Adam Parks: How To Select & Prepare Sustainably-Raised Meats
For those who include meat in their diet, sourcing your beef/pork/chicken/lamb from local ranchers who graze their stock using nature-based, sustainable farming methods is the best way to do this short of raising the animals yourself. Our past interviews with Joel Salatin offer deep detail on what these nature-based (and much more humane) methods are.
But what specifically should you look for when choosing a provider to buy your meat from?
Additionally, most folks don't realize how important the butchering process is to how well meat tastes. What qualities are important to look for in a butcher?
Former rancher and current meat-repreneur, Adam Parks, joins us for this week's podcast to give practical guidance on these questions, as well as recipe and cooking tips for how to get the most out of the meats we eat. After all, if you go to the trouble to select the healthiest product and get the best butchering, you want to ensure the meals you make from it are prepared well, too.
Parks runs Victorian Farmstead Meat Company, a meat CSA, which sources from the plethora of small-scale sustainable ranches and farms throughout Sonoma County, California. (Full disclosure: I've served as an advisor to his company, as well co-run a much larger CSA with him in the past)
We understand if dedicated vegetarians prefer to skip this podcast. But anyone who includes meat in their diet really should listen all the way through — out of care and respect for your own health & palate, as well as for the animals you eat.
Click the play button below to listen to my interview with Adam Parks (56m:28s).
Listen to the AudioRead the Full Transcript!
Adam Parks: How To Select & Prepare Sustainably-Raised Meats
The following is a transcript of recorded content. Please note, these transcripts are not always perfect and may contain typos. If you notice any major mistakes, please feel free to report them by opening a Technical Support ticket under the Help menu at the top of the screen.
Adam Taggart: Hello and welcome to the Resilient Life broadcast. Resilient Life is part of peakprosperity.com. It's where we focus on practical and actionable knowledge for building a better future. I'm your host, Adam Taggart. If you enjoy eating meat, you're going to really like today's podcast. With me is Adam Parks, founder of Victorian Farmstead Meat Company, which sources, butchers and sells cuts from sustainably raised grass fed animals throughout northern California. Today's podcast should be both educational and fun. Adam's a friend of mine and we've done business together. He and I have helped grow Victorian Farmstead over the past few years and for much of last year, we ran a much larger meat CSA that operated off of 250 acres. In a future podcast, Adam and I will do our best attempt to share the best practices we've learned from our fourrees into local investing. But today, we're here to talk about meat. Why does how an animal is raised matter so much to the quality of the meat? What's the difference between organic, pasture raised, and grass fed? Does the way meat is butchered matter? What are some of the best ways to prepare and preserve meats? Adam and I will kick back and spend the next 45 minutes or so doing our best to answer these questions and more. Adam, thanks for joining us today. You ready to get started?
Adam Parks: Yeah. You bet. Thanks for having me.
Adam Taggart: Aww, it's going to be fun. Well, first off, why don't you provide a little background on your own expertise with meat. You grew up on a ranch in Tomales, California, right?
Adam Parks: That's right. We had about 1,000 acres on the south end of Tomales. Tomales is a little teeny town right on the coast about an hour and a half from San Francisco. And we had at any given time, 1,200 to 1,500 head of sheep and a variety of other animals on the property. And that's where I got my start through 4-H and working the ranch with my parents in terms of learning how to raise animals for meat.
Adam Taggart: Great. And then what got you into doing what you're doing at Victorian these days?
Adam Parks: You know, my family and I went through a pretty rough time in 2008 when the housing crisis hit Central California. I'd love to tell you that it was all of the banks and corporations fault, but I made plenty of bad decisions of my own. And we basically lost everything. And we lost our house. We lost our cars. We lost our business in the central valley and really had nowhere to go. And we were very fortunate that my grandfather in 1972 had bought this little farm in Sebastopol, and the house was made available to us. And the first thing that I realized when we got there was we had all of these mouths to feed. I didn't have a job and we had to fix that first. And so, I went back to my roots and started raising animals for meat just to fill our family freezers. And at that point, thought I had come up with a pretty good idea as far as how to get the beautiful locally raised meats that we have here in Sonoma County to the general consumer. And so, we started doing Farmer's Markets. And our business model went through a couple of different iterations before we got to where we are today. But that's how Victorian Farmstead got started; was simply having to feed my family.
Adam Taggart: Great. And it was funny, when I was looking to relocate up here to Sebastopol, I came across your business during one of my first tours of the town. And had never heard of a meat CSA before. I just thought that was the coolest idea. Maybe just take two seconds and explain to people what a meat CSA does. I know Victorian does a bit more than that, but . . .
Adam Parks: Sure. The meat CSA, so a CSA in general goes back a couple hundred years and the idea behind is basically, to provide capital to the farmer, or in this case, the rancher to be able to absorb his costs over time before the big harvest with fruits and vegetables, and whatnot is typically in the summer and fall months. For us it was designed to give us a cash influx, so that we could plan our harvest and be able to provide meat year round. Where in the past, the ranchers that I work with would seasonally raise their meat, so that all of the animals went to slaughter at one time, and they were used to getting one big check a year that would carry them throughout the year. So, by designing a CSA specific for meat, it provided a steep discount to our customers and we were able to know that we would need X number of animals each month to satisfy those orders. And over time, we were able to get our ranchers converted to a system where they would provide animals to us throughout the year instead of all at once. It allows us to provide fresh meat as opposed to frozen on a pretty consistent basis.
Adam Taggart: Great. And what it looks like to the customer, right, is they get a box every couple of weeks, or a week, or whatever, where it's got a little mixture of a variety of all different types of cuts, right. Maybe a steak, some bacon, and some eggs, chicken breast, etc., right.
Adam Parks: Yeah. There's a couple of different ways that we offer it. We offer premium boxes, individually cut smaller portions, and a couple of different sizes on that. And all of our boxes, you can get weekly, biweekly, or monthly. And then we have a family box we call it where it's bigger cuts that are meant to be a large meal or a meal with leftovers even for singles that just like to cook a big chuck roast. And eat it over the course of a week. That's a good fit. And then we do offer a custom box where you pick what goes into it, because we know that you're going to be shopping on a consistent basis. You still enjoy a pretty good discount with that, as well.
Adam Taggart: Yeah. And I just love the concept of kind of like the milkman leaving a bottle of milk on your doorstep. You wake up and there's some great cuts of farm raised, ranch raised meats. All right. Well, let's really start at the beginning of the chain here. So, it all starts with a well raised animal. So, let's talk about how you source for Victorian. When you're looking to source the best kind of meat you can find, what you looking for in the ranches out there that raise animals?
Adam Parks: I think there's a couple of factors and I don't really think about it a whole lot anymore, because we're so selective in the ranches that we use. We don't change very often. I think the things that I look for are two-fold. One is that they have to quote on quote live up to our standards. And that's not really a big challenge for the guys that we work with. Most of the ranchers that we use are guys that I grew up with that are now running the family ranch out here in west Moran and west Sonoma county. And they've been doing it the right way for generations. The difference is, is that in the past, they would raise meat animals to a certain stage and then they would move off to feed lots or to more commercial operations. And now, we've kind of—with the, I guess, renewed enthusiasm for 100% grass fed and grass finished beef, and lamb, and pasture raised chicken and pork. The prices are giving them the opportunity to really provide that level of quality to the day-to-day consumer. So, I think one is access and consistency is the other big one. And that's why we don't change producers very often, or ranchers very often, is because I look at the way our business has grown. And at the stage it is now, I need to have animals that are delivered to us on a consistent basis. For instance, our pig ranch, D.G. Langley in Petaluma;, Pete Langley does an amazing job of making sure that we get consistent pork every single week. And I know that two hogs are going to show up at my butcher shop every week. They're going to be relatively uniform, relatively consistent, and I already know that they're raised well. So, I don't even have to think about it anymore.
Adam Taggart: Got it. You mentioned a couple of things in there I want to just unpack a little bit further. So, a big focus on grass raised and grass finished where it sounds like—I know this is still pretty common in the industry, where even if you pasture cattle, in particular. Often times in their last months, they're finished on grain, right, which really bulks them up at the end. And, yeah, there's lots of issues around that. We've had folks like Joel Salatin come on podcasts in the past, and you and I had the pleasure of walking around the ranch that we worked on last year with Joel when he came out. And I know that's a big part of what you look at in terms of the ranches that you work with, that it's that sort of pasture rotation model. And all grass fed the entire lifecycle of the animal. But first off, so kind of blanket no grain fed animals, right. Is that pretty much . . .
Adam Parks: As far as the ruminants go, yeah. As far as the beef and the lamb goes, there may be some organic alfalfa thrown in, depending on the quality of the pasture. I think that's a big issue too is the ranchers that we use. Knowing how they treat their pasture. It's almost as important as how they treat their animals. The higher quality pasture you have, the higher quality meat you're going to get. And so, that's a big consideration, as well. But it's funny, I mean, with the—as I said earlier—the renewed enthusiasm for pasture raised meat. If you go so far as to look at Carl's Jr commercial, and they'll advertise 100% grass fed, or the first ever all natural grass fed bird. All beef is fed grass at some point in their life, because our cow calf operation, which is where the animal starts out, is done on pasture. There's no such thing as far as I know, as far as a feedlot cow calf operation. And then those cows, when they're weaned, they're sent off to a feedlot where they're pumped full of antibiotics and hormones, and grains. And it's like feeding a kid cotton candy on the couch. And so, it's easy to say, yes, we have grass fed beef. Now you've got to figure out what it, A, at the latter stages of its life, when it goes through its biggest growth spurt.
Adam Taggart: Great. So, what I'm getting from you is that you would tell the average person, hey, if you're looking for really good healthy quality meats, look for grass fed entire life cycle of the animal.
Adam Parks: Grass fed and finished, that's the big buzz word.
Adam Taggart: Buzzword, finished, great. And then you mentioned a couple of other terms, which I know people have sometimes a hard time differentiating amongst all of them. Grass fed, grass finished, we just talked about that. Pasture raised, and organic, and I know sometimes those mean different things with different animals, but can you impact that a little bit just to help people understand what's meant by those terms?
Adam Parks: Yeah. So, when you're talking about ruminants or beef and lamb in our case, you're looking for 100% grass fed and finished meat. And so, that pretty much takes care of beef. If they're fed some alfalfa in the wintertime when the grass is lean, no problem there. Pasture raised and unfortunately, it sounds just like pasteurized. And so, a lot of people will confuse that. It's a totally different thing. Pasture raised means the animals—to me—and there is no government designation for what this means. So, you have to get to know your provider, your purveyor, and know that they know what they're talking about. For us, it's access to pasture in the sense that it's as good for the animal. So, our pigs are all raised by Langley farms out on pasture depending on the season. It's not good for pigs to be out in a cold snap. And here we're really blessed in northern California to have pretty consistent weather, so our cold snaps, it's not like we're in Minnesota or anything. But there are times when the pigs need to be inside, because it's too cold outside for them. With the poultry, our chickens are raised outside year round. There are soup houses for them to go in when it's inclement weather. But from the time when they're six, seven days old, they have access to being outside. It's great to think about chickens being out in lush green pasture. But really, the pasture is best for them when either the grass is dried out and the seeds are coming out of the grass ends. Because that is a grain source for them, and you can't raise chickens on pasture alone. They do get a non-GMO certified feed supplement that goes with the pasture. But letting them outside and actually having them outside, not just access to outside, but actually being outside, is huge. That's where they develop their muscles. That's where they get the sunshine, which is so important for all of us for our health, that it's not enough to say they have access to pasture, or they have access to the outdoors. They actually have to use it. And if you give chickens the choice between being inside in a nice warm comfy barn, and that's where all of their feed and water is. They're just not going to go outside.
Adam Taggart: Great. And then with organic, that's trickier, right, because as I understand it, it has something to do with how the mother was actually fed before the calf was even born, or the animal was even born. Elaborate on that.
Adam Parks: There's two components to organic meat. With vegetables, it's pretty straight forward. I mean, if your ranch or farm is certified organic, whatever you pull out of the ground is going to be certified organic. With meat, it's much more complex. There is regulations as to the generations that have to be organic in order for the animal to be certified organic. I believe it's two generations. While the mother and father would have to be certified organic for the animals to be certified organic. Then the land has to be certified organic. The biggest one is the slaughter facility and the butcher shop both have to be certified organic. So, in our case at Victorian Farmstead, almost all of our animals—well not almost—all of our animals are raised organically. They're fed feed that would qualify as organic feed. They're raised on properties that would qualify as organic properties. We're just not certified. And the reason is, is because we don't have access to an organic slaughter facility or an organic butcher shop. And quite honestly, I'm not sure I would pay the extra money to have it certified organic even if we did, because it is so costly. I know that the animals are being raised the right way. I know that they're being fed the right way and I think if you asked my customers, they will tell you that after coming out to our farm and visiting us, and seeing the animals. And have taken tours of the various ranches that we use, they trust that those animals are being well raised, well cared for and well fed. And they don't need to pay the extra four the organic stamp on the package.
Adam Taggart: Great. A few really interesting points raised there, so for organic, if I heard you correctly, not only does the land have to be organic that the animals are raised on. But the animal itself has to be fed organic inputs the entire time. And the animal's parents have to have been fed organic inputs the entire time they were alive before the calf or animal was conceived to be declared an organic animal. And then it has to go to an organic slaughterhouse and butchering facility that are both designated organic for it to be truly organic beef, if you will. You also mentioned too that some of those inputs are not fully in the hands of the ranchers. In other words, they can control how they raise the cows, but their area just might not have a slaughter facility that's designated organic nor butchers. And I know here in our area, we're very blessed with having a USDA approved facility quite nearby. But that facility is not designated organic and the next nearest facility of any type is I think, like, a three hour drive away. So, for a lot of ranchers, a lot of small ranchers, you don't really have much control over fulfilling that part of the organic process if you don't actually have the infrastructure within an economical drive of your ranch. So, that's a good segway going from, okay, what do you look for in the farms and the animals to the next part in the chain here, which is slaughtering. We don't need to spend a ton of time on this, but it is important how the animals are slaughtered. What are the types of things that you think folks need to know about or should look for in the way that the meat they're eating has been slaughtered.
Adam Parks: It's a pretty short topic, because we don't have a lot of options. Anytime you are selling meat to the general public, it has to be slaughtered USDA. And that means it's done under the inspection of a USDA inspector. And so, you're limited to what's available in your area in terms of a slaughter. We're really fortunate our local slaughter facility did take the time and money to work with Temple Brand and adjust their slaughtering practices to make it as pain—not as painless, but as humane as possible is the word I'm looking for, for all of the animals. And that facility handles all of our beef, all of our pigs, and our lambs. So we have real good confidence that those animals are being treated as well as possible up until the time that they're all the way through the slaughter process. And then with poultry, for me, I want to make sure that the chickens in our case, and turkeys when we have turkeys, are believe it or not, upside down. That's when they're at their calmest. There's also the old joke about the farmer whacking off the chicken's head with an ax, and the chicken running around without its head. And we all have heard countless jokes about that. The reality of it is, it's the worst way to kill a chicken for a couple of reasons. The first is that in terms of the quality of the product, when you take the head away, you remove the brain obviously and the heart stops pumping. So now you're leaving a carcass full of blood, which is going to ultimately taint the meat. So the most humane way to harvest a chicken is for them to be upside down. When we used to do it on the ranch, we'd have columns that they were in, which kept them kind of confined and from flapping around. And that was when they kind of calmed them down. And we just nick either side of their neck, and they bleed out. And that is the—in my opinion, the most humane way to do it. There's all kinds of other ways that people do it with I call them gas chambers. But they're taking away the oxygen and—
Adam Taggart: You suffocate the bird.
Adam Parks: Yeah. And there's arguments to be made for all of these different ways, but from what I've seen in my experience and from slaughtering several thousand chickens in my lifetime, that is the best way to do it.
Adam Taggart: Well, I think guys like Joel Salatin would agree with you and he's certainly got plenty of videos up on YouTube showing people how to do it. So you mentioned a couple of things there that I just wanted to explore into just a little bit more too. So in areas like ours where there's lots of small farms and there's a big focus on sustainable farming, you have to take your animals in bulk to the slaughterhouse, which you just talked about. But there is a lot of activism at the local level to allow small ranchers to do slaughter on their own properties. And lots of back and forth at the county level in terms of permits and people who don't want animals slaughtered in their backyards. And certainly, the animal rights people have had a very strong voice there as they should. But it's certainly an economical and I think probably the most humane way to slaughter the animal where it's actually being slaughtered where it lives. It's not being shoved into some car and taken to some foreign place. And I know just recently, the county next to ours just approved a mobile slaughter facility where you can basically have somebody come to your property. And set up, and for a certain number of animals, they can process them on your ranch that day. I just bring this up, because I think it's something that increases local resiliency. It's better for the animals. It's better for the farmer. It's sort of something that most everybody wants. It's just not necessarily approved in many counties around the country. And it's something that people listening could become advocates for in their own areas if it's something that they value having there. Certainly, I'm sure, that some local farmers would love to.
Adam Parks: Yeah. It's a tough one to crack at the county level, because there's so much misinformation about it. And nimbyism tends to rule the day. And I think what people don't understand about it is nobody is interested in setting up a slaughter facility as a tourist attraction. What we're looking for is the ability to process animals on the farm that they're raised on or nearby, because it's so much better for the animal. The less time they spend in the back of a truck, the better. It reduces their stress level. It reduces the endorphins. And adrenaline is pumped through the meat. And then ultimately, affects the end product of the consumer. And you won't find any ranchers that are looking to put it right on their neighbor's property line. That's just not a—nobody wants to see this, but it is an important part of the process. And the less stressful we can make it for the animals, the less costly we can make it for the rancher, the more people will have access to this type of meat, which is what we all should be eating.
Adam Taggart: So, again, for folks listening, source animals from the types of farms and ranches that Adam's described, secondly, make sure that the meat's been slaughtered at a USDA facility, or in an approved local ranch, perhaps through one of these mobile units. And I'll be really transparent too. I raised a couple of pigs, a couple of lambs on my property. I generally don't send them off to a big processing facility. I bring a local slaughter expert in the county here just because we're doing this for our own food. And I always make myself be present and participate in the whole process. And as Adam said, it's not something you're going to sell all of the tickets for, or would ever want to. But it's part of the circle of life. If you're going to be eating your own food, it's kind of owning that from beginning to end. And it for sure, my belief after having watched this is it's the best for the animals. So if you could do right where they're living, it's very quick. It actually is unbelievable how fast a qualified slaughter expert can take a live animal to something that's hanging in his truck on the way to go to the butcher shop that looks like you'd see in a butcher shop. That’s minutes per animal. From breeding an animal to hanging carcass, it's a real expertise that both impresses me and makes me really nervous of ever making that guy angry at me, because I would be disappeared in a heartbeat. And nobody would ever find my body. Okay. Enough about slaughtering, so let's move onto butchering, which is the next step in the process here. And I was really surprised when I started working with you and began learning more about this, that in many ways the way in which the meat is cut is about as important, or as important as the way in which the animal was raised. And I kind of liken it to giving one of the master artists a box of Crayola crayons. He's a great artist, but he only can do so much with the medium in which he's given. And I feel like that's probably the same way as it is with meat. Meaning, you can have a great piece of meat, but you can destroy it by cutting it poorly and vice versa. A good butcher can probably save some lesser cuts of meat, but the important thing is, is that the cutting is just as important as the quality of the meat itself. What do folks need to know about butchering?
Adam Parks: Butchering is an artisanal skill going back hundreds of years if not thousands of years. And it's really getting a resurgence as people are more in touch with what they're eating, which is fantastic. I consider myself a meat cutter, not a butcher. I train myself to be a butcher out of necessity. We couldn't afford to hire a proper butcher when we opened our shop. And so for me, it was something that I did because I had to. And I was really fortunate to have some real experts as really good friends that were willing to come down and help train me, and make me functional. I've since passed that on to my wife Laura, my wife and my business partner. And she runs the butcher shop now. I think when you're looking for a butcher, there's a couple of things to keep in mind. Certainly, you've got to know what he's cutting. What are the animals he's cutting and where are they coming from? I mean, that's first and foremost. You're absolutely right that a good butcher can take a—if they're working with capital raised meat, you still get capital raised meat no matter how pretty they cut it. The other thing that we look for and that we're becoming well known for is everybody talks these days about nose to tail eating. And so, a good butcher is going to be super concerned with using the entire animal. Now, if you're talking with your local butcher and they're buying their meat in boxes. It doesn't mean that it's necessarily bad. But if you can find a whole animal butcher, you're pretty likely to be finding somebody that has the same values that you do about how you eat. And when you buy animals whole, which is generally what we do, you have to use the whole thing. You have to use every part of it to make it economical. If I could design a cow that was all rib eye, I'd be retired in a very short period of time. But the reality of it is, every time we slaughter a beef, I've got to figure out what to do with 400 pounds of ground beef, beef stew, roast, that kind of thing. And if we don't move those, we get stacked up. And the death of any butcher shop is a really big freezer. And so I've learned over the years how to make use of all of these cuts seasonally, and all of these pieces of animals seasonally. So that they're interesting to people that come into the shop. A great example is short ribs. In the winter time, I don't know that there's any better dish than a slow braised short rib super fatty, super unctuous, great flavor, relatively inexpensive compared to some other cuts. But nobody wants to fire up the stove in the oven when it's 100 degrees outside, so what do you do with those? Well, you can do a couple of things with them and one thing that we really love do is cut them about a quarter inch thick and make kalbi ribs, or Korean short ribs out of them. And it's the exact same cut of meat. They can be marinated for a couple of hours, or overnight, and thrown straight onto the grill 90 seconds aside, and they're just fantastic.
Adam Taggart: Wow. Now, you were saying before we started recording that if you were to go to your butcher and he was just kind of directing you to the fillets that would be a warning sign.
Adam Parks: Yeah. If you go in and talk to your butcher and ask him, what's good today? And you're constantly directed to the most expensive cut he's got available, that would be a huge red flag for me. Any butcher worth their salt, if you ask them their favorite cuts, you're generally going to get an answer in the shoulder region, the shanks, the short ribs—those are where all of the flavor is. Anytime you have a cut that is well muscled but well marbled, and a lot of connective tissue, most butchers are going to prefer a slow braise to a grill every time, because you get so much more flavor out of it. The good news is, those are also the less expensive cuts of meat. A great example is the other night, we were sitting around and I had realized that I never cooked a pork cheek before. And we've got them. And we sell them. And I figured it was high time someone grabbed a half dozen pork cheeks out. And with five minutes of trimming, I made this killer pork cheek ragu that my family went nuts over. And I had never made it before. It wasn't any great feed or anything like that. It was just, I decided it was time I learn to cook it and see what I had. And so we went ahead and did it, and it had a ton of flavor. It's a cut that you won't find in a normal butcher shop. You'd probably have to ask for.
Adam Taggart: Yeah. And it's interesting, you talk about the whole animal snout to tail, or whatever they call the movement. Certainly, better on a whole variety of dimensions for us if we can be efficient and eat the entire animal. And it does require us getting familiar with lots of cuts, and parts of the animal that we don't normally see in the traditional grocery store. And part of that requires some effort on our part as consumers to stick that out and to actually be excited to experiment. So just like you and your family did with the pork cheek, some of the best for you parts of the animal are the organ meats, right.
Adam Parks: Sure.
Adam Taggart: But I remember working with you, offal is—it's often called 'offal,' O-F-F-A-L and it's one of the least desired parts of the animal by the average American, because they're just squeamish, right. Oh, my gosh, that's the organs of the animal, forget it. And I remember you and I going to a dinner here locally supporting local agriculture and kind of this whole use the entire part of the vegetable or use the entire part of the animal. And it was at a really nice local restaurant here. And I think I remember correctly, right. It was a pig spleen mousse.
Adam Parks: Yeah, pork spleen mousse.
Adam Taggart: Pork spleen mousse, and I remember it really took me a minute to compose myself and screw up my courage to put that first spoonful in my mouth. But, it was amazing. And I think for me, that really is my best personal experience of how being a little bit open minded here can e
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