October 27, 2011
POINT REYES, Calif: The grass green Point Reyes peninsula juts into the cold Pacific Ocean just north of San Francisco.
Its soils are dark and rich and the climate averages 60 degrees F year around.
It is an ideal climate for grassland farming and indeed pastoral farming predominates.
Of course, the reason this beautiful seashore is still pastoral and not a housing subdivision is that the Federal Government bought the peninsula for the National Seashore Park in 1960.
At that time the peninsula was dominated by tenant dairy graziers.
After the buyout of their landlord, the Federal Government allowed these farmers to continue to lease their properties from The National Seashore Park.
David Evans grew up on one of these pastoral leaseholds.
His family milked cows until 1976 and then switched to beef production.
After he graduated in 1996 from Cal Poly, he returned home full of vim and vigor and ready to turn the family ranch into a showplace example of management-intensive grazing.
After two years of working for his parents, he realized that they were happy with the traditional way of ranching and really didn’t want to change things.
So, in 1999 he decided to start something of his own and leased 110 acres and bought 80 yearlings.
These stocker cattle produced fantastic gains of 2.5 lbs. per day but he wound up losing $1000 due to negative marketing margin.
“I learned the pitfalls of the commodity business real quick. I decided I wanted to get into something where I could call the price of what I produced,” he said.
The next year he sorted off two heifers from his stocker herd as a test of grassfed beef.
“I thought the beef was great, but then I was pretty biased.”
In 2001, he thought he would be able to direct market five head locally.
However in a classic example of timing and luck, he had purchased a listing on Eatwild.com two days before Michael Pollan’s article “Power Steer” appeared in The New York Times Magazine.
“I got calls all the way from New Jersey and wound up selling 25 head rather than five head,” he said.
And, the ball kept rolling.
“Eatwild really opened us up to the world. There were top Bay area meat markets calling me who said they just wanted to be able to tell consumers they had grassfed beef.
“Grassfed was suddenly cool.”
USDA ABATTOIR A NECESSITY
He said this new demand also emphasized the marketing limitations of using a state-inspected plant rather than a USDA inspected plant.
“With a state plant I couldn’t sell across a state line or to restaurants.”
Evans said his dream was to get his beef into world famous Chez Panisse Restaurant in Berkeley.
“You get in there and you have instant credibility for your meat’s quality.”
In order to sell to Bay Area restaurants, he had to take his cattle to Rancho Veal in Petaluma to be harvested and skinned and then had to transport the meat to Hagemann Meat in Santa Rosa for a USDA inspected cut and wrap.
After all this trouble his meat got a less than enthusiastic reception from the top Bay Area chefs.
He said the chefs at Chez Panisse gave him excellent feedback on the quality of his beef and what was lacking.
“Like most producers I started out doing it all wrong. I got in a hurry and was harvesting my beeves at 16 months before they were really finished.
“This meat was too lean and had no flavor. It tasted like a cross between beef and veal with no real beef flavor.”
He said Mac Magruder, a top grassfed producer in Mendocino Country, exemplified how to produce marbled grassfed beef.
“Once I started harvesting cattle at 24 months of age all the restaurant doors suddenly opened for me. Chez Panisse, Acme Chophouse. I got them all.”
Today, white table cloth restaurants are 75% of his sales but that is getting ahead of the story.
As a part of his emphasis on meat quality, Evans wanted to cut his own meat.
Unfortunately, zoning ordinances in Point Reyes do not allow new use butcher shops.
“The only way I could have a butcher shop was if it was in conjunction with a restaurant. So, I had to open a restaurant.”
The small 25 seat restaurant is called “Marin Sun Farms Eatery” and which specializes in, you guessed it, grassfed meat products.
“We were primarily a retail meat shop, but for $10 we would cook your steak and serve it with locally grown organic vegetables.
“A hot product for us is ‘natural beef tallow french fries.’”
He said that the restaurant was a marginal enterprise but that it was worth it to get the butcher shop.
BUTCHER SHOP GIVES QUALITY CONTROL
“Cutting your own meat is the only way you can control its quality. My customers are very particular about how a piece of meat looks on the plate.”
So the protocol became that Hagemann’s would age the carcasses for two weeks cuts it into primals. These would then go to Evan’s restaurant/butcher shop where they would often be aged further and are cut into retail cuts.
With a new 1700 acre leased ranch, all the pieces of the puzzle were finally together and Evans put the pedal to the metal and started growing as fast as possible.
“I was enjoying the first out of the gate advantage. I quickly established my brand with the top restaurants and virtually no competition.”
He hired 17 employees. He rented a booth at the Ferry Plaza Farmer Market, started selling 600 to 800 pounds of ground beef a week to Stanford University and most of his offal went to two pet food companies.
Two Weston A. Price buying clubs competed for his beeves’ bones.
In the year 2005, he harvested 265 head compared to only 110 the year before and 60 the year before that.
He said he felt he was on track to harvest well over 300 in 2006.
And then disaster struck.
On New Year’s Eve 2005, the small river adjacent to his butcher shop flooded his restaurant/butcher shop.
“I thought it was the end of the world, but in retrospect, it probably saved my life.
“I was growing entirely too fast. I didn’t have time to think.
“After the flood I had plenty of time to think.”
Luckily, Evans had flood insurance which has largely made him whole financially but the flood has resulted in a dramatic downsizing.
Today, Evans has only four employees and the restaurant has been rented to a local catering company who now operate it.
The retail shop has expanded its venue to locally grown organic vegetables, Navajo Churro Lamb from Cedarville, California and fresh seafood from Drakes Bay.
In addition to grassfed beef, Evans runs 1000 laying hens and has just started into pastured broilers.
He said he considers Joel Salatin as his primary mentor.
“I’m really into the ‘eat local’ movement,” he said.
“I’m proud to say I don’t ship anything by Fed Ex. All of my sales are in the Bay area.”
Evans said his current goal is to probably cap his growth at 10 head a week.
He said he has figured out that growing slowly is actually the only way to be profitable.
“You need to take the time to build a good foundation for a business.
“I realized I was preaching the necessity of sustainability to others but wasn’t practicing what I was preaching with my own business.
“You get one or two head a week ahead of your sales and you’ve suddenly got a problem that can be really tough to get over.
“We’ll be down slightly in gross this year but we will actually make much more money.”
He has also made the decision to farm as much as the production end of the business out to local grass farmers as possible and concentrate more of his time on marketing.
“My strengths are in marketing and I have only so much time,” he said. “I plan to let marketing take the lead and produce on a smaller scale.
“There are people with more time than I have who can produce it as well as I can.”
He said he is currently working with six Bay area grassfed beef producers.
“I have been on one heck of a steep learning curve; but, all in all, I’m pretty pleased with what I have been able to accomplish in just a few years.
“Of course, a lot of that has been due to being in the right place at the right time.
“There is no better place in the world to market grassfed beef than the Bay area.”
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