Food, Science

Salmon Rebellion

Originally published in Sierra.

Last year on August 24, Ernest Alfred, an elementary-school teacher and hereditary chief from the ‘Namgis, Lawit’sis, and Mamalilikala First Nations, boated out to Swanson Island, British Columbia, and began to set up tents with a small group of other First Nations activists.

A few days earlier, Alfred had been sitting in an emergency community meeting about the problem of the fish farms of the Broughton Archipelago. Many people, including Alfred, were certain the pens were the reason behind the long decline of wild salmon in their homeland. Decades of grassroots organizing and lawsuits had shifted the balance of power between BC’s First Nations and the Canadian agencies that had leased the areas to the fish farms in the first place. In June 2018, several leases in the waters of the Musgmagw Dzawada’enuwx First Nation would expire, and hopes were high that the leases would not be renewed.

But Marine Harvest, the Norwegian company that held those leases, wasn’t acting like they were expiring. Instead, it was making plans to restock the farms with smolts—young Atlantic salmon that wouldn’t be ready to harvest when the leases ended. Alfred didn’t think that the community could risk any more delays. Last fall, the wild salmon run in the archipelago had been frighteningly low.

“We probably have two years,” Alfred said. “We are not just talking about food security and what we eat. My brother is a guide. He takes tourists who come from all over the world, and he takes them to watch the grizzly bears. And the bears couldn’t catch any fish. There are probably cubs that went to sleep for the winter that didn’t get fat enough and won’t wake up next spring.”

Alfred and his niece, Molina Dawson, stood up at the meeting. “I’m not interested in this process anymore,” Alfred said. “I don’t want to write letters. I’m going to pack my bags and take my tent and go out to this farm, and I’m not going to move until something happens.”

When the group reached Swanson, they informed the Marine Harvest employees on-site that they were being occupied, then asked where to set up tents. “They thought it was pretty cute,” said Alfred. “They didn’t take us too seriously at the beginning.” (Marine Harvest did not respond to an offer to share its version of events.) The occupiers set up camp on a floating walkway above the salmon pens.

The next day, a site manager for Marine Harvest seemed annoyed that they were still there. He came up to Alfred and told him he was trespassing. “No, you are,” Alfred said.


Alfred and a fellow occupier brandish jars of wild salmon. | Photo courtesy of Swanson Occupation

The waters of the Broughton Archipelago are home to at least two dozen salmon farms, according to a 2013 survey, but Alfred had chosen Swanson Island for one very specific reason: The island itself is the traditional territory of his mother’s ancestors. As long as Alfred stayed on the island, he was virtually untouchable. “It wouldn’t be right for me to go to someone else’s territory and say “get out,” Alfred said. “But I also chose it because it had not-too-bad cell coverage. Internet was very important.”

Internet was very important because Alfred did not intend to leave Swanson Island until he knew for certain that John Horgan, the premier of British Columbia, was not going to renew the leases in June. Still, even as Alfred stayed connected through the rest of the world via telecommunications, living on the island was an adjustment. “At this hour, baby seals on the island next to us sound like zombies out to get me,” Alfred wrote on his Facebook page one evening in September. “I’m going to bed!”


A supply boat arrives with shack-building materials. | Photo courtesy of Swanson Occupation

When the fish farms arrived in the 1980s, residents of the archipelago did not welcome them with open arms, despite promises of jobs and money. “Our people from the very beginning were very skeptical,” Alfred said. “Right off the bat, the old people—a lot of people call them ‘elders,’ but in my tradition the word that we use literally means ‘old people’—said, ‘Why would we do this when Mother Nature grows salmon for free? We would be acting as gods.’”

But it wasn’t up to the First Nations. The farm leases had been negotiated with the Canadian federal government. Over the next few decades, a series of court rulings gave legal backing to something that had always been historically true: Many of Canada’s indigenous tribes, particularly those in the western provinces, had never signed treaties giving up control over their territory.

In 1989, Carrier Lumber submitted a proposal to the BC government to log forest on Xeni Gwet’in land. In response, the Xeni Gwet’in declared the forest off limits for all logging, mining, and road building but said that non-natives were welcome to ask permission to “come and view and photograph our beautiful land.” It took the case decades to reach its conclusion, and when it did in 2014, a new legal precedent was set: Any First Nations land that was never formally ceded to the Canadian government could not be developed without the consent of those First Nations that have a claim to it. That included land that had been used for hunting or foraging, not just land that had been continuously occupied.

By then, BC’s native salmon population was in steep decline. “In the mid ’90s—that’s when my dad sold his fishing boat,” Alfred said. “The farms went in in 1989. We started to see effects almost right away.” Commercial fishery catches between 1995 and 2005 were the lowest in recorded history, and then the catch halved again between 2006 and 2014.

There were several theories as to why the salmon runs were diminishing. Salmon farms around the world were struggling with an epidemic of sea lice: tiny crustaceans that latch onto salmon in ocean waters and feed off their blood and tissue. Were fish farms providing year-round habitat to a parasite that normally would have limited opportunities to latch onto juvenile wild salmon as they emerged from streams and headed out to the open ocean? Scientific research showed that sea lice from fish farms could infect nearby wild salmon. Was that one reason why so few fish were coming back from the ocean each year?

Salmon farms were also facing periodic epidemics of piscine reovirus. A study by Alexandra Morton, a whale researcher who began studying fish farms after the area’s orca population declined, found that 95 percent of farmed Atlantic salmon had the virus, and that about 40 percent of wild Pacific salmon that spawned near the salmon farms, like those in the Broughton Archipelago, also had the virus. In areas of BC that were farthest away from salmon farms, the incidence of the virus was only 5 percent. Piscine reovirus causes heart damage, and some biologists surmised that it could be preventing wild salmon from making it to the ocean, or from surviving the long journey upstream to spawn.

But none of this changed the fact that, in the more than 20 years since salmon farming began, farmed salmon had become a $1.2 billion industry and BC’s largest agricultural export. A third of those salmon were coming from the Broughton Archipelago. Alaska had managed to ban farmed salmon, but it did so in the 1990s, before the industry got too powerful to overcome resistance. Meanwhile, companies like Marine Harvest had begun to hammer out agreements with some local tribes, which made agitating to remove the fish farms more politically complicated.

To Alfred, there’s no amount of compromise that would be worth hammering out. “It is a lot of money to these impoverished communities, but it’s a drop in the bucket to these companies,” he said. “The people who have signed those agreements are not proud of them.” According to Alfred, some tribal members believed that just getting the farms to operate differently might work: for example, moving pens farther away from traditional salmon migration routes, or closing down the farms periodically to break the lifecycle of any parasites or viruses.

But those changes were hard to monitor, hard to enforce. Alternative solutions to closing down the farms, like moving them far away from wild salmon and into facilities on land, weren’t happening fast enough. BC’s First Nations had started their own above-ground fish farm, Kuterra, which began farming in 2013, but no similar operations had followed. “The most important thing to remember is that it’s been done and we’ve proved our point,” Alfred said. “Its only downfall is that it doesn’t actually make money.” (Kuterra recently began to turn a profit but is unlikely to recoup its start-up costs.)


Marine Harvest’s salmon farm seen from Alfred’s cabin. | Photo courtesy of Swanson Occupation

A few weeks into the occupation, Alfred and the other occupiers (there have been anywhere from two to 18 people living on the island at any given moment) moved into an enclave of deserted cabins on the island, which had a good view of the Marine Harvest operation. Swanson Island is not the only occupation. Another Marine Harvest location, Midsummer Island, was occupied in September by a group of Musgamagw Dzawada’enuxw and Namgis, including Alfred’s niece. They agreed to leave in November after Marine Harvest filed an injunction against them in court. In October, the Matriarch’s Camp, led by Tsastilqualus Umbras, a Ma’amtagila grandmother, set up outside the offices of BC premier John Horgan in Langford, relocating at one point to the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Gradually, it began to look like the occupations were having some effect. In October, Lana Popham, the BC minister of agriculture, sent a letter to Marine Harvest, warning it not to stock any more salmon at its farm in Port Elizabeth, whose lease was set to expire in June 2018, because “we are entering into sensitive discussions with some of the First Nations in the Broughton Archipelago who remain opposed to open net pen salmon farming in their territories.”

A few days later, Horgan said at a salmon farm industry meeting that companies needed to remember that their leases were “not in perpetuity.” Marine Harvest objected to this messaging. “If there’s a better way to do business, we’re always interested,” Marine Harvest Canada spokesman Ian Roberts told CBC News, “but today they are very, very good sites for growing fish.”

Then, in November, a state senator in neighboring Washington announced he was planning a bill that would phase out all fish farm leases there. With the state spending hundreds of millions of dollars preserving wild Pacific salmon runs, said Senator Kevin Ranker, “raising invasive Atlantic salmon that we classify by state law as a pollutant makes no sense.”

The bill was almost certainly the direct result of the September escape of over 160,000 Atlantic salmon from a fish farm run by a company named Cooke Aquacultlure. Atlantic salmon have been used for West Coast fish farming because they are believed to not be able to survive in the Pacific Ocean on their own, and because they could live closer together than their Pacific cousins without attacking each other. Months after the escape, however, fishers in Washington are still reeling in Atlantic salmon. In December, Washington’s Department of Natural Resources terminated the lease on the farm where the escape took place.

Alfred spent New Year’s Eve on Swanson Island. “Swanson Occupation Day 131!” he announced cheerfully, camera trained on the orange-yellow Wolf Moon rising over the bay. “Happy New Year from everyone at Swanson Island Occupation!” He, some friends, and their children took all the pots and pans outside and banged them together in celebration. It wasn’t what he had planned a year earlier, but then, a lot of things had happened in 2017 that he hadn’t planned on, beginning with his decision, in August, to take a leave of absence from teaching and to occupy a fish farm instead.

As a hereditary chief, Alfred was raised with a particular responsibility to keep alive culture and tradition, and to carry it forward. “I quit my job so that I could have peace of mind,” Alfred said. “I didn’t want to lie to my students anymore about being stewards of the land when I wasn’t doing it.” A group of his former students, now high schoolers, organized two school walkouts in solidarity and demanded that the local supermarket not stock farmed salmon.

Alfred has heard that Marine Harvest will restock the pens off of Swanson soon. There are rumors afoot that the management of Canada’s fish farms would be taken from the Department of Fisheries, and Alfred remains optimistic. He suspects that early on in the occupation, Marine Harvest had tried to get a permit to evict him but then realized that his ancestral relationship to the land made that impossible. “They know,” Alfred said. “They know they are going to lose.”


Where Have All the Salmon Gone?

Originally published in Sierra.

To get to the largest surviving population of wild spring Chinook salmon on the Klamath River, I drive farther north than I’ve ever been in California, then turn right. Gradually, the highways disappear, and the roads narrow. Commerce becomes more improvisational. Grocery stores and restaurants disappear and in their place there is a farm stand staffed by Gandalf in overalls and a naked baby cooing to itself and scooting along on a tricycle. The roads become more improvisational, too, and begin to curve and twist until they nearly double back on themselves, until my rental car is trundling along a single lane of dirt and gravel carved into the edge of a cliff. It becomes clear to me that if I meet another car going in the opposite direction that one of us is going to die, probably me. But when I do round a corner and see another car it does a set of maneuvers that seem to bend space-time, and somehow we pass by each other smoothly, and continue on our way.

My destination is a one-room schoolhouse in Forks of Salmon, California, a place where the closest thing to a town square is a tree that you sit under to drink beer. During the day, a gang of horses roams parking lots and lawns, looking for dumpsters or unattended coolers to break into.

Inside the schoolhouse, the Forest Service and the Salmon River Restoration Council, a local nonprofit, are checking out swim gear to the 90 or so people who have arrived for the annual spring Chinook salmon count. Tomorrow, we are going to swim down 75 miles of the Salmon River, counting every spring Chinook salmon we run across.

Salmon River | Screengrab from video by Mikal Jakubal

Big changes are coming to the Klamath, which was once Manhattan for salmon. Local kids from the Yurok and Karuk tribes grow up on stories about how during the old spring and fall Chinook runs the water was so thick with fish that you could practically walk across them. In 2020, demolition will begin on four major dams—Iron Gate, John C. Boyle and Copco 1 and 2. It will open up 300 miles of salmon habitat that has been closed off for nearly a hundred years—the largest river restoration project in U.S. history.

The spring Chinook is the first fish to return from the ocean as the winter comes to an end. It’s hard to overstate its importance to the tribes who live on the Klamath, as a religious symbol, and as a literal means of survival. As time goes on it may prove even more critical, because it may prove more resistant to the effects of climate change than the fall Chinook because it travels early in the year, when water levels are high and cold. But the spring Chinook became extinct in many tributaries of the Klamath decades ago: a casualty of dams, agricultural runoff, and water being diverted to farms and orchards as far away as California’s Central Valley. Remove the dams, and it’s possible that the Chinook on the Salmon River could repopulate their former territory.

The spring Chinook persists on the Salmon because even though gold mining and logging did a number on the local ecology, the river was never dammed or diverted. Its headwaters come out of Marble Mountain wilderness, and the tributary itself is surrounded by Forest Service land. This is one of the reasons we’re even able to count the salmon in the first place: private landowners often restrict river access, out of fear that letting people collect data will lead to more restrictions in the future.

Map of the Klamath Basin courtesy of Shannon1 

Because the Salmon river is cold, fast, and full of rocks, our goal is to cover as much of our bodies with neoprene as possible. I successfully check out a snorkel, a wetsuit, a sun-faded jacket with a hole in the elbow, neoprene gloves, two funky-smelling neoprene socks with holes in the heels, and shoes that look like regular hiking boots, but which turn out to be underwater hiking boots.

The only thing I’m missing is a cowl, which looks like a neoprene ski mask. There is only one cowl left. It has “Small” written on the side of it in magic marker, and it looks like it would be appropriate for a toddler.

“Do you have any more cowls?” I ask. “My head is really big.” I point to my head, for reference.

The woman supervising the bins looks at me speculatively. “Why don’t you just try it?”

I pull the cowl gently over my head. Then less gently. Then violently. Improbably, it slides into place and breathing suddenly becomes difficult. I claw at my face and dance backwards, like a dog trying to back out of a veterinary cone.

I’m not sure how I get myself out of the cowl but when I do, I am relieved to see that all humans in this room are struggling with their wetsuits in their own special way. Everyone is working out their own technique. Some people hop up and down and yank. Some contort. The overall result, played out across the room, is that of a very energetic modern dance performance.

Any salmon who make it to the Salmon River to spawn will find perfect conditions to reproduce – but that’s if they make it. It’s July 2017, the first summer after the worst drought in California’s recorded history. Last year, the Chinook count was around 398—a fraction of what it had been before the drought, and half the average run over the last 20 years. During the worst of the drought years, the farmers of California’s Central Valley filed court injunctions to block releasing water from dams that was meant to lower water temperatures and save wild salmon. Both the Karuk and the Yurok voluntarily reduced their subsistence and ceremonial fishing this year, in the hopes that the spring Chinook will recover.

The salmon counters who have come here cut a wide swath across subcultures and archetypes: the Forest Service, Fish & Wildlife, the salmon scientists, the teenager from the local Karuk tribe with the green hair and lip ring, the dive school students from Humboldt State, the back-to-the-land old timers, the documentary filmmaker, the pot entrepreneurs, the real estate agent from a few towns over who keeps bringing the conversation back to nearby homes for sale, and the high school kids working for the Youth Civilian Conservation Corps. The high school kids have perfect California teen names: Trinity, Cassidy, Reno, Chainsaw. (Chainsaw is thrilled to be monitoring salmon this summer, since he spent the last one cleaning park toilets.) There’s the guy in a utilikilt, another guy who describes himself as a “salmon groupie,” and the woman with a crystal pendant dangling in the middle of her forehead.

They’re drawn here for different reasons. Some people have traveled in from nearby towns just for the opportunity to socialize. “I’m here for the free camping and free food,” says one of the Humboldt State students, adding that it’s easier to dive here right now than in Arcata Bay, where the fertilizer runoff from local weed farms trickles down to meet the ocean. “I felt the call of the salmon and the oceans last May,” says the woman with the crystal, and leaves it at that.

Salmon counter, underwater | Photo courtesy of Mikal Jakubal

Once we have all assembled more or less complete wetsuit setups, we trudge down to a nearby pond to practice the defensive maneuvers we’re supposed to do if we encounter some rapids (roll on your back, use your feet to push yourself away from rocks before the rocks slam into you, never try to stand up because if your foot gets caught, the river can push you underwater and drown you in no time flat). If we get swept downstream, the instructions are to hike to the nearest house and ask to use their phone. There’s no cell reception out here, and anyone living nearby knows all about the salmon count.

The next morning, we split into groups that are each assigned a section of the river. Out of the water, we trudge over boulders, with the Klamath National Forest stretching around us in all directions. Underwater, the world is cold and alien. One minute, the river bottom is gravel, just a few inches away from the mask of my snorkel, and then the next, the river bed falls away and I’m floating over an inky expanse that seems to have no bottom. There’s no mistaking that this is earthquake country. There’s also no mistaking that this underwater world is empty. One of the most experienced divers in our group sees two tiny salmon, the rest of us see none. It’s an eerie feeling—like wandering through a beautiful house that is mysteriously vacant.

Navigating our section of the river is not easy. Where the river narrows, the stream is violently fast, and we crawl out onto the boulders at the edge of the streambed and hike for a long time  in our soggy frogman getups. A few times I underestimate how fast the current is, and find myself pinging from rock to rock, like I’m in a live-action pinball machine.

During these times, I find myself wishing I was a little bit more like a salmon—flexible, without so many extremities. Later, I find out that this is a rough environment for salmon too. Before the late 1800s, when gold was discovered on the Salmon River, the river was much wider, and moved more slowly. When gold miners arrived they washed away the cliffs with high pressure hoses, and filled the river valley with rubble, leaving a fast, narrow channel. Juvenile fish will get banged up on the rocks or flushed out into the Klamath, where they’re done in by parasites and bacteria from agricultural runoff.  For that reason, there’s a whole division of salmon habitat restoration that just involves slowing rivers down by re-creating creeks and floodplains that were filled in or blocked off by mining. Even before a floodplain is completely restored, often a troupe of beavers will show up and finish the job.

Salmon counters | Photo courtesy of Mikal Jakubal

When I see the orange ribbon that marks the end of our section of the river, I relax and float. This turns out to be one of the worst ideas I’ve ever had, because what looks like a flat glassy pool at the end pours into a section of rapids that was deemed too dangerous for the group to navigate.

I go over a waterfall. It’s only a few feet high, but it’s fast, and I’m out of my league. It’s a dreamlike sensation to completely lose control of your body. The water swings me into a boulder, and as my head hits the rock the sound is like someone has rung a bell that also happens to be me. I try to remember what I was supposed to do to not die in this situation, and then I pass a rock big enough to grab with both arms. I drag myself on top of it and lie there, scared to move any more. The rest of the group, which has been screaming and running along the shoreline, catches up to me. “That was great!” says the group leader. “You did that exactly right!” I am torn. I would like to believe that I am great, and I did do that exactly right. As a former child care professional I know that this phrasing is the exact same tactic that people use on kids when they’ve hurt themselves, and don’t want them to start crying.

Back at the schoolhouse, we eat pasta dinner. The old timers reminisce about how, before the numbers dropped so severely, the salmon count used to conclude with spring Chinook purchased from the Yurok, and cooked the way that it was in this area for thousands of years, which is skewered like kebabs and smoked around an open fire. The spring Chinook is fattier than salmon that migrates later in the year, so it’s perfect for this type of cooking, and when I ask people what it tastes like, they just look off into the distance and say, wistfully, “It’s the best fish you’ll ever have.”

When I wake up the next morning and can’t hear out of one ear I will sit down on a rock and allow myself a moment of perfect sadness at the possibility of having lost 50 percent of my hearing to something so basic and boring as a boulder. The sadness will prove unnecessary—as it turns out, the absence of sound is just swelling from a perforated eardrum, plus an infection from the river water that we were warned so sternly not to drink. After a few weeks of having to rotate my head so that my good ear is facing whoever I’m talking to, it’s like the boulder never happened.

That evening we learn that the recorded count this year is 110—just a little under the all-time low of 90, back in 2005, and a far cry from the highest recorded count of 1,593 back in 2012. At a conference the next day, the tone is somber. “When I heard last night the number of salmon in the system it was like a kick to the gut,” says Josh Saxon of the Karuk Council. “We are failing this species. If this disappears so will our ceremonies.”

“These fish are our relations. I don’t take that lightly.” says Will Harling, director of the Mid Klamath Watershed Council. “Whether or not you subscribe to God or world renewal, this is about survival and place. That’s why we got to keep the fish here. We as humans—we are the problem. But we’re also the solution.”

Later, after numbers come in from Wooly Creek, that count is raised to 160, which is still dangerously low. “This year we had perfect conditions,” says Karuna Greenberg, Restoration Director for the Salmon River Restoration Council. “The river was perfect, all summer long. The eggs would have grown up on the river under really good conditions. The rearing conditions would have been good. The fish would have been unlikely to get diseases. If we even had 350 or 400 fish …”

But for the moment, salmon alarm can wait. Back where the salmon counters are camping, there’s a bonfire. The Humboldt State students are playing card games with a deck made of cards depicting California wildflowers, and scheming about how to sneak into a scientific symposium tomorrow. The group playing guitars around the fire has tripled in size, and now, improbably, includes an upright base. The haze from the Island Fire has cleared temporarily and the sky is full of stars.

Out of the corner of my eye I see one star drop casually, like a swimmer leaping off a high dive. Then I see another, and another. Even though I’d forgotten about it, the Aquarid meteor shower kept going about its business and happened anyway. That’s why I’m here really—probably why we’re all here. Even more intoxicating than the idea of a nature that needs protecting is the idea of nature so wild that it doesn’t need us at all to survive. I look up, and another star falls.


Why Are Other Cultures Better at Eating Bugs Than We Are?

Originally published at Grist.

In 1845, John C. Fremont was exploring the state that would later come to be known as California. He met a man who had been traveling with a group of trappers, who told him a story. The trappers had run out of food, and decided that the best way out of their predicament was to steal several bags of dried fish from a nearby Native American camp.

So they did. The trappers made dinner. The trappers made breakfast. Then one of them looked at the fish a little more closely. It wasn’t fish at all. It was maggots, pounded into a thin paste and dried.

“The stomachs of the stout trappers were not proof against their prejudices,” wrote Fremont, “The repulsive food was suddenly rejected.”

Recently, I was walking through a grocery store in Manhattan, looking for something to eat on the train.  I found myself eye level with an energy bar whose label bragged about its protein content. All of this was normal — protein is the new low-fat (just as, once, “low-fat” was the new “high fiber”). But one thing was different: the energy bar was made with crickets.

I’d been following the world of insect-eating (entomophagy, to use the precise term) long enough to know that I was looking at a tiny shrink-wrapped miracle.  To get to this point, a lot happen behind the scenes in the American food system. Some people had to set themselves up as growers of insects that met the legal standards of food for humans, not just pet lizards. They had to get approval from the FDA, an agency that thought more about how much insect could accidentally make its way into your food than it did into developing food safety standards for people who wanted to put them there on purpose.

But why didn’t insect-eating become a part of this culture sooner? Not everyone who came across the insect-foraging cultures of North America had a terrible time, even in the 19th century. The botanist William Henry Brewer, who arrived at Mono Lake in Northern California in 1863, seems to have had a fine time eating the “fish.” Brewer came during the spring harvest, when tribes converged on the shores of the lake. The lake was filled with pupae who had grown chubby from eating the lake’s microscopic algae. The fat and protein that they had packed on would kickstart their metamorphosis into an adult fly, but until that metamorphosis happened, Mono Lake was an all-you-can eat insect buffet.

Samuel House

“The Indians come far and near to gather them,” Brewer wrote.

The worms are dried in the sun, the shell rubbed off, when a yellowish kernel remains, like a small yellow grain of rice. This is oily, very nutritious, and not unpleasant to the taste … The Indians gave me some; it does not taste bad, and if one were ignorant of its origin, it would make fine soup.

Mark Twain, who also visited the lake, described it in Roughing It as a “lifeless, treeless, hideous desert.” But appearances were deceiving. Mono Lake was never going to be a landscape that could be farmed — it looked like a science fiction film set. But people who knew how to make use of the flies of springtime were like any culture that figures out how to survive in an inhospitable climate — they had found a species that could convert something inedible (in this case, algae) into a complete protein, and then they ate that species.  “There is no danger of starvation on the shores of Mono,” wrote John Ross Browne, a journalist for Harper’s Monthly, “The inhabitants may be snowed in, flooded out, or cut off by aboriginal hordes, but they can always rely upon the beach for fat meat.”


Europeans and their descendants have experimented with insect cuisine here and there (See: the lively maggot cheeses of Europe). But mostly they have focused on getting rid of insects, rather than turning them into dinner.

Why is it that Europeans never learned to eat bugs? I’ve heard the theory before that it’s because of livestock: Europeans spent so much time hanging out with chickens, goats, sheep, cows, and pigs that going after tiny invertebrates was beside the point. I’ve also heard the argument that agriculture is the culprit: By planting all the foods we like together in one convenient place, we created insect buffets, which then turned insects into the enemy that must be destroyed. But ranching, farming and insect-eating coexist in many cultures in Asia and Africa — so much so that some farmers will use their own fields as bait, capturing the insects that come to eat their crops and then eating them or selling them at the farmers market.

It’s more likely that the limiting factor is temperature. If you’re cold-blooded, like insects are, you’ve got to live in a warm place if you want to have any fun. Insects in cold areas stay small; insects at tropical latitudes grow big and juicy and hang out together in large groups that make them an appealing target. The Native Americans living on the East Coast were not big insect eaters, while the ones living in balmy California and Mexico were amazing at it. When Europeans arrived in a climate like California’s, they simply didn’t have the background to appreciate the invertebrate smorgasbord that was in front of them.

Today, the alkali fly is still a major presence at Mono Lake, but the only thing humans harvest from Mono is the water. In 1941, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power began diverting the freshwater streams that feed the lake so that instead of pouring into the lake, it traveled 350 miles south to Los Angeles. The fly population dropped by half, until environmental activists limited the amount of water that was being diverted to protect the only species that still eat the fly larvae — birds. Millions of birds come to the lake during fly season, some of them eating so many insects that they become too fat to fly. Meanwhile, the California drought has left Mono Lake at its lowest levels in decades. Humans still make the pilgrimage out to the lake, but just to watch the birds, not to join the feast.

So we’re still pretty far away from pop-up shops hawking artisanal Mono Lake pupae. In the U.S., entomophagy enthusiasts have chosen to focus on farming insects, instead of foraging for them. Which makes sense: farming is what we know.

But how easy is it to apply farming techniques to insects? More about that in part 2.


How the Bay Area’s Last Slaughterhouse Dodged the Axe

Originally published at Grist.

An hour north of San Francisco is where you’ll find the last slaughterhouse in the Bay Area. I drove right by it at first — it’s just a low-slung collection of one-story rectangular buildings and prefab trailers behind a high fence. It was sandwiched between a Bikram yoga franchise, a block of condos, and an outlet mall. The Bikram franchise seemed to have taken the lack of signage outside the slaughterhouse as an open invitation, because someone had hung a large banner across the slaughterhouse fence that read “Certified Organic Yoga.”


The place once known as Rancho Veal and now called Marin Sun Farms Petaluma is the only slaughterhouse that lies between the Sonoma and West Marin grasslands and the socially conscious eaters of San Francisco. Without it, the history of the local food movement in the Bay Area would have been very different. There were plenty of idealistic pastoralists willing to fight to protect the grasslands for agriculture instead of letting them turn into suburbs. There was an equally idealistic cabal of chefs willing to pay a premium to buy their meat from locally and ethically raised animals. But there was only one Rancho. And all it took to keep it open was the collapse of the entire American real estate market — that, and 8.7 million pounds of recalled beef.

For all its importance, Rancho has kept a low profile. When I wrote an article about it back in 2008, my requests to visit were flatly denied. “You will never get inside here” is the phrase I remember the receptionist using.

But a lot can change in seven years. On a bright spring morning recently, I  just walk through the front gate, past the office that the slaughterhouse is obligated to provide for its local USDA inspector, and into another boxy, prefab office trailer that looks like it and its wood paneling, have sat here, completely unchanged, since the early ’70s.

Inside, David Evans, the facility’s current owner, is discussing complicated meat orders. A dot-com startup that delivers cook-your-own-meal kits has just called out of the blue begging for a rush order of several thousand tiny packages of organic ground beef, individually bagged. Is it possible to do an order like that so quickly? There’s a brief debate. Later, they figure out how to make it happen.

San Franciscans of the olden days, like most other urban Americans, ate animals that were killed within city limits. In the early 1900s, cattle were herded up Third Street and met their fate in working-class industrial neighborhoods like the Bayview (aka Butchertown, aka Putrid Row) and Dogpatch (named for the packs of feral dogs that roamed the neighborhood looking for slaughterhouse scraps). Islais Creek, which was unfortunate enough to pass through the Bayview, often ran red with blood, and had a nickname of its own: Shit Creek.

The railroad and the refrigerator made city slaughterhouses obsolete, for the most part. Years ago, I interviewed Roger Horowitz, a historian who has written a lot about Chicago’s stockyards, for Meatpaper magazine. What surprised me in Horowitz’s stories was how proud the stockyards, slaughterhouses, and meat-packing plants of Chicago were of what they did. There was nothing like them anywhere else in the world — they were the high-tech firms of their day.

When Upton Sinclair researched the slaughterhouse scenes in The Jungle, he didn’t need to go undercover — he just had to join a group of visiting tourists, who made sure to check out the Chicago stockyards the way that modern Chicago tourists check out the Cloud Gate or the Institute of Art. Horowitz sent me a copy of a tour booklet that the Armour Plant produced as a souvenir for visitors. “Hog-killing and the subsequent treatment of pork products offer to the average visitor a most interesting and unique field of observation,” the pamphlet read, next to a line drawing of squealing pigs suspended from chains being killed by a man in an apron. “It would seem as if this department had been brought to a state of absolute perfection.” Henry Ford was a guest on one of those tour groups, and claimed that the slaughterhouse line was his inspiration for the automobile assembly line. He just took the stockyard’s innovation in systematically and repetitively breaking animals down into cuts of meat, and reversed it into building cars up.

In Northern California, as in the rest off the country, cattle ranchers became a part of this system. Ranchers raised their calves on pasture and then, once the calves had reached about 800 pounds, they would sell them to whoever offered the best price — usually a buyer for one of the major meat companies. Whoever purchased the calves would ship them out to the vast feedlot and slaughterhouse complexes of the Great Plains. With each decade, the cattle industry in particular seemed to consolidate a little more, and the number of buyers dwindled.

This was great if you liked to eat a lot of steer; the price of beef fell by half between the 1970s and the 1990s. But it was not great if you liked to raise them. While a drought-exacerbated cattle shortage has kept prices high recently, today, four companies buy 85 percent of the cattle on the market.

“When you get consolidation like that, it can actually be great,” says Evans, whose company, Marin Sun Farms, took over Rancho last year. “Because people start to look for alternatives.”

Evans was one of those people. He started Marin Sun Farms in 1999, as a fourth-generation member of a ranching family, and a freshly minted graduate in agricultural science from CalPoly. Evans had decided his niche would be selling cattle that had grazed on local pasture for their entire lives, instead of being fattened in a feedlot. He would raise maybe 10 cattle a year — about the minimum he needed to turn any kind of a profit, period — and sell them as whole, halves, and quarters to locals in West Marin, who had the kind of local purchasing ideology and freezer space necessary to buy at that scale.

Evans had big dreams, but what he was doing wasn’t especially radical. The experience of Bill Niman, a West Marin schoolteacher turned rancher, had proved that there were a lot of people out there who were willing to pay a premium for meat from animals that had been treated well and raised locally. And a determined group of local activists had seen to it that, despite being just an hour’s drive from San Francisco, Marin and Sonoma Counties were a place where small-scale agriculture could still happen.

Beginning in the ’60s,  the orchards south of San Francisco were steadily replaced by residential developments and office parks. (A small plum grove that was reportedly the last working orchard in the area was reportedly sold to a real estate developer two years ago.) The dairies and ranches to the north of the city fought back — hard — against residential development.

The same thing was set to happen north of the city — and, in some places, it did. But a detailed plan to turn West Marin into a suburban bedroom community of 241,000 people was foiled in the late ’60s and early ’70s by an unlikely alliance between ranchers and environmentalists. The alliance’s poster child was the Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT), founded in 1980 by dairy farmer Ellen Straus and biologist Phyllis Faber. MALT was the first organization in the United States to use land trusts — historically a tool for the wealthy to keep taxes low on large estates — to preserve land for agricultural use. The land that was saved wasn’t necessarily the best farmland the Bay Area had, but it was good for grazing.

During the same time, nearby Petaluma — once the egg capital of the world — had fallen on hard times, but was equally determined not to turn into a residential suburb. City residents voted to limit residential development to 500 new units a year, and were promptly sued by the Construction Industry Association. In 1975, much to everyone’s surprise, Petaluma won the case. The city went on to grow into what it is today — a place where strip malls, feed mills, condo developments, and the last slaughterhouse in the Bay Area somehow all manage to be neighbors to one another.

Rancho might not look like anyone’s idea of bucolic country living, but local government had its back. “If we’re going to maintain the pastoral lands of these two counties,” Bill Kortum, environmentalist and former Sonoma County supervisor, told the Santa Rosa Press Democrat in 2006, “we better have a slaughterhouse.”


Like nearly every rancher in Marin,  Evans sent his animals to Rancho. While a few ranchers did a complicated legal dance that allowed them to use the on-farm slaughtering services of a legendary entrepreneur known as “One-shot Johnny,” if you wanted to sell through farmers markets or to restaurants, Rancho was the only game in town. That poached beef on your plate at Chez Panisse, that burger at Zuni? All passed through Rancho.

Rancho may have been critical to the local ranching economy and to Bay Area foodie culture, but the reverse wasn’t true. I talked to Bob Singleton, Rancho’s former owner, once back in 2008, for an article that I wrote for San Francisco Magazine. Singleton was sharp and opinionated over the phone, but leery of any press coverage — he feared attracting the attention of animal rights activists, and later told the magazine’s fact-checkers that he’d never talked to me at all. At the time, Singleton explained that, yes, he did custom work for local ranchers like Evans, who raised odd breeds of animals and made strange requests like “Save me the ox tails” or “Can I have my cow’s head back?” He also explained that no slaughterhouse, even in the Bay Area, could survive as a business on that alone. Singleton’s bread and butter, as it were, was dairy cattle.

The average dairy herd culls a third of its cows every year and all of its male calves, and because dairy cattle don’t travel well, they tend to be killed closer to where they were raised. Singleton bought them and shipped them in, from as far away as Nevada and Twin Falls, Idaho, before turning around and selling the meat on the commodities market. By 2008, his business had been in a slow decline for decades; Rancho was operating at half the capacity that it had in the 1980s. Cattle ranching in Sonoma was on the wane, too, as many ranchers discovered that vineyards were more profitable. Rancho had been bought for a song after the former owner went bankrupt in the 1960s, but the land it stood on was too valuable for that to ever happen again.

None of this deterred Evans. He was continuing to pursue the slow-growth plan for Marin Sun Farms when, in 2002, something unexpected happened. The New York Times Magazine published an article by a then relatively obscure nature writer named Michael Pollan. Titled “Power Steer,” it described the life of a feedlot steer and ended with the author eating a steak from a grass-fed steer raised in the Hudson Valley — and pronouncing it tough, but way more delicious. Suddenly, everyone who read the New York Times Magazine wanted to try a grass-fed steak, too. Evans’ niche product had just vaulted into a larger niche.

Because he was buying cattle from like-minded ranchers in the area and selling it under the Marin Sun Farms label, Evans was also better poised to meet the sudden demand than individual ranchers with small herds. And he found that he was getting the hang of marketing, which he had decided was something that local ranching really needed. He felt pretty good at dealing with the more fussy Bay Area customers — including the ones that insisted that he grow biologically impossible livestock, like grass-fed pigs. “When you get to be a mid-sized rancher,” Evans told me, “you have to decide if you’re going to raise cattle, or sell them. I love raising cattle, but what the ranching community needed was someone who could sell them.”

Over the next few years, Evans invested heavily in customer service. He began moving from selling frozen meat to selling the fresh kind. He didn’t think it was necessarily any better, and it certainly wasn’t easier, but that was what grocery stores, restaurants, and local butcher shops wanted. He opened a cut-and-wrap facility, so that Marin Sun Farms could start packaging and selling smaller cuts. He worked a lot on inventory. “If someone comes to the farmers market and you don’t have a chicken for them that week,” Evans said, “they may say they believe in seasonality, but they’ll go buy that chicken from somewhere else.”

And he tried to buy Rancho, unsuccessfully, many times. In 2006, Pollan released The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which built on the reporting that went into the “Power Steer” article and further propelled the grass-fed craze. 2006 was also the year that an attempt to build a slaughterhouse in Ukiah, Calif., was blocked by local animal rights activists and residents concerned about air and water quality. The slaughterhouse had been backed by Phyllis Faber, one of the co-founders of MALT, and many in the local food movement had hoped that it would be a fallback in case Rancho ever shut down.

Rancho itself was so old that the city of Petaluma had no records of it ever being constructed. But it was becoming clear that proposing a new slaughterhouse in any community was going to be a tough sell, even in the local-food-loving Bay Area.

At that point, Singleton had already sold the option to replace Rancho Veal to a real-estate developer for $3 million. The general attitude in the Bay Area local food scene was one of controlled panic, but Singleton seemed pretty happy about it. He said that some people might see Rancho’s central location as an advantage, but it had some drawbacks. He had come to work to find animal rights activists chained to the front of the building, and the facility had been firebombed twice. “I guess they figured out that we were killing a whole lot of veal calves,” Singleton said. “Which you can pretty much figure out from the name.” Singleton insisted that local ranching was doomed, no matter what anyone told me. What the suburbs didn’t take, the wineries would.

Then, a few months later, in December 2008, everything changed: The housing market tanked with a velocity never before recorded in American history. The developer backed out; Rancho Veal stayed open. In San Francisco, the artisanal meat craze built into a meat tsunami, little aware of the abyss it had narrowly skirted. A new creature known as the “rock-star butcher” emerged. In the years that followed, I saw more dead pigs at parties than I could count. I wondered sometimes how much of this was due to a genuine commitment to local ag, and how much of it was a wealthy city swooning over animal husbandry the way that Marie Antoinette did over dairy maids. But in the meantime, there was money to be made.

Despite its challenges — some of the most expensive farmland in the world, for starters — Sonoma and Marin continued to be as much of an incubator for food startups as Silicon Valley had been for tech. A cattle rancher could still stop in Petaluma and pick up ear tags and equipment from Jay’s Dairy Supply. Petaluma’s three remaining feed mills were going gangbusters cranking out new types of feed — organic feed for organic farmers, local feed for farmers who cared about that, local organic feed for people who were concerned about the fact that most organic feed on the market these days was grown in China. “People flock to opportunity,” said Evans. “This is a rural community, but close to a metropolitan area with lots of money. You can come here, lease a small plot, drive to San Francisco, and find people to buy your product.”

The Rancho story might have kept on as before, but in early 2014, scandal erupted: All the meat from animals that had been killed at Rancho in the year 2013, some 8.7 million pounds, was recalled. A federal investigation found that Singleton, Amaral, and two senior employees at Rancho had been working together to hide the fact that they were sending meat from diseased dairy cattle out into the meat supply.

Prosecutors alleged that Singleton had been buying up dairy cows with signs of possible eye cancer on the cheap. Those cattle were slaughtered while the federal meat inspectors were on lunch break, and their heads were swapped with the heads of different, healthier cattle, so that the inspectors wouldn’t notice that anything was amiss. Singleton, then 77, pled guilty. During the recall, he had already quickly sold Rancho to David Evans.

It was both the opportunity that Evans had been waiting for for years, and something that he’s still waiting to live down. Nearly every small rancher in the Bay Area was hit hard by the recall. While they argued that their animals never touched Rancho’s dairy herd and were slaughtered on a completely different day, the feds would not exempt them.

“We’re so tired of talking about the recall,” said AnnaRae Grabstein, Marin Sun Farms’ director of operations — though, she adds, Marin Sun Farms couldn’t have bought Rancho without it.

It’s been a year since Marin Sun Farms reopened the slaughterhouse. In that time, the company has gotten Animal Welfare Approved certification. It shut down its cut-and-wrap operation in San Francisco, where butchers broke down carcasses into more sellable cuts, and moved it onsite. The sale was viewed with a mixture of relief and trepidation by some ranchers. Now that it owned the only slaughterhouse in town, would Marin Sun Farms use its newfound monopoly for good? Would ranchers who chose to sell direct instead of through Marin Sun Farms be penalized?

So far, the answer is good. Sending animals to the slaughterhouse was more expensive than it had been with Rancho’s old owners, but the butchers did better work. Marin Sun Farms polled ranchers about what new services they wanted from their ideal slaughterhouse, and the responses led it to start a service that delivers from Rancho to restaurants and grocery stores as far away as Los Angeles.

What remains now is to figure out how to do what Rancho’s former owners thought couldn’t be done, and make a slaughterhouse that is by locals, for locals. In the past, those local clients only took up one day a week on Rancho’s schedule. National trends may be in Marin Sun Farm’s favor, though — because of the drought, the massive slaughterhouses that once killed off their smaller competitors are now going under themselves, freeing up more business for those small and mid-sized operations that managed to survive the last few decades.

In order to survive in the long term, Marin Sun Farms Petaluma is going to have to go much further to re-localize Bay Area eating habits. I mention to Evans, offhand, that if the much-beloved Straus Dairy, which was the first certified organic dairy on the West Coast, started packaging the meat from its dairy cows under the Straus label, the vegetarians of San Francisco might have an aneurysm. Evans disagrees. He thinks that Straus hamburger would be awesome — that the Bay Area has more people who care about buying meat from animals that were raised locally and ethically than it does people who want to keep whatever pastoral illusions they may have intact.

“So that’s where it happens,” says Grabstein. We’re perched at the edge of a corrugated metal fence, looking out over the winding path that animals take to the slaughterhouse. Two cow skulls, bleached by the sun, look over the way to the knock box, where the animal in question arrives and is killed — hopefully — before it even suspects anything is amiss. “It’s like No Country for Old Men,” says Grabstein. “You know, when Javier Bardem kills people with that air gun.”

Today is pig day, and, inside, 100 hogs are already dead and being parceled out by a crew of guys in blue hairnets and white lab coats. While the outside of the slaughterhouse looks dingy and inconspicuous, inside it’s sleek and well-maintained. It reminds me of the clean rooms in some of the factories that I’ve seen — except with way more dead pigs hanging from the ceiling. The pigs have been a useful hedge against the drought that California has been in for the last three years, since they’re not grass eaters. Many local ranchers have chosen to sell off their cattle herds early instead of risking a grass shortage.

Heather Smith

A few bulls stand in a paddock behind us. Two of them are Scottish Highlands, with long, sharp horns that would cause them to get rejected by most slaughterhouses. The Highlands prance around each other and flip their long, rust-colored bangs over their eyes like supermodels.

They’re scheduled for tomorrow. I feel a pang of sadness for them, because where they really should be is on the cover of French Vogue. But I realize that I’m also sad because I’ve seen the bulls at mega feedlots, and know that they look stoic at best, miserable at worst — nothing like these Scottish divas.

At this point, the local food movement has relearned the art of raising domestic animals so that they have good lives. It has made strides toward protecting the land where agriculture happens. The Marin Sun Farms Petaluma slaughterhouse is part of the next piece of the puzzle: protecting the infrastructure, like slaughterhouses, that are necessary to keep local food going as a functioning business, not just a hobby for gentleman farmers.

The Rancho saga is full of near-misses. A lot had to go right — and wrong — before the last slaughterhouse in the Bay Area was saved. But Evans is sure that, within the next few years, another slaughterhouse will open up within an hour or two of the city.

It won’t be easy. A competitor would have to figure out how to afford the land and how to win over the neighbors. But it’s inevitable, Evans says. And that’s when he’ll know that he’s really succeeded: the day that the competition shows up.


The Uses of Whale

Originally published in Meatpaper, Issue 19, (aka “The Fissue”)

In 2011, Japan killed 266 minke whales and one fin whale  during hunting season in the Antarctic. It had hoped for 900, but whaling boats were followed by anti-whaling boats. The anti whaling boats threw ropes into the whaling boats’ propellers. The whaling boats shot at the anti-whaling boats with a water cannon that it had purchased especially for this situation. The anti-whaling boats responded by hurling stink bombs onto the deck of the whaling boats. This, understandably, took up some valuable whaling time. The water cannon helped a little, the Fisheries Agency reported. The previous year’s haul was only 172.

In 1918, group of prominent Americans sat down to a meal of whale, coffee, and gingerbread at the Museum of Natural History. The Federal Food Administrator, a man named Arthur Williams, told a reporter covering the story for the New York Times that it was as delicious a morsel as the most aesthetic or sophisticated palate could possibly hope for. Other guests described it as tasting like pot roast.

Henry Fairfield Osborn, President of the Museum of Natural History, told the assembled guests that he had “ascertained from reliable sources” that 100,000,000 pounds of whale meat could be supplied annually to the United States of America at 12 and a half cents a pound – a lot of meat in an era when chicken was seen as a special occasion food and a lot of Americans still ate squirrel.   Seraphin Millon, head chef at Delmonico’s, then proceeded to describe “nearly a dozen” ways of cooking whale meat.”It could be done up as a stew,” the article stated. “It could be curried and served on toast. It could be made into a “Deep Sea Pie,” as delicious as any pot pie that was ever invented.”

In 1851 , Moby Dick was published, two years before the “Golden Age” of American whaling reached its peak, and just a few decades before its irretrievable decline. The book was a chatty, at times journalistic exegesis of the whaling industry – Melville felt that whaling had never been written about as it was actually lived – as a business, as a job, as a floating office that you could rarely escape.

And so he wrote about everything, including the edibility of whale. “Only the most unprejudiced of men nowadays partake of cooked whales” the book’s narrator, Ishmael, confides, just a few paragraphs after Stubb, the second mate of the Pequod, demands that a subordinate climb down the side of the hull and cut him a bedtime steak out of the whale killed that afternoon.

When you’re working on a whaling boat, Ishmael continues, eating whale is inevitable. As blubber is rendered into whale oil in kettles mounted on the ship deck,shipmen will dip their biscuits into them to pass the night watch. But Stubb, Ishmael continues, is an oddity. It’s grotesque, Ishmael continued “That a man should eat a newly murdered thing of the sea, and eat it too by its own light.”

Those 10,000,000 pounds of whale meat mentioned at the Natural History Museum were excess from of a new technology: the ability to distill fuel from petroleum. At first the ability to refine oil from petroleum seemed like an unexpected gift to the whales – whale oil had been the fuel that lit and lubricated the Industrial Revolution, converting whales from large curiosities into great sentient oil deposits that made or broke the fortunes of the investors who sent ships out to tangle with them.

By 1910, just a few decades after the crash in whale oil, fishing vessels began to be outfitted with diesel engines. Whaling was profitable again – not because whale was valuable, but because now boats could move as quickly as they did. Instead of being converted into light this time whales were transmuted into margarine and pet food.

Those early decades of the 1900’s were also the early years of whale science. The Museum of Natural History itself dispatched researchers, and those researchers found themselves, as whale scientists of this era inevitably did, in Grytviken, the major whaling camp of the Antarctic,. At Grytviken the sea ran literally blood-red. It cured the white paint on a ship’s hull to a dull yellow. One scientist wrote home apologizing for his inability to make oceanographic observations during this part of the voyage, due to the ship being surrounded with “hot glue water, entrails, and various discharges.”

Steam winches dragged whales on shore to be butchered by men in nail-studded boots who climbed them “like mountaineers, cutting steps up the flesh as footholds,” wrote D. Graham Burnett years later in his history The Sounding of the Whale. The shores of Grtyviken were lined with macerated bone. Half-dismembered whale carcasses floated in the bay like abandoned ships. “What penalty,” another scientist confided, years later, “I used to wonder, would the gods in due time inflict for such a sacrilege?”

In 1986  the global anti-International Whaling Commission banned commercial whaling, except for subsistence use by groups like the Inuit. Japan and Norway continued whaling on the grounds that they were not whaling, but conducting scientific research on how many whales there were so that they could tell when would be time to start whaling again and also on the grounds that they were whaling nations and very sentimental about it and finally because other nations were hypocrites inexplicably attached to whales but perfectly happy eating the last of everything else in the ocean. Maseuku Komatsu, a senior official in the Japanese Fishing Industry, described minke whales, as “a cockroach in the oceans. There are too many and the speed of swimming is so quick.”

Whaling today is more an idea than a business. Both Japan and Norway subsidize their whaling industries. In 2011 the amount of frozen whale Japan had stockpiled was 6000 tons, up from 1500 tons in 1997 and 4000 tons in 2005. School lunch programs, the historic dumping ground for subsidized meat, proved problematic. In 2007, tests run by a local assemblyman in a rural whaling town revealed that whale sold at the local supermarket contained ten times the recommended levels of methyl mercury – he used the tests as grounds to ban whale from the school cafeteria. Two centuries of industry had made whale inedible in another way. Whales live for a long time – in the modern era those who wish to avoid bioaccumulated toxins feed their children meat from the short-lived. .

A generational shift was happening, and young Japanese were proving just not that into eating whale. “We have,” a spokesperson for the Institute for Cetacean Research told a reporter for Agence France-Presse, “to think about new ways to market whale meat.”

Meanwhile, whales are shifting their migration routes off the coast of California. they now take more direct paths to Baja California and have discarded the circuitous ones that were adopted, scientists have theorized, by whalers who once lurked and waited for them along the coastline.

It’s a tough business being useful to someone else’s livelihood, or dinner. One story of how whales returned to the oceans in the first place has to do with avoiding being eaten. The whale’s oldest terrestrial ancestor, the long-extinct Indohyus, was a small deerlike creature which, the story goes, had the ability escape predators by diving underwater and holding its breath for long periods of time.

At the time, underwater must have felt like a pretty safe place to be. By the time it had fully changed into the unmolested master of the briny deep, the only resemblance between the two would lie in the delicate bones of the ear. But it worked. For millions of years after they were diner more often than dinner.

Now they are something in between predator and prey: hunted, but rarely eaten. Six thousand tons of uneaten whale says that cetaceans have found themselves once again in an age when they are useless. The trick this time will be parlaying inedibility into safety.


Slouching Toward Bananapocalypse

Published in Grist, November 12, 2011

For years journalists have warned of imminent banana extinction. “Get bananas while you still can,” wrote New Scientist over five years ago. “The world’s most popular fruit … is in deep trouble,” it went on to say, adding that the banana would probably be out of supermarkets by 2013, and would soon exist only in backyard gardens and other places the Panama Race IV, a pathogen taking out plantations in Southeast Asia, couldn’t reach.

But today — just a few years from the banana’s supposed demise — one can walk down the street and find bananas in the nearest corner store, hanging out between the cash register and the lottery tickets. What gives? Are we still heading toward bananapocalypse? Or has it been cancelled? And what can the banana tell us about the evolution of our global food supply?

It turns out that the Race IV fungus does cause a true bananapocalypse. It just hasn’t spread everywhere — yet. Once it shows up on a farm, the land around it can’t be used to grow the same variety for another 30 years. And, given that there’s only one variety of banana — the Cavendish — that ships well enough and tastes good enough to be sold everywhere in the world, this is bad news for banana growers. The arrival of Race IV on your property is a sign that you’ve officially left the international banana trade.

But — to use a horror movie analogy — Race IV moves more like a zombie horde in a ’70s movie than like the sleek, fast-moving zombies of today. In other words, smarter pathogens travel on insects (which can hop rides on ships and airplanes) or float on wind currents like Black sigatoka (the banana’s main nemesis in the Americas), while Race IV travels by dirt, weeds, and water. Twenty years after the first plantations began to fail in Southeast Asia, the fungus has yet to be found in India and the Americas, which remain the most productive Cavendish growing regions in the world.

“It’ll get there,” says Randy Ploetz, a pathologist who researches tropical fruit diseases at the University of Florida. “But it’s really overblown.” In fact, he adds, “We’ve got a banana glut right now.”

A little banana history

Southeast Asia was never an ideal place to grow bananas commercially, says Ploetz. Because the banana evolved there, every parasite and pathogen that evolved alongside it is also hanging out there, waiting to attack it.

Success in the globalized food trade has come to mean planting crops far away from where they evolved, in a climate as similar as possible, and then sitting back and collecting the profits until the pests show up. In the case of the banana, arguably the first globalized fruit, new markets have led to new growing regions. As Japan began to globalize, a few plantations were laid out in Taiwan. And when Saudi Arabia began to import bananas, residents made it clear that they would really prefer their bananas grown in an Islamic country — and suddenly there were plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia too.

Race IV had probably been around for a long time, but it wasn’t until these plantations went in that it had the expansion opportunity that a monoculture provides. It takes anywhere from nine months to several years for plants infected with Race IV to start showing signs of disease. And by the time the plantations in Malaysia began to fail, Race IV had been carried all over Southeast Asia — on weeds, through irrigation channels, and on the tire treads of trucks and the boot soles of workers. It only took five years after Race IV first appeared in Malaysia for the banana industry there to completely collapse. From there it spread to Taiwan, Indonesia, and Australia — though it has yet to reach Cambodia or Vietnam.

It’s all about the variety

The Cavendish came about in the 1960s, when Dole and Chiquita were faced with a milder form of Panama Race IV. The Gros Michel — or “Big Mike” banana — which was the industry standard then, was being undone by what is now known as Panama Race I. So the industry giants made the unprecedented choice to sell the world on a new banana.

It was widely agreed that Big Mike was the better banana. “If you look at old photos,” says Ploetz, “you’ll see workers throwing entire bunches of [Big Mikes] into the back of a car. You can’t do that with a Cavendish.” Also, he says, Big Mike tasted better. But Cavendish was ridiculously productive, and tasted good enough. It cost Chiquita and Dole millions of dollars to rip up and replant their plantations with Cavendish, and to re-engineer their boats, railroad cars, and packing systems to handle the new fruit — but it ensured that the banana would continue to lead the global fruit market, as the *cough* top banana.

But, here’s the thing: There is no new banana variety waiting in the wings to replace the Cavendish. The E.U. has made it clear that it has no interest in buying a genetically engineered (GMO) banana. Another variety [PDF], produced by cross-breeding samples from more than 350 banana types, was given the astonishingly awesome name of “Goldfinger.” It has sold well in Australia, but doesn’t travel well after harvest in the tropics.

On top of it, the Cavendish is “reproductively-challenged.” So the quest to produce a variety that is resistant to Race IV but tastes, looks, and grows like a Cavendish, is a somewhat Quixotic one. (After putting 400 tons of Cavendish through a sieve, a research team in Honduras managed to extract only 15 seeds.) Since Race IV takes out not only Cavendish, but many other related varieties, the odds don’t look good. Another research team in Taiwan stresses Cavendish plant tissues until they mutate slightly, then grows the resulting plants. They’ve managed to produce a Cavendish which can withstand the Race IV for four years (most banana plants live for about 15 years).

Yes, we have no bananas

In other words: so far, scientists have had no real luck. And unless they do, bananas will stop haunting corn flake bowls and fruit salads around the world. When Race IV reaches today’s prime banana-growing regions, it’s likely to be some combination of homesickness and air travel that does the industry in — a person who takes a shoot from a banana tree in their home country, puts it in a suitcase, and smuggles it into their new home. “It’s going to be some idiot,” says Ploetz. “Someone who goes home to visit their family and says, “Oh, the tree in my parents’ backyard always had the most delicious fruit.”
That said, even if bananas disappear from supermarkets of Ohio, it won’t mean the end of the fruit all together. After all, the Cavendish is only 50 percent of the world banana market. No one is quite sure how many other varieties make up that other half, but it’s estimated to be 1,000.

The 20th century was the era when we saw a few species — the Cavendish, the Russet potato, the Holstein cow — come to dominate world agriculture. The 21st century looks to be the era in which those great monocultures are gradually becoming undone. And while the hordes of other banana varieties may not be as productive, as easy to ship, nor as smooth and unblemished, their sheer difference from one another has the potential to shield them from pathogens carried by the humans who, in this century, travel as far and as readily as crops began to travel in the last one.

Ploetz knows the Gros Michel tastes better than the Cavendish because he’s eaten one. Not in a tightly controlled banana research center, but in a market in Costa Rica, where they’re still grown on small farms and in people’s back yards. The taste is sweeter, he reports. And more complex.


Hunting Wild, Mission Snails

Originally published in Mission [email protected], February 2010

In the same way that you can find the party by heading for the kitchen, the best way to find snails is to look for what they like to eat. Iso Rabins has only just caught sight of the field of wild mallow greens, and he’s already whipped a plastic to-go container out of his messenger bag and is stabbing air holes in the top with his pocketknife.

By the time I catch up to him, he is addressing the underside of a tangle of leaves. “Hey buddy,” he says  to the gumball-sized snail clinging the bottom.

The snail is silent. It looks like it doesn’t even suspect that its destiny is now to be the amuse-bouche at the $100 a plate wild-foraged Valentine’s Day dinner that Rabins is cooking. In fact, it appears completely oblivious to the fact that it is being addressed at all.

Rabins takes the snail between thumb and forefinger, plucks it off the leaf, drops it into the to-go container, and closes the lid. “You have to make sure you put the lid on tight,” he says, “or they’ll pop it off and escape. They’re surprisingly strong…” He moves on another leaf, “Hey buddy…” I hear him say, faintly.

In the Pleistocene era, if you were a resident of the Mission you would hunt sabercats, dire wolves, sloths, mastodons, bears, mammoths, and prehistoric camels. If you were a resident of the Mission before the Spanish showed up, in the mid- 1700s, you would have fished, or hunted deer. After that, options narrow. You would still have fished, maybe rustled someone’s cattle. Today, if you are looking to catch a wild animal in the Mission and eat it, you’re down to squirrel, pigeon, raccoon, possum, and snail. It might be theoretically possible to catch a fish in Mission Creek, but you wouldn’t want to eat it.

And so it is snail – the slowest, and most readily huntable of the bunch. It’s not even native snail. California has more than 200 native snail species, but the vast majority of the Mission District snails are the invasive species Helix aspersa, closely related to the escargot. It was imported as food during the Gold Rush era and dumped after it failed to sell. Helix aspersa thrived, possibly for the same reason that it was thrown out in the first place: not many people in the Mission are especially excited about eating it.

Except for Rabins. The Mission District resident and ex-film student has built a business out of figuring out what in the neighborhood is consumable, and then using that information in different ways. He leads foraging tours. He has a list of subscribers that he delivers a box of wild food to. He throws underground dinner parties where the food is made from foraged ingredients. And so, eating the snail is more than just eating a snail – it’s linking people to the neighborhood in a new way. “You think about them as a pest, but then you find out that you can eat them,” says Rabins. “It’s just really exciting.”

Before Rabins started eating nature, he didn’t spend much time with it. In Vermont, where he grew up, wilderness was as he puts it “a place to get drunk with friends.” But when he moved to Eureka, he fell in with a group of professional mushroom foragers, and found a vocation. “I learned a little through books,” he says, “I read my Euell Gibbons – he’s pretty much the grandfather of modern foraging. But it never looks quite the same in a book as it does out in the real world. And so I mostly learned from other people.”

Among the things learned outside of the world of books was how little the foragers were being paid compared to the price the mushrooms they gathered ultimately sold for.  Rabins began to work as a middleman – cold-calling chefs, knocking on the back doors of restaurants, brokering deals.

There was a learning curve involved. “My original plan was to organize the foragers,” he says. “But it doesn’t really work that way. A forager doesn’t work the same way that a restaurant does.”

Instead, a forager might break an appointment one week, then call unexpectedly with a huge haul because they’d been up in the woods for two days on methamphetamine, a drug that, for all its faults, enables incredible bursts of compulsive searching behavior.   “It does makes them amazing foragers. They’ll be out looking for black trumpet mushrooms at night – you can hardly even see those during the day – and then come back with this huge bag of them,” says Rabins.  This cycle failed, however, to enable reliable business or social relationships.

So that was the first hitch. The second was when Rabins lost almost $2000 shipping a load of mushrooms cross-country. The mushrooms got stuck in transit in a hot warehouse on a hot weekend and essentially cooked from the inside. That was around the same time  he decided it was time to branch out.

“I can’t believe how many snails are out right now,” Rabins says happily. “I feel bad taking all these little ones” he continues. “I guess it’s just like “the fire that burns twice as bright for half as long.”

Rabins cuts off a tangle of radish greens and stuffs them into his bag. He’ll feed them to the snails later. Dusk is falling, and the snails are indeed suddenly abundant – oozing and munching their way across the greenery of the park. During the day, they’re hard to find – the sun dries them out, and so snails  hide in shady areas, pull back into their shells and secrete a membrane doorway that keeps them moist and away from the elements. “We would probably find as many if we went out at dawn,” adds Rabins. “But I don’t roll like that.”

Last year the SF Weekly ran a story about Rabins that got him banned from the Presidio. Since then, he’s asked reporters not to say where he forages. I will say this. We are in a park. In the Mission. Among the other things you can find in the Mission and eat: miner’s lettuce, chickweed, wild fennel, yerba buena, mushrooms (especially shaggy mane), oxalis, blood orange and meyer lemon trees, figs. Among the things that you might get from eating such things: leptospiriosis and/or that creepy feeling that you get when eating something that a dog might have peed on.

The first time I ever knowingly ate Mission-foraged food was years ago, when a video game programmer served a huge bowl of salad at a dinner party that she later revealed was full of miner’s lettuce gathered from the tiny wedge of park at Coso and Precita. As I set down my fork into my empty salad bowl, my mind drifted to my only memory of that park: escorting my roommate’s dog there so that said dog could do its business all over the foliage.

But I had already eaten the salad. It was delicious. I didn’t die. Leptospiriosis is rare – between 100-200 cases a year, according to the Center for Disease Control. And buying greens at the supermarket carries its risks too. I am still relieved to note that we forage in areas of the Mission that are off the well-trodden dog walking circuit, and far from industrial areas that may have heavy metals lingering in the soil.

Now that it’s almost pitch black, there’s a snail under nearly every leaf. In the indigo of nightfall, all that is visible is the beam of Rabins’ flashlight skittering along the undersides of the greenery. The only sound is that of the plastic container being peeled open, and snapped shut, the light briefly flashing through the shimmering web of snail mucus streaking the sides.

The quarry…

The darkness, plus the flashlight, is making us conspicuous. Time to go. “Heh,” says Rabins, as we walk past a stern-looking parks worker. “We’re leaving with a bag full of snails. And no one is the wiser.”

The next time I catch up with the snails, they’re diced and stuffed into mushroom caps. They taste like butter and garlic and something chewy – you’d never know that they were caught just a few minutes from here, or even that they’re snails. A crew of volunteers plates them up and carries them out to the center of a Mission District warehouse, where couples clasp hands across candlelit tablecloths.

The mood in the dining room is boozy, convivial, intermittently mutinous. The necessity of washing dishes in between most courses creates lag in the 10-course menu. At one point supplies run low. Panicked on-site foraging reveals leftovers from a dinner party hosted the prior evening by a different chef. Problem solved.

A tipsy group gathers at the front of the building, where the owner of the building is explaining how when the warehouse was first built over a hundred years ago, boats would float past what is now the front door, and tie up at a dock outside. The creek, buried under Caesar Chavez street for decades now, is still running underneath us. Another fragment of the natural world folded into the city – running parallel to our own lives, largely unnoticed. A moment of quiet falls, then passes. The group returns to its wine and romancing, and in the kitchen one of the volunteers downs the last snail-stuffed mushroom.


To Eat Local, Kill Local

Published in San Francisco Magazine, July 14, 2008

In this era of the locavore, menus no longer merely inform diners what they’ll be eating. They also tell the story—often as elaborate as a bildungsroman—of where the ingredients in a dish were raised. Those dry-farmed Early Girl tomatoes in your salad? They once lived in a field near Santa Cruz. Those baby Chioggia beets? Tugged from organic dirt in Watsonville, then transported to restaurants in a biodiesel-fueled pickup. That rosemary-rubbed hanger steak? It was once a cow roaming the hillsides of West Marin with no more hormones than its own pituitary gland could produce.

What you won’t find out as readily is precisely where the cow made the transition from cavorting weed eater to inhabitant of a restaurant’s walk-in. That omission is unfortunate, because where an animal dies is as integral to the definition of local food as where it lived.
Books like Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma encourage us to think more deeply about where meat comes from, edu­cating us on the issue of grass-fed versus grain and about the benefits—both to animals and to the people who eat them—of livestock raised in verdant pastures, rather than in factory farms’ crowded, unsanitary conditions. We’ve learned to not assume that organic means small, local, or even ethical, and to ask where the animals we eat were raised and what they were fed. What we haven’t learned is to ask how and where they were killed.

That isn’t surprising. Even hardcore carnivores struggle with the act of killing. On the blog that he calls Offal Good, Chris Cosentino, executive chef of the restaurant Incanto and partner in the artisanal-salumi company Boccalone, posted a photo of himself holding fistfuls of goat entrails. An accompanying photo essay documented the disassembly of a cow that Cosentino helped butcher; he served the heart and liver at his restaurant, and its hide now graces the floor of his home. But Cosentino’s in-your-face presentation is infused with a schoolteacherly desire to illuminate the food chain, in both its savory and its less savory aspects. Slaughter, he says, is “a frightening thing. It brings on a massive rush of emotions—horror, fear, joy, pity. I cry every time I do it.”

But now, a small group of activists has taken up the cause of the slaughterhouse. Three years ago, Phyllis Faber (biologist and cofounder of the Marin Agricultural Land Trust) joined forces with business consultant Sam Goldberger (former psychologist, current antique-pipe dealer) in an effort to build a modern slaughterhouse in the Bay Area. The two believe that local meat processing plays a crucial role in sustaining the Bay Area’s agricultural viability.
“Farming in Marin and Sonoma,” says Goldberger, “is in serious danger of becoming a kitschy, unprofitable replica of a real industry. If it’s not profitable, it might as well be Colonial Williamsburg.”

Goldberger and Faber’s vision includes a new facility, called North Coast Meats, that would serve as a model for an integrated, efficient, and economically successful regional meat industry. They see it as a prototype for a new movement—let a thousand slaughterhouses bloom, if you will.

Armed with a $100,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce, the two are enmeshed in feasibility studies—a massive three-ring binder, filled with floor plans, 3-D computer renderings, and exploded diagrams, outlines their dream. The plans were devised with the help of Graeme Baker and Nook Yule, slaughterhouse designers from New Zealand. It’s no coincidence that that country’s success with regional slaughterhouses is what Goldberger and Faber seek to emulate in the U.S. In just a few decades, New Zealand transitioned from a large, centralized meatpacking system—not unlike our own—to focusing on small, clean, efficient slaughterhouses dispersed all over the country.

According to Goldberger and Faber’s plan, North Coast Meats would be equipped to dispatch close to 40,000 head of cattle a year, as well as lambs. Everything from the facility’s shape—a modified wishbone that would guide the cattle along a slight curve and make as few cow-spooking 90-degree turns as possible—to the holding pens to the chutes would follow guidelines established by famous humane-slaughter authority Temple Grandin. There would be no bright lights (cows don’t like shadows) and no mezzanine level (people walking above their heads makes cows nervous). The plant would practice job rotation (to prevent repetitive stress injuries and alleviate boredom among the workers) and offer profit sharing, and would house an anaerobic digester for making biodiesel out of cow effluvia. It would have its own cut-and-wrap facility so that meats could be aged and processed onsite, then packed and sold directly to restaurants and retail shops—something that Goldberger describes as essential to the operation’s profitability, and to its ability to pay ranchers a premium. In architectural renderings, the slaughterhouse exterior looks strikingly like a winery, complete with stucco walls, arched porticos, and cypress trees. The only thing missing is a yoga studio.

Ideally, North Coast Meats would be as close as possible to San Francisco. “I think it’s critically important that agriculture succeed near a metropolis of seven million people,” Faber says. “We can’t afford to have corn grown in Iowa, then shipped to Marin to feed animals that must be shipped to the Central Valley or beyond to be slaughtered. That’s just too much in terms of gasoline consumption, if nothing else. Too much in the way of antibiotic requirements. We need to think about food in a much more efficient way. And here in Marin, we have prime grazing land. Not prime soil—prime grazing.”

The ability to both graze and kill animals locally is a key component of what Michael Pollan refers to as the “re-solarization” of the food chain. The current industry standard is to feed animals grain grown with oil-based fertilizer, then use more oil to move them from ranches to slaughterhouses before sending their meat around the country to restaurants and grocery stores. Pollan advocates for a system in which livestock are fed solar-powered, non–chemically enhanced grass, then killed and consumed as near as possible to the place where they were raised. “Somehow,” says Pollan, “we have to make it possible for people who are producing meat locally to get their animals processed locally. This is one of the biggest obstacles to developing what everybody says they want, which is a vibrant, local food economy.”

Slaughterhouses used to be far more local than anything Faber and Goldberger are proposing. Before refrigeration became widespread, animals were killed in cities because that was where the people were. Most San Franciscans have heard stories about cattle-filled railroad boxcars being unloaded near Butchertown (now known as Bayview/Hunters Point), and about Dogpatch acquiring its name from the packs of feral dogs that foraged the area’s streets, looking for slaughterhouse refuse.

Eater and eaten have grown apart since then. As slaughterhouses have consolidated (from 1976 to 1996, the number of federally inspected plants processing beef decreased by more than half), they’ve grown from facilities that killed fewer than 100,000 animals a year to ones that are designed to kill 10 times that many. Not surprisingly, these larger plants tend to develop where land is cheap and environmental regulations are lax—two features that don’t often apply to California. But even Wyoming, which is home to a huge ranching industry, doesn’t have a single USDA-approved slaughterhouse.

The current slaughterhouse system relies on cheap grain and cheap petroleum, and some claim its days are numbered. Subsidies have kept the price of cattle feed well below the cost of letting cows graze on grass. But now that corn-based-feed prices are rising (thanks to increased ethanol production), the gap between the two is narrowing. And as fuel becomes more and more expensive, the notion of running a slaughterhouse so big that it needs to pull in thousands of cattle from out of state to keep running at capacity begins to seem very strange. If current trends continue, it wouldn’t be surprising if smaller facilities, which for decades have operated so close to cities that it’s a marvel they weren’t turned into strip malls, may one day make out like bandits while big operations in Kansas, Nebraska, and Texas become ghost towns. But for now, until the economic winds shift more dramatically, small slaughterhouses located near big cities still struggle at every turn.

Back in 2006, a livestock and natural-resources adviser named John Harper suggested that Faber and Goldberger build their slaughterhouse in Ukiah. Though it wasn’t as close to San Francisco as they had hoped, Harper’s argument that “the timber industry is on hold, the grape industry is maxed out, and the Masonite plant is gone” convinced them. “We were innocently thinking, ‘Wow, good jobs for 45 people. They’ll be interested,’” recalls Harper. And the area seemed familiar enough with agri­culture’s gritty realities to be amenable to the plan. The Board of Supervisors was friendly, the local ranchers were excited, and the land was affordable.

It was a disaster. Things seemed to be going well, but then they weren’t. A well-organized opposition materialized seemingly out of nowhere, objecting to the slaughterhouse on environmental, social, and financial grounds and quoting from the more grisly sections of Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation. Arguments that Faber and Goldberger were the good guys, with a plan meant to correct the problems that book outlined, had little effect.
“I know that eating meat is not going to stop anytime soon,” says Jan Allegretti, a dedicated vegan and animal-rights activist who led the opposition. “But there is no humane way to kill anyone. I couldn’t live here knowing that was going on.”

Many meat eaters joined the cause as well. That a rural area with plenty of livestock felt hesitant about allowing a slaughterhouse to move in shocked Faber and Goldberger, who see the project as part of a larger vision of food, community, and a self-sufficient economy.
It was a case of one California ethical system colliding with another, completely incompatible one. “It’s not a philosophical discussion for these animal-rights people,” says Faber. “It’s really much more profound for them.”

“I don’t think it makes any difference to the vegans whether this thing secretes only nectar and ambrosia,” Goldberger adds. “They simply don’t want any animal-killing in their vicinity.”
The two gave up on Ukiah but have continued scouting locations, though they’re understandably reluctant to discuss where those locations might be. Police asked Faber and Goldberger to cancel a recent public meeting with Sonoma ranchers because of rumored picketing by animal-rights activists, and local politicians have become skittish. “People are generally supportive,” says Goldberger. “The question is where to put it.”

“Everyone wants meat,” says Chris Cosentino, “but no one wants a slaughterhouse.” Everyone may be an exaggeration, but if only 3 percent of the population is vegetarian (as Vegetarian Journal asserts), and the average American eats 200 pounds of meat each year (as the USDA claims), that’s a lot of meat. According to California state law, any meat sold in a restaurant or grocery store has to come from an animal killed in a USDA-approved slaughterhouse—and those facilities are increasingly few and far between.

A handful of people are working to make this small slaughterhouse model viable. Sallie Calhoun is one of them. After making a bundle during the dot-com boom, she moved to Paicines, near Hollister, to focus on her true passion: native California grass. The kind once nibbled by hordes of elk and antelope roaming California’s savannas—until, as Calhoun succinctly puts it, “we shot all of them.

“I came from a farming family,” Calhoun tells me. “In another time, I might have gone right into agriculture. But if you were smart and female in the 1970s, you were expected to do something else. But this—the biology—is so interesting, so fascinating. It’s much harder than the high-tech industry.”

Calhoun discovered that the grasses she loved most needed to be grazed to avoid being choked out by denser undergrowth. She fell in with a group of holistic land managers who experimented with managing cattle as though they were wild animals.

When Calhoun decided she’d like to market grass-fed beef from her herd of cattle, she found herself driving 10 hours round-trip to slaughterhouses in Creston or Orland, only to find those facilities overwhelmed and extraordinarily busy. “I would show up with 10 head of cattle, and they would say, ‘Sorry, we can only do six.’ So I thought, ‘Maybe I can just open a small plant on our ranch.’” Then Calhoun discovered that although her land was zoned for agriculture, that zoning didn’t include a slaughterhouse permit. Vegetable processing may be fine, but animal processing is verboten.

After that plan failed, Calhoun found a slaughterhouse in Newman, a town 74 miles northeast of her ranch, that had closed several years earlier. Because the original structure had been USDA licensed, it was easier for Calhoun to rehab it than to construct a new building. The renovation was more extensive and costly than she had anticipated, but she eventually reopened the facility under the name Cutting Edge Meats.

Even with solid help and a good location (Calhoun is about two hours from San Francisco and four hours from Los Angeles), Cutting Edge Meats’ economic viability remains undetermined. Many ranchers in the area are from the old school: They’re more comfortable with unloading their cattle on a broker in Texas than with facing the culturally unfamiliar prospect of paying Calhoun to slaughter their animals, then having to deal with the task of marketing the meat themselves. In addition, a two-year drought has drastically reduced the number of cattle in the area—Calhoun herself has had to sell off 80 percent of her herd because she didn’t have enough grass to feed them.

There is one very successful small slaughterhouse in Northern California: Prather Ranch. Though it’s located 324 miles from San Francisco—in the town of Macdoel, north of Mount Shasta—the ranch has built a strong local following through its presence at farmers’ markets and its store in the Ferry Building Marketplace. It has also made a healthy profit selling cowhides to Collagen Corp., a now defunct company that extracted collagen from the hides and sold it to dermatologists and plastic surgeons. In the mid-’90s, Collagen Corp. paid for and built a USDA-certified slaughterhouse on Prather Ranch, thereby ensuring that Prather’s herd (as well as the people injected with the cattle’s by-products) wouldn’t be exposed to diseases or other contaminants the cattle could contract while passing through offsite slaughterhouses. For this reason, Prather’s facility is closed—only the ranch’s own herd can be killed there.

Prather Ranch has since branched out, selling livers, bones (one cow equals hundreds of bone implants), and pituitary glands to the pharmaceutical industry. The beef itself is simply the leftovers from these other, highly profitable endeavors.

Other local ranchers are not likely to be so fortunate as to acquire a medical-implant sugar daddy. Instead, most of the ranchers from Marin and Sonoma rely on Rancho Veal, the Bay Area’s last remaining slaughterhouse. Run by the 70-year-old Bob Singleton, whose father bought it for a song in 1966 when it was in bankruptcy, the building looks like a tool-and-die shop. Down the road, the Petaluma Village Premium Outlets beckon with offers of discount pants and casual office-wear sets.

When it was built 80 years ago, Rancho Veal was ideally situated to serve the region’s many dairy farms. Cows that failed to produce enough milk were sent there to be processed along with the herd’s male calves. In the years since, however, Rancho Veal’s central location has occasionally proved unfortunate: The facility has been firebombed twice.

It’s Singleton’s opinion that local ranching is gradually dying out. For years, he has refurbished and repaired Rancho Veal with equipment he’s scavenged from the slaughterhouses that have gone belly-up around him. Throughout Sonoma County, cattle ranches and dairies have given way to subdivisions and vineyards. Two years ago, Singleton sold Rancho Veal’s property rights to a real-estate developer. That deal fell through earlier this year, another victim of the mortgage crisis, and Singleton has kept his business going through his willingness to roam farther afield—snapping up veal and dairy cattle from as far away as Nevada and Twin Falls, Idaho. Rancho Veal now kills approximately 21,000 cattle each year—about half as many as Faber and Goldberger’s facility would.

David Evans, whose family has been raising cattle in Point Reyes for four generations, intends to submit a proposal to buy Rancho Veal. As the owner of Marin Sun Farms, a marketing label for local livestock producers, Evans sees a slaughterhouse as an ideal launching pad for an even broader exercise in branded collective retailing. He would like to redesign the existing facility at Rancho Veal, bringing it up to the standards Grandin established; potentially add an aging room and a small cut-and-wrap plant; and reconfigure the current setup to handle not only beef, but also pork and lamb. For the time being, he’s trying to round up some investors.

Mac Magruder, a cattle rancher in Mendocino County, hopes to see Evans succeed. Magruder believes that establishing this kind of local meat-processing plant is the most important factor in sustaining ranching—and, by extension, open space—in the Bay Area. “Slaughter is an issue that most people prefer to ignore and pretend isn’t part of the process,” he says, “but the public needs to understand that they can’t have the healthy meat they’re beginning to realize they want and need, unless there’s an infrastructure to provide it.”

Perhaps we’ve reached a point where meat-processing plants will begin to reinhabit urban regions—slinking back into cities like suburbanites looking for a shorter commute and better coffee. For a long time, we’ve defined the good life as distancing ourselves as much as possible from our food’s origins: living in purely residential areas, shopping at the supermarket, planting begonias instead of tomatoes. But there are signs that the future may be different. In the midst of the energy crisis, as Evans talks of reinventing Rancho Veal, and Faber and Goldberger move ahead with their feasibi­lity study for North Coast Meats, it’s entirely possible that 90 years from now will look a lot like 90 years ago—a butcher shop in every neighborhood, and a slaughterhouse in every city.