Today on the Garden Club blog, I’m here to introduce you to the answer to your summer grillin’ prayers: an earnest cowboy raising the best pastured meat this side of the Rio Grande. Specifically, we’re headed to West Marin county to talk with a fantastic guy I was lucky enough to fall into friendship with when I first arrived in the North Bay a mere 3 years ago. Garden Club, meet Guido Frosini, the dedicated farmer/rancher behind True Grass Farms in Valley Ford.
When we first met, Guido would come by the farm where I was living for small impromptu dinner parties. Inevitably he arrived with the perfectly sized parcel of beef and began sautéing or broiling it up within minutes. I had previously been a vegetarian – for 20 years – and was embarrassingly squeamish towards raw, bloody meat (what a fool I was!). But I sensed at that first dinner that everything was about to change for me.
And you can imagine the rest of the story: Guido lovingly cooked up his steak – the product of no small amount of sweat and tears – and as we all took our first bite, the skies parted, the heavens sang and life and vitality returned to our tired souls! And I’m only exaggerating by a small degree. This meat is really, really good.
True Grass Farms sits on over 1,200 acres of grassland that has been in Guido’s family since 1867. Raised in Florence, Italy by an Italian father and a mother from Oakland, Guido moved out to the family land to work with his great aunt in 2008, working his way up from a ranch hand to finally start True Grass Farms 3 years ago. To learn all it takes to run a ranch, he took classes, he connected with other farmers and ranchers, but mostly he studied the land and the cattle’s movement on it.
Lennie Larkin: Can you start by telling our readers a little bit about True Grass and the philosophies that drive it?
Guido Frosini: We are here to create a space where people can find a food source that inspires them. A space that can be True, a place where Grass is managed, and where beef is a by-product of land stewardship and land regeneration. It all begins with grass.
So Guido, what is the drive behind your emphasis on growing grass, and just what does land regeneration entail?
Herbivores and grasslands have evolved together for millions of years. At True Grass Farms we manage the cattle as to mimic wild and regenerative disturbance on our lands. Healthier ecosystems correspond to more diverse and resilient flora – the plant life present in the area. In turn, our cattle are fat and happy. We do not feed our cattle anything but the grasses that we grow on our land. No irrigated systems. No Hay. Just pure coastal grass. With this method the beef taste profile will change from season to season. This gives the consumer something new to look forward to as opposed to the usual unsustainable steak that will taste the same over and over again.
I know you’re big on rotational grazing – what does that mean, beyond just moving animals around, and what does it look like? How often are they moved?
Well it’s all about following grasses and knowing when they’re ready to be grazed. March to July is the most intense management season – that’s when we’re moving them the most. Keeping the cattle fairly close together and keeping them moving actually makes them less selective. This helps in delaying the annuals going to seed, therefore keeping the grasses vegetative as opposed to dormant (better protein/general nutrition content). So they’re feeding on the summer annuals and leaving more of the perennials – which are the only thing staying green over the summer.
So these grasses – do you have to plant a lot of them yourself?
No, we don’t plant grass – I’m talking about the seed bank of dormant seeds sitting in the soil. We’re watching to see what grasses express themselves. And through this attentive grazing, we’ve seen more perennials and native flowers come through. We are fostering communities of perennial grasses that have deeper root systems and can stay greener longer, so as to feed the soil and the cow alike.
Can you give a little insight as to how you chose to raise the animals you do, and the differences between your breeds?
We raise Wagyu and Angus cattle primarily- these are the breeds that were here when I first started on the ranch. We’re one of the only producers on the west coast to raise Wagyu on grass exclusively (meaning the animals haven’t been fed anything but the grass they forage for the entirety of their lives).
The Wagyu have a fine muscle texture and have incredible genetic disposition for marbling. Combining the growth traits of an Angus with the textures of the Wagyu, and the finished product is a mouth-watering delicacy.
What else do you raise beyond cattle?
We started raising Pigs during the drought so to diversify our production. Now we raise large black Berkshire, Tamworth, and Eurasian Wild pigs on sprouted Barley, rice bran, pasture and whey. We also raise meat chickens (freedom rangers) and have 100% pastured egg layers.
So with all this to manage, what does a day in the life look like for a rancher for you?
Wake up with the first lights. Give thanks to what you have. Have a nice breakfast from collected eggs and greens from the garden. Set up fence for new pasture, take old fence down. Check water supply, feed pigs, sprout new barley, send emails, finish old projects, start new ones. Repair and maintain vehicles, pay bills, foster community, pick blueberries, deliver meat, take pictures to post on Facebook. Send cut-sheet to butchers, spend time with bureaucratic endeavors. Prepare dinner, watch the sun set, listen to the birds…
Sounds like you’ve got it down. I know you’ve implemented a lot of changes to the ranch in your time here – what are some of the biggest ones?
Well the first one I would say is emphasizing the practice of keen observation and noticing the abilities of different cows. We’re looking for traits to select for that includes parasite resistance, good teeth, good mothering abilities, feed conversion efficiency, carcass yields, docility and fertility.
The other big change has been, again, really looking at the land. We are slowly understanding how it wants to be grazed, where water is and where it dries up, where the soil tends to compact and when certain forages tend to appear and go to seed. We’re changing our approach every year so we can work with the land, rather than just on it.
How has the drought affected your grass, animals, and operation?
Drought is part of the normal course of a landscape. We try to manage our land so as to buffer its effects by optimizing forage utilization and increasing our soil organic matter (which will increase water retention).
Forage utilization is also a big help during a drought. When the cows are put in at higher densities they become less picky and will graze on everything from grasses to forbs to shrubs.
We also focus on increasing organic matter in our land – we think of it as a pulse of nutrients going into the soil. The cows are grazing, relieving themselves and urinating – acting as our grasses and soil’s natural fertilizers – and their hooves are helping create a thatch layer with the grasses, keeping the soil moist and keeping the temperature optimal for soil biology – all of these things working together to increase organic matter.
What are your thoughts on the American culture of meat-eating? I read a stat from Wall St. Journal & USDA that in 2012, the average American consumed 71.2 pounds of red meat. That seems like a lot of meat, enough to show that shifting towards local and sustainably-grown meat can really make a difference.
71.2 lbs a year equals about 1.5 lbs a week, or 6 “quarter pounders” a week. I don’t think the problem is how much meat, but what kind. Most of the beef out there, even the commercially “grass-fed” produced is either fed hay, silage or is on irrigated pasture. The use of water in those systems is tremendous. Not to mention the use and water and other resources in feedlots/CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations or ‘factory farms’).
Meat produced on rangeland with rainfall and spring fed ponds is truly a solid solution if one were to eat meat. Our beef here at True Grass Farms actually helps us keep water on our property because of how the cattle are managed to build our soil first. The beef becomes a byproduct of our ecosystem.
I know your mission at True Grass involves connecting with and educating the consumer. What is the most important thing for us to know about grass-fed beef?
Well the first thing is the issue we were just talking about – water use and beef production. Many operations that feed their cattle on grass rely on growing or buying hay for part of the year, which demands thousands of gallons of irrigation.
The second biggest issue to understand is labeling. These days there are very few labels that one can really trust at face value. Instead of relying on labels, get to know your farmers and rancher. Ask them good hard questions, if they know what they are talking about they won’t be offended.
And what should our first questions be?
Ask them about their relationship to the land. Sure you can ask specifics such as how many acres and how many animals they sell in a year, do they practice low-stress livestock handling, and do they feed on hay, but get them to go beyond that. Try to get a sense of whether they’re actually involved in the process and how much is business and how much is truly what they believe in. Do they eat their own meat?
Summer holidays are coming up and people are itching to break out the grills and BBQs. What’s your advice to consumers who want to celebrate and eat sustainably, but want to be mindful of their budget?
Try buying whole animals, store them in a chest freezer and then share it with friends, community and family. Get a whole cow, learn how to cook the entire animal, save the best cuts for your special events, savor them when you eat them. There will be another one ready next year. My best advice would be to learn about seasonality, know how to cook a piece of meat properly, and to get to know your local rancher.
Here are some ways to enjoy True Grass meat
True Grass Farms Meat CSA:
Throughout the year we offer California Kobe Wagyu beef, three different breeds of pastured-pork, lamb and rabbit.
Each month, for your three month subscription, this assortment will more than satisfy two persons four meals of prime meats. For example, a box might contain 2 one-pound packages of ground sirloin and chuck, 2 filet mignons, 1 tender flank steak for two and a Chuck roast for three people, plus a selection of our own True Grass Farms recipes.
The total cost for all this is $50 per month for the single CSA. You have options to choose a delivery location, pay via paypal, and alert the farm if there’s a type of meat you want to skip out on.
True Grass Farms Animal Share
True Grass offers cow shares to fit every need, starting small with what they appropriately call the ‘Urban Share’ – 1/16 of a cow, which, at about 22 pounds, includes 5 pounds of steak, 7 pounds of roasts and braising meats, 7 pounds of ground beef, and 3 pounds of offal and bones.
But let’s think bigger, people! Who wants to go in on a whole cow share with me for next year? That’s 350 pounds of goodness to pop in my freezer or yours – who’s in?
For more information on True Grass Farms, and where to find their meat, visit them at the Berkeley Saturday Farmers’ Market or www.truegrassfarms.com.
For more general understanding of earth, land and living Guido recommends:
- Bud Williams – Low Stress Livestock Handling
- Fukuoka – “One straw revolution”
- Edward Abbey “Desert Solitaire”
- Aldo Leopold “Sand County Almanac”
- Wendell Berry
All of the beautiful photography in this post is courtesy of the very talented Janae Alyssa Lloyd. For more of her work, you can view our interview with Petaluma’s First Light Farms.