After all of that Novy Ranches grass-fed eyeball farmers market talk, we had to call up the Northern California ranch's owner, Lowell Novy, a Northern California by way of Nebraska veterinarian turned cattle rancher.
A mouthful? Sure. But a good one. Novy was more than happy to chat — honestly — about the grass-fed beef industry. And chat he did, in that endearing and knowledgeable way that only someone who is 75-years-old and has an irreplaceable mountain of first-hand experience on the topic at hand can do. Yeah, we wanted to know more.
And so we'll let Novy get right to it, as he did when he called us back, with hardly a question from our end. Why would a vet who could be comfortably retired right now decide to invest his safety net in raising and selling grass-fed beef? And, why would he even bother to cart it all the way down to L.A.? These are the sort of honest, old-fashioned answers (Read: No press releases required; Or in Occupy L.A. terms, from the little guy) that will make you want to order that whole cow head. Or sure, a New York steak, brisket or ground beef, if that's more your grass-fed style. Turn the page.
Dr. Lowell Novy: Sorry I missed your call. Out here, I'm in a bunch of canyons and behind rocks, and I finally came out from behind the rocks [literally]. When you called and said you got the beef cheeks at the market, I had to talk to you. I thought well, you're either an awfully good chef or awfully naïve. Beef cheek is something a lot of folks don't know what to do with. Either you know how to really cook it and it's great, or you don't know what to do with it and you're not going to like how it turns out. [Laughs]
Squid Ink: Ha, well, we like to cook a lot down here, much as it seems to surprise folks. And the cheeks are so great slowly braised in the oven. Plus they're so affordable when you get into the grass-fed beef realm.
DLN: Yes, you see, when you start with 1200 to 1300 pounds total weight of an animal, and then it's dressed out to maybe 720 pounds, and then hung and dry aged for 21 days, by the time we finish, you've only got between 360 to 400 pounds of finished product. So it gets expensive. It costs about $3,000 per head of cattle on our end. I've never sat down and figured it all out by the poundage, what we sell if for and what we get, really there's only 60% that's usable. And I try on the stuff we have at the farmers market to pretty much sell the meat at wholesale prices, what I sell them to restaurants for.
SI: The prices are actually great, even the ground beef is just $5 a pound. That's why we bought it, to be honest.
DLN: Yes, well, I could sell the ground beef for $9 or $10, but that's not why I'm doing this or why I started selling in L.A. I had a few organizations in San Francisco that wanted everything I had, but I really don't have that many cattle to sell.
I wanted to take some of my meat to Southern California. I want to educate people. If we bring to the plate something that's nutritious and tastes good, that's a good thing. We should all be trying to do that. I had to work like crazy to get the place that makes my [Polish] sausages to not put corn syrup in them. They looked at me like I was crazy when I told them no corn syrup or artificial anything. They told me it wouldn't sell, people expect those flavors in a sausage now, no one will buy it. That may be so, but it's not ethical, it's crazy what we're doing with food right now.
SI: We agree. So back up and tell us how a veterinarian becomes a cattle rancher. You've had the cattle ranch for a while, but you only recently started selling to the public.
DLN: We're been out in the public for only about a year now. All the years before, I sold the cattle back to feed lots in Kansas. I didn't have to mess with the retail end of it. But about three or four years ago, that really bothered me. I didn't want to sell the cattle anymore. I wanted to do this, to sell good, quality meat that tastes good but is healthy, no hormones, all of the Omega 3s still in it, like fish. We have all of these problems now, we have children who are obese, who have diabetes — that's crazy. We can't keep doing that to our children.
And, you see I'm 75-years-old, and this is my last hurrah before I run over the edge of the hill or whatever, and this is something I think that is worthwhile. You get to my age and you do these things if you're lucky enough like I am to have the [financial] opportunity.
SI: We could all stand to take a little more of that attitude.
DLN: And then there's the environment. We use no pesticides, no herbicides. Nothing. That's a choice we make. It makes me feel good that we're not adding to the environmental problems that we've created. One out of four of our wells in the state of California is polluted. Are we going to keep going on until we destroy this gift we've been given? Bottled water will soon be the only thing you can drink. It just seems odd to me that we have this wonderful gift, and we're working really hard to screw it up for everybody.
But even when I decided to sell the meat retail, it took a few years to get the supply chain going, to find someone to process the cattle and to dry age them. That's especially hard when you're small. When they go into that processing plant, the only cattle they handle are ours. You'll notice on the container on the meat you'll see the ear tag number, so you can go directly to that animal if there was ever anything wrong.
SI: Since we're talking about slaughter… as a veterinarian, you've probably had your share of people who question how a vet who founded a nonprofit dedicated to reducing the euthanasia of unwanted house pets and feral cats can now be raising animals for consumption.
DLN: Yes. I treat all of my animals with great respect. That's what I believe. I tell all of my men, the cattle actually own the ranch, not us. For the two and a half years they're each with us, they run the ranch. I know that these cattle are taken care as humanely as possible because it's more of a passion than a business for me. When they are put down, it should be done with reverence. The least we can do is make it a halfway decent life for them. We put up rice straw bedding when it's wet, out of the wind, so they have place to go that they like. That kind of thing.
SI: Like anyone would do for a pet.
DLN: The cattle will come right up to us when we're working the fields, they come up to you at the fence and they want to lick you. And they do. I've had [some] workers that don't know what to do when that happens. But [I tell them] there are two good things about cattle when they're having a good time. One, they can be curious when they're not frightened. They'll take stuff right out of our pickups, they're snooping around, they're so happy. And by bucking and playing and that kind of stuff, that's what they naturally do. It's even half difficult to drive our cattle with horses, sometimes you can't get them to move. They're not afraid of anything.
SI: You have a “closed herd.” What does that mean exactly?
DLN: Closed heard means that we don't buy any cattle from the outside. Everything we have we raise here on the ranch, we don't augment with other animals. We've had it this way for 25 to 30 years. It means we have a certain genetic core we're after, and we think it's more tender meat, but it also means we can pass on only the good traits. We don't have the bad strains of e.coli, we don't have mad cow disease problems, so it's also a way to keep new diseases out of the herd.
SI: On the grass-fed front. We hear a lot about the health benefits, but what about the flavor? It's noticeably different from standard beef today, which we really like about grass-fed beef. But you've got some folks who are going to say it doesn't taste like “beef.”
DLN: Yes. Well, we were all raised on corn-fed beef. And every molecule of that animal was raised on the same corn feed, so every cut tastes like corn, every cut tastes exactly the same. With grass, every cut tastes different. You take a New York steak, a chuck and a cheek with grass-fed and each cut from each individual animal will tastes different, depending on the grass they ate. It's a lot like wine because you've got all of these different soils that the grass feed is coming from. You can take the same rootstock of grapevines and plant each in different soil and each wine will taste different. That's what happens with grass-fed beef.
SI: Like wine — that's a great way to describe it. We almost have to re-learn how to taste beef as we did when we graduated from cheap bulk wine to the good stuff. What about the texture, it's also so different than corn-fed beef. Is that just because these are leaner animals?
DLN: Yes, but they're also 6 to 8 months older than other cattle because on grass, they only gain a pound or so a day. In feed lots, they gain 4 to 5 pounds a day. It also is partly why grass-fed beef costs more. Then you add those 21 days of dry aging to really concentrate the taste. You have to re-learn how to cook this kind of beef, too. Sous vide is a great way to cook it, as the lower temperature really does well with grass-fed beef. Or slow braising a brisket, or smoking it.
SI: So much of the grass-fed beef we see is sold frozen, including yours at the farmers market. Why is that?
DLN: Our situation is that you simply can't find the small processing plant that will take only 32 head of cattle. If you look at those big facilities, they're killing 3,000 head a day, that's a huge number, worth a lot of money, and so they can afford the acres and acres of refrigeration needed.
SI: And you're not slaughtering your animals year-round like they are.
DLN: Yes. The problem for us is that right now we go to a place in Oregon, which is the only place that is approved where we can butcher. There's one in Santa Paula, but it's not USDA approved, so we can't use it. For us, that means if we don't freeze the meat, we'd never be able to bring it down to L.A. You just can't find the plants that you need with the quality control to bring a fresh product if you're small like us. I'd love it. I'd put it in a refrigerator truck and bring it down to L.A., but right now I don't know where I'd be able to do that. Some day, we'll hopefully be able to do that. But right now, frozen is so much better than not doing it at all with all the problems we have with feed lot cattle. Someone's got to start making the change. Somehow.
SI: That's got to be a constant customer hurdle. It's ingrained today with food that fresh is always better. We had the same subconscious reaction at the farmers market stand — frozen? But your beef cheeks, which we slow-braised, and the polish sausages, were fantastic.
DLN: Did you like them? Those little Polish sausages, I love them. Nebraska, where I was born, the local butcher always would have a specialty product, and they were all different every place you went. But today, everyone has an opinion how a sausage is “supposed” to taste, they want something they have in mind. So those folks may not like my Polish sausages. That's fine. I tell them, “Try them, then if you don't like them, try other cuts we have, see how you like those.”
SI: What about the frozen versus fresh flavor issue?
DLN: Oh yes. You know, there's really no difference. There's a lot of conversation today about how freezing breaks down cell membranes, but that's just not true. You're starting out with such a better flavor with grass-fed. I was down in Malibu for one of those food and bike race events [in May, the Amgen Tour of California Bike Race). I had gone to Tra di Noi restaurant during the day with my meat, and the chef said, “No, we don't want anything frozen here.”
Then at the event at the Malibu Winery, all the chefs from these high end restaurants were serving their food and I was just grilling my beef. After a few hours, everyone was down with me, not up eating the chefs' food. We couldn't cook our grass fed beef fast enough. So the same chef, he came down and tasted the beef this time, and he couldn't believe it was the frozen stuff from earlier that day. Now he orders our beef.
SI: That's a great story. We are a bit “fresh only” obsessive these days, and yet we've seen imported Australian grass-fed beef at L.A. restaurants the past few years. In that case, we'd rather have something local than imported.
DLN: Well, this is all a start. And why I do it. What I would really love is to have other ranchers look at me and see that they really can raise cattle this way. You don't need the hormones, the steroids, none of it. I know that other ranchers are saying, “Hey, that takes a lot more work.” And it does. But grass-fed can be done. From just the standpoint of ecology, it's phenomenally better than what we're doing with feed lots today. Better for the animals, for us. Pass the word around, I tell people. The more we do, the happier we will all be.
For L.A.-area farmers market availability, go to NovyRanches.com.
[More from Jenn Garbee @eathistory + eathistory.com]