Welcome new Ranch Director – Wendy Millet

TomKat Ranch, TomKat Ranch Educational Foundation and LeftCoast Grassfed are pleased to welcome Wendy Millet as the Ranch Director.

For more than twenty years, Wendy has worked to bridge a love of conservation and working landscapes with practical economic solutions and effective partnerships. In addition to working for several years on cattle and dude ranches in Wyoming and Montana, she ran a local land trust, worked for a timber investment company, developed programs for an environmental economics research foundation, led education and leadership programs for the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, and spent 12 years at The Nature Conservancy working with farmers, ranchers, and timberland owners to protect and restore ranches, rivers and forests.

Wendy’s efforts to share best practices led to work on several publications including: Land Use in America (Island Press), A Place-Based Partnership Manual (The Nature Conservancy of California) and Preserving California’s Natural Heritage: A Guide to Land and Water Conservation (California Resources Agency). She also is co-founder of Gallop Ventures offering equine-guided teamwork and leadership programs to corporations, individuals and organizations.  

Wendy holds a B.A. in Literature from Harvard and studied Environmental Economics at the University of Washington and Environmental Planning at University of Virginia.  She currently serves on the board of the California Council of Land Trusts and the Board of Councilors of Save the Redwoods League.

We’re looking forward to her skills and guidance in assuring we bring you the best possible meat product from the most biodiverse environment possible.

Birds of A Feather – PRBO Conservation Science & the TomKat Ranch

It’s a beautiful sunny day at the TomKat Ranch. Carlie, the resident PRBO biologist, stands in front of a group of young students, “Does anyone know why it’s important to study bird populations?” she shouts to the group to get their attention. Alert to the challenge, some of the youngsters shuffle their feet and struggle to come up with an answer while others eagerly offer a variety of possibilities. Finally, a young girl wearing a baseball cap sideways says hesitantly, “So we can understand how the environment is doing?” “Yes!” Carlie affirms and goes on to explain why understanding bird populations can be an indicator of environmental health. The question and answer session goes on like this for a few minutes more. The cries of “I know, I know!” are matched only by the back and forth caws of a pair of ravens high in the trees above. The natural environment as classroom fills the students’ senses and the group moves on to the mist-netting areas to see what birds have been gently caught in the fine nets.

Carlie Henneman from PRBO with kids from Vida Verde Nature Education

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Cattle Drive – A Greenhorn Earns His Spurs

Mike – the quintessential ranch hand – showed me the controls for the Rhino, an all-terrain farm vehicle that is ALL “all-terrain”. I climbed in and shifted in reverse, tapped down on the gas peddle and jerked my way out of the parking area. It was the day I – the quintessential greenhorn – would help drive the cattle from the low pasture on the west side of the ranch, over a ridge, and down to fresh pasture on the other side.

Generally, my job at the Ranch – in support of the Leftcoast Grassfed product – is divided between sitting comfortably in front of a computer, and meeting/greeting customers at the various farmers’ markets. But on this day, thanks to the temporary absence of Jeremiah, the other essential and experienced ranch hand, I was given the chance to earn my metaphorical spurs. I shifted the Rhino into drive and, Yeehaw!, I was off.

The day was cool, gray, blustery and included the occasional squall blowing in off of the ocean. We headed up to a hay barn on the north end of the ranch and loaded a bail of hay into the back of the Rhino. From there we took off down to the west and skirted around various gullies and wooded areas in search of the 97 head we were set to drive.

Being the greenhorn I am, I expected to simply drive over the hill and see them all waiting patiently like a group of tourists mulling about the lobby of a casino eager for the buffet to open. What I learned was that 97 cows can do an amazing job of dispersing and ‘hiding’ in every little nook and cranny on the rugged terrain of a ranch, even if fences had been installed to limit their movement.

Within minutes though, we spotted about ten head, Mike pulled up on his ATV, stopped and started shouting between cupped hands “Hey Cows!” in a deep, guttural fashion. I had my doubt cows would respond like trained pets, but sure enough, already alert to our presence, they started to walk towards us. A few at first, then others started appearing from places unseen. Before long there was a full-on herd walking hurriedly, even trotting at times, in our direction (For a second I thought, “Stampede!” But no, “Calm down”, I assured myself, and eased back into the seat of the Rhino).

As I steadied my nerves, Mike explained to me that I was to wait until they got to within twenty feet or so then start driving forwards, slowly, up the hill. My responsibility from that point on would be to shout “Hey cows!” in that same deep, guttural voice (mimicking a cow’s moo I supposed) to keep their attention and keep them moving. “Watch for the gullies” he added, “They’ll swallow you up if you’re not careful.” And thus I began my career as an ATV cowboy.

Part of me was still lacking cowboy confidence though. These very large animals seemed docile enough from a distance, but when they’re huffing their way towards you like bovine versions of Black Friday shoppers determined to get the latest holiday toy gimmick before anyone else, it’s a bit, shall I say, intimidating. None the less, I steeled myself and was determined to “man-up” to the task. Waiting till they were just about upon me, I bellowed my first “Hey cows!” and off we went.

After about thirty ‘hard-ridin’ minutes, my neck was beginning to ache from twisting my head from front to back to front again (weary of the gullies), my throat was getting sore from shouting “Hey cows”, and the cattle, distracted by any little patch of grass they found, were losing interest. Fortunately, Mike (who was trailing the herd rounding up any stragglers) had tipped me off about the herd mentality of cows. Like any herd, there are usually leaders that the others follow. Figure out which ones are the leaders, get them moving and the others will follow. And sure enough, as I watched their migration, I noticed at least one big cow consistently leading the way.

The challenge then became a matter of holding her attention and encouraging her away from the occasional patch of grass she would stop and nibble on thus halting the herd’s progress. This required me turning around every so often and driving by and taunting her with the sweet smelling bail of hay and shouting “Hey cow!” to get her attention once again. After a couple of passes and adjustment to the tone of my “Hey cow” (seriously, think of a cow going mooooo and you’ll get the idea) she would indeed come trotting towards me and the whole herd would be on the move again.

Earlier, along the way up the hill, Mike pointed out a pasture that had been rehabilitated during last year’s grazing. Clover and rich perennial grasses were knee deep in places and we
were driving the cattle there now in an effort to take advantage of this new forage. This was the payoff from the rotational grazing practices Mike and Jeremiah had been implementing through the year.

Standing out from this dense carpet of green were taller clumps of grass. Mike said that’s where cow pies had lain – their rich nutrients and microbes having about doubled the growth rate of the grass. The manure had been broken down by birds, dung beetles and worms over weeks and months to form mini mounds of nutrient rich compost that then selectively augmented the grass under it. Eventually, with years of rotational grazing patterns being adhered to, the TomKat Ranch hopes to see entire pastures restored to vibrant, lush, manure-enriched (carbon sequestering? Some say the jury’s still out) grasslands once again.

Now, after climbing uphill for about a mile and a half, around ravines and through fence gates, we were entering the first greener pastures of that intensive cattle management effort. As I rode down into this sea of green, it dawned on me that the age-old idiom,  “The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence”, in this case, aptly described the circumstance.

Once there it didn’t take long for the cattle to scatter and start to graze. They seemed to know instinctively – and had been conditioned to know – they were where we wanted them to be. Cattle having settled in, I now sat in the quiet ATV and I relished the serenity of the scene. A minute later Mike pulled up along side me and shut off his engine. “You hear that”, he asked. I turned my attention to the hillside and heard a faint yip, yip, yip. But before I could ask what it was, Mike was on up the hill trudging through a patch of poison oak and bramble. It wasn’t long before he called me on the radio and said he found them. Them I thought? “Two coyote pups hiding in the brush” he said matter-of-factly. “Mom must be off hunting”, he added.

A few minutes later he was back down showing me the pictures he took with his cell phone. Ah, I thought, life on a ranch. From soil to plant, prey to predator, if managed correctly, range land is a collection of interrelated mini-environments, enjoined in never-ending cycles of life. Modern humans are the interlopers. Yet, here we are. That’s why on the TomKat Ranch, the idea that nature if nurtured, and not abused, can benefit human and environment alike. At least, as I’m learning, that’s the plan.

Bill Milliot is the Leftcoast Grassfed website administrator and farmers’ market sales representative – and accidental ATV cowpoke.

A Failure of Mission – The USDA, GE Alfalfa and the disregard for the Precautionary Principle.

The concept of the precautionary principle chart

” We provide leadership on food, agriculture, natural resources, and related issues based on sound public policy, the best available science, and efficient management ” - USDA Mission Statement.

THE PRECAUTIONARY PRINCIPLE: The precautionary principle can be described as a loosely accepted means of: proceeding cautiously with scientific advancement in the face of scientific uncertainty; taking into account alternatives to what could lead to harmful results; putting the burden of proof on the proponents of the advancements rather then those that might be or are later harmed by it. In other words; “If we’re going to do this, let’s do it right and let’s do it safely.”

In what could be seen as an aggressive attempt to live up to President Obama’s vow to remove some “outdated and unnecessary regulations” the USDA, via Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, recently deregulated three genetically engineered (GE) crops: Roundup Ready alfalfa; Roundup Ready sugar beets; and GE seed-based ethanol corn. In all three cases it has done so in the face of serious misgivings by some in the scientific, organic, and conventional (non-GE crop) farming communities. One of those concerns centers around the high probability that GE crops will contaminate (commingle with) organic crops in nearby fields. As Albert Straus of the Straus Family Creamery — the first certified organic dairy west of the Mississippi River — had to

This USDA decision puts our business at risk and also the entire supply of organic dairy products that Americans have come to count on. Organic dairy is the second-most commonly purchased organic food group (after fruits and vegetables). Consumers of all ages who care about healthy foods and the environment have come to rely on organic dairy products as a staple of their diet.

Alfalfa is an essential feed for our dairy cows. Because of the way alfalfa is pollinated, the potential for contamination of organic alfalfa by GM alfalfa is high.

The Straus family, and their partner businesses, have much to worry about. Evidence is mounting that prevention of crop commingling is likely impossible. To put it simply, it is the dominion of nature to commingle and mutate. It is an absolute condition of life on earth. And it is the inevitable conclusion to the introduction of genetically engineered organisms (GEO) into the environment that such mutation and commingling will occur.

That being the case, not only do GEO present a threat to the businesses engaged in organic food production, but to those hoping to purchase organic, GEO-free products. That is to say, given the likelihood that cross-contamination will occur, with enough time it will eventually become so complete as to assure the contamination of all organic foods. The choice for people to opt out of genetically engineered foods in their diets would no longer exist. Such a right would, by all rights and means, vanish in the winds of time.

Even today, where upwards of 90% of all soy crops are genetically modified, it’s almost impossible to avoid eating soy based products without it being genetically modified’ soy.

Currently, up to 40 percent of U.S. corn is genetically engineered as is 80[sic] percent of soybeans. It has been estimated that upwards of 60 percent of processed foods on supermarket shelves–from soda to soup, crackers to condiments–contain genetically engineered ingredients.

And the opposition to GEO doesn’t end with the organic community of growers, ranchers and consumers. In fact the threat of commingling of genes from GE crops with non-GE is so wide-ranging that, in the case of the genetically modified ethanol corn, five major U.S. trade associations have released a joint statement declaring “disappointment” in the USDA’s decision. These very agencies are generally in favor of crop manipulation through biotechnological means, but see in the USDA ruling, a direct threat to their members’ export businesses.

From the Corn Refiners Association, National Grain and Feed Association, North American Millers’ Association, Pet Food Institute and Snack Food Association, joint statement:

“We believe USDA failed in its first opportunity to devise a policy that would be appropriate for biotech-enhanced traits whose unique properties are functionally different from other biotech or conventional commodities, ” the organizations say. “We do not believe USDA’s decision adequately considers the impact on food and feed processing that will result if this particular biotech corn, through pollination or other means, becomes commingled in the general commodity stream.”

Such a statement from otherwise politically conservative associations make it clear concern about GEOs and their potential to undermine various age-old farming and ranching sectors of our economy are becoming wide spread. And yet the USDA goes full steam ahead deregulating with reckless abandon. In an effort to offer an alternative approach to the process of dealing with genetically engineered organisms, a small organization known as the National Organic Coalition has devised a series of steps it thinks could be the very least the USDA should and can do to deal with the potential harm, areas of responsibility, and means of redress for those harmed. Called the “Principles To Drive GMO Contamination Prevention Strategies (pdf)” they are outlined as such:

  • Consumer choice – Consumers have the right to choose non-GMO food.
  • Consumer right to know – Consumers have the right to know where and how their food was grown.
  • Farmers Entrepreneurial Choice – Farmers must have the right and opportunity to grow food, feed, fiber, livestock, and fish that serve important and lucrative domestic and foreign markets.
  • Fairness – Personal and corporate responsibility must be upheld. If you own it and are profiting from it you are responsible for the costs associated with contamination prevention and any resultant damage from contamination.
  • Liability – Testing for contamination, establishing buffers, reimbursement for lost sales, loss of organic product premiums, clean-up and removal are the costs of doing business that must be borne by the GMO patent holder.
  • Precaution – The pre-market burden of proof of safety is on the patent holder. This includes comprehensive evaluation of health, socio-economic, and environmental impacts of GM crops and technologies.
  • Sustainability – Agricultural technologies and systems must be assessed for sustainability and those that facilitate further declines in family farming or erode the human and environmental foundations of American agriculture must not be allowed.
  • Health, Environmental and Economic Evaluation – Technologies that pose environmental, economic, and health risks should be evaluated before commercialization and tough choices must be made about whether their overall societal benefits outweigh their costs.
  • Parity – There must be a long-term commitment to supporting the vitality of diverse agricultural enterprises, including parity of public investment, infrastructure,
    marketing, technical assistance, research, and funding.
  • Transparency – Ongoing documentation, tracking and labeling systems must be established to monitor the movement of GMOs in the environment, seed banks, non-GMO seed stocks, and food.
  • Diversity – Society and agriculture will greatly benefit from the rapid reinvigoration of public cultivars and breeds to restore genetic diversity on farms, ensure greater farmer seeds/breeds choices, and to enhance national food security.

They go on to list what they see as the “development of strict and long-overdue GEO regulations“ which they add “should specifically include at least “

  • Labeling of GM (genetically modified) crops and product ingredients.
  • Liability assignment to the GMO (genetically modified organisms) patent holder.
  • Contamination Compensation Fund in FSA or RMA through a fee on GMO patent holders, which would provide immediate assistance to farmers pending further necessary remedies of law and equity.
  • Ongoing GM crop regulation and the complete elimination of deregulated GM crops.
  • Comprehensive, independent health, environmental, and socio-economic assessments prior to making a decision on GM crop approvals.
  • Prohibition on the growing of GM crops that are too promiscuous to prevent GMO contamination, such as GM alfalfa, GM sugar beets, GM corn, and GM canola.
  • Evaluation of food security risks associated with the concentration of any sector of our food system in the hands of a few companies or with the use of one food production technology or patented seed to the near exclusion of all others.
  • Establish infrastructure to prevent GMO commingling and contamination during post-harvest handling.
  • Patent holder should be responsible for full segregation and traceability, from seed to plate

These are sound and responsible steps that would make sense in a world where doing business also meant doing no harm. But from the moves the USDA recently made in irresponsibly deregulating a slew of GM crops, it becomes clear they are helping create a world where causing potential harm takes a back seat to making profit and in so doing are, in our opinion, failing in their stated mission to “provide leadership…based on sound public policy,[and] sound science”. We only ask that the USDA and all food oversight agencies take the time to conduct independent research to ensures our food, environmental and personal safety. The stakes at hand are worth at least that precaution.

What can you do to help turn the tides on GEO contamination of organic food production?

You can help fund the latest legal challenge by the Center for Food Safety in their on-going effort to “preserve the integrity of organic, protect the consumers’ right to know, stand up for organic and conventional farmers, and protect our environment from the hazards of GE crops”.

Or you can sign one of the online petitions like Care2’s “Oppose GE Alfalfa”.

Or by simply contacting your Senators, Representative, or the Obama Administration directly and letting them know you deserve the right to choose GE-free foods and that it is their job to assure you can.

Fast Food Facts

We’ve spent some time and effort — and utilized the expertise of Kathy here at the TomKat Ranch — to try and improve the local school meal program.  And we’re proud to say we’ve achieved this with great success. But assuring kids are eating properly goes way beyond the doors of the local school system. And that got us thinking, “What if we offered helpful online information and resources for parents taking the nutritional lead from there?” After all, the fast food industry spent a staggering $4.2 billion on marketing campaigns targeting, in part, our children.

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USF California Prize: OneCalifornia Bank and Foundation

OneCalifornia Bank and Foundation, an affiliation of the TomKat Ranch, was awarded the University of San Francisco’s California Prize for Service and the Common Good.

A for-profit bank owned by its nonprofit foundation, OneCalifornia engages in charitable and educational activities, including programs and grants to stimulate community development, encourage affordable housing, alleviate economic distress, and increase financial literacy for disadvantaged communities and organizations in California.

You can read more about it here -> OneCalifornia Bank and Foundation: 2010 USF California Prize Winner

A good education starts in the belly.

Kathy of the TomKat Ranch with Regina and Maria of the school district's lunch staff

Part of what we do at the TomKat Ranch, home of Leftcoast Grassfed, through the TomKat Ranch Educational Foundation is work to improve the student meal program at the local La Honda-Pescadero Unified School district. A big inspiration for that comes from the work Chez Panisse Foundation and Center for Ecoliteracy are doing with the Berkeley Unified School district’s meal program.

Now, a recent study by UC Berkeley proves children’s lives can be positively impacted by such programs and we’re glad to hear it. But there’s more we, and you can do. Congress has taken up the cause of improving school meal programs, but hearing inspiring comments from voters about how important food education and proper diet are to the lives of children is vital to making sure Congress does it right.

So please, if you have a moment, call your Representative, go see them if they’re near you on a campaign stop, or drop them an email and ask them to get cracking on S.3307 – Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act legislation.  The Bill isn’t perfect. It only adds about 6 cents per lunch and required restructuring the food stamp program to come up with the money, but it’s an important step to combating the child obesity epidemic affecting the nation.

Leftcoast Grassfed Beef is here!

We are very excited to announce that our first round of grass-fed beef is in!

For those who have already placed an order, you should have received an email and invitation to a complimentary cooking demostration by Chef Vollmar here at the TomKat Ranch.

Chef Charles Vollmar is a popular chef, cooking instructor, foods and wellness consultant, writer, lifestyle coach and owner of Epicurean Exchange.  An honors graduate of the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, his classes and work emphasize essential skill and technique, wellness, prevention, and lifestyle enrichment topics relating to cooking, nutrition, fitness, and foods appreciation and exploration.

Space is limited and reserved for those who have already purchased one of our packages and RSVP is essential.

For those that want to purchase Leftcoast Grassfed beef and get in on this chance to be instructed by a professional chef while there’s still time, please call 650-879-1115.

For more information on our products please visit our “Ordering” page.

Preserving A Ranch

One of the goals of the TomKat Ranch is to preserve the land and the ranch so it can continue to be a productive part of localized, sustainable food production. We think it’s a worthy and critical goal at a time when, according to Greg Plotkin of Change.org, “Every minute of every day, two acres of farmland in the United States are lost to development.” The frightening aspect of that trend, as Greg points out, is that; More »

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