DAVE FLYNN is a ruggedly handsome outdoorsman with a passion for fly-fishing. Friends introduced him to Cory Carman in the summer of 2003, and he took an instant shine to the idealistic young Stanford grad. But a summer of wooing had left him without so much as a phone number. “The last thing I was gonna do,” Carman chuckles now, “was date a Wallowa County guy.”
Flynn worked as a river outfitter on the Grand Ronde, but he also managed 70 cattle for an absentee landowner from Seattle who had grown intrigued with the idea of raising grass-fed beef. And in the first two cows he had grazed entirely in the pasture, Flynn discovered a passport to his first date: he invited Carman to the slaughterhouse to drop off the cows and bring home his first grass-fed steaks.
Carman remembers being touched by Flynn’s tears over the final phase of animal husbandry. “But, me, the pragmatist,” she says, “I’m like, ‘They had a great life. I’m really curious to try this meat.’” She might have been readying to bet the family farm on grass-fed meat, but she had never even eaten it.
The slaughterhouse date quickly evolved into a business—and a family. Through Oregon State University the couple took “Ranching for Profit” courses, run by Stan Parsons, a pioneer of holistic range management, and got a crash course in raising grass-fed beef working for Flynn’s boss. The following year, 2004, they sold their first grass-fed cattle locally at the La Grande farmers market and launched their cow-share program in Wallowa and Union Counties. By spring 2006, with their first son, Roan, a toddler and twins soon to come, they started selling at the PSU Portland Farmers Market. It proved the perfect advertisement for expanding the cow-share (which she also calls their “custom program”) to Portland that same year, delivering the first 10 cattle to Portlanders in a rented U-Haul.
That year, Michael Pollan’s The Omni-vore’s Dilemma landed with a splash. A best seller and a game changer for the nation’s food politics, it is in part a paean to small-scale operations like Polyface Farm, run by “grass farmer” Joel Salatin in Swoope, Virginia. “It went from us literally having to explain to people why grass-fed was important, this five-minute consumer education spiel,” recalls Carman, “to people coming up to us and saying, ‘I know what you’re doing. I think it’s so important….’” Sales leapt at the market and in the cow-share program.
In 2009, Bon Appetite Management Company put in an order for 15 cows for Lewis & Clark College. The following year, Oregon Health & Science University and several high-end restaurants bought a total of 150 cows. Soon after, Carman quit selling any animals to the commodity market. Today, she jokes, “We ought to send Michael Pollan a thank-you note.”
Even Uncle Kent has become a fan, of sorts. A man of few words who prefers his steaks with ketchup, he long refused to try the ranch’s new grass-fed beef for fear of not liking it. But after Carman got Wallowa’s local burger joint to switch to the ranch’s beef, her uncle is now a regular—three times or more a week.
“I am impressed,” says Kent Carman of the meat’s flavor even as he admits to boot-dragging during the shift to grass-fed ranching. “I think Cory had some trying times trying to reason with me. But she finally got the job done.”
ON THE PATH a Carman Ranch cow travels from pasture to plate, there is no stop more critical than the butcher shop. For the consumer-direct cow-share program, it is a pint-size operation in the sleepy heart of Wallowa called Valley Meat Service. Owner Kevin Silveira seems typecast to the part. A former logger with a gleaming bald head and waxed mustache, he dismantles a side of beef with the casual dexterity of a chainsaw sculptor.
Once one of Carman’s cows has been fattened on lush spring grass, typically at age 2, it is killed on-farm by mobile slaughterer Dale Baker, who then drives the carcass three miles down the road to Valley Meat, where Silveira hangs it for 12 to 14 days in a custom-controlled environment for a process known as “dry aging.” He then butchers it and vacuum-seals each individual cut.
“I’m set in my ways. I don’t like change. But I didn’t want to be the last generation here.” —Kent Carman
You can’t buy a cut of meat at Valley Meat Service. The shop is what is known as “custom-exempt,” meaning it’s not USDA-inspected, so it would be illegal to retail anything butchered here. Instead, Silveira and his crew process beef, lamb, hogs, and wild game for customers’ personal consumption. (Most of the ranchers in Wallowa County have their meat processed here.) While other rural businesses are struggling during the recession, Silveira’s is booming. (He’s now up to six skilled, full-time workers.) Locally, it’s far cheaper for farmers and ranchers to eat their own beef—grass-fed or not—than buy it at the grocery store. But a growing, more lucrative niche is urban clients like those in Carman’s cow-share program, who buy cattle while they’re still living. Silveira butchers it for them, just like for the locals.
At first, Silveira grumbled at Carman’s requests for individually wrapped steaks and one-pound packages of ground beef, but as Carman’s chunk of his business grew, so did her influence. Now she pays Silveira 65 cents per pound—five cents more than his other customers pay. For that, Carman says, “I expect a different level of service.”