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By Meghan Rosen
An old-fashioned butcher-shop in Santa Cruz wants customers to know where their meat comes from and who’s preparing it. They’re part of a growing movement to buy humanely-raised food from small local farms. They say grass-fed meat tastes better and is more sustainable, but the flavor isn’t for everybody, and neither are the prices. Read full story below.
A small group of food-lovers is nibbling smoked chorizo and hand-cured pork shoulder at the charcuterie on the west side of Santa Cruz. They’re sipping glasses of wine as soft jazz filters through the shop. The group is merry, and the mood is relaxed. You’d never guess they’re about to butcher a pig.
Ren: So, if you all want to come closer and spread out, so everyone can see what’s going on here….
Ren Hogue is rolling out the carcass of what was once a 200-pound hog. It’s hanging by a hoof from a hoist on a rail in the middle of the shop. The hog is headless, and has been split in half, eviscerated, and shaved. It’s ready for the butchers.
Chris LaVeque is the charcuterie’s owner. He calls himself El Salchichero — the sausage-maker. It’s also the name of his shop. They’ve been open about a year, and Ren says they’re trying to revive a dying art.
Ren: We are a little bit different than your traditional butcher shop. We bring in the whole animal. We break them down by hand. They’ve had a good life, have been treated with respect, and we continue that respect as the animal comes through.
Conventional butchers import animals from feedlots across the country, but Chris and Ren like to keep it local. This pig came from Devil’s Gulch ranch, a family farm in MarinCounty. Chris cuts the ribcage from the outer shoulder, carving along a seam in the muscle, then rolling the meat down off the shoulder blade. Next, he takes out his saw. Chris separates flesh from bone, then holds up a chunk of meat and wraps it with loops of twine: He’s showing the class how to truss a roast.
Though their customer base is growing, Ren says people are still getting used to their prices. A pound of bacon at the charcuterie is 12.99. At Safeway, you can get it for less than 4. But Chris is optimistic that more and more people will chose to pay for locally and humanely raised meats.
Chris: People are just stoked that they finally have a source of meat that they can trust. They know where it’s grown, know who grows it, know who cuts it.
Sarah Lopez, an organic chicken farmer from Watsonville agrees. She’s selling eggs at the West Side Santa Cruz farmers market for 7.50 a dozen. Sarah says the more people learn about her farm, the more they’re willing to pay a price that can keep her in business. And business is good. In the past year, sales have doubled. But not every body’s ready to pay more.
Sarah: The folks that are used to the grocery store… They think it’s outrageously expensive because they don’t understand the difference between pasture and the free-range label.
So what’s the difference?
Sarah: Pasture means that the chicken’s out on the grass 24 hours a day.
“Free-range” chickens, in comparison, don’t actually have to go outside and there’s no standard for the quality or duration of outdoor access.
Sarah: Some people describe it as ‘chicken-ier than chicken’ or ‘what chicken is supposed to taste like’.
Like Sarah, Ren and Chris say the taste of pasture-raised animals is incomparable.
But grass-fed flavors aren’t for everyone.
Dave: For us, it didn’t work out. I tried it.
Dave Peterson is the owner of Corralitos, a sausage company in Watsonville that’s known for its smoked meats. He buys from farms like Harris Ranch,California’s largest producer of beef. Dave tried selling grass-fed beef about five years ago.
Dave: I put it in our fresh meat counter along with our other meat and advertised it. Really didn’t sell. So then I thought, well, I’ll vacuum seal to get more shelf life out of it. Still wasn’t selling. So then I vacuum sealed it and froze it, so I’d have it on hand. Didn’t really sell. So then I thought well, why I don’t do a different approach. I started giving samples away to some of our customers here. And then when they came back, I asked them about it, they said, ‘You know, Dave, I really didn’t care for it.’ So that’s when I finally said, ‘Well, you know, there’s no future in this.’”
Is it possible that interest has grown since Dave tried to sell it? Did he jump off the grass-fed train too early?
Dave: Well, let’s put it this way: I’ve probably had maybe 2 calls in that period of time.
Dave says that in grocery stores like Whole Foods, grass-fed meat flies out the front door. He thinks Corralitos attracts a different sort of clientele: people who care more about the shop’s smoked specialties than where the meat came from.
For some, it may just be a matter of taste. For KUSP, I’m Meghan Rosen.