Much of what we concern ourselves with here at Edible Baja Arizona is the “right” way to produce and consume food, both plant and animal. Of course, just as there is no right way to live, there is no right way to eat. And yet we exert a fair amount of fuss making rules for both endeavors.
“All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts,” wrote Aldo Leopold in his seminal work, A Sand County Almanac. “The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.”
I’ve asked a lot of people why and how they eat meat and why and how they don’t eat meat. My parents don’t eat meat because they haven’t eaten meat for three decades, and three decades ago, the way we produced meat in this country was atrocious. I didn’t eat meat for a long time because mostly, it still is. I know someone who eats meat “in complete and total denial of most everything [she] believes in.” A friend eats meat “because it tastes good and is a healthy source of protein.” Someone else I know eats only the meat she hunts and kills. Another friend is a vegetarian except for bacon and hangovers.
We who eat meat worry a lot about whether or not we’re eating the right meat and how much we’re eating and where it comes from and if it wears the right adjectives—local, organic, humane, free-range—and if those labels are even true.
Of course, there are as many right ways to eat meat as there are wrong ways. On these three family farms—a ranch run by a father and son; a pork farm run by a husband and wife; and a poultry farm run by two brothers—the animals they raise are considered integral to a community of interdependent parts. There is struggle and death, life and growth. And there, included in the equation, is us—us eaters of meat.
Gregg Vinson leans out the open driver’s side window of the white Jeep. “Hey, Mama!” he calls. “You’re fat, Mama!” He maneuvers his torso back into the car and turns to me. “I love my cows. I really do.”
Gregg drives across the ranch’s rolling hills, narrating the story of every animal we encounter. That cow just gave birth—she’s a good strong cow. Auburn hair ripples shiny over taut muscles. “See that one over there?” he says, referring to a thinner cow ambling across the pasture. She has a six brand—born in 2006. “She’s getting old. Her hair isn’t as shiny. It’s time for her,” he says, and then leans out the window to tell the cow just that. “You’ve had a good life, Mama!” He returns. “She’s been here fighting off mountain lions for nine years. She’s a good strong cow, but now it’s her time. So why shouldn’t she become food? We think that’s reasonable.”
A lifelong Arizona rancher, Gregg Vinson, 60, owns and runs the Jojoba Beef Company with his son, Gary Vinson, 33. The name refers to the meat from cows raised entirely on a range filled with jojoba plants, a dense green scrub with small leaves and nutrient-dense seeds better known for the oil they produce.
Their ranch, called A Diamond Ranch, spreads across 22,000 acres—six square miles—of upper Sonoran desert scrub. This is copper country—the meandering Gila River is just visible at the bottom of a valley rolling with hills the color of a rusted copper pot: splotches of turquoise sagebrush, amber dirt, green prickly pear, olive green jojoba. Visible from the ranch’s highest point is the open-pit copper mine in Ray, where 250,000 tons of ore are extracted every single day.
To raise cattle on wild desert scrub, you take a very big piece of land, section it off into pastures, and rotate the cattle across those pastures, giving each section of land time to breathe and grow anew. The word pasture evokes rolling green hills and even squares, but a pasture is simply any fenced piece of land, and here, a pasture is measured by access to water. “Water in a desert ranching operation is the limiting factor,” says Gary. “Water is life.”
Since they bought the ranch in March of 2013, Gary and Gregg have installed nearly 15 miles of pipeline and installed five solar pumps in place of petroleum-powered generators to pump well water into those pipelines. “You don’t need to finish cattle on irrigated pastures,” Gregg says. He mutters numbers, his voice twangy and slow: “Two hundred times twice is twenty-four hundred times three-sixty-five.” Finally, he concludes that they’re using about four acre-feet of water every year to sustain their 200 head of cattle. “It’s not very much water at all,” he says. “One cow on irrigated farmland will use four acre-feet of water.”
Gary and Gregg—but mostly Gary—spend their days moving cattle from pasture to pasture, spreading their impact across the land. “We make quick, intensive moves,” says Gary. During the summer, cattle wander the lowlands, near the river. When it rains, the cows wander high in the hills to find grass. When it gets hot again, they come to the river to munch on mesquite pods and slurp cool water. When cold air collects in the valley, they leave the river bottom and sleep on the ridges, seeking sun.
“The way to manage the ranch is simply to try to figure out the way animals roamed and ate a thousand years ago,” says Gary. “How did animals behave without human intervention? We try to mimic that for our rotation.”
These cattle are a breed called Beefmaster, a mix of Hereford, Shorthorn, and Brahman developed during the Great Depression to withstand drought. They will live long lives out on the range before they become beef—4 to 12 years, depending on the animal. That, compared to a conventional operation, where cattle are slaughtered between 2 and 3 years old. Gregg and Gary’s cows often birth between eight and 10 calves, so it’s worth their time to invest in their animals, to make sure they know how to survive and thrive in a wild landscape. Mountain lions take a few of their calves every year, but that’s just the cost of doing business in the West, Gregg says.
Because they’re older when they go to the slaughterhouse, the meat is less tender. “I’m trying to teach our customers that there’s no association between tenderness and flavor,” says Gregg. “Chewy is good. This is an old cow—it’s lived a long life on the ranch, and so all those life flavors are in the meat.”
Jagged mountains frame the bright sky, the edge of White Canyon Wilderness visible in the distance. “We process cattle twice a year in response to rainfall,” says Gregg as we descend back to the ranch house. “The rain causes a lot of grass to grow. And then it gets dry and the grass dries up. That’s pure carbohydrates. Ranchers have always known that if you want to get fat, eat carbohydrates.”
Gregg really wants people to understand that when done properly, cattle grazing on wild forage can improve a piece of land. “Animals grind up the pasture with their hooves. They chew species down to where they’re supposed to be, and then they grind that carbonaceous material into the ground. I can tell you exactly how many tons of manure I’m putting onto this pasture.”
That movement of manure and carbon helps the soil hold water and build organic matter, leaving the land more fertile than it began. “We’re conservation ranchers,” Gregg says. “It’s very important to our customers that we are that. Urban people don’t have much control over what goes on out on the land. This is all public land. Our customers know when they buy our beef that we are managing our land. They feel a part of it.” And they know that this attention extends beyond the cattle to the other wildlife sharing this space—mule deer, javelina, quail.
When I ask him why he’s a conservation rancher, Gregg pauses, surprised. “For me personally, it’s stewardship,” he says, finally. “I have a deep sense of taking care of something and not abusing it.”
He loves selling beef at the farmers’ market, the only place they do. Gregg tells customers worried about eating animals that “death in the natural world is very slow and very cruel. These cows have lived a long life on the range and it’s their time to die. We take them to the processor and then it’s done. It’s a good way to go.”
“Ranching is a noble profession,” says Gregg. “When Gary was a kid, I used to wake him and say, ‘You’ve got to get up and feed the world.’” He pauses. “There’s a little struggle to it, of course, but nothing worth doing doesn’t have a little struggle.”
The pigs at E & R Pork sound like a creaky door. They snort and shriek, grunt and whine, staccato. The bigger pigs jump up and stand leaning on the wood fences, as tall as a tall person, nostrils wavering in the wind. Tails wag, expressive between those very big haunches.
There are dozens of pigs, split into pens by age—six weeks here, three months there. The difference in size is striking. The smaller pigs cluster, parallel, head to head or head to end. They sniff and swivel their ears. Flies meander through the open-air barn, bump against skin and mud. It smells like pigs—manure—but it’s breezy, so soon it smells like desert dirt, like palo verde and creosote.
“Sometimes, I just stand out there and look at one pig,” says Erika Pacheco, 48, who runs E & R Pork with her husband, Rod Miller, 49—E & R Pork is Erika and Rod, E & R and their pigs. “I watch it eat, with its little tail wagging. I look to see how it walks. I look to make sure they have no abscesses. And their poop. To me, the poop is really important. It tells me how their innards are working,” she says—Erika works full time as a nurse at El Rio Community Health Center. “We look at every single pig and make sure they’re happy and healthy.”
The business that became E & R Pork began because Erika and Rod wanted to buy a pig. Rod grew up on a pig farm in Iowa and Erika grew up on a farm in Mexico that raised pigs; they wanted to buy an animal they could raise and butcher once a year to provide meat for themselves. “And we looked around and we couldn’t find anything,” says Erika. “As we were looking for pigs, people would say, ‘Go to that farm.’ And we found out that whatever farm no longer had pigs, but those same people would say, ‘You know, I want to have one for myself.’”
They ended up going back to Independence, Iowa, to buy pigs—and instead of one pig, they ended up buying “a whole bunch, one for ourselves and one for whoever wanted one,” says Erika. “We got known for selling pigs. And so we decided not to butcher our pigs. We decided to start breeding them.”
Today, they raise two heritage breeds, Red Wattle and Berkshire, near the dusty end of Swan Road on the south side of Tucson. When Rod went back to Iowa to find traditional meat breeds, he found that many of the bloodlines he grew up with were no longer around. “We had to go to the Amish to start buying,” says Rod.
“We try to keep all the flavors as old fashioned as possible,” says Erika. Their bacon and ham isn’t hickory-smoked or maple-flavored. “It’s just an old-fashioned taste. Some of the old-timers come back to us and say, this tastes just like my parents had on their farm.”
Sows give birth in farrowing crates—a smaller enclosure where the sow is held in place next to an adjacent pen full of their piglets. Rod is conflicted about their reliance on farrowing crates—he’d rather let the pigs roam free, but he says it’s just not practical. “I’m not a big fan of crates, but it’s safer for Erika to handle the piglets when the sows can’t interfere, and it’s safer for the piglets.” In a litter of 10, they otherwise might lose one or two piglets to a sow unintentionally rolling or stepping on her own babies. They can control the bloodlines—who breeds with whom. And it’s cleaner, too, as the water stays fresh, the feed separate, and the waste gets drained directly to their compost pile.
With 36 breeding sows and two boars, Rod says they’ve got anywhere from 350 to 500 pigs “on the ground” at a time. Pigs are butchered at six months and 250 pounds.
The baby pigs—squirmy and squeaky, wheels in need of grease—will spend four to six weeks milking from their mothers before they’re transferred into bigger pens and switched to feed.
All of E & R’s pigs eat 100 percent non-GMO feed. This is no small feat—there are only 17 GMO-free pork producers in the United States, says Rod; to his knowledge, he’s the only one in Arizona. They mix and grind all their feed on site, which helps them cut costs and control inputs. The grain, corn, and barley come from Bonita Grains in Willcox; the wheat germ comes from Hayden Flour Mills in Phoenix. “We’ve been working really hard for the past year to make it 100 percent Arizona grown,” says Rod. “We found that doing things locally, knowing its point of origin, is the most important thing.”
“We want to know what they’re eating, because then we know what we’re eating,” says Erika.
They switched to non-GMO feed last summer and Rod says he noticed a big difference in the pigs. “They just seem to be doing a lot better. They’re gaining weight better. They have more energy,” he says.
Rod speaks deliberately, slowly. He’s careful to consider his words. He says, “It’s real hard”—it being the whole thing. It’s hard to keep their pigs healthy—they don’t use antibiotics, but haven’t yet found a vet that’ll help out. It’s hard (read: expensive) to raise pigs on 100 percent non-GMO feed. It’s hard to schedule enough slots at the processor. It’s hard to meet demand—and hard to scale up, without access to capital or traditional bank loans.
“We’re struggling just to keep Tucson fed with our pork,” says Rod. Twice a week, he takes pigs to the UA meat lab for harvesting; they often sell out at weekend farmers’ markets before the meat is even frozen through.
For Rod, getting feedback from the public at farmers’ markets makes the whole endeavor worthwhile. “The public is a real morale booster,” he says. He and Erika are constantly pulling out their phones to show customers pictures of the pigs and the farm. “The public is asking the right questions,” says Rod. “And we want them to ask questions.” Questions like: What are the pigs eating? Where do they live? Do they get to see sunlight? Do they get to roam around a bit? Do they get fresh air and fresh water?
Erika and Rod want to scale up to meet the seemingly unending demand, but recognize that they’ll have to be patient. Their 10-year plan has them breeding 500 sows and expanding to another piece of property. “It’s not respectable to put our 10-year program on this property,” says Rod. “It’s not stewardship enough. Stewardship is a big part of the program. The stewardship is that we’ve got to make things better than when we came.”
“Our primary concern is the health of the pigs and their well-being,” says Erika. “And the quality of the meat that we’re getting to the public.”
The birds at Top Knot Farms listen to classical music in the mornings. Week-old ducks sway, clack, and cuddle. They are identically blond, cartoon cute. Flat orange beaks, lips eternally pursed, webbed flippers for feet. The music isn’t really for the birds—Colton Reily, the farm foreman, listens to classical music as he sweeps day-old hay out of the pens in the brooder house. “It’s one of the only stations we get out here,” he says. In an adjacent pen, days-old chicks—barely a palmful of life—cluster under white heat panels. Lift up one panel and they peep, indignant, and press under the adjacent panel, burrowing into a wall of golden fluff.
Thirty-five miles east of Tucson, just before Benson, the barns at Top Knot Farms gleam in the sunlight. The buildings are sleek, shining, reflecting the morning sun in winking glimmers. The walls of the barn are opaque panels of polycarbonate that slide open to let in the wind that blows west to east across the high desert plain. It’s bright inside, cold outside. “The chicks get up when the sun comes up,” says Michael Muthart, who owns Top Knot Farms with his brother, Luke Muthart. “When the sun goes down, it’s lights out.”
Michael and Luke, 34 and 27 respectively, grew up in Yuma, sons of a manager at a large commercial watermelon and lettuce farm. The oldest of four brothers, Michael worked as a chef for 15 years, most recently at Tucson’s The Dish bistro. The youngest of the four, Luke graduated from the University of Arizona School of Architecture in 2014. And now they run a poultry farm together.
After a stint in Philadelphia working at a French restaurant that served fresh poultry—partridge, grouse, quail—Michael returned to Tucson and wondered why he couldn’t get such fresh poultry in southern Arizona. “Quail run all over the place in Tucson, but you have to order frozen quail from Georgia. I didn’t understand that,” he says, soft-spoken and earnest. “So my brother and I started growing birds in our backyards for ourselves.” They grew pheasant and quail, chicken and duck, and when they started sharing the birds with friends and friendly chefs, “We discovered we were producing pretty awesome meat,” Luke says.
“And we realized that there’s nobody in southern Arizona producing fresh chicken and duck,” Michael says.
After only eight months in business, they’re still trying to get their legs under them, building accounts and growing capacity. There are 500 Cornish Cross hens and Pekin ducks wandering around the barns; Michael hopes to hit 1,600 within the year.
Birds arrive on the farm when they’re a day old—Michael and Luke buy chicks from a hatchery in Wisconsin—and go straight into the brooder house, where they’re kept safe, warm, and well fed on a grain ration of ground corn and soy meal. After three or four weeks inside, the birds graduate to one of four pastures outside. The pastures are still becoming pastures—for now, they are mostly turned earth and grass seedlings. Adult chickens—bright white feathers, red wattles—strut under the barn awning, dipping their faces in and out of the water dispenser, pecking at feed, and swaying in corners of sunlight.
Luke, who works full time as a site superintendent for a custom homebuilder, was tasked with the farm’s design and construction. “My job was to ask: How can we maximize our ability to minimize our footprint?” he says. The open barn is one answer, as is the rainwater harvesting system in the works, capable of gathering enough water to support 6,000 birds. He bought four insulated shipping containers to retrofit into a processing plant, packaging facility, storage unit, and office. The site plan “emphasizes a pragmatic hierarchy,” he says, and then apologizes for sounding “too architecty.”
Retrofitted with water and electricity, the processing plant is strikingly simple. “A shipping container is linear and our processing is linear, so it works,” Luke says. “At a traditional chicken operation, there are these 500-foot tunnels that are dark and cold. We took that and we re-glorified it.” Inside, the shipping container is clean, silver, and sunny. The north end opens to a square frame holding the Rincon Mountains, a sweep of desert scrub and bright blue sky. “When you see the mountains, it takes the stress off,” he says. “I mean, we’re out here killing animals, but having this space—it shines a different light on this kind of meat production.”
Luke, Michael, Colton, and a handful of workers harvest birds weekly. After they’re inverted, killed, and bled, the birds pass along an assembly line within the insulated shipping container—defeathered, beheaded, eviscerated, rinsed, iced, and packaged, all within five or six minutes. “It’s not a far stretch from work I did in a restaurant,” says Michael. “I went into this familiar with the anatomy of a bird. I know how to use a knife. I understand sanitation. I know how to manage a small group of people.”
The birds go out to customers fresh—freezing and defrosting causes the bird to lose moisture, says Michael. They typically get orders from restaurants on Sunday, process on Monday, and deliver birds on Wednesday. “As a chef, I think it’s incredible to be able to buy a bird that was alive three days ago,” he says. “But everybody loves the idea of farm fresh poultry. It’s my challenge to find people to put their money where their mouths are.”
Luckily, money follows mouth. “The biggest thing I hear from our customers is, ‘Hey, that tastes like chicken,’” says Luke. “Normal chicken doesn’t have a taste—it tastes like whatever seasoning you put on it. In a normal chicken operation, the birds don’t move, so they don’t develop any texture—it’s just like mush. Our birds develop texture. They’re chasing bugs, digging in the earth. The meat has tooth.”
What motivates both Luke and Michael seems to be providing something better. Better poultry, but also better days and better taste and better air.
“I think the biggest motivator for me is when we realized that there was nobody doing this and that there was a demand for it,” says Michael. “We came out here to grow chickens in a healthy natural way. Fresh air, sunshine, good water, good food. Since I’ve been out here, I realize it’s the same thing for me—I’m like the chickens. I’m out here breathing good air; I’m out here drinking good water. I’m out here in a beautiful place eating vegetables that I grow outside my house.”
“I love that we can teach people that meat doesn’t come from a cellophane package from WalMart,” says Luke. “I love that we’re showing people where meat really comes from. It doesn’t have to be a negative thing. Go harvest meat, celebrate it, and enjoy it.” ✜
The Jojoba Beef Company. 24631 N. Diamond A Ranch Road, Kearny. Facebook.com/TheJojobaBeefCompany. 520.400.7710.
E & R Pork. 10852 S. Side Saddle Lane. 520.490.0166. EandRPork.com.
Top Knot Farms. 602.697.6948. TopKnotFarms.com.
Megan Kimble is the managing editor of Edible Baja Arizona and the author of Unprocessed: My City-Dwelling Year of Reclaiming Real Food.