By Christine Souza, Assistant Editor, Ag Alert
Reprinted with Permission from California Farm Bureau Federation
Just off Highway 1, north of San Luis Obispo in San Simeon, is the hillside property that once served as a wilderness getaway for family and friends of newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst and features Hearst Castle. The ocean-view location includes Hearst Ranch, where cattle have grazed on thousands of acres of pristine hillsides since 1865.
Specializing in grass-fed beef, Hearst Ranch cattle spend their entire lives on the company’s two ranches surrounding the castle and are raised entirely on grass to a finished weight of 1,200 pounds. Most of the cattle are finished within the late spring and summer months, and the grass-fed beef is sold to Whole Foods Market’s southern Pacific region.
Prior to the pandemic in early 2020, Hearst Ranch Corp. formed a partnership with Jensen and Grace Lorenzen, owners of The Larder Meat Co., offering Hearst Ranch beef direct to consumers through a meat subscription service.
“Over the years, people have grown more concerned and inquisitive about where their food comes from, how it’s handled and how it’s raised,” said Steve Hearst, great-grandson of William Randolph Hearst and Hearst Corp. vice president of Western Properties. “What we thought we would do was just open the door to our story.”
California Beef Council Executive Director Bill Dale said the trend of direct-to-consumer sales is beginning to grow.
“The next generation of beef producers are moving into the ranch-to-consumer market, making use of their social media skills to offer their family products to consumers that want that buying experience,” Dale said.
The Larder Meat Co.’s 10-pound, grass-fed mixed box features a selection of 6 pounds of Hearst Ranch Beef, such as flat iron or sirloin steaks, rib-eye or New York steaks, fajita meat and ground beef. The large, 15-pound box includes 10 pounds of the same cuts, but adds a roast. Also included are chicken, pork, spices, pasta or beans and a recipe card.
Prices vary depending on weight and duration of subscription, which can be a one-time purchase or monthly subscriptions.
The meat business was disrupted in 2020 after some of the nation’s packing plants closed or slowed operations after employees tested positive for COVID-19.
Ben Higgins, director of agricultural operations for Hearst Corp. in San Simeon, said consumer demand for beef shipped direct increased during the pandemic. With many people at home and restaurants closed in 2020, Jensen Lorenzen confirmed that demand for home delivery of meat was “off the charts,” adding, “Literally overnight, everybody understood the concept of ordering meat online.”
“Demand is still extremely strong, and Jensen at Larder Meat has been very creative in terms of how he has apportioned and packaged products for sale to the end customer to keep it interesting, even now as customers are returning to stores,” Higgins said. “Larder Meat is utilizing different cuts beyond the typical ribs and loins and includes with them recipes that are allowing at-home chefs to expand their horizons.”
Heavily reliant on processors, packers, truckers, and cold-storage facilities to assist in bringing beef products to market, Higgins said securing a reliable beef packer has been a challenge, especially in 2020, and imposed additional expenses.
“Securing a federally inspected packing facility in order to process our cattle is a major limiting factor and a major challenge to the business,” Higgins said. For the product to be sold through commerce, he noted, the meat must be inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
With only about 15 federally inspected packing plants in California, Dale said, the availability of more packing facilities could have also helped during the 2020-2021 drought-induced herd reductions, but pandemic-related labor shortages would have impacted everyone, regardless of their size.
“The ability of the producer to satiate consumer demand on the retail level is challenging,” Higgins said. “There is difficulty in terms of logistics, whether that’s freight, cold-storage capacity or the simple economics of the business.”
Dale noted that the pandemic coincided with one of the worst droughts that the West has ever seen.
“The combination of the drought and the pandemic caused a serious backlog of live cattle at the packing sector, which depressed prices at the ranch,” Dale said. “At the same time, consumer demand for beef was strong, which in turn created meat shortages and drove beef prices higher at the consumer level.”
For Higgins, added and rising input costs are a constant challenge to maintain profitability in the beef sector.
“You’re not just raising cattle; you are also paying for processing and freight, and you’re trying to maintain your inventory levels and get that product out to the consumer,” Higgins said. “There are lots of producers who are seeing through these challenges and making it happen, us among them. But, in a relatively dry year, it’s not getting easier.”