To serve her larger-volume clients like OHSU, Carman faced a challenge of a different kind: finding a USDA-inspected slaughterhouse that would take her relatively modest business. As the meat industry has consolidated over the past 30 years, many of the smaller regional USDA-certified facilities have closed or been bought up by industrial-size processors like Cargill or Tyson. Oregon has just 13 USDA-inspected slaughterhouses left, only three of which are east of the Cascades. According to Oregon Rural Action, many Eastern Oregon ranchers must truck their cattle more than 150 miles one way just to get them butchered.
The big slaughterhouses process enormous volume—3,000-plus cattle per day. At the height of “harvest” season in October and November, Carman Ranch won’t do more than 25 cattle a week, a volume that left her calls to the larger slaughterhouses unreturned at first. She ultimately partnered with another small family ranch to work with Fulton, a Sysco-owned meat distributor that processes animals for other sustainably minded companies such as Oregon’s Country Natural Beef and Painted Hills Natural Beef. The arrangement has allowed Carman to expand the number of cattle in her wholesale program to a more profitable 300 a year.
For grass-fed beef in general, the marketplace is still in its Wild West phase of experiments small and large. When the Country Natural Beef co-op was founded in 1986, for instance, it was among the first in the country to forbid antibiotics and growth hormones. In 2000, CNB started experimenting with the method, too. Five years later (roughly when Carman had just begun her grass-fed program), New Seasons CEO Brian Rohter was clamoring for more of CNB’s grass-fed product. The co-op now supplies New Seasons with 16 grass-fed cows a week; the resulting ground beef and steaks are branded under the “Pacific Village” label to distinguish it from CNB’s other lines. “The beef comes into the store on a Wednesday, and by Saturday, it’s gone,” says CNB’s Kathy Panner, who originated the grass-fed program. But the Pacific Village line still constitutes less than 3 percent of the co-op’s gross sales. Among the other small to medium grass-fed operations like Carman Ranch are Afton Field Farm in Corvallis, Full of Life Farm in St. Paul, and Silvies Valley Ranch in Grant County, south of John Day. Even Painted Hills, in Central Oregon, which has been producing “natural” (though corn-finished) beef since 1997, is getting in on the act. In August, the company launched its own line of grass-finished beef, starting with 140 cattle.
“You can call us cow-pooling. The three of us share a half a cow.” —Shawn Piper
When it comes to taste, grass-fed is not always what mainstream diners—or chefs—want. American eaters are famous for loving juicy marbled steaks, while grass-fed steak has long had the unfortunate reputation of tasting gamey and tough. And, not surprisingly, Portland’s top chefs are on a constant quest for perfection. At one of Portland’s premier steak houses, Urban Farmer, chef Matt Christianson has experimented with a few grass-fed products, most recently veterinarian-turned-rancher Scott Campbell’s Silvies Valley Ranch yearling beef, known as “vittelone.” Christianson says the beef, slaughtered at the tender age of 12 months, has a subtle taste and is “the purest grass-fed beef I’ve tried.” But his customers overwhelmingly prefer steaks from Scio-based Highland Oak, where the cows eat grass until their last four months, when they are then finished on a mixture of corn, alfalfa, and flaxseed oil combined with the pasture grass.
Vitaly Paley, Iron Chef winner and co-owner of Paley’s Place, recalls his first experiments with a local ranch’s grass-fed steak five years ago “The first time we got them, it was OK. The second time, the steaks were small, and very inconsistent,” says Paley. His customers often sent them back.
Toughness and variability, according to Country Natural’s Panner, are caused by improper grazing management. “If you have pasture that will provide enough nutrition so that they can gain 2.5 pounds a day, that beef will be good-tasting,” she says. “But if you have pasture that is dry and cattle that are only gaining a pound a day, then that meat will taste like shoe leather.”
Carman’s achievement, at least to the chefs whose loyalty she has won, is so far singular: pure grass-fed beef in which the taste and texture is consistent enough for the picky, high-end diner. While Carman says she’s “still learning,” she attributes her success to two methods: moving the cattle between pastures in a careful process known as rotational grazing, which ensures that the animals get their needed nutrients while adding plenty of fat; and the dry-aging of her beef for at least 12 days, which adds tenderness and imparts a nutty, cheesy accent that Paley, for one, associates with a fine prosciutto.
“You can’t describe it in a conventional beefy sense,” he says. “Those terms—beefy, fatty, gamey, marbled—they don’t apply. The flavor is a little more focused, clean, grassy. It has that green pasture to it.” Though he could serve Carman Ranch beef year-round, freezing the steaks and then thawing them as needed (as does another convert, Greg Perrault at June), Paley chooses not to. “I like the fact that we can do this seasonal thing with beef, he says. “It’s like you’re rediscovering the first strawberry of the season.”