THE GRAND CENTRAL BAKERY on N Fremont Street may be best known for thick sandwiches and supple loaves of como and ciabatta. But on a hot Saturday afternoon in July, its parking lot has turned into a meat market as 32 customers line up before a spindly card table to pick up the pieces of nine cows. Doled out from the back of a freezer truck in vacuum-sealed, meal-size parcels of steaks, hamburger, and roasts, these quarters and sides of beef only days before were 2-year-old Black Anguses and Herefords wandering the pastures of Eastern Oregon’s Carman Ranch.
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STATUESQUE WITH DEWY, UNBLEMISHED skin, co-owner Cory Carman, 32, looks more like a Hollywood actress than a fourth-generation rancher. But dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, she greets each customer by name, asking after their children and offering tips for cooking unfamiliar cuts of beef like like tri-tip and arm roast. Nearby, three strapping men hunch over cardboard boxes, divvying up a side (a half a cow) they’ve bought together that will yield 100 pounds of meat for each. A 50-something man wearing flip-flops and shorts tells Carman that her timing is perfect: he and his wife just finished cooking up the last of a quarter cow purchased back in November. As Carman’s husband, Dave Flynn, hauls two boxes of beef to a nearby car, he asks drolly, “You didn’t want any organs?” The emphatic “No thanks!” draws a different buyer who quickly snaps up six free livers, soon to be minced and simmered, as he carefully notes, in olive oil and spices.
It’s the first delivery of the season for Carman Ranch’s flourishing “cow share” program. The 32 buyers on this day are among 300 members total in Portland, each paying between $500 and $600 per quarter animal. Carman has them slaughtered and butchered to her customers’ specifications, down to the steaks, lean ground beef, and boned short ribs. The $6-a-pound average for the hanging weight of the meat makes it more expensive than $4.50-a-pound hamburger at the Safeway two miles away but less than the supermarket’s $10.50-a-pound rib eye steak.
But price is just one consideration. “Until you taste it, you don’t have anything to compare it to,” says Clark Matschek, a landscape architect, who with wife Marsha Matschek, a horticulturist, wandered upon Carman Ranch as two of 2,000 cyclists pedaling by on a 2009 Cycle Oregon trip. “It’s leaner,” Clark adds. “It has a more complex flavor. Not a strong, gamey flavor, but a subtle, complex taste.”
A three-year study conducted by Clemson University professor Susan Duckett in conjunction with the USDA showed grass-fed beef to be nutritionally superior to the corn-fed beef that now dominates the US market, with less saturated fat and more beta-carotene, omega-3 fatty acids, and another beneficial fat called CLA (conjugated linoleic acid), a potential cancer fighter. And when managed properly, grass-fed ranches also have a smaller carbon footprint than industrial feedlots do. The Union of Concerned Scientists recently released a report saying that pasture-based systems of beef production could reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by 140 million metric tons a year—equivalent, according to the EPA, to the annual emissions of 27.5 million cars.
Restaurants like Beast, Clarklewis, June, and Paley’s Place, and larger conscientious kitchens like Lewis & Clark College’s food provider, Bon Appetite, are all vying for Carman Ranch beef, too. Along with the Matscheks and other Portlanders willing to spend a summer Saturday loading their cars with hundreds of pounds of beef, most Carman Ranch buyers are in it for the flavor, the nutritional and ecological value, and, of course, the story.
Eight years ago, Cory Carman literally bet the 8,000-acre family ranch on what then was both an ancient and a wildly experimental way of doing business: raising cows on the pasture and selling their meat directly to consumers. In the first three years, the task was finding profit—any profit—in the narrow margins of a few dozen cows. But now Carman Ranch takes its place in an increasingly crowded, complicated, and sometimes downright confusing marketplace. Labels can range from vague slogans of “sustainably raised” to highly specific pedigrees like Country Natural Beef’s new Pasture Raised line, in which the cows have “access to pasture” throughout their lives, but over their last 100 days are given a ration of corn, barley, hay, and potato slurry.
Now, with the prices spiking for conventionally raised beef and a well-heeled urban population eager to savor their way across the urban-rural divide, Carman faces a different challenge: scaling up to meet the demand while holding on to her ideals of delivering better beef in a more ecological and humane way. All while still saving the family ranch.
Waving a hand to the cow-share members lingering to divide up their orders, she says, “They know where their meat comes from and know the cows have never left the ranch. They’re eating whole animal quantities. This is totally representative of how our food system should be.”