In the eyes of locavores and advocates of sustainable agriculture, Seth Nitschke is a cattle rancher who has been to “The Dark Side”. Armed with a degree in Animal Science from the California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly), he joined Excel Fresh Meats, the beef and pork subsidiary of Cargill, the world’s biggest food company and supplier of beef to fast food chains like McDonald’s. Working in the packing house in his first year, he later became a cattle buyer, purchasing over 150,000 head of cattle a year for the company before starting his own grass fed beef business at Open Space Meats.
“I went to the EcoFarm Conference one year and said I used to work at Cargill. Everyone stared at me funny,” he jokes.
For the past four years, Seth and his wife, Mica, have been raising grass fed Angus cattle in California’s San Joaquin Valley. Starting with the harvest of their first heifer in 2006, about 75 to 150 head of cattle graze across their five leased pastures in Northern California and Nevada today. 300 head of cattle are harvested a year, 65 percent of which go to restaurants, retail and food service customers in Southern California, and the rest to individual customers in California, Oregon and Nevada.
“I had the time of my life working at Excel, it’s an education you can’t buy anywhere. You learn where the rubber meets the road in the beef industry and you learn what good cattle is supposed to look like. All those years spent researching and refining the best cattle management and raising techniques out there? You know what that comes down to? A 10-minute conversation on a gravel lot in Nebraska where I tell the rancher which cows I want, we settle on a price and I call the office to tell them what I’ve ordered. That’s what it’s all about,” he said.
The time spent with Excel explains his non-judgemental attitude toward the business of conventional livestock farming. “I used to work with these people, they’re not the devil! They’re just out to make money!” he says. “I don’t exactly agree with their approach, it’s not the best way to raise cattle, but they’re doing what they do because that’s how the beef industry in America has evolved.”
Raised in Clovis, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, agriculture was a consistent part of Seth’s childhood with his father in the dairy business. His first job on a cattle ranch came at the age of 13, and later, managing a small farm in Western Australia shaped the attitude and philosophy to the ranching work that he does at Open Space Meats.
“We raised grass fed yearlings for the domestic beef market. Slow, easy, natural,” he said. “We sold them to the local meat companies and tried our best to make a little money. All the beef we ate was grass fed and I really liked the taste…I just figured ‘it was an Aussie thing’.”
His transition from commercial to grass fed beef is a story that one rarely hears about, but underscores the nature of his experience with cattle and a personal commitment towards producing quality meats at a sustainable pace.
He shared, “I was just tired of the feedlots and wanted to do something different. Grass fed beef was a good fit for us since my background in raising cattle was mostly grazing them on grass. It was something we believed in and felt good about.”
“We don’t ask our cattle and the land to give us more than what they’re already giving us. my job is to ensure that the cattle have what they need to do what they do, and the rest is easy. You have to look at the soil, the grass, the cattle, the pathogens – its one whole system and you have to take care of each of them, otherwise it doesn’t work.”
Because of how his herd is dispersed across five locations and the microclimates that affect the growth of grass in each of them, Seth’s cattle are put on a seasonal grass rotation to fully leverage the conditions at each site.
“From October till May/June, we put our cattle on natural grass pasture at the ranch in Mariposa or nearby Hornitos. Between February and August, we’ve the option of another plot of natural pasture at Half Moon Bay where coastal temperatures mean late-maturing grass, and helps to extend the natural grass season,” he shared. “Outside of these periods, we put our cattle on two irrigated pastures at Turlock and Minden (in Nevada) that help complete the rotation cycle.”
Practicing what the industry calls “all on all off” grazing, each piece of land is left untouched for three weeks before a new herd of cattle arrives. “This allows the grass to rest and breaks the lifecycle of any pathogens or parasites that may arise during the herd’s stay in one place, because they cannot live without a host for very long,” he said.
My visit out to the Mariposa and Hornitos ranches on Seth’s trusty Polaris all-terrain vehicle proved not only a workout for the abs (while riding pillon as we navigated steep slopes), but also a lesson in Soil and Grass 101.
“Soil is really important,” Seth began. “It’s the base of all good agriculture. You take care of the soil, it takes care of everything else. It’s one whole ecosystem. When grass is not grazed for long, it’s not good for new growth. If you don’t have good regrowth on an annual basis, you don’t get good ecosystem diversity and grass density which means that your grass is less nutritious and the quality of the soil is going to deteriorate over time. Green doesn’t mean nutrition.”
Having pastures located so far apart is not ideal; this cattle rancher’s dream is to have 5,000 acres of natural grass pasture in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada to keep his herd in the same place. Currently, each head of cattle is allocated approximately 10 acres of grazing pasture, more at lush pastures like Hornitos where the cattle are finished before being harvested, so as not to stress the land.
Recognizing the inefficiencies of his business model, he joked, “If I was worried about efficiency, I wouldn’t be in the grass fed beef business!”
No conversation with an independent farmer would be complete without discussions about the onerous challenges facing them today. From issues of land access to a lack of USDA-licensed butchering facilities and a drawn-out process for Organic certification, what’s a new farmer to do to succeed in this landscape?
Ever the pragmatist, Seth admits, “Nothing is supposed to be easy. You just have to make it work.”
He continues, “Landlords don’t want to invest to improve (ranching) land, but want their tenants to do it. At the same time, they don’t want to give long leases, tying farmers to contracts that last three or five years. When you’re in a capital-intensive business like farming, you need stability and a long horizon (10 to 12 years) before you can see any returns on your investment.”
When I bring up the topic of organic certification, it’s clear I’ve hit a livewire: “The ‘organic’ label is a marketing tool. I know other farmers who are in the organic business and some of them are in it because there’s money to be made, not because they believe in it. ‘Organic’ doesn’t mean that no chemicals are used, just organic chemicals. Pesticides are also used, the difference being they have shorter residual control (the length of time a chemical stays on a plant or in the soil), so organic vegetables are sprayed more often. It ends up being the same thing.”
A pause. He looks over at me, “Are you cynical yet?”
“So where does this leave the farmers that sell at Farmers’ Markets?” I ask, searching for some glimmer of hope.
“Ah, that’s where things are different. Most small-scale farmers at the Farmers’ Market are truly organic. But the reality is that the majority of organic produce sold in the stores comes from big organic farms like Earthbound Farm; most small-scale, true organic farmers do not have the same reach and clout as these big guys.”
“At Open Space Meats, we chose not to undergo the certification process because of the cost and length of time – the whole procedure takes three years! If that’s the length of my lease, it doesn’t make any sense at all – if I lose the lease, I lose the certification.”
“As long as I sleep ok at night with the choices I’ve made, it’s fine by me. After all, certified or not, if the steak is no damn good, you’re never going to buy it again.”
Judging by Open Space Meats’ repeat customer rate of 65-70 percent for online orders, it’s clear that his beef is good enough, organic or not.
“We can’t compete with imports (from Australia/New Zealand/South America), just based on price.” said Seth. “But! More and more people want to know where their food is coming from, and that’s where our advantage is.”
So, despite all the hurdles and hoops he has to jump through for his business to succeed, why does he keep doing it?
After a pause, he said, “Three main reasons. First, we’ve never had the cattle as good as they are now, they’re all healthy and fattening up at a good pace. In the four years since our first harvest, we’ve only had to treat two cattle with antibiotics, which were taken out of our grass fed beef program and sold at our local auction.”
“Second, it’s the quality of our ranches. We’ve been working to restore the pasture – especially Hornitos which we’ve had since the beginning – so that its nutritious for the cows and remains fertile for future grazings. We’re starting to see the fruits of our labor: lots of diverse grasses and less thatch (dead grass that limits regrowth), and the ranch at Mariposa looks to be on-track for the same results.”
“Finally, our customers. Those who keep coming back after ordering from us once, and those who’ve been with us from the beginning, they’re the ones that have helped us grow.”
And, as an afterthought: “Ultimately, there’s nothing quite like the fulfillment of starting something from scratch and watching it take off.”
With this level of integrity to his work and commitment to producing high-quality beef, even the most hard-core environmentalist/food activist would be moved to overlook his stint at Excel Meats and welcome him ‘to the fold’.
I left Open Space Meats with a pound of grass fed ribeye that I wasn’t allowed to pay for. As is the case with all the steaks that come through our kitchen, we prepared them with a basic seasoning of salt and pepper, in order to let the flavor of the meat really stand out. We were not disappointed. This steak was juicy, tender and packed with the rich, creamy flavor of Angus beef. It was a superstar piece of steak that needed very little by way of seasoning and side dishes, so we took the French route and paired it with homemade fries for a classic Bistro meal.
- 1 pound of your favorite steak cut (we like filet mignon or ribeye)
- 2 tablespoons butter
- Salt and pepper
- 5 russet or yukon gold potatoes, scrubbed and cut into 1/4-inch thick strips
- About 2 cups vegetable oil
For the steak (medium rare):
1. Preheat the oven to 400F.
2. Pat dry and season the steak with salt and pepper. Melt the butter in a large oven-proof skillet over medium high heat. When it starts to foam, add the meat to the pan, leaving it for 2 minutes before flipping it over. After another 2 minutes, place the pan, uncovered, in the oven for six minutes.
3. Remove pan from oven and let the meat rest for 2 minutes before slicing and serving.
For the fries (based on the recipe in Bouchon):
1. Rinse the cut potatoes until the water runs clear, then pat dry.
2. Heat the oil in a deep-fryer or a deep, heavy-bottomed pot to 325F, and add the potatoes in batches, without overcrowding the pan, about 6 minutes.
3. Drain on paper towels and repeat until all the potatoes have been fried.
4. For the second frying, heat the oil to 375F and fry the potatoes, again in batches, 2 minutes at a time. Repeat until all the potatoes are done.
5. Sprinkle with salt and serve warm.