Opinion Columns & Blogs

The ‘right thing’ for the beef business

Ten thousand. That’s the number of meals the Food Bank Coalition of San Luis Obispo County will be able to offer its clients thanks to a donation of 3,270 pounds of beef from the Hearst ranches in San Simeon and Shandon.

And lest you think this is any old ground chuck, it isn’t. It’s diced trimmings from steaks, filets and sirloins.

It’s also not your grandfather’s beef. Coming from free-range, grass-fed cows, the meat is free of antibiotics and hormones and is high in omega-3 fatty acids, beta-carotene and vitamin E.

Of course the Food Bank is ecstatic with the windfall.

“We are truly delighted with this extraordinary donation from the Hearst Corp.,” said Carl Hansen, executive director of the Food Bank Coalition. “The premium, grass-fed beef fits right in with our focus on getting nutritious, locally produced food into the hands of our clients and nonprofit partners.”

“This is a great way to share with those who can use the help this time of year,” says Steve Hearst.

Brian Kenny is the division manager for Hearst Ranch beef. He’s articulate and focused when talking about Hearst cattle, using terms like “terroir” in describing the flavor that each ranch’s particular soil, water and microclimate give to the taste of Hearst beef.

“Terroir is a French term in winemaking. It’s what a particular piece of property produces in flavor; it’s what makes a chateau a chateau or a Burgundy a Burgundy,” he explains.

That terroir manifests itself in Hearst’s grass-fed beef with a “taste like grass a little bit, with a herbaceous, zesty quality; it has a flavor of the ranch to it,” Kenny explains.

“What we’re doing isn’t better,” Kenny says of grass-fed vs. feedlot-fattened beef. “It just fits our operation. The cattle help manage the rangeland and help diversify the grassland.”

Six words describe much of the Hearst business culture: It’s the right thing to do. You’ll hear that philosophy in how they raise their cattle; you’ll hear it in their philanthropical ethos.

Aside from the health aspects of being free of growth hormones and antibiotics, Hearst’s beef operation is certified humane by Humane Farm Animal Care as well as certified by the Food Alliance for Sustainable Practices.

“In an environment where people are asking about where their beef comes from and how it was treated,” says Hearst, “I love to be able to say ‘mother’s milk and grass.’ ”

In short, the cows are given the best shot at being content as they forage over the 82,000 acres in San Simeon and the 73,000-acre Jack Ranch in Shandon. And the practice — something both Hearst and Kenny say “is the right thing to do” — is paying off.

“We have a fresh beef program on the Central Coast that accounts for 30 percent of the business, and the rest is seasonal frozen and sold on the Internet (check Hearstranch.com),” says the 36-year-old Kenny. “We’re the largest single-source grass-fed operation in the U.S.”

Internet sales in December 2008 tallied 430 orders. This December that number grew to 1,600 orders, with some of the finest restaurants in the nation now regularly serving Hearst grass-fed steaks.

Even if you can’t see the value of eating beef, what value do you place on the cattle-studded ranchlands that have been an agricultural heritage in San Luis Obispo County since the gold rush? Those open spaces that give the Central Coast so much of its character are that way because cattle ranchers have kept them that way — and that hasn’t been easy.

Consider: Prices for beef haven’t appreciated much over the past 20 years, while costs have only escalated. As Cliff Garrison, manager of the Hearst Ranches, says on the Hearst Web site: “As cowboys, we do this type of work because it’s our life. The freedom of working in God’s creation, the feel of nature, appreciating the environment, the responsibility of caring for our families, the animals and the land — we love what we do ... We strive to make a good business out of doing the right thing.”

It should be noted that this isn’t the first time the Hearsts have stepped up to the plate in giving to others. Each year the family opens up ranch facilities for a dozen or more philanthropic events; it donates to another dozen nonprofits each year.

“We’re pleased (with the donation),” Hearst says. “This family and company has always been concerned with neighborhood and community, and this is just another chance for us to give back. It’s the right thing to do.”

Bill Morem can be reached at bmorem@thetribunenews.com or 781-7852.