I’ve written previously about the importance of choosing locally raised animal products whenever possible. It’s better for your health, for the animals, for local economies, and for the planet.
My family buys a quarter of beef and side of pork every 6-9 months from Freestone Ranch, a sustainable ranching operation about an hour and fifteen minutes north of San Francisco. Their beef and pork are far superior to anything we ever bought in the store (including very expensive grass-fed beef and pastured pork), and we love the convenience and cost savings that comes from purchasing directly from the ranch.
But more than that, we feel great about supporting local, sustainable food production and giving our money to a family-owned operation that shares our values around food and health. I thought it would be interesting for you to get a behind-the-scenes peek at how a sustainable ranch operates, so I asked Misty to answer a few interview questions.
How did you get started in sustainable ranching?
Jon and I met in software, believe it or not. We were both working for Macromedia during the tail end of the Internet boom. Jon was a bit of a celebrity at the time, as he and a very small team down in San Diego wrote the animation and graphics engine that would become Flash. Flash made sound, beautiful graphics, and animated motion and video easily accessible online and made the Web that much more compelling. I had started out in technical writing, and got into the Web as it grew.
His family was from San Diego, and both his parents were teachers. His Dad’s focus was science education, and he is still a driving force behind the huge Greater San Diego Science & Engineering Fair every year. His family had come from big Organic dairy farming in Ohio, and farming was still deeply in his blood, along with architecture, art, design, and of course programming. He got into programming as a teenager on the first Macintosh, and he paid his own college tuition with earnings from writing Dark Castle, the first Mac game with really beautiful music built into the game, better than MIDI. After college, he went full time with Silicon Beach Software, and got seriously into writing graphics software.
I remember playing Dark Castle as a kid; my sister was completely addicted. My Dad was a semiconductor chip designer, and my mom was a teacher; we always had soldering irons and chips and circuit boards in the garage. I learned BASIC from my ever-hopeful Dad at 10, but never really got into programming. His side of the family came from Utah farmers; my Grandfather had worked as an Agriculture Specialist for the United Nations, spending his career and a big chunk of my Dad’s childhood traveling the world teaching modern farming techniques to tribesmen all over the world. That seems like a mixed thing to me now, but he was a profoundly good guy. He had some wild stories, and when he finally retired, he kept a beautiful organic vegetable garden and fruit orchard at home, and my grandmother canned fruit and jam and veggies every year.
Jon and I knew we wanted to grow our own vegetables, and he knew he wanted to build a house in the country. Due to health problems and chronic stress in my twenties, I had been on a big learning journey, and I became a bit of a health activist. I had been vegetarian off and on, and vegan for about six months. While both of those choices helped me clean out and learn more, they didn’t fit my body or what I had learned for the long haul. Jon’s system was cleaner to start with, and he was always extremely focused on clean, fresh, healthy food. His palate is amazing – he can taste anything, and tell you what’s in it, what kind of care went into growing and preparing it, and how fresh it is. I’m pretty sensitive, but he’s just off the charts as far as sensitivity to food energetics. Together we learned an enormous amount about cooking and food, and when I left my career to focus on getting ready for parenthood, I went into high gear on researching everything I could and experimenting on us with lots of healing modalities, diets, supplements, and everything I could think of to find our way. Always, I landed on clean, healthy meats, cheese, yogurt, and of course, lots of veggies. Omnivore, and deeply skeptical of overbaked claims, hype, and obfuscating language. Occam’s Razor seems deeply at home in food: the simpler, the better.
The way life flows, we found our home in Western Sonoma County, totally beautiful foggy hilly goodness. Our land is too dry for a larger-scale veggie operation, and our health journeys had led us soundly back to omnivory. The real estate people said grapes of course, but we don’t drink, and the idea of devoting our lives and land to making wine didn’t sit right with us. We want to nourish our community.
We geeked out on native grasses and plants, attending workshops and joining groups dedicated to preserving and rebuilding the local native bunchgrasses. There were conferences for a while dedicated to teaching ranchers the benefits of grazing to actually restore their land. We loved the idea of letting grazing animals actually restore the land, and it made sense intuitively that grasses eaten just enough – not too much or too little – would be stimulated to grow even more.
Our ranchland was thankfully in far better condition than many, but that just whetted our appetites for healing the land even more. So it became obvious: we had to be ranchers. Our families have yet to recover from the shock, but they love the meat.
How is your farm operation different than other ranches? Are there any special techniques you use to make your farm more sustainable?
We are real grass geeks, not afraid to make mistakes and learn.
Our Ranch Manager is Jon’s sister Susan, an amazing equestrian whom we’re very lucky to have. She and her sons Justin and Jacob – our amazing Ranch Hands – move the herd on horseback, which is easier on the animals and the land, and lets them really get to know the animals, observing their personalities and habits. They are deeply intuitive animal people who love the herd and take the responsibility seriously. Cows who live in overcrowded conditions in mud, just eating hay or corn on feedlots, will never quite behave like normal cows, because the stress makes them crazy. Our herd is free to be smart and mellow, really expressing their animal brilliance. They teach us about the grass.
It seems that the best way for us to run things sustainably is to ask our customers to dive into regional economics a little, buying by the quarter or side directly from us. We do sell cuts individually at two local markets in Sebastopol and a local butcher shop in Berkeley, and we may branch out a bit more, but selling direct suits us best. It asks a bit more of our customers in terms of logistics, but then they get all the cuts in quantity at a really good price, and I like to think it helps them in the kitchen, researching recipes and ways to prepare cuts that are new to them, because there it is in the freezer. We also hope it helps our customers learn to think in terms of meal planning for health – making simple rotation plans and thinking ahead a little to be sure they cover all their bases nutritionally, using food as much as possible for that, and avoiding the what’s-for-dinner panic so common in our culture.
What makes your meat products unique? Are there any particular health benefits your meat provides?
Our meat is amazing – no need for special preparation or different ways of approaching grass-fed vs. corn-fed. Just cook it – sear it rare even – and enjoy. Tender and tasty and wonderful.
You will see yellow fat on our beef, which is a great thing. It’s yellow from beta carotene, acquired from eating the good grass. There was a crazy hype campaign in the sixties to try to convince eaters that white fat from the then-new corn-fed beef was ok; we’re recovering from that now.
You will see white fat on our pork, with an amazing almost fruity flavor. The pork gets that glorious bouquet from organic veggie scraps, whey, and beer mash from Lagunitas in Petaluma. Lucky pigs and lucky eaters.
I often refer people to Chris’ site for questions on health benefits of this or that, and myth-busting. Soon I will start doing cooking consults via Skype, but I will focus more on cooking. I studied midwifery and worked as a doula for a while, but really, I’m a home cook.
Who are the farmers that inspire you?
Allan Savory’s work in Africa with Holistic Grazing to heal desertified land could make anybody cry with relief. He used simple, meticulous rotational grazing with cattle to bring grassland – and the wildlife that goes with it – back from the sands. It’s one of the everyday miracles that keep us inspired – and it keeps happening in more places, every day, around the world, thanks to his shining light. We are not quite so meticulous, but we are very lucky here: we started out with good grass. We just want to see our land flourish and heal and grow ever better for our being here.
Joel Salatin’s work with multi-species grazing and myth-busting is a great inspiration. I love his impassioned plea to stop treating farmers like chumps, get past the city assumption that if somebody stayed out in the country, it’s because they couldn’t make it in the city. Say what? Come to the country sometime, bring that intellect with you, and watch it flourish in the grass.
The Permaculture Movement inspires me with its reintegration of intellect, body, heart, and land. Bring that cleverness and bury it in the soil; watch what flourishes. It will be you.
Michael Pollan’s work with ethics, food politics, and transparency about the industrial food system is another inspiration. I don’t think absolutely everybody needs to grow their own food but absolutely everybody needs to take an active interest in what they put in their bodies. How did we ever arrive at a cultural moment where marketing trumps intuition? Descartes has been dead for a long time, people. Body and mind are one. And the gut is almost entirely neural tissue!
Mark Bittman’s work with simple, straightfoward cooking at home is another favorite. There are a few things that differ from my approach, but I love his emphasis on the home cook’s absolute ability to do it right and make it delicious. No need for mixes or dependency on industrial shortcuts and takeout, and really no obfuscation or dishonesty at the market. And I love the way he goes after the Farm Bill every time it comes up.
Sally Fallon’s work with the Weston Price Foundation and the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund is another inspiration; she has done so much to revive time-honored cooking techniques and break out of the professionalization of food preparation. I am making my own kraut and pickles, jam, yogurt cheese, and kombucha, and you would be blown away at how easy and delicious it is. Seriously. Not. That. Hard. And SO delicious. Grandma would be proud.
Are there any important topics in the world of sustainable farming and ranching that you think my readers should know about?
I really want people to know that the industrial food system simply isn’t necessary. The feed-the-world question is so fraught with politics and pain, and so focused on export markets for commodity crops that it’s almost not even about food.
Corn, soy, and wheat are the main commodity crops of interest to international markets; increasingly you see fruit traveling, but veggies are condescendingly called “specialty crops” because they’re hard to commoditize. Let’s celebrate that rather than try to obliterate it in the interest of the capital markets. Feeding people is an intimate thing best suited to local systems and expressions of love.
We can and we must relocalize our food systems – not as an act of revolution, but as a simple act of taking responsibility for our health and our land. We are way past the era when the Tragedy of the Commons sufficed as an excuse. It’s time to step up and heal our land and ourselves – and enjoy the journey! This is an act of pleasure and joy, not violence or revolution. Eat and be nourished. Just walk away from what you don’t need. You can do it. Every day.
About Freestone Ranch
Freestone Ranch is a small, family-owned, ecologically sound collaboration with the land in Western Sonoma County, CA. The Gay and Brady families are replanting our farm-family roots from Ohio and Utah in northern California for the next generation and beyond. Our human sources of inspiration include Allan Savory, Wes Jackson, Joel Salatin, Michael Pollan, and all the eaters, cooks, chefs, and parents we know, who feed their families every day.
We raise Black Angus beef and pastured pork with good grassland genetics on gorgeous fog-kissed hills just inland from the Pacific Ocean. We don’t use antibiotics, vaccines, or growth hormones.
The primary food for the cows is grass, supplemented with top-quality alfalfa, kelp meal, and sea salt for minerals. Many of our customers say our beef is the best they’ve tasted.
Our pork is a heavenly mix of Duroc, Hampshire, Berkshire, and a touch of Old Spot for optimal performance on pasture and outstanding flavor.
The pigs get an organic feed mix to supplement their rooting adventures on pasture, along with whey from a local cheesemaker, organic veggie scraps from Bill’s Farm Basket, and veggie treats from our own tables.
Our beef is available by the quarter or half (side) for pickup in Santa Rosa or Petaluma.
Our pork is available by the half or whole for pickup in Santa Rosa or Petaluma.
We can ship individual cuts or family packs via UPS 2-day or overnight.
Gay & Brady Families
PO Box 314
Valley Ford CA 94972
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