Walking the Talk

An Interview with Rancher Brian Kenny

Brian Kenny is relatively new to the grass-fed beef business, but he has a great deal of experience in both specialty agriculture and artisan food marketing. He is also a regular contributor to Edible East Bay. We caught up with him recently to discuss Hearst Ranch Beef the growth of the grass-fed beef industry, the dynamics of the beef industry, and the future of food.

EEB: When did you get into the grass-fed beef industry?

BK: Well, I started really paying attention to it while I was farming olives and producing olive oil just south of Redding, California in about 2004. This was right around the same time that Hearst Ranch Beef was picking up steam. Anyway, I met some grass-fed producers at a sustainable agriculture conference and I was immediately struck by the principles that these producers used to manage their herds.

EEB: What in particular grabbed you about their management principles?

BK: I really loved the idea that a herd can be managed by amplifying the innate, natural behaviors of the animals. That is such an intuitive concept but it really flies in the face of standard industry practices in a number of ways. At the same conference I remember hearing some mention of the fact that the Hearst Corporation was doing some work with grass-fed beef.

EEB: What prompted Hearst to get involved in the beef business?

BK: The Hearst family has been ranching at the San Simeon Ranch, where Hearst Castle is, since Senator George Hearst bought the place in 1865. About six years ago, Steve Hearst, George’s great-great-grandson and WR Hearst’s great grandson, and Cliff Garrison, the ranch manager at San Simeon, had the idea to build their own brand while talking around the evening fire behind the bunkhous. So, after 165 years of selling cattle, they decided to try marketing their beef directly to consumers.

EEB: I was reading your brochure and I was impressed by the position that you have taken with the program: grass-fed and grass-finished, sustainably produced, free range, antibiotic free, no growth hormones. What principles drive the Hearst Ranch Beef program?

BK: As Cliff Garrison explained to me on my first trip down to San Simeon in the Summer of 2006, “We just try to keep it as simple as possible. The cattle eat grass, which is what God intended them to eat. If we can provide them with a nice salad bar of diverse grasses they will eat what they need to be healthy and happy. The less of an impact we have on them the better.”

At the most basic level, our program is based on conservation-minded stewardship and it combines scientific analysis and cutting-edge genetic practices with idealistic, forward-thinking, innovative holistic management practices. While we embrace science, our directions are guided by common sense, within nature’s limitations, of course.

Cliff has implemented a state-of-the-art DNA identification process to target the genes that measure tenderness in cattle while also optimizing low-stress management techniques that allow Hearst cattle to be cattle. At the same time, Sonny Sanders, manager of the Jack Ranch, 2004 California Cattleman’s Commercial Producer of the Year, has consistently raised some of the most sought-after cattle in the Western United States.

EEB: You mentioned conservation-minded stewardship. Could you elaborate on that a little further?

BK: Sure, but I need to give you a little more background first. One of the most staggering aspects of our program is its sheer physical scope. The ranches at San Simeon and Cholame comprise a total of 150,000 acres. The 80,000 acre ranch at San Simeon was part of a conservation transaction with the State of California in 2005 that made it one of the largest conservation easements in the United States.

When I asked Steve Hearst, who was the primary force behind the conservation easement project, what prompted him to preserve 128 square miles of the most beautiful real estate in California he explained, rather idealistically, that it was the right thing to do. Our grass-fed beef operation is run with the goal of preserving and conserving our natural resources. As a result of this conservation-minded stewardship, we can raise grass-fed beef in perpetuity: The resources on our property coexist because of our operation’s stewardship, not in spite of it.

EEB: There has been a great deal of emphasis put on different certification over the past few years. Have you gone through that process yet or do you intend to in the future?

BK: Actually, we just received our Food Alliance certification for sustainable practices. I think certifications are important because they can give consumers a basis for understanding how a company operates. Steve has been very clear on why he chose Food Alliance. He has always been proud of our land stewardship and dedication to grass-fed beef and he felt that Food Alliance certification proves to our customers that we really walk our talk. I agree; we’ve had an independent inspector on our properties to verify the claims we’re making.

We are also working on our humane certification. By the way, all of those adjectives we talked about earlier have their own weight.

EEB: That is an interesting thought. Could you elaborate?

BK: Sure. The basic adjectives that describe our program, grass-fed and grass-finished, sustainably produced, humane, free range, antibiotic free, no growth hormones, they are easy to say as words. However, they come with their own weight. For instance, antibiotic free is a simple concept. We have a never-ever program; if one of our animals is given antibiotics, it is no longer eligible to be in our program. So we have to sell it on the commodity market. It is still a great animal but it can’t be in our program anymore. The commodity beef market is driven largely by the price of commodity corn because that is largely what commodity cattle eat in feedlots.

Therefore, if the price for commodity corn goes up the price that a beef producer can get for their animal goes down. Even the most astute consumers would assume that grass-fed producers are able to work outside of the orbit of commodity corn. Unfortunately, this is not always the case.

Last month I had to sell a group of animals that got sick and needed antibiotics. I had to sell them the week that corn prices spiked so I took a hit. It was the result of what I call adjective conflict. We are a humane producer, we love our animals, we will not allow them to suffer even if it puts us at the mercy of the commodity market because we have an antibiotic free program.

EEB: How do you feel about the commodity beef market?

The commodity beef industry feeds a lot of people and it is important to our nation. We are doing something that is a highly differentiated specialty food product. It doesn’t fit very well in the commodity market. Our costs put us out of that market anyway.

EEB: Where do you sell Hearst Ranch Beef?

BK: We sell our prime cuts primarily through the internet at www.hearstranch.com, while we sell our hot dogs and hamburger and a few other middle meat cuts through our wholesale program.

I should mention that an average steer will only produce about 100 pounds of middle cuts and only about 4 pounds of tri-tip, 11 pounds of tenderloin, and less than 25 pounds of ribeye. However, that same steer will make about 300 pounds of ground beef. As a result, I spend a great deal of time selling hamburgers and hot dogs. One of my favorite customers is the Berkeley Unified School District. We sell our hamburgers and hot dogs to their sustainable lunchroom program. The work that Ann Cooper and Dede Sampson are doing for the school kids through that program is inspiring to say the least.

Our biggest customer right now is Aramark who features our product as part of their greening initiative, Planet EVERgreen. I have been blown away by the support that the Aramark chefs and managers have given us. They are a huge company but they are doing some very cool things through EVERgreen. When a giant of their size takes even the smallest of steps, the reverberations felt in the field and in the market are enormous.

EEB: Where do you see the food industry going in the next ten years?

BK: I think the niches will continue to evolve. The organic adjective will become ubiquitous and lose some of its punch while organizations like Food Alliance will help define sustainability. I see sustainable agriculture as the future and I think that farmer’s markets and organizations like Edible Communities are pushing the local food movement forward as well. However, the mainstream commodity market will continue to dominate the industry. There are a lot of mouths to feed in this world so commodities can never go away.

“We just try to keep it as simple as possible. The cattle eat grass, which is what God intended them to eat. If we can provide them with a nice salad bar of diverse grasses they will eat what they need to be healthy and happy. The less of an impact we have on them the better.” —Cliff Garrison