What’s the real story behind the roasts that take center stage at holiday feasts?
The question is one that more and more consumers are asking after movies such as “Food Inc.” and “Fast Food Nation” exposed some of the meat industry’s more stomach-turning practices.
Five years ago, Eric Ryba said he didn’t think much about what he bought at the grocery store. Now, he is starting to grow his own produce and ordered his first share of beef from James Ranch, where the cattle enjoy wide-open pastures and a million-dollar, Animas Valley view.
“I’ve read so much about factory-farmed food and the whole thing is kind of dubious,” he said. “I’ve really cut back what I buy at the store.”
With holiday meat orders rolling in, local grocers and producers said Durango residents are wholeheartedly embracing natural meat.
“People are looking for something that’s locally raised in an ethical manner,” said Chris Fuller, plant manager at Sunnyside Meats, a local meat-processing plant. “They want to see that animals aren’t given antibiotics or hormones and that they’re being fed high-quality feed.”
This time of year, many producers of local, chemical-free, grass-fed meat said that demand climbs so high that they run out of their most popular cuts of beef and lamb.
Kay James, co-owner of James Ranch, said they usually sell out of Christmas roasts like prime rib and rib roasts before the holiday season ends.
Brent Walter, marketing director for Ignacio-based Fox Fire Farms, said orders for their certified grass-fed and organic lamb and beef double or triple during the holidays. Over the last decade, he said the farm has seen growth rates of 30 to 50 percent and has continued to add more products to its lineup to keep up with demand.
At Sunnyside Farms Market, owner Holly Zink said the business has seen 15 to 30 percent increases in sales each year, including during the holidays. Sunnyside can’t mark down its holiday meat prices like other big grocers, Zink said, so steady growth during the holiday season is significant. It means that people still are choosing to pay for natural, local meats when the alternative is much cheaper, she said.
But with their purchase, customers want a fuller picture of where their meat comes from, how the animals were treated, what they ate and who raised them. Ranchers and store owners said many care more about these details than whether their meat carries the green-and-white organic seal.
Zink said many customers come into her store looking for organic meat and end up buying the market’s nonorganic products because they follow many of the same standards.
“We explain that they are certified humanely handled and what kind of diet and lifestyle they had,” she said. “The actual organic certification becomes meaningless once they hear that.”
Though most of the Fox Fire Farms’ meats are certified organic, Walter said that for most of their customers, the grass-fed label is more important than the organic one.
Northern New Mexico rancher Antonio Manzanares, whose lambs are certified organic, agreed that many of his customers buy from him for reasons beyond the certification.
“Even if we weren’t organic, it’s more about the connection with the rancher and knowing where the food comes from,” he said.
His customers also support him because they want to do their part to keep him on the land, he said.
“It’s more holistic,” he said. “People come to us and say thanks for staying on the land. They know the value of keeping farmers farming and ranchers ranching.”
More and more first-time customers have done research about meat production and what they expect in their meats, said Rob Blythe, a butcher at Sunnyside.
“People are much more in the know now,” he said. “The first time they moan and groan about prices, but they want to make a change in their diet and in their lives.”