Jill McClaran wears her blonde hair to her waist and spurs on her cowboy boots. The 27-year-old spends her days in the saddle herding cattle along the basalt rims and airy benches of Hell’s Canyon. Out of cell phone range and hours from the nearest town, this University of Idaho graduate looks over a thousand McClaran Ranch cattle as they graze the rugged and wild eastern Oregon grasslands.
“We’re very traditional and nomadic,” says McClaran, who along with her younger sister, Beth, handles ranching much like their granddad, Jack, did in the 1930s—before cattle were pumped up on hormones and antibiotics and trucked off to city-sized feedlots for fattening. Naturally raised McClaran beef is sold statewide—from New Seasons Market to Burgerville—through its longtime participation in Country Natural Beef (CNB).
Twenty-five years ago, this rancher-owned cooperative kicked off the natural beef market in Oregon. CNB founders Doc and Connie Hatfield rounded up a roomful of other ranching families who vowed to produce beef raised the way it used to be and to deliver it directly to market for health-conscious consumers.
Now, with more than one hundred ranchers participating, CNB sets high standards for livestock feed and care that are endorsed by animal welfare guru Temple Grandin and certified by the Food Alliance, a voluntary certification for sustainable farming and humane animal treatment. Unlike generic beef, every Country Natural Beef cut can be traced back to the ranch where it was raised. “We know everything that happens to that animal,” McClaran says. “I like owning the beef through its whole life, from start to finish.”
McClaran Ranch designates about one-third of its herd to 100 percent grass-fed production in cooperation with Cory Carman of Carman Ranch, another Wallowa County outfit run by the next generation. Joining “natural” and “organic” in the meat case, grass-fed is the healthiest option, garnering attention for its reported nutritional attributes.
While it takes more land, more time, and exceptional breeding to raise animals fattened only on grass and hay, these two young women’s investment has landed their certified grass-finished beef on the menus of some of Portland’s top restaurants including Paley’s Place, Clarklewis and June.
The Oregon Beef Council does not track the migration from conventional to new beef markets among the roughly 10,000 ranches in the state. Nationwide, natural and organic beef production is about 2.5 percent of the total market, a small but growing niche. CNB, along with the other Oregon-based natural beef ventures, including Painted Hills, Cascade Natural and Strawberry Mountain, has seen double-digit expansion over the past five to ten years.
Meanwhile, independent ranchers are filling online artisan food directories such as Eatwild.com and Food-hub.org and are selling directly to quality-conscious customers at farmers markets and through buying clubs. “People really want to know where their beef comes from,” says Dan Probert, CNB’s executive director, “and are willing to pay more for it.”
When Ashland’s top chef Neil Clooney opened Smithfields this past January, he called Applegate Valley rancher Pete Salant to make sure he’d have a steady supply of locally raised beef for a kick-off menu featuring oxtail ravioli and hanger steak.
Named after a centuries-old meat market in London, this meat-centric neighborhood restaurant is aimed at offering what’s tasty and affordable, including house-made charcuterie.
“My whole concept is to utilize as much of the animal as I can,” Clooney says.
Every Wednesday, Portland chef Adam Sappington butchers a 200-pound quarter steer from Sweet Briar Farms in Eugene to feature on The Country Cat menu. He uses beef tallow for his fried chicken, makes his own beef jerky and loves to braise. He designed the menu to use the whole animal and proved that it can be done despite kitchen and cooler space limitations. “What motivates me,” says Sappington, “is that I develop a close relationship with the rancher.”
Out east in Pendleton, chef Matthew Barnes had to search high and low for a rancher raising 100 percent grass-fed beef for The Prodigal Son Brewery & Pub. He found Sexton Ranches, an outfit an hour and a half south in Haines. Ranchers Dick and Andi Sexton raise their cattle using holistic management practices and good grass of the Baker Valley. “The flavor and texture of the beef is far better than that raised by conventional means,” says Barnes, who features it in the one-year-old pub’s signature burger and steak specials. “We benefit by having fresh and local products, and they sustain their way of life.”
Buying a whole steer was one big way for the nonprofit restaurant in Bend, Common Table, to fulfill its mission to serve the community. Raised on a bucolic Prineville ranch and locally butchered, the beef is serving to educate customers about quality, small-scale meat production. For chef Bethlyn Rider, this process has been a good teacher. “It has forced me to learn more about cuts of meat we usually throw out, like liver and tongue,” she says. She’s also mastered cooking this leaner beef. “The key is a hot skillet,” she says. She recommends medium-rare for her popular steak sandwich specials. “The customer response is wonderful,” she reports. “They are in love with grass-fed meat.”
Beef Label Primer
With more beef options in the meat case, it’s hard to know what you’re buying. here’s a breakdown of each label’s definition and where to find the beef.
A USDA certification with strict requirements for certified organic grain or grass, no growth hormones or
antibiotics. Search tilth.org to locate Oregon producers.
This beef comes from animals that consumed only mother’s milk and forage, including grasses and hay, for their entire lives. Available seasonally at farmers markets and direct sales from the ranch.
An indication that the meat was raised without hormones or antibiotics. Naturally raised animals are
pasture-raised and typically spend three to six months in a feedlot on an all-vegetarian (no animal byproduct) ration, called “grain-finished.” Available at Whole Foods and selected supermarkets statewide.