In Southern California, buying seasonal, organic, locally grown vegetables year-round is a way of life. The same, then, should be true for pork, beef and chicken, right? It’s not.
“I wanted to grow my animals in California, have them done in California and sell them to people who live in California,” says Dave Heafner, co-owner of Da-Le Ranch in Lake Elsinore.
To sell his pork, lamb, beef, fowl and game, Heafner sets up shop at farmers markets and uses the Community Supported Agriculture business model, in which consumers pay up front for access to a steady, regular supply of the farm’s bounty.
With a CSA model, Heafner benefits by having a secured, predictable market for every part of his product, and his subscribers get to connect to a local farm, be exposed to varying cuts of meat and receive ultra-fresh product.
But Heafner is an anomaly — and what works for kumquats and kale turns out to be trickier for pasture-raised beef or free-range chicken.
The scarcity of meat CSAs is partly due to a lack of consumer demand, according to Rachel Petitt, farm-to-market coordinator for the Community Alliance with Family Farmers, the original group to promote CSAs in California in the early 1990s. Petitt says urban consumers who are used to getting exactly what they want delivered to their doorsteps (whether it be groceries or shaving supplies) aren’t as inclined to bother with a weekly or monthly pickup of sometimes odd cuts of meat.
Heafner, who has been in the meat CSA business along with his wife Leslie Pesic since 2008, says he does his best to make the CSA experience as accommodating as possible, holding orders when customers go out of town, designing shares that skip certain types of meat and even responding to individual requests for cooking advice.
Heafner’s Da-Le Ranch started with five families signed up for his CSA packages and now has 40. Just like with a vegetable CSA, members of Da-Le Ranch’s CSA have to be prepared for products that they might not see at the grocery store — say, a pork shoulder butt steak. Members also know what the animals eat, where they roam and that they’re well taken care of.
Heafner thinks the small number of meat CSAs in Southern California has less to do with limited demand than with limited access to the state’s USDA slaughterhouses (most meat, even CSA meat, is required to be USDA inspected for consumer sale) — especially those slaughterhouses that will take small quantities of animals. There are about 50 slaughterhouses in total across the state, and all but about seven are in Northern California, meaning that much of a Southern California farmer’s meat is traveling long distances even if it’s locally raised.
One veteran of California’s humane meat industry, Anya Fernald, CEO of Belcampo Meats out of Mount Shasta, compares the experience of a small-scale farmer entering an industrial slaughterhouse to “driving a bicycle on a freeway.”
Fernald says the consolidation of slaughterhouses makes them “very efficient at delivering a globalized product” on “extremely low margins.” It also makes them “averse to working with a small guy.”
Belcampo, with restaurant and butcher locations in L.A., built its own slaughterhouse and processing facility in Yreka. “There would be no way my business could exist without our own slaughterhouse,” Fernald says. The Belcampo slaughterhouse also processes meat from other farmers, which accounts for about 40 percent of its processing volume.
She also says the movement is evolving: “I see the [meat] CSA as a step along the path, in the same way that the CSAs in the vegetable world were a step in the journey to rebuild our food system.” And she views her butcher shop as a next-generation CSA: She’s delivering the whole animal in terms of meats on offer, but consumers get to pick and choose what they want for dinner that night.
J&J Grassfed Beef started at farmers markets and adopted the CSA model early on, but it has since pulled out of both due to the costs. Instead, consumers must order a base package or bulk box and then add a la carte, with pickup offered at a variety of L.A. locations.
Jay Shipman, 38, who runs J&J with his partner, Jack Rice, echoes some of Heafner’s sentiments. “There are just not very many options for local processing, and they are extremely, extremely expensive,” Shipman says. “We just don’t have the volume to get good pricing. With that it creates a huge expense and very limited options.”
He estimates that it costs him “probably 50 times what it costs normal supermarket meat to process one animal.”
Shipman notes that shoppers, even those used to prices at places like Whole Foods and Sprouts, experience sticker shock.
“The reality,” he says, “is that we are still competing with prices that people see on a daily basis.”