April 5, 2007

Marin Sun Farms, part 2

Here's the second part of an insightful guest blog by my friend Jeff. Go polyculture!

I think to really appreciate the respect with which MSF treats its animals, you had to have seen or at least read about modern conventional farms. “Seen” is probably not an option as, by all accounts, today’s industrial food producers are unwilling to let any of us peek behind the curtain. I haven’t read much, myself, but The Omnivore’s Dilemma or Fast Food Nation would certainly do the trick. Or else you could get a distant glimpse first hand by taking a drive down the I-5 between SF and LA, or out past your own local feedlot (hint: you can smell it long before you actually find it). Suffice it to say the conditions and practices in most cases are as horrifically shocking as anything your imagination could conjure up, and in other cases are much worse (and obscure).

At MSF, it felt like we were characters in some idyllic children’s book. Laying hens of all varieties wandered out of their coops and around the green pastures, pecking here and there, clucking and generally carrying on exactly as you would expect. One, two and three week old broiler chicks inside a shed moved around an open area of woodchip bedding and huddled under the heat lamps on which their fragile bodies depend. The older ones of their species moved around outdoors in a 12x12 foot covered, moveable enclosure chomping down fresh grass, insects, oyster shells, grain (which, unlike with cows, is a required part of their diet) and vitamin supplement. Cows munched on grass in wide-open fields, occasionally mooing as we approached. A group of cows literally shot across our path as our group moved by them in the pasture. Who knew cows could even run? Well, they can. And fast.

Dave doesn’t hide the fact that all of this surrounding him is still a means to an end, that each of these animals will be killed, processed and sold as food. Thanks to an exemption under federal and state law, Dave is able to slaughter and process his own chickens, and does so outdoors on his farm at weekly intervals. The dance to get his beef to market is a little more complex, but he uses a Petaluma-based slaughterhouse for the initial processing, then rents space at another facility where his own employees break down the carcass further. MSF does the dry-aging and final processing at their butcher shop in Point Reyes Station, where all their products are available for sale. Dave hopes the day is not too far off when any of us could go visit his slaughterhouse and decide for ourselves whether we approve of its killing methods.

We were more than happy to purchase some MSF product, so decided on some NY Strips for dinner and two dozen eggs. Though I was only able to marinate them for a short time, and was restricted to cooking them in the oven at our city apartment, the steaks were terrific. They had a much more pronounced beef flavor than I was used to, but I enjoyed both the flavor and the idea that it was the animal – and not just the marinade – contributing so much to it.

Similarly, the eggs were tastier than their more conventional counterpart. I prepared them simply – scrambled in a little bit of butter, then finished with salt and pepper. They had a smoother, more delicate texture, and deeper, creamier flavor than even the “best” veggie-fed, free range, $4/dozen eggs from Whole Foods. They were so good I held the ketchup. I can’t remember the last time I had eggs without ketchup.

There’s so much more to tell about our trip to MSF but, to be honest, this account is already much longer than I intended. Dave talked about the balance between protecting the MSF chickens from natural predators, and allowing them to become a small part of the local ecosystem (e.g. to the passing red-tail hawks). There are stories of a farmer’s efforts to bring down costs (eggs are currently $7/dozen) and therefore make his food more accessible, while working within a system that almost by definition cannot achieve economies of scale. Dave expressed anxiety (and the potential opportunity) surrounding the closure of the only local slaughterhouse and its impact on MSF and other Bay Area ranchers. He also expressed mostly frustration at how the government bureaucracy stacked the deck against local farmers being able to process their own beef, even under the most commendable conditions.

In any event, my conclusion is that MSF gets it right in almost every way. So much so that I’d deal with the inconvenience of buying from producers like them, and spend the extra money, even if the food tasted the same as the other stuff. But please see for yourself, because that’s what it’s all about in the end.

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