Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Baron of Meat.

Each morning, I grab a steaming cup of coffee and sit down before my laptop to check email. Ah innovation… Oh wait, it’s mostly junk. I probably receive about a dozen emails from various online retailers whose little “send me offers” checkbox I mysteriously forgot to deselect, multiple reminders about the weekly department seminar, and so on. I generally follow the practice of massive check and delete without even reading them. However, one morning I noticed an email from a retailer I was surprised to hear from: David Samiljan, the owner of Baron’s Meats and Poultry in Alameda, CA. Baron’s is a small butcher shop that carries a wide variety of foods mainly from smaller, more sustainable farms (some of which are even local). Along with providing better options for ethical eaters, Baron’s provides an invaluable resource, Dave himself.

Knowing that his customers value more ethical choices, Dave doesn’t just stop at cuts of meat and wine pairings; he also knows how the farms from which he sources his goods operate. And if he doesn’t know the answer to a customer’s question, he’ll “make a call and find out the answer”. When I visited Baron’s a few weeks ago in search of ethical meat with better store hours than the farmers market, Dave spent about 20 minutes talking to me, explaining the different practices of each farm, and answering my questions about general sustainable practices. If the polyculture eco-minded Marin Sun Farms is on one end of the spectrum, and on the other is the massive monoculture Harris Ranch (drive south on I5 – when you hit the stench of cow manure, look east and check out the seemingly unending fencerows filled with cows laying in muck), where did these other farms fall? While Baron’s does carry some Marin Sun Farms products, most of the farms, Dave explained, fall about in the middle of the spectrum. They are much less diversified than Marin Sun, and many do send their cows to small feedlots where their diets are supplemented with grain. However, the amount of time spent on the feedlot eating grain is generally a much smaller fraction of the animal’s lives than in most conventional operations. Also, for the meat to be called organic, the animals must not be given antibiotics, so those feedlots have to be small to avoid illness taking out the entire group. Dave also confirmed my suspicions about Niman Ranch: that although it used to be an icon in animal welfare and sustainability, it is now a bit closer to the Harris Ranch side of the spectrum than the other farms from which he sources meat and poultry. Dave should know – he worked for Niman Ranch before opening Baron’s. After our chat, I decided to buy meat from Marin Sun Farms (of course), and Eel River (offering 100% grass-fed, organic, and pasture-raised beef). Dave also recommended Five Dot Ranch as a good, sustainable option. Since it would be impractical for me to visit every farm from which I purchase animal products, having a trustworthy and knowledgeable butcher gives me piece of mind that I am making responsible and ethical choices. It also gives me the opportunity to provide feedback that might actually matter. In fact, it is this type of unusual communication that struck me about Dave’s email, or more specifically, the Baron’s Meat and Poultry Newsletter.

The first thing mentioned in the email newsletter was their selection of antibiotic, hormone, and nitrate-free lunchmeat. And then a question… Are there any lunchmeats that we, the customers, would like to see Baron’s add to their stock? The email went on to ask about interest in grass-fed beef as well. Having a vendor ask what type of meat I would prefer to eat was certainly a first for me! In a subsequent newsletter, Dave shared the excellent news that he will be bringing in more grass-fed beef and pointed out that it will only be free range, pastured, green-grass-fed beef. Merely being called grass-fed, which could mean a diet of hay and alfalfa fed to cows confined in a closed shed, will not be good enough for Dave and wouldn’t be for me either! Finally, the email mentioned a unique opportunity to pick up some sustainably-raised lamb that was coming in soon from an organic walnut orchard where sheep have replaced tractors and their manure has replaced fertilizer. The farmer had only three lambs to sell, which is enough to feed many people but not enough to appeal to a large grocery store, which highlights yet another perk of working with a small, independent butcher.

The lessons of my experience with Baron’s Meat and Poultry are two-fold. First, having a butcher who is knowledgeable about sustainability and ethical farming practices takes a lot of the stress and hassle out of purchasing animal products. Seeking out someone like Dave and a place like Baron’s will save you a ton of time and effort in the long run, and may allow you access to a wider variety of foods as well. The second lesson is the power of communication when it comes to improving your access to ethical foods. Marin Sun Farms, Baron’s Meat and Poultry, and many other smaller eco-minded farms and businesses now maintain pages on Facebook and Twitter. By following these pages, you have the opportunity to show your support, offer feedback, and get information about unique offers and special events. It’s an easy way to be a part of the food solution.


  1. I believe when you first started this blog, I suggested that someone should organize an evaluation process, and then farms could apply for various certifications ... seems like this would be useful ...

    I really believe the lack of easily accessible calibrated information on what you're actually buying is the biggest obstacle for consumers and farmers alike. If there's demand for ethical products, such a service could really streamline/energize people's transition from the big farms.

  2. I totally agree that more transparent information is the key to enabling people to make good food choices and inspiring people who would otherwise be unaware of problems with the conventional food system. The trouble with certification programs, even AWA, is getting them widely applied. AWA does not currently endorse any meat available in my area. That's probably a communication issue between the farmers and the program, but it still leaves me without the information I need. These efforts are further hampered by the food industry, which would rather us not know what we are eating. Hence, their intense push not to have labels on genetically modified foods and the liberal use of misleading product labels. I think, for now, the best option we have is to inform each other of the best food options out there rather than hoping the government can come up with regulations that can't be abused or worked around.