In late November of last year, after weeks of smoke-filled skies and extremely poor air quality due to the Camp Fire in the Sierra foothills and before the much-needed winter rains arrived to Northern California, I drove the 75 miles up to Tomales and visited Stemple Creek Ranch, one of the first cattle ranches in the country to develop a carbon farm plan. Owner Loren Poncia graciously showed me around the ranch that had been in his family for four generations while his energetic lab Maisy bounded around us. He spoke to me about carbon farming and how he raises his grass-fed-and-finished cows, sheep, and pigs. I would learn Loren cares as much about soil health as he does about the health of his animals; and that in fact, it’s all deeply connected.
What brought me to Stemple Creek in the first place was a desire to learn more about beef production and the ways in which similarly eco-conscious farms and ranches are working to lessen their impact on the environment and decrease emissions. With the recent fires and drought, climate change was weighing heavily on my mind. This visit was part of a larger journey of mine to make more informed choices about where to buy my food and which farms to support through my business.
At some point, I had read that cutting out red meat was the single most effective way to reduce my carbon footprint—but was that the only answer? It seemed to me the reason why this is so often said, is because the vast majority of beef in the United States is produced conventionally and finished in crowded feedlots on grain-based diets. Stemple Creek, I would learn, is different in almost every way from its conventional counterparts. And while I’m no scientist or data wizard, it seemed obvious to me looking out over their 1,000 acres of rolling green hills that this was a much healthier method for beef production not only for me as the consumer but for Mother Earth. The air was fresh, the cows appeared happy and calm, and the grass was vibrant and alive.
I’m not the only one who has reached this conclusion. Stemple Creek is terrifically popular amongst Bay Area’s top restaurants including Chez Panisse, Alice Waters’s restaurant renowned for starting the slow food movement and celebrating locally-grown organic foods, and The Perennial, a restaurant in San Francisco whose menu revolves around regenerative agriculture and the idea that food choices can reverse climate change.
Through my conversation with Loren, which is edited below, I learned the distinction between grass-fed and grass-finished; the key word here being grass-finished because all calves eat grass in their first few months. I learned about the importance of perennial grasses and deep-rooted forbs for promoting soil health and year-round photosynthesis. I learned about sustainable land management practices including fencing off riparian areas, composting, and rotational grazing. I learned that in many ways the future of regenerative ranching was already here and this was the future I wanted to see.
Gillian: Can you tell me more about carbon farming and how you use carbon farming here at Stemple Creek?
Loren: Our whole business is holistically managed so that where raising cattle to sequester soil carbon. Ten years ago, I would’ve considered myself a grass-farmer where we would turn grass into protein by harvesting the cows. But then what I realized is that it all starts with the soil and we had to focus on the carbon in the soil to raise healthier grass and therefore healthier animals—and reduce emissions.
G: What do conventional cattle ranchers do? How are you different?
L: If you consider just the first 10 months of a cow’s life, a lot of cattle ranchers are doing similar things to us except after that the conventional cattle go to a feedlot with a bunch of their peers and get finished in a high-concentrate diet like corn, barley, and soy. Almost all of the cattle in the US gets finished in a feedlot.
G: So those mega farms that you see driving through the Central Valley with all the cows and the horrible stench for miles?
L: Yes, that’s a feedlot or CAFOs, confined animal feeding operation. That's what gives beef a bad name in my opinion. There weren’t really any feedlots until the 1940s. And after World War II, the government heavily subsidized corn and soybeans and there was so much of it they had to do something with it so they started feeding it to animals. Then, it became the norm.
G: I didn’t realize conventional cattle spent the first part of their lives out on the grass too.
L: Yeah, they're usually born out in the field and they live in the grass for their first 10 months. The conventional industry is saying grass-fed is not really a label because all cattle are grass-fed for a certain part of their lives.
G: But your cows are always out in the grass?
L: Yes, they're born on the grass and live on the grass their whole entire life until the last day when they get harvested. Grass-fed and grass-finished is what we say. And we don't use any grains, we don't use any antibiotics or growth hormones or anything like that. But that's one of the reason why our product is more expensive because it takes a longer time to grow. It takes us about a year longer than a conventional system.
G: How old are your cows when they're harvested?
L: They're 24 to 30 months old when we harvest them. And usually, conventional cattle are harvested by the time they're 15 months old. They go into a confined feeding operation, gain 3 to 5 pounds a day, and get harvested once they’re 1200 pounds.
G: Do people sell that as grass-fed too?
L: It’s possible. Sometimes people will say it's grass-fed even though it's not really.
G: Wow! You have to be really careful where you're buying your food!
L: Yeah I always say, you got to know your farmer. I'll tell everybody the truth whether you want to hear it or not. Like okay yeah, they're eating hay this time of year because we're in a drought. Or, okay if you see a cow with a blue ear tag today, it has had antibiotics at one point in its life because it was sick. But that cow won’t be included in our final product.
G: So after you finish them, where do they go? Do you sell directly to your customers?
L: After we finish them here, they go get harvested at a plant in Eureka. We have pasture in Eureka too so every week we'll send a load of cattle up there. They hang on that pasture for two to three weeks and then get harvested so it's a less stressful event. In a perfect world, and it sounds like somebody like you would be really interested in this, all the animals would be harvested right here on the ranch. They would live here and get harvested here and then go straight to you or whoever was going to eat the meat. But the USDA requires that they go and get killed under inspection at a certified plant and the only certified plant that we have around here is 200 miles away.
G: I see.
L: There are more and more mobile ones that are USDA-certified but it’s something like $500,000 to get started. We might consider it down the road to lessen our carbon footprint even further.
G: Wow, yeah. That’s a big investment. So, what happens after they’re harvested?
L: They come back in the form of a box of meat. We distribute that to our customers and local mom-and-pop butcher shops and grocery stores like Staff of Life in Santa Cruz, Berkeley Bowl, Oliver's Markets and Good Earth. You can also buy it directly from us online (here).
G: Do you sell at New Leaf? That’s where I do a lot of my grocery shopping in Half Moon Bay.
L: No, they'll start buying from us if people like you say, “Hey! You need to start buying from Stemple.”
G: I need to do that! I’m so bummed when I see meat imported from New Zealand.
L: To me, it doesn't make sense to be importing meat 7,000 miles while people like me are producing the same product 100 miles away. It seems silly but it's cheaper. But there's a true cost somewhere and how do you measure the cost? There's an environmental cost either through carbon emissions or something else.
G: Exactly. Does your meat taste different than conventional beef?
L: For some, the benefit of conventionally-raised beef is that it tastes the same all year round because they're eating the same diet year-round but it's artificial, right? The advantage to grass-fed in my opinion is that it doesn't taste the same year-round. It tastes like what the animals are eating. For example, certain times of the year it's might be gamier than other times of the year. It’s fattier. I've been cooking grass-fed 10 years and that's all I eat.
G. What’s your favorite cut of meat?
L: I really like the culotte. The top of the top sirloin. It's also called the pincanha or a sirloin cap. I cook it on the grill. I cook almost everything on the grill.
G: Do you marinate it?
L: No, I don't marinate anything really. I like the flavor of beef on its own. I just put salt and pepper or just salt and olive oil and cook it hot and fast for a short amount of time because I like it red in the middle. Let’s go see the cows.
G: How many mamma cows do you have?
L: About 280. What you want to see is the animals laying down because that means they have a full belly and they're happy. They're laying down getting fat. If you see them always standing up and always walking, they're really hungry. We don't want them to be hungry.
G: And how many calves do they have?
L: They make one baby every year. They're pregnant for 280 days, nine months like a human, and then they have a baby. And we have 10 bulls. They're over there. (Pointing across the valley.) Right now they're not exposed to the cows yet. We're gonna put 'em in with the cows in early December. It's all about when you want the calves to come. They cycle year-round, every 21 days. So we'll expose them in December and they'll have babies in September.
G: And you just put them all in the same pen? Or do you have to actually be involved? (Laughs.)
L: No, it's all natural. They figure who's in heat and who's not and they breed. Usually about 5 or 6 cows a day and in about 30 days we'll have about 70% of the cows pregnant and then in another 30 days we'll have the rest of them pregnant. And then a few that don't get pregnant, those get turned into ground beef.
G: You mean the cows that don't get pregnant, get harvested? (A little shocked.)
L: Yep. In the past, we would just sell them to the highest bidder but now we have enough of a ground beef business that we'll harvest them ourselves.
G: How many pastures do you have?
L: We have about 100 pastures that we rotate the cattle through. We're trying to mimic Mother Nature, similar to how the bison migrated across the Great Plains of the Midwest. They would eat the grass in front of them, stomp on the grass below them, and poop on the grass behind them. When we rotate the cattle around like that, it helps regenerate the soil and sequester more carbon and make more perennial grasses. And that's really what we want, perennial grasses because they stay green year-round.
G: You were describing yourself as a grass-farmer. Can you tell me a bit more about that again?
L: I used to be a grass farmer. Now I'm a soil farmer. I'm a photosynthesis farmer. I want life in the soil year-round so that photosynthesis happens 365 days a year. And what that does is it helps feed the soil microbes and sequester more carbon. The challenge with that is we only get rain six months out of the year so half the year we're in drought. So what we try to do in that case is have perennial plants with deep tap-roots. We plant a lot of forbs like chicory, brassica, and plaintain.
G: What’s a forb?
L: It’s a deep tap-rooted plant that lives year-round. It’s a perennial. It helps break up the soil and also allows air in so there’s more life in the soil. It decreases compaction. It lives year round so the animals can graze on it. So all the big leaf stuff, broad leaf stuff is chicory. Some people use chicory for coffee. They grow really well and the cattle really love them. They’re basically herbs. If you look out here, we have lots of it. That’s what the soil likes because it has a deep tap-root. A lot of the annual grasses, which are all over California, have a root that’s only an inch or two deep. A forb has a tap root that goes 2 or 3 feet deep.
G: Wow, that’s so fascinating! So besides perennial grasses, what else do you do to decrease your carbon footprint?
L: So a big part of our carbon farm plan is fencing off our riparian areas. Riparian areas are areas that hold water year-round like creeks and rivers. We fence those off to keep the cows out of there and we plant trees and that provides habitat for birds. It also prevents erosion and keeps the water in the creeks clean. In the last 25 years, we’ve planted over five miles of riparian area and planted over 6 or 7 thousand trees.
G: Did this area have more trees originally?
L: No, actually none of these trees were here. These were all planted by the early settlers. The only place there were trees was by the creeks and there wasn’t even a lot there. You see the hawk up there?
L: And then we do a lot of compost. See that up on the hill over there by those white boxes? Those are beehives and next to the beehives is the compost that we’re making to spread on the pastures.
G: What’s the compost made of?
L: It’s wood chips and manure combined and it decomposes and makes soil. This is in the process of being made. It needs about two years to break down and then we spread it around.
G: Why do you place the bees near it?
L: We like the bees because they bring biodiversity and there’s a guy that needs a place to put bees that’s chemical-free and we decided that we’d be happy to be that place. He loves it here. The bees love it here.
G: Where did you learn about carbon farming?
L: You know a lot of it I’ve learned in the last 10 years through the Marin Carbon Project. I have one of the first carbon farm plans in the country and that’s what really got me thinking about the soil more than the grass. It opened a pandora’s box for me and since then I’ve been spending lots of time and resources on learning more about soil and soil health.
G: What’s the future got in store for you?
L: We’re looking to expand and get into more restaurants. And we’re going to keep growing as long as we can maintain quality, transparency and integrity. But if we start stepping on any of those chalk lines, we don’t want to do it anymore. We want to be able to have somebody like you come here any day of the week and we don’t have to hide anything. Say, this is what we’re doing. If you don’t like what we’re doing, you can buy it somewhere else. We’re certified organic because we have to be but some day it would be really nice to just be first-person certified. You come and look around and if you like what we’re doing and you trust us then you buy our stuff.
G: I love that. I think everyone should visit their local farms and ranches and certify their own food. What are the main things you want people to take away about Stemple Creek?
L: There’s four main things. We think that the way that we raise beef, we think it tastes better, it’s better for the land, it’s better for the environment, and it’s better for the people eating it. It really comes down to that. We try not to make it too confusing. That’s our key message.