Nose to tail, stomach to stomach, perfume to steak: In praise of whole-animal production.

‘Innovation in the meat industry is now about going back to basics and moving away from industrial meat production.’- AnnaRae Grabstein

Two hundred years ago, when vast ranchos spread north of the San Francisco Bay, vaqueros would drive cattle by the thousands to the Mission San Rafael. There they’d slaughter the cattle, discard the meat, load the precious tallow and hide onto ships, and send them 14,000 miles away to Eastern markets. Sure, a steak or two from each animal went to feed the ranchero’s men, but without refrigeration and with San Francisco’s population then a paltry 800 souls, waste was routine.

Our age of consumer convenience, conformity, and squeamishness comes at the cost of squandered resources and disempowered farmers. From “imperfectly” spotted apples to unsold products expiring on the shelf, one third of food goes to waste during its journey from field to plate.

When I was working at a livestock ranch in Valley Ford, our business depended on selling whole animals. Chefs love putting local fare from family ranches on their menus, but they were raised by super markets, not farmers.

“Can you get me 60 pounds of pork spareribs and 50 pounds of hanger steak by Sunday?” they’d ask. Had we been able to simply slice those off our animals piecemeal, we’d have been stuck with eight pigs and 25 steers’ worth of what remained: about 13 tons of meat. I spent many a farmers’ market singing the praises of pork spleen, rump roast, lard, and enough liver for an iron overdose. And remember that precious tallow shipped halfway around the world 200 years ago? Our one attempt at tallow candles didn’t do that well at market. Seems no one today wants to burn beef fat for romantic lighting.

Innovation in the meat industry is now more about going back to basics and moving away from industrial meat production. Annarae Grabstein

But eliminating waste is an important credo, even in the abbatoir. Today, when a local rancher arrives at the re-opened slaughterhouse in Petaluma with a half-ton steer, he’ll return home with 400 pounds of beef. Marin Sun Farms—which earlier this year bought the processing facility, restoring our region’s only USDA slaughterhouse—vows to go even further, using as much of that extra 600 pounds of “waste” as possible.

In the average consumer’s mind, a cow entails T-bone steaks and hamburger patties on four hooves; a pig is nothing more than bacon with a curly tail. To sustain small-scale, local meat production, using the whole animal is essential. But as it turns out, this goes beyond just eating more unusual cuts.

“We’re able to harvest rumen juice,” says AnnaRae Grabstein, manager of custom sales at Marin Sun Farms, of the bacterial-rich liquid found in a cow’s rumen stomach. “The San Francisco Zoo uses it to feed sick animals. It’s alive with beneficial microbial flora and can be collected by a vet to help other ruminant animals digest nutrients when their own digestion is failing.”

And that’s just the start. Manure gathered from the slaughterhouse is spread on fields for fertilization and paunch manure (partially digested feed) can be used as an input for bagged soil or compost. “Zero waste” is unlikely, given the USDA’s condemnation of certain parts of the animal. But Grabstein says they’re harkening back to more traditional values of resourcefulness. “Our philosophy is first to process our excess in a way to keep it viable and second to find ways to utilize internally or identify outside companies to use it,” she says. “Innovation in the meat industry is now more about going back to basics and moving away from industrial meat production. This means old-school whole-carcass butchering and animals slaughtered one at a time.”

It also means building relationships with those who can find outlets for unique items. Marin Sun supplies cow eyeballs and pig hearts—undesirable to the American palate—to the Exploratorium for their educational dissection program. Meanwhile, a rendering company now uses their tallow for such products as soap and perfume. Yes, perfume.

But if tallow perfume helps the margins of Marin Sun Farms, so be it. The economic viability of local slaughterhouses is vital to the health of our food web. When they fail, family ranchers feel the hit—a not uncommon occurrence. (Today, just four corporations slaughter 80 percent of U.S. cattle.)

Earlier this year, when a government recall temporarily shut down the slaughterhouse in Petaluma, ranchers like Adam Gaska of Mendocino Organics was forced to drive a livestock trailer all the way to Eureka, an eight-hour endeavor. “If cutting waste keeps their prices affordable and prevents them from going out of business,” says Gaska, whose pasture-raised pork can be found locally at Thistle Meats and Sonoma Meat Co., “I’m all for it.”

But given an industry infamous for sneaking pink slime onto school menus, marketing pig rectums as calamari, and—in the case of our own local slaughterhouse under previous ownership—slipping sickly dairy cows past safety inspectors for Hot Pockets filling sold 3,000 miles away, we must also be careful that such efficiency contributes to more than just the bottom line.

By uniting consumer education, producer transparency, and regulations that favor small-scale local food systems, it’s possible to rise above the old tallow and hide trade of the rancheros and finally return to honoring the lives, communities, and precious resources on which we depend.

Evan Wiig is the director of the Farmers Guild, a nonprofit network of farmers and local food advocates working to empower the next generation of agriculture.

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