That steak you’re eating at your favorite restaurant had a mother. No alligator tears—I like my rib eye medium rare; but I’m picky about where it was before it got to my plate. So I’ve been hanging around restaurants, at wholesale warehouses and with cattle on a ranch to learn about beef.
New Mexico is lucky to have several sources for local, small-scale beef. The market is growing, and grocers and restaurants are responding to the demand. Albuquerque’s Keller’s Farm Store was a pioneer in New Mexico by making natural meats available to grocery customers 51 years ago.
A small rancher faces many challenges getting beef to local customers. Fifty to 5,000 head of cattle doesn't show up on the radar in the massive meat industry. Organic and near-organic animals are more costly to graze, transport, process and market. New Mexico cattle must go to Kansas—the closest operation that can process beef without cross-contamination from conventionally raised cows—and back.
An unlikely solution to New Mexico's problem is coming from Minnesota. This spring, Unger Meat Company rolled out a program called Heritage Ranch Premium Source Verified Beef. I met Celeste Rustin, Unger’s executive vice president, at Labatt Food Service (formerly Zanios Foods) in Albuquerque. Labatt is the only distributor in New Mexico to carry Heritage Ranch, whose beef is USDA graded Choice. In beef parlance, the very best cut is Prime. Choice is next—the cut you'll find in most fine dining restaurants; then comes Select, which is standard restaurant fare and what you find at the supermarket.
Rustin and Unger Market Specialist Dean Hiracheta have contracted ranchers and distributors in a half-dozen states. They travel the country seeking out ranchers who run small herds of predominately Angus cattle. While Heritage Ranch is not certified organic, their ranchers commit to a "no hormone, no antibiotic" regimen. Cattle are vaccinated at birth against common diseases. They graze on open land and are finished with vegetable feed. Rustin says seven New Mexico ranches have joined the program thus far.
As factory-farming practices continue to diminish food safety on a wide scale, Heritage is using a breakthrough program in the meat industry. While other organizations can only track their animals to the ranch of birth, Unger’s program enables restaurants and distributors to track a steak to the mother of the animal.
The benefits of Heritage Ranch are many: It enables small ranchers to pool their resources and their cattle into larger, more salable lots; the pool helps ranchers save on transportation costs; and the system, performed by the IMI Global Verification Program, guarantees uniform quality. And it brings the beef home to local restaurants.
If you want to taste the delectable rewards of Heritage Ranch, try Jennifer James 101 or Brasserie La Provence. I’ve enjoyed Chef Claus’ top sirloin steak frites au poivre. The Brasserie will host a cooking class featuring Heritage Ranch beef on Tuesday, Oct. 11, at 6:30 p.m. with guest Dean Hiracheta. (Cost is $40; call 254-7644 to RSVP.)
If Heritage Ranch can give us better beef today, can organic be far behind? Ask for organic and local products when you dine. When restaurants, grocers and their customers are on the same page, we can raise the standards of the industry.
Mike and Kathy Mechenbier invited a group of 30 guests representing Unger, Labatt, Brasserie La Provence and me to visit their ranch. 4 Daughters Land & Cattle Co., south of Los Lunas, is one of the New Mexico growers in the Heritage program. Our caravan drove to Los Lunas to meet Mike and his ranch managers. After a quick stop to admire the Mechenbiers’ new crop of pecans, we headed into serious ranchland—miles of cholla-covered nothing.
A half-hour later, we arrived at the ranch house where we regrouped, then headed out to find a herd of Angus grazing somewhere on the 156-section property. The Mechenbiers run about 1,500 head of cattle and reserve 25 percent of their land for wildlife habitat. To give you a sense of size, the homes for the managers on the ranch are so far apart, it’s a two-hour drive from one to the other.
We followed Mike down a dirt road to a bunch of cattle grazing on sparse vegetation. Disembarking from our vehicles, we listened to Mike explain that each animal has a pedigree. Angus, Brahman and Hereford are commonly raised and crossbred for their exceptional qualities, one of which is that they are very good nurturers. Their calves stay longer with their mothers, resulting in happier cows with more marbling and tender meat.
The cows and their calves didn’t move from their spot just 20 feet away. Mike said they’d never seen this many vehicles, let alone an invasion of noisy people. He attributed their calmness to the peaceful environment. When it’s time to round up cattle, he explained, it’s done on horseback instead of in helicopters, as larger beef producers do.
The Mechenbiers also run four farms in Valencia County to grow the corn and alfalfa that comprise most of the feed for the finishing at their feedlot.
After a lunch of BBQ beef and fixings, we stayed a while to listen to Mike and his hands tell stories. One of the managers has two sons who were raised on the ranch. In their remote home, there is no television or Internet. Our visit was a rare occasion for entertainment, swapping tales and remembering a time when all beef was this good.