February 2014: Local Rancher and Grass Farmer John de Bruin

John de Bruin

When I arrived at our monthly gathering last week, our special guest, rancher and grass farmer John de Bruin of the California Lowline Cattle Company and Dey Dey’s Best Beef Ever was already busily preparing samples of his grass-fed sausages, beef fillets, and London broil.  We had a cheerful crowd of about 20 participants with a handful of new faces.

Just to give you an idea of how colorful our meals are, it finally occurred to me to take this photo of some full plates.  I really think that as much as we talk about meat in this group, we probably eat more vegetables than most vegans and vegetarians.   In meat-phobic diets, in the absence of healthy animal proteins and fats, our bodies tend to steer us towards starchy carbohydrates.  The hunger signal is not as readily turned off, and the urge to fill your plate and belly with starchy carbs becomes so strong that your focus is directed away from eating adequate amounts of produce. Without the meats and healthy animal fats, people crave and eat more grains, beans, and tubers, all of which, when over-consumed or improperly prepared, tend to be inflammatory and cause nutritional imbalances and even food intolerances.  

So here at the Weston A. Price Foundation, we
advocate lots of properly-prepared non-starchy vegetables accentuated by meats and other animal products in their most natural form, and finally if desired and tolerated, some properly prepared nuts, seeds, grain, beans, or tubers. The result is a colorful plate overflowing with the nutrients needed to both build and cleanse your body!

As our February potluck dinner meeting began, our special guest John de Bruin passed around his tasty breakfast sausage as an appetizer, and then moved on to his beef fillets and finally his savory London broil.  One thing that John prides himself on is the flavor of his beef.  He puts a lot of effort into cultivating the right kind of grasses that will produce the best tasting meat.  He generally seeds his fields with a mixture of  rye, orchard grass, alfalfa, oats, fescue, and barley.  According to John, their are 3 factors which contribute to the flavor of the meat:  the breed of cattle, their diet, and the aging process.  The breed John grows is a cross between Angus and lowline cattle.

Sadly he points out, that although grass-fed meat is great for our health and for the environment, unfortunately many grass-fed beef producers do not consider the quality of their grasses, leading them to produce a much tougher and less flavorful product, which can turn people off grass-fed meat.  So take some good advice from John de Bruin:  if you’re grass-fed curious, shop around and don’t make a judgement or even a purchase until you find a brand that is known for its flavor.  Otherwise you may be sorely disappointed.  Properly raised grass-fed beef is so good for both you and the environment (see the Ted Talk with Alan Savory or my July 2013 post to this blog that we want you to have a good experience and come back for more.  If you live in the Pasadena area, then the grass-fed beef from Dey Dey’s Best Beef Ever at the Pasadena Farmer’s market is the way to go!
During his after-dinner talk, John showed a Power-Point presentation, my favorite slides of which were the ones with nutrition charts for grass-fed versus grain-fed beef and pasture-raised versus conventionally-raised chicken eggs.  The differences were astonishing and inspiring.  The  nutrition information on those charts alone would certainly make me want to switch to grass-fed beef and pastured chicken if I wasn’t already hooked on it! Though grass-fed beef tends to be more pricey than grain-fed beef, you’ll eat smaller quantities, and in the long run, as long as you avoid processed food and eat plenty of clean veggies, you’ll save on your health care bills.  Ultimately, whichever way you look at it, you will end up paying for your health, either by prevention or by disease management.  Personally, I choose the former!

Another point which stands out from his presentation was how John became interested in farming in the first place.  Farming is actually his third career, one he started after years as an engineer.  He’d always wanted to live in the country, but was city bound until his retirement.  Remembering his favorite cow “Bessie” with the most loving adoring eyes and beautiful long eyelashes from the time he spent in Holland as a child, John always knew that after retiring, he would buy some land and start raising beef cattle.  He figured it would be way easier than engineering, at least from an intellectual standpoint.  Boy was he wrong!  Managing the grasses, diet, water, herding, and grazing of the cattle is a complex operation.  Building a sustainable system also takes a great love of nature and the ability to explore, understand, and try to reproduce natural ecosystems in a farmed setting.  For this John uses a system developed by the infamous Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm.

Following this system, John’s cattle start each day on a new paddock of lush green grass.  The cattle graze to their hearts’ content, depositing manure as they go, and stimulating the plants to grow, absorb more carbon from the atmosphere, and transfer it to the earth. The next day, the cattle are directed to their new paddocks, and John moves the chickens to the freshly vacated area. There the chickens spend the day scratching through the cow patties in search of their favorite treat, fly larvae.  Chickens are omnivores so they need a diet rich in both plant and animal foods.  A vegetarian-fed chicken is not a “natural” chicken, while a chicken who eats an omnivorous diet will not only be healthier itself, but tastier too, with greater health benefits for the consumer.  In addition to insects, John’s chickens also feast on whatever grass is left after the cows leave, as well as some non-GMO grains, all of which are components of the chicken’s natural diet.  So the chickens scratch and spread the manure around the pasture, while adding some of their own fertilizer too, further stimulating the growth of fresh green grass and the sequestration of carbon from the atmosphere.  The next day the chickens follow the cows, the grass grows thicker and stronger behind them, and the cycle continues.  

John has temporarily suspended his egg operation due to great losses from predation, and he’s currently working on a system to better protect his flocks from coyotes, bobcats, and raccoons.  Over the last 2 years he’s lost about 500 birds, and most of them weren’t even eaten, just killed.  John plans to invest in some dogs to keep away the predators.  But before he can do that, he needs to construct  a fence around the pastures.  The fence won’t keep the predators out, but it will keep the dogs in, and on the job.  In addition, John keeps the chickens in mobile enclosures that he can move from paddock to paddock.  Predators are currently digging their way into the enclosures, so the plan is to reinforce them with some protective rubber sheeting so the predators can’t dig through.  Hopefully with the improved enclosures, new fencing, and trained dogs, John will reduce his losses and start selling eggs again.  His eggs are absolutely delicious and won second place in the September 2011 issue of LA magazine for best farmers market eggs in LA county.  That contest didn’t even account for nutritional value, but if it had, Dey Dey’s eggs most certainly would have won.

Another issue which John touched upon was the current drought in California.  Normally, every winter, John keeps his cattle on non-irrigated pastures which receive enough rain during the winter to grow the grass and feed the cattle.  Unfortunately this year, there was so little rain that the grass didn’t grow, so John was forced to relocate some of his cattle, and move the rest to the irrigated pastures that he normally reserves for summer use.  This definitely puts pressure on his resources, as his water bill is already $40,000 per year in a good year.  We learned that no matter who owns the land, the water beneath it belongs to the state of California, so there’s always a price to pay.  Let’s hope John’s ranch survives this drought without any loss of animals and without too much of a price increase for his consumers.  We need more grass-fed cattle, not fewer.  I know my family depends on it, since I refuse to feed them grain-fed beef.  The nutritional value of grass-fed beef is priceless, and supporting local sustainable farmers like John not only helps the local economy, but is also good for the animals and the environment too.  I wouldn’t choose any other meat.

One thing John did mention is that no one really knows if this drought is temporary or permanent.  It has to do with the migration of the jet stream, due to a change in what John calls the “Delta -T,” or difference in temperature between the poles and the equator.  When this number changes, so does the position of the jet stream.  Once the jet stream moves, it takes the weather with it, and the result is climate change in the land below.  That’s why so much of the USA and Europe had more precipitation this year while southern California had far less than our usual amount.  So all we can do is cross our fingers and wait.  I hope for John’s sake, his cattle, and the communities he feeds, that the rain comes back soon.  We did have quite a bit of rain during past few days, but one good rainfall is never enough to alleviate a severe drought.  We need the jet stream to move back to its original position for that.

On a final note, there was some discussion about regulations for small farmers, and John encouraged everyone to please make our voices heard by our government and local representatives.  Regulators tend not to differentiate between large industrial farms and small sustainable ones.  First, the two types of farms have completely different contamination risks, that of factory farms being quite high compared to that of small sustainable farms.  Second, the measures necessary to keep the meat safe are completely different; so to require a small sustainable farm to use the same safety measures as a large industrial one is not only unnecessary, but also puts a huge financial burden on small farmers, which tends to put them out of business.

We need more small farms, not fewer, and while there are plenty of folks who would argue that the government should just stay out of everyone’s business, to be more realistic, we need to make sure our legislators know that small farms need their own set of rules and regulations that are consistent with their products, their operations, and their budgets.  It’s up to us to educate our legislators and let them know that there is a demand for sustainably-raised meats, that the operations and products of small sustainable farms differ greatly from those of large-scale factory farms, and that law-makers need to make provisions for this in their regulations.  If we don’t make our voices heard, our small farms will be in great jeopardy, and fewer and fewer prospective small farmers will enter the business.  We need regulations that are appropriate, manageable, and encouraging to the growth of small sustainable farms.

That was the resounding take-home message for the night.  And with that, I highly encourage  you to become a member of the Weston A. Price Foundation and its sister organization, the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, where your dollars help support small sustainable farms.  As a member of the Weston A. Price Foundation, you’ll also receive our wonderful quarterly Wise Traditions journal, and most importantly, email advisories on upcoming legislation, with contact information for your local legislators.  Please join us in our mission to bring more healthy food and animals to our country and our plates!

Until we meet again, don’t forget to think about where you put your food dollars and what type of health care system, animal care system, and environment you are supporting.  Collectively, where we choose to spend our food dollars could either make or break a strong network of small sustainable farms in both southern California and throughout the USA.  The choice is yours!

In good health and good conscience,
Your chapter leader, Karen

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