If statistics are to be trusted, beef will be a common choice at many Christmas dinners next week. As the most popular meat in the United States, the average adult consumes 65-pounds of beef each year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
But the beef industry is in flux. Just this past week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration started taking steps to phase out the use of antibiotics in animals processed for meat, a long standing practice in the mainstream meat industry used to promote growth in animals.
It's an issue that's less of a concern here in Petaluma, which is home to a variety of sources of grass-fed beef &#8211; cattle that are not treated with antibiotics, artificial hormones or growth stimulants. Instead of the standard corn-fed diets, these cattle graze on fields in Sonoma and Marin county, mostly at family farms such as Chileno Valley Ranch.
Owned and operated by Mike and Sally Gale, the ranch has been in the family since the Civil War. The couple returned in 1993 to the ranch and now raise beef cattle, as well as sheep, chickens and apples. They sell directly to families &#8211; there are no brokers, markets or restaurants in their sales. Sally Gale attributes their success to an article that appeared in the New York Times in 2002 authored by well known food writer Michael Pollan, in which the ranch was mentioned when the author pointed out the disadvantages of feeding corn to cattle, and the benefits of feeding them grass — a more natural food source.
"That article launched our business," Sally Gale says, "and we have enough customers so we don't have to grow any bigger."
The Black Angus steer raised on the Chileno Valley Ranch live on that ranch from birth to death. The Gales have 100 cow-calf pairs, which are slaughtered between May and November. Beef is purchased by the quarter, half or whole steer, so buyers need to have a freezer that can hold at least 100 pounds of meat, which is sold for approximately $4.50 a pound.
Dolcini Ranching of Red Hill is one of the many Dolcini Ranches in Marin and Sonoma counties. In operation since 1918, it started as a dairy farm before the family began raising Black Angus cattle for beef production in the 1950s. Presently, brothers Bill and Jim Dolcini run the larger cattle operation and Jim's daughter, Annie Dolcini Mount maintains the smaller grass-fed business. While they are unable to certify that their beef is organic, they do not use antibiotics, growth stimulants, hormones, preservative or artificial colorings, and do not give animal by-products or grain to their cattle.
The Dolcinis also sell their beef as quarters, halves or wholes, usually harvest in the spring through October. Because of the lack of rain this year and its impact on the local grasses, Mount says it may take until June for the cattle to reach their target weight. The cost of a quarter beef, weighing up to 200 pounds, is $530.
Progressive Pastures is a locally operated beef ranch, established in 2006 by partners Pam Torliatt and Leo Ghiradelli. Ghiradelli's family has owned and operated ranches in the west Petaluma and western Marin county area for many years, and the partners wanted to return the land to a working farm. After starting with 25 cows, Progressive's herd now numbers 100 head of an Angus/Waygu cross that are grass-fed in certified organic fields. They started offering their beef for sale in 2011, directly to the consumer. They also sell to Petaluma Market, and their meat is served at Mateo's Cocina in Healdsburg.