(photo credit: AP)
The end of the line for cattle raised at Elizabeth Poett's spread on the Central Coast used to come at an inland slaughterhouse after a five-hour drive crammed in a trailer with other spooked animals.
Now death comes to Rancho San Julian in the form of a mobile butchering vehicle that caters to small ranchers offering premium meats marketed as free-range, grass-fed and sustainably raised.
While "locally slaughtered" may not join those buzz words on meat labels, the practice allows the eighth-generation rancher and her peers to do what their ancestors took for granted: raise animals from manger to cuts of meat.
"They are treated like animals should be treated when they're harvested here with, I believe, dignity and respect," said Poett, 29, as her designer sunglasses mirrored the rugged, scenic golden pastureland of her home.
Soaring interest in meat from free-roaming cattle and more than $180,000 in government grants helped give ranchers in the remote area the momentum to get the mobile unit on the road and cut out the middlemen between farms and shoppers.
Food scares traced to large slaughterhouses, such as last month's recall of 172,000 kilograms of beef from a JBS Swift & Co. plant in Colorado because of possible E. coli contamination, are also prompting shoppers to seek shorter paths from stable to table, said Debra Garrison, chief executive of the Central Coast Agricultural Cooperative, which deployed the unit in May.
The concept hearkens back to a bygone age when cattle grazed in pastures and ranchers butchered them. That changed in the early 1900s when the government required meat inspection at federally regulated slaughterhouses.
Since then, beef production has become consolidated with 76 percent of the nation's cattle slaughtered in 26 plants, each capable of handling more than 500,000 animals a year, said John Nalivka, president of livestock industry consultant Sterling Marketing Inc.
Ranchers, meanwhile, who once raised animals to harvesting age, mostly now sell calves to big feedlots that fatten them on corn-based feed before sending them to be slaughtered. Those changes have foreced most small regional slaughterhouses to close down, with the number of processors nationwide decreasing from a peak of 1,665 in 1976 to 630 last year.
In recent years, however, a growing number of ranchers have gotten into the pasture-raised beef niche.
Eatwild.com, which promotes grass-fed meat, listed only 50 ranchers when it went online a decade ago, said Jo Robinson, who runs the Web site. Now it lists about 1,300 ranchers, with three to five - mostly new - added a week.
With most local slaughterhouses gone and new facilities expensive to set up, ranchers are taking the mobile unit for a spin at a cost of $240 per animal for slaughter and butchering.
"This is the first chance we have had since a lot of the little slaughter plants of old have closed up," said rancher Jack Varian, who until recently sold his cattle to feedlot operators.
By the end of summer, six ranches will be using the "mobile harvest unit," a tractor-trailer outfitted with knives, meat hooks and a freezer that is based on a similar unit in Washington state.
The vehicle, which employs three butchers and shares a USDA inspector with a nearby meat-packaging shop, charges nearly three times as much as a stationary facility. But with the nearest slaughterhouse hours away, Garrison said costs equal out once trucking expenses and time away from the ranch are factored.
Poett's customers pay a premium for the beef. Her boneless rib eye steak costs $22 per pound, while a similar cut from conventionally raised cattle costs $11.99 at a Vons supermarket in Los Angeles.
Kim Schiffer, 52, who buys beef from Poett at the Santa Barbara farmer's market, said she's delighted to spend more for higher quality meat that supports an enterprise she believes in.
"I really believe in voting with my dollars," said Schiffer. "I'm voting for locally produced meat that doesn't have to be trucked a long way using fossil fuels... I'm voting for what I think are fresher and probably cleaner-processed meats."