engineering of the plant was done by the Burns and Roe firm and allowed the architects from the Bowd-Munson Company to create an office-like fa├žade so it could blend into the commercial district.  The Bowd-Munson Company had a significant impact on the built environment of the Lansing-area, as a press release (PDF) from the Accident Fund explains:
The firm was a partnership of Orlie Munson, well-known for his work at MSU (then Michigan Agricultural College) in East Lansing, including Agriculture Hall, Marshall Hall, Giltner Hall, and Spartan Stadium, and Edwin Bowd, a renowned Lansing area architect whose designs included the J.W. Knapp Building, Masonic Temple Building (now Cooley Law School), the Lewis Cass Building in Lansing, and the Ingham County Courthouse in Mason.
The new building was designed by the international architecture firm HOK and built by the Christman Company.  It’s surprisingly modern for downtown Lansing, which is more of a brick and concrete area. More details about the project are on the media page for the Accident Fund and in an AP article.

I was struck by the soaring verticality of the old power station, the warm reflection of the summer sun on the tall windows that cover the sides of the building, and the subtle variations of the colored brick.

Photo of old Ottawa Power Station, now Accident Fund headquarters in Lansing

Photo of Accident Fund headquarters in Lansing

Food Trucks
The upscale food truck scene has reached Lansing. In late June, the Lansing State Journal had a profile of two operators, Trailer Park'd and the Purple Carrot. Although I didn’t manage to visit the Purple Carrot, a friend and I stopped by the Trailer Park'd trailer for dinner one night. Their motto is "Slow Fast Food" and they are committed to following the SOLE path, sourcing local grass-fed beef, for example. The shrimp taco was quite tasty, with had plump grilled locally-farmed shrimp (which I'll cover below), supremed lime, pieces of roasted tomatillo and some cilantro. While the weather is good, their trailer is definitely worth a visit (they post their weekly schedule on their website).

Photo of Trailer Park'd food stand in Lansing

Inland Shrimp
Amazingly enough, the often cold, definitely not tropical, and far from salt water region of mid-Michigan has a shrimp farm. This farm, the Shrimp Farm Market in Meridian Township, is state of the art in small-scale recirculating aquaculture systems (it was profiled by Edible WOW, available as a PDF). They have a retail counter at the farm, sell at the Meridian farmers market (and perhaps others), and have some restaurant clients. I don't know of any certification standards for this type of aquaculture and the owner is secretive about his methods, so it's hard to say exactly what their impacts are, but I think the company is worth encouraging, as they are subject to pretty strict environmental laws – i.e., unlike an Asian shrimp farm, they can't just dump their effluent into a waterway.  I ate some shrimp at the Trailer Park'd stand and we used some at home too.  We cooked the Sri Lankan prawn curry on page 217 of Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid's epic "Mangoes and Curry Leaves:  Culinary Travels through the Great Subcontinent.” Although shrimp preparation took some time, the rest of the dish was quite simple and fast. 

We cooked a few other dishes from the Mangoes book. It was my second experience with the book and the second great success. Especially good is the spicy banana pachadi on page 70, a mixture of fried spices, curry leaves, lightly cooked banana, green chilies, and yogurt that is delicious on its own or as a condiment.

Big Wheels on a Small Island
A highlight of the visit was a short trip to Mackinac Island, a bucolic island that is a 20 minute ferry ride from the foot of the Mackinac Bridge. Many decades ago, the islanders decided forbid the mass introduction of motorized vehicles, so the bulk of the traveling on the island is done on foot, on bicycle, or by horse-drawn carriage (the particular challenges of horse-drawn transportation was featured in an episode of Dirty Jobs called "Wild Goose Chase").  Our trip coincided with the 44th Annual Wheelmen Meet, a meeting of people who are "Dedicated To The Enjoyment And Preservation Of Our Bicycling Heritage". High-wheeled bicycles were all over the place, often ridden by people in period clothing.

Photo of high-wheeled bicycle on Mackinac Island