More Dogs on Main Street
June 25, 2010
I tried some of the locally raised, grass-fed beef that is testing the market now. It’s an idea that has been rattling around for a long time, not just with me, but with several ranchers in the area. For years it has bugged me to sit down in a nice restaurant and find the menu featuring New Zealand lamb. I’ve got nothing against the sheep of New Zealand, but there’s no shortage of sheep in Summit County. The same with beef.
When I was a kid, the beef we raised on the ranch were sold through the North Salt Lake stockyards, or more frequently, a cattle buyer from Safeway would come out to the ranch and look them over. For years we sold directly to either Safeway or Albertsons. The cattle were trucked to North Salt Lake, and appeared on the hook behind the meat counter at the local store.
Our family took the "local" a little closer still. We would split a beef with my uncle. He would choose one that he thought looked especially tasty (a skill I don’t have they all look the same to me), and we would take it to a slaughterhouse in Kamas. It was extremely custom: How thick do you want the steaks? How lean do you want the hamburger? Are there cuts you would rather have ground up or saved? And so on. We picked it up frozen solid and wrapped in real butcher paper. My mother was convinced that it would rot on the way back to Salt Lake, so we had a bunch of sleeping bags and blankets to cover it with. Some would land in the freezer at home, but most of it went into a cold-storage locker at Hygeia Ice in Sugar House.
For my cousins, the "eat local" movement was even more immediate. The beef we ate was typically a calf they had raised for their 4-H Club. They would have shampooed it and paraded it around at the fair and, for all practical purposes, made them into pets. Pets you never named and eventually appeared on the dinner table, but they were still pets. For farm families, that is not a contradiction. That’s just how it works. My cousin Rob is about the most tenderhearted soul in the world, but didn’t seem to mind eating his club calf. Though they did seem to favor chicken for about that first week.
Then things got all corporate, and by the time we got out of the beef business, they all got sold on a videotaped auction to a buyer in Nebraska. They landed on a feedlot the size of Delaware, stuffed full of corn, and the parts got shipped all over. Today’s cattle are well traveled. Now it’s all corn fed and fattened up so the meat is "marbleized" with lots of fat. The more fat, the higher the grade.
So it was pretty cool to buy a steak that, while it was not my cow, had grown up eating my grass and hay. It was lean and full of flavor. When you barbecue grass-fed beef, there isn’t enough fat to start the grill on fire. It just cooks without the pyrotechnics. It was darn good eating.
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The process of getting local beef in the local market doesn’t seem all that complicated on the surface. They’re standing right there in the field. But there are a lot of moving parts, and in reality, it’s very complicated. The nearest USDA slaughterhouse is up by Logan. The market for the product is untested, so nobody wants to "harvest" more than a couple of animals at a time. So the freight to drive a couple of steers to Logan (and go back to get them when they are packed) becomes a bigger factor than shipping a semi-truck packed like sardines to Omaha.
Then there’s the whole problem of when the calves are born. Most people around here time it to calve in late February or early March. That way, when the calf is ready to start eating grass, there is grass to be eaten. But to get a steady, reliable supply, you have to have calves born all year. If you wait too long, the steaks will be too big for the plate; if you harvest too early, they aren’t big enough and there’s no profit in it. It’s a process that needs to start a year or more in advance, with the timing of breeding, and guessing what the market will absorb.
But the most interesting thing about it is that it has a whole lot of environmentalists and ranchers, who usually wouldn’t talk to each other, really working together to put local beef on local plates. That’s no bull.
Tom Clyde served as Park City attorney in the 1980s and is the author of "More Dogs On Main Street." He has been a columnist at The Park Record for more than 20 years.