Grass-fed: what do you do if there's no grass?
Spoiler Alert: there’s a drought in California! The western US has always been known for its dry climate, relying on snow pack and winter rains to replenish its rivers and reservoirs to keep the largest food growing region in the US producing. (For clarification, I don’t count corn and soy beans as “food”, but as “feed” - therefore CA produces the most food, pound for pound, of any state in the US). Even just beyond of the coastal regions of the North West it’s very dry.
Many, when thinking about how the drought effects food production in the west, tend to think about tomato plants, corn, fruit trees, nuts, and many other foods that are grown here on the Pacific Coast. But what about livestock? What about Steak?!?! Don’t panic, we’re not out of steaks yet. However, this drought is making it very difficult to produce that high-quality GRASS-FED beef, lamb, and yes, even pasture raised pork that you’ve grown so fond of over the past few years.
Many in the niche meat industry have, for years now, been screaming about how grains are bad, grass-fed is superior, and the consumer should settle for nothing less than 100% grass-fed, pasture raised, happy-as-a-pig-in-shit meat. Well, what if there is no grass? This is the conundrum many pasture-based producers are facing in California right now. The drought is causing them to get creative with their feeding practices. Many are having to import feed, whether it's in the form of grass/hay, or even the dreaded....grain. Yes, some producers are doing a little back-pedaling and must to use this feed to continue surviving as a business. (I think sometimes people forget that it is a business).
Due to a loud voice in the media consumers who "buy local" are fearful of grain-fed. They look at you like you’re poisoning babies if you tell them your meat is not grass-fed. But I’ve seen these awful feed lots on small farms - and they’re really not awful at all. Sure, you can find large, crowded, stinky feed lots in some areas of California. But, small farmers who feed grains aren’t all Harris Ranch. Feeding grains and using feed lots can be done responsibly, and in some ways it's better for the consumer and not harmful to the animal what-so-ever. If proper care is given to these animals the meat can be some of the best you’ve tasted - I’ll attest to it.
Prices are going up, not just in the niche markets, but across the board for beef and pork (although due to different circumstances in some cases). For a minute, small producers were closing the price gap between niche and commercial products due to the rising prices of the commercial meats. But, now that gap seems to have widened again due to the drought's impacts on feed prices. I still say that the small farm system will be more stable throughout the coming years and local/niche meats will eventually become competitive with commercial products. Unfortunately, the drought has put that trend a step back from some of the progress that was being made.
Solutions to the drought and the continuing growth of the niche meat industry are going to take a new level of consumer education to help understand why prices have shot up and why, in some cases, producers are moving away from their strict 100% grass-fed approach. Many people don't consider that without water the livestock will be hungry, herds will need to be restricted, businesses will cut back, prices will go up, etc. It's not just about watering veggies….