Citizen beef

At Hearst Ranch, cattle are “biological pieces in a biological system”

(MEATPOULTRY.com, April 22, 2008)
by Steve Bjerklie
The owners and managers of Hearst Ranch in California could be forgiven for thinking that obtaining certification from the Humane Farm Animal Care organization that Hearst’s grass-fed beef operation meets humane-handling standards would be a good thing indeed. Especially in the wake of the Hallmark/Westland debacle, how could anyone think that certification from a program requiring third-party audits of handling procedures would be a slap in the face to the industry?

But that’s exactly what a few members of the beef business have told Brian Kenny, who manages Hearst Ranch, in the past few days in the wake of the ranch’s announcement last week that it had obtained certification. Brian told MEAT&POULTRY that it’s disconcerting that “doing the right thing has put some people on the defensive.” The industry, he says, “is like a fraternity, and there’s a lot of pressure to conform.”

Hearst Ranch, which dates back to 1865, when it was founded by George Hearst, the mining entrepreneur who was William Randolph Hearst’s father, raises about 1,000 of its total 6,000 head of cattle on a strict grass-only regimen. In addition to the Humane Farm certification, the operation is also certified sustainable by the Food Alliance. Customers include Williams Sonoma, Neiman Marcus and other high-end retailers.

Kenny, who came to the beef industry through a circuitous route that includes a degree in Greco-Roman archeology from the Univ. of California-Berkeley as well as a stint in the olive-oil business, claims the naysayers won’t cause Hearst to rethink its commitment to humane handling or to its niche market. “It’s just a conundrum for anyone who wants to create a differentiated product. But you gotta have principles as a business, and these are some of ours,” he comments. “With any branded program, you’re trying to break out of a cycle.” Besides, he adds, the most important adjective for Hearst Ranch isn’t “sustainable” or “grass-fed” or “organic.” “It’s Hearst. The guy I work for, Steve Hearst” — William Randolph’s great-grandson — “is absolutely committed to doing the right thing. With his name on it, it means we have to do the right thing. That’s what we’re about, and these certifications are part of that for us.”

The cattle Hearst raises are mostly Angus-Hereford crosses, which have been raised by the Hearst family in California for 150 years. The operation includes two huge parcels, a 70,000-acre ranch near Parkfield, Calif., and an 80,000-acre ranch surrounding the famous Hearst Castle above San Simeon, Calif. That ranch will forever remain in agriculture, by the way, due to a conservation easement the state of California granted to the Hearsts on the condition that the land always remain a ranch

At Hearst Ranch, “we’re looking at the cattle as biological pieces in a biological system,” Kenny says. He uses a French wine term describing a biological sense of place: “Our cattle literally eat the terroir — native rye grasses, wildflowers, and so on.” He said that famed chef Alice Waters, when she tasted Hearst Ranch grass-fed beef in 2007, remarked on its unique, distinctive and delicious flavor. “She asked, ‘What’s that I’m tasting?’ ‘You’re tasting the coast,’ I told her,” remembers Brian.

“What we do is counter-intuitive to people who are used to the boxed-beef business,” he continues. “They call us and want to buy x-number of head and sometimes I have to tell them I don’t have the cattle, even though they’re willing to pay a premium. Sometimes they say, ‘Can’t you just buy some cattle and put the Hearst name on them?’ and I tell them no, I have to grow these animals sustainably.”

While using some very traditional cattle-production techniques that date back to the 19th century and even earlier, Hearst Ranch isn’t afraid of science, Kenny is quick to point out. “We’ve DNA’d our whole herd. We can take any steak with our name on it and I can tell you exactly where it came from. We embrace science.”

For now, more than the occasional potshot some industry crank hurls Hearst Ranch’s way regarding its old-school production practices, Kenny is concerned about the USDA standard for grass-fed beef, which he thinks is too lenient. “Where we’re going to get into trouble as an industry, I think, is that grass-fed should mean strictly grass and nothing else. You make that definition too broad, and you kill the adjective you want. Look what happened to ‘natural,’” he comments.