At Home On the Range

Photo: Daniel Root

The only road to Wallowa dips and winds as if designed by faulty compass or by workers under the spell of this spectacular, wild land in remote northeast Oregon. In midsummer snow slashes steep inclines of the Wallowa Mountains. The Wallowa River ripples along the valley. Physically challenging terrain in every direction—including Hells Canyon, deepest gorge in North America—beckons backcountry skiers and hikers. But that's not what drew Fritz Weinhard here a century ago.

Son of a German immigrant who had built a brewery in Washington state, Weinhard looked at the vast turf and forage and thought it would be an ideal place to raise livestock. He acquired a few hundred acres of Wallowa Valley prairie to establish a cattle ranch, and married Nina Miller, the local schoolteacher. The couple raised four daughters, along with herds of beef cattle. The girls donned overalls and rode their saddle horses through the plains and rolling hills where the cows roamed, free to graze and grow strong on bluebunch wheatgrass, sand dropseed, Idaho fescue and other nutritious grasses that flourish here naturally.

Four generations later, Cory Carman, '98, grew up on this land, loving it deeply, and thought of cattle farming as a normal American pursuit.

After all, America loves beef, consuming more than 25 billion pounds (57.4 pounds per capita) of it annually, according to recent statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. All that beef equals a retail value of nearly $80 billion, making it the largest single segment of American agriculture. And Carman Ranch, now 8,000 acres, is but one among a million beef producers in the country. In Wallowa County, frontier to Carman's great-grandfather Fritz and other settlers, cattle still outnumber humans 10 to 1.

But in the mid-20th century, the beef industry changed. Raising cattle and getting all that meat to market today bears little resemblance to the pastoral, localized endeavor that earned Fritz his livelihood. Unlike chicken and pork production, where thousands of animals are raised in a relatively small number of massive enterprises, the beef industry relies on hundreds of thousands of small farm operations. "Cattle need lots of space," Carman notes. "In the U.S. all calves spend their first six months on pasture." Weaned animals are transported, sometimes thousands of miles, from open ranch land to confinement feedlots, where livestock are herded into giant factory-like facilities. There they are fed corn, soy and other grains to stimulate faster growth and fattier meat and given additives such as vitamins and hormones and treated with antibiotics. In turn, most beef is passed along the supply chain—from the feedlot to the slaughterhouse to the wholesale butcher, and on to packers, distributors and grocery stores—changing ownership and custody many times.

Public attitudes about beef have changed dramatically, too. It wasn't until her early days at Stanford, where she studied public policy, that Carman encountered outspoken criticism of the cattle industry. She credits Professor Walter Falcon, now deputy director of the Center on Food Security and the Environment, for helping her find her way through the thicket of policy matters. Falcon, who grew up on a farm in Iowa, taught a "great" course called The World Food Economy, she recalls.

"Mostly people were repulsed by the feedlot," she says. "But not by cattle on rangeland. However, there's no way to raise a cow and market it without it going to a feedlot—unless you create your own supply chain." Which is sort of like reinventing the wheel, then pushing it uphill.

She took the concerns to heart and set out to find solutions, beginning with abundant research on grass-fed beef. Grass-fed animals (the term is legally sanctioned by the USDA) live out their lives eating only grasses, no grains. The American Grassfed Association certifies only beef cattle that are raised entirely on grass and never given hormones or antibiotics or subjected to confinement. A small but increasing number of U.S. ranchers embraces this alternative as more environmentally responsible and humane. Other terms—grass-finished, natural, pasture-fed or -raised, organic, craft or artisanal—do not equate to grass-fed. In fact, most of these pretty-word descriptions have no legal or uniform definition when applied to beef. The locavore movement, once a trend, now increasingly mainstream, drives chefs and diners to think, seek, cook, and eat farm-to-fork. But while it's easy enough to pluck a tomato and handful of arugula from a kitchen garden or buy a bushel of potatoes from a local farm stand, relying on local sources for a side of beef is a little trickier.

After graduation Carman moved to Washington, D.C., where she worked as a press officer with the House Ways and Means Committee. "I thought after I had a proper career—in international development—I might retire and come back to the ranch and raise grass-fed beef," she says. But after a year inside the Beltway she realized it wasn't the right fit. "I went there to learn more about how Congress worked, and I feel like I accomplished that. I worked for the Republicans, then found out I wasn't one. But I wasn't a Democrat, either. I love policy; I don't love politics."

She took a timeout to spend summer 2003 at the ranch with her grandmother Ruth Carman, Fritz and Nina Weinhard's eldest daughter. (Cory's father, Garth, had died in a farm accident a decade earlier.) Garth's brother, Kent, along with Ruth, had kept the ranch going. "I came back just to be with my grandma that summer. Then I saw how Kent and my grandma were living a really hard life."

Enlightened from her intense self-guided study on the subject and struck by the ranch's reliance on old methods, including shipping cattle to feedlots, she decided to stay and help usher in a new approach. "I realized grass-fed beef was not for 30 years from now. The time to do it was now."

Carman arrived in Wallowa that summer certain her stay would be temporary and that she "was not going to date some local cowboy." David Flynn, a local cowboy who was working on a nearby ranch, tried all summer to get her phone number. His first line—something about love at first sight—still makes Carman roll her eyes. "So his next strategy was to say 'I have these two grass-fed steers, and I don't know what to do with them.'" They drove together to the slaughterhouse in Walla Walla, Wash., a two-hour trip. "And Dave, being Dave, cried," moved by his compassion for the animals. "Then there was no turning back," she says.

"Everything we started out doing together was about the animals," Carman adds, fidgeting at her desk piled with paperwork. She is restless, like a caged bird longing to take flight, glancing outdoors as Dave starts to move part of the herd uphill to another pasture.

"We stopped farming crops. No more herbicides and fertilizers. Dave and I focused on a single product—raising cattle that do well on grass and can stay out all winter." They keep the herd moving to fresh pasture, enabling the cattle to feed themselves at a natural rate, which over time results in a much healthier herd. (Less than 5 percent of the herd require antibiotics to remain healthy; those animals are removed from the grass-fed program and sold into the commodity market.)

It's a model that requires a long time line. It can take three and a half years from the time a cow is impregnated until a customer buys the meat from that calf. "In this system we have more profit per cow but fewer cows to sell and more time invested in each one—through raising and marketing them," Carman says.

She sighs and turns back to the paperwork as Dave and the last cow disappear over the hill. "I didn't come back here to be an office manager." But sometimes she has to be. While she and Dave take turns on child-care responsibilities for Roan, 8, and twins Emmett and Ione, 5, Cory is also charged with being a marketer, publicist and educator. She constantly refines her research and fine-tunes their business plan.

They have structured Carman Ranch production with two supply chains: One, still a thorny, time-consuming challenge, gets the beef into commercial wholesale channels, mostly for restaurants and institutions in the Pacific Northwest. This model must comply with government regulations and certain inflexible industry procedures. Cory and Dave, with their small production, wrestle to keep economics reasonable while functioning within an industry geared to mass production, sort of like a mom-and-pop shop contending with Walmart. The second even smaller chain supplies individual consumer-subscribers in Portland directly. It is called custom-exempt, because these subscribers actually buy shares and own the animal (or part of it) while it is alive, which by law exempts processing of that beef from some of the costly steps of the commercial chain.

All commercial beef ready for harvest makes the same stops en route to the table: Live animals are shipped usually by truck from feedlot (or ranch in the case of grass-fed producers such as Carman) to processing plants for slaughter and packing. Then pallets of meat go from processing plant to a distributor. Distributors sell the meat to customers ranging from grocery store chains to individual restaurants. Mainline distributors (read: most of the beef industry) count on a steady supply and large volume to keep product available. Carman Ranch, as other small grass-fed and specialty producers, can get hit with added costs at several steps along the supply route: Shipping less than a truckload—whether cattle headed from the ranch to processing or pallets of meat from processing to a distributor—drives up the price per pound. Carman visited "every processing plant within 400 miles of Wallowa," finding only a few small ones equipped to handle high-quality cuts from small producers. Larger plants, many integrated with a feedlot, would have to clear their entire production line, which can involve hundreds of people, to keep the grass-fed product segregated. However, the same USDA regulations and testing procedures (and costs for these) apply to all. So harvesting, say, 20 to 30 head per day at a small plant can cost $500 or more per head, while at a larger plant harvesting up to 5,000 head daily the per-head cost drops to $100 or less.

Distributors operate with rigid systems favoring mass production and deviations from those in-place systems, to handle specialty product, will inflate costs. Which is why Cory and Dave took the bold step earlier this year of buying back their inventory from a distributor and assuming that part of the business themselves. They aim for a commercial wholesale supply chain harvest of 1,000 head, a goal that should keep prices attractive enough for customers. "Even though we don't price our cattle much above the marketplace, what the consumer ends up paying for are those inefficiencies in our process—each supply-chain step costs a little more. That [number of cattle] would keep it reasonable, at five to eight percent above commodity," Carman says. Their custom-exempt supply chain line—which skips shipping to processing plant and distributor steps—gets meat directly from the ranch to the grills (more likely freezers) of consumer-subscribers in Portland and has already reached capacity at about 75 animals annually. Slaughter and butchery takes place in Wallowa by a local processor with a mobile unit. "We can't grow beyond where we are because he simply can't handle any more animals, especially during fall and summer months when everyone needs processing services."

Numbers matter dearly, as they did to her father. "My father's relationship with the animals was always the most important thing," she says. "When I was little I watched my dad take notes about each cow—what her calf weighed, when she calved, her disposition. He had his favorite cows—ranching can be emotional—but he also used those records to be analytical and create a more profitable cow herd." She tries for the same balance, saying that numbers keeping can be a stress reliever.

Seeking other practical business solutions, she traveled to Georgia to meet Will Harris at White Oak Pastures, the only farm in the United States with beef and poultry abattoirs. White Oak, large, family-owned and dedicated to animal welfare and environmental sustainability, supplies Whole Foods stores throughout the Southeast. "I admire and respect Will—and I learned from him that I didn't want to take on processing," Carman says.

Back at home she is slowly building trust and relationships. She and Dave have solidified cattle standards and numbers by forming a partnership with Jill McClaran, whose family also has been ranching here for four generations. "We had started [selling to] a natural beef co-op so we already had no hormones, no antibiotics," says McClaran. "Now a third of our crop goes with Cory's for wholesale. The cows have a good life. They'll eat 30 pounds of grass every day, and seven pounds of grass converts to one pound of weight gain. It's not natural for them to eat grains; the Omega-3 fatty acids change when an animal is fed grain. The demand for our beef is strong from the health-conscious, the middle-aged—and from Portland."

Portland's food community fancies itself leading the locavore movement. If it wasn't hatched, pulled from the earth, aged, baked or butchered within sight of Mount Hood, chances are that chicken, carrot, cheese, hazelnut scone or, increasingly, chop won't be landing on white tablecloths or diner counters here. "I've come to understand and very much appreciate the Portland consumer," Carman says.

The appreciation goes both ways. Samuel Currie, district manager for Bon Appétit Management Company, which has food service contracts with corporate dining rooms and other institutions, remembers being impressed with Carman's vision and commitment to animal husbandry when they both served on local food-expert panels. "We are a chef-driven company and have a farm-to-fork program, and I have a personal interest in connecting our chefs with local and regional producers," says Currie, who buys Carman Ranch meat for clients such as Lewis & Clark College, Reed College and the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. "This was our first experience with grass-fed. It does have a truer beef flavor and we love having the variety of cuts, even though we knew there would be some cooking challenges [because of the low fat]."

Star chef Vitaly Paley—a 2011 Iron Chef America winner who has just opened Imperial and Portland Penny Diner—had had bad experiences trying to cook with grass-fed products. "I was not a fan. It was pricey, sub-par quality and inconsistent," he notes. That was before he bought Carman's beef.

He recalls his first meeting with Carman. "She looked like she belonged in some Pearl District loft," he says, referring to Portland's industrial-turned-chic residential area. "She brought her steak in and told me about how long the animal needs to stay on grass, how she can bring it in at a reasonable price." He cooked it and put it straightaway on the menu—specifying the Carman Ranch brand—at Paley's Place; Carman beef is served at his two new places, too.

Paley particularly likes that he can buy parts—not just wholes and halves—including a belly cut that he and Carman developed together. "She throws things at me. She's full of new ideas and uses us as guinea pigs."

"Working with chefs is one of the most fun parts of what I do," Carman says. She sends them newsletters with inventory lists and invites them to visit the ranch. Currie showed up with a group of 25 who all "came away with a better understanding of her commitment to the environment and animal welfare," he says. Executive chefs Cathy Whims of Nostrana, Naomi Pomeroy of Beast and Dolan Lane of clarklewis, among others who try to build their menus from within the Portland foodshed, all have made the four-hour drive east. Guests meet the Angus and Hereford cattle descended from Fritz Weinhard's original herd. They see how reseeding the land with native grasses to replace invasive species—a project with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife—benefits the domesticated animals and deer, elk and upland birds that share the habitat. They might get to cheer calf ropers, steer wrestlers and bull riders at Chief Joseph Days, the local rodeo. They see the vegetable garden, the chickens, hogs and ducks that make a sustainable lifestyle possible. (Only young Emmett's turkeys have a reprieve.) They share family-style meals with Cory, Dave and the kids, just like Cory remembers her grandma preparing for all the farm workers.

"I wanted to make sure the family ranch kept going," Carman says. "And I think a lot about what our food system should look like when it comes to meat. I think we should serve regions."

Margaret Shakespeare lives in New York City and the farmlands of Long Island. She has contributed to Archaeology, Wildlife Conservation, Town & Country and the New York Times, among many other publications.