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CELEBRATING UNUSUAL BREEDS

Meat from heritage animals not only is tasty and nutritious, but also plays a key role in food security.

WRITTEN BY SUE EDMONDSON
PHOTOS BY JACI GOODMAN AND NINECARIBOU PRODUCTIONS LLC

Cover Unusual breeds collage

Ever hear of a Bourbon Red turkey? Soay sheep? Can you imagine American bison roaming anywhere other than Yellowstone National Park? It’s likely your answer is “no.” Yet these and other rare animals once were commonplace and regularly used for meat as the Angus steer or Cornish Cross chickens are today.

The decline of heritage breeds (those with purebred bloodlines and that mate naturally, grow slowly, and live long in natural conditions) happened over time but became pronounced about 75 years ago, when the commercial livestock industry boomed, the number of small farms shrank, and animals were bred for fast growth and size. Large-breasted chickens, 40-plus-pound turkeys, and beige-tinged pork became the norm, and the American palate adjusted accordingly. The result: Nearly 200 breeds of mammals and poultry landed on the Livestock Conservancy’s list of those at risk of extinction.

If you’re thinking, “So what?” you may want to reconsider.

Embracing diversity

The saying, “Variety is the spice of life,” is no truer than in the world of food. However, it’s not just about flavor — food security banks on diversity.

“Although monocrop farming and ranching are good for the bottom line of large agriculture operations, without diversity, one disease, one outbreak can destroy an entire crop or collapse an animal breed,” says Wendy Baroli, owner of the Grow For Me Sustainable Farm/GirlFarm near Bordertown Casino in North Reno, who raises heritage Jacob sheep, Dexter cattle, Berkshire pigs, various poultry, and Silver Fox rabbits. “Mass-produced animals of the same breed create weakness and vulnerability.”

Diversity is not just good for preserving animal breeds.

“There’s no question that food security is one of the most important reasons to maintain genetic diversity,” says Ryan Walker, Livestock Conservancy marketing and communications manager.

Walker notes examples in recent history where a lack of diversity had dire consequences — the Irish potato blight, which wiped out the widely used Lumper potato and led to famine in Ireland, and the avian flu that decimated millions of commercially raised chickens that had been bred to live indoors.

In fact, the importance of genetic diversity is recognized and supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Continuing to foster that diversity is a key goal of its Food Animal Production Action Plan.

Fortunately, during the last few years, the American public has renewed its interest in heritage meats. So it’s not surprising that Whole Foods Market predicts the No. 1 food trend for 2016 is “uncommon meat and seafood.” While the resurgence in interest may come from an awareness of the benefits of diversity, Walker and local farmers and ranchers suspect it’s something, well, more tangible.

“Taste is where heritage breeds shine,” Walker says.

“They take longer to get to market size, so they have time to develop muscle, which makes the meat rich and full flavored,” says Rob Holley of Dayton’s Holley Family Farms, where much of the livestock is heritage.

The end result is that many endangered breeds are growing in number, and local niche farms and ranches are thriving.

The original red meat

Jeff Herrick of Minden’s Black Rock Bison didn’t have conservation or even flavor in mind when he first considered raising bison (which genetically aren’t buffalo, although the names are used interchangeably). Yes, he knew that bison had been in North America for hundreds of thousands of years and had faced extinction. He’d also heard the meat was tasty but hadn’t tried it.

“I have a family history of high cholesterol, and I was researching ways I could still include red meat in my diet,” Herrick says. “That’s how I became interested in bison.”

During his research, he discovered that grass-fed bison is the leanest red meat, with fewer calories and less cholesterol than beef or pork, and it’s high in protein, B-12, and iron.

“I was especially impressed when I learned they aren’t given antibiotics or hormones, and the meat is approved by the American Heart Association,” he says.

That was 2005. When he searched for bison raised in Northern Nevada, he found none. Rather than jumping blindly into the bison business, he started educating himself about it.

“My career was spent as a firefighter. I didn’t have any ranching experience,” he says. “Bison are big, powerful animals, and not domesticated like cattle. I wanted to make sure I was equipped to handle them.”

Then he connected with John Flocchini, manager of the Flocchini family’s Durham Bison Ranch in Wyoming (the same Flocchinis of Sierra Meat & Seafood in Reno).

“John spent innumerable hours teaching me about bison,” he says. “In 2011, my wife, Tracy, and I finally decided to buy a breeding pair from his herd. His stock originates from the Yellowstone bison, and I wanted the genetically purest bison available. It’s paid off. My herd is healthy and hardy.”

Herrick admits that raising bison has its challenges. Not with their care — they don’t require shelter and can easily withstand heat and cold. It’s their agility and strength that have tested him. A 1,000-pound heifer cleared a 4-foot-9-inch gate from a standstill, broken hinges in corrals are common, and he’s experienced a 2,000-pound bull turning from docile to dangerous in a split second. They aren’t the easiest to round up, either.

“There’s a saying that you can get bison to do anything they want to do,” Herrick says, laughing. “Luckily, they’re herd animals, so if you get one moving, the others will usually follow.”

Black Rock bison are exclusively grass fed. Although in Minden they don’t have unlimited access to native grasses, Herrick has ensured they have fresh grass by growing it with a hydroponic fodder machine. Additionally, the herd now spends time on the 400-acre White Mountain Ranch in Bishop, Calif.

While nutrition led Herrick to bison ranching, the meat’s flavor helps keep him in business.

“It’s absolutely delicious — rich and sweet,” Herrick says. “There’s no game flavor and no fatty aftertaste that you often find in beef.”

Sales confirm his assessment. Since introducing the Durham Bison Ranch meat at the Carson City Farmers’ Market in 2012, appetites for it increased; by the time he introduced his own first Black Rock Bison meat in summer 2015, sales were double what they had been three years prior.

Which brings Herrick to the final challenge of bison ranching.

“These are slow-growing animals. It takes up to three years before they’re ready to market,” he says. “That makes them expensive to raise, and I have to charge more for the meat than you’d pay for beef. I tell people, ‘you choose to afford bison meat.’”

Scottish sheep

That’s a bit how Daryl Riersgard of LaFour Ranch in Paradise Valley sounds when he explains how he came to raise a rare heritage breed of sheep: British Soay.

“It was 2008, and I was in a store minding my own business at the magazine rack,” Riersgard says. “I saw an article about Soay sheep in a Hobby Farms magazine, with a handsome ram on the cover. I was intrigued by his looks and also by the idea of helping to preserve an endangered breed. Within a day or two, I was contacting people about acquiring them.”

Practical considerations played into his decision — Riersgard was looking for livestock for his 17-plus-acre ranch. The acreage called for relatively small animals, and Soay sheep fit the bill, with ewes and rams reaching about 90 and 110 pounds, respectively.

“You can fit a lot of that size animal on 17 acres,” he says. “They’re also a perfect size for handling, smaller than standard sheep, which can weigh 200 pounds or more.”

He was able to acquire breeders, all from stock that trace their bloodlines to the original Soay sheep, which are more than 5,000 years old. Found on the remote island of Soay off of the coast of Scotland, the once semi-domesticated sheep negotiate sheer granite cliffs to forage on scrub brush and grasses.

“Needless to say, they’re hardy and easy to raise,” he says. “The ewes are excellent mothers and breeders.”

Flavor wasn’t a factor for Riersgard, who had never eaten Soay sheep meat until he raised his own. The discovery that it is excellent has been both a welcome surprise and a benefit.

“The first thing that attracts chefs and customers is that it’s a unique kind of meat, with a bit of a wild taste,” he says. “It’s also very lean, has many nutrients, and is low in cholesterol. One Reno chef who featured my lamb sold out the first night. He fell so much in love with the taste that he asked me to raise as many sheep as I could. Unfortunately, he left the restaurant, so it didn’t work out long term.”

Riersgard isn’t disappointed, though. The lamb he sells through his website is enough to keep things going.

“I’m not much of a marketer, but I’m really happy to be a good shepherd,” he says.

Gobbled up

Nancy Dineen of Nancy’s Green Barn Farm in Dayton isn’t surprised that her heritage Royal Palm, Bourbon Red, and Heritage Bronze turkeys are so popular for Thanksgiving that she sells out early each year. She’s had orders from San Francisco, and some customers reserve their birds a year in advance.

“It’s like eating heirloom tomatoes. They taste like they should!” she says.

Dineen allows her flocks to live naturally — the birds scratch, roll in the dirt, run around, and flap their wings. Baroli does the same with her turkeys at GirlFarm. Allowing poultry to move freely is the type of husbandry the Livestock Conservancy encourages, not only for the health of the birds, but also for the flavor factor.

“When birds are allowed to grow this way, they develop muscle fiber,” Walker says. “Those fibers create a darker meat, which is juicier, firmer, and more flavorful. It’s the flavor commercial poultry often is missing. If you wonder why supermarket poultry is often injected with sodium solutions and broth, it’s to try to give it that flavor.”

“Animals that are able to browse, graze, and forage develop a different fat profile, which makes them great to eat if you’re looking for heart-healthy flavor and not just quantity,” Baroli says.

Quantity is an issue in heritage turkeys. Dineen’s hens average 10 pounds, and toms hover around 18. However, she doesn’t consider their weight a negative.

“Heritage turkeys take us back to the way things were,” Dineen says. “I’ve had chefs tell me that the smaller the bird, the better the flavor, and my customers seem to agree. The commercially raised broad-breasted white turkeys get so big that they can’t even stand. That doesn’t seem right to me.”

What does seem right to Dineen and others who raise them is preserving heritage breeds.

“I do my best to educate people about heritage animals,” Dineen says. “That’s why I offer farm tours, including school tours. The kids really love to learn what I do here. You should see the kindergartners sing to the turkeys. The turkeys sing right back!”

Sustainable practices

Raising heritage livestock sustainably requires effort, time, and money. Still, local growers are doing just that.

“You can take the best animals, and if you don’t raise them right, you have garbage,” says Norris Albaugh of Fallon’s Albaugh Ranch.

He’s put good husbandry to the test — his grass-fed shorthorn beef has undergone professional evaluation for taste and nutrition. In taste trials, his beef scored an average of 7.0 of 9.0 (control beef scored 4.9). Nutritional analysis revealed the meat has the omega 6 and omega 3 fatty acid profile found in wild salmon.

Fallon-based Alpine Ranch, already known for its grass-fed beef, has ventured into Berkshire pigs, whose rosy-pink, marbled meat is increasingly popular. The pigs are raised outdoors with room to move and without growth hormones, stimulants, or growth-producing antibiotics. The investment is paying off — Reno’s Campo restaurant already is a Berkshire customer.

Sustainability is at the heart of Bench Creek Ranch outside Fallon, where the power is wind, solar, and hydro generated, and Paul Plouviez and wife Shizuko Shimada raise heritage Gascon cattle (among other livestock). Cattle forage freely on native grasses at the cows-per-acreage ratios necessary for pasture health. Known for their dark red, flavorful meat, Gascons are sturdy and small, lending to the success at raising them naturally in Northern Nevada.

The smaller stature of heritage livestock may seem a negative — ranchers have less to show for their investment. To Baroli and others who grow sustainably, size actually is a positive.

“Smaller animal footprints, [their] actual weight and foot size, are far easier on desert soils. These animals don’t require huge swathes of land for grazing. We can look to smaller animals to satisfy our omnivore position,” Baroli says.

Eat them to save them

“It sounds backward,” Walker says, “but farmers and ranchers can’t afford to raise heritage livestock unless there’s a market. Otherwise, they become very expensive lawn ornaments.”

Freelance writer Sue Edmondson has written for publications in Northern Nevada and California. Ordering a heritage Thanksgiving turkey is at the top of her to-do list.

Recipe

Rack of Lamb with Raspberry-Wine Sauce

(courtesy of Becky Riersgard, LaFour Ranch in Paradise Valley. Serves 2 to 3)

1 lamb rack, about 1 to 1¼ pounds

Fresh rosemary sprigs

For marinade and sauce

1 cup Bordeaux wine

1 cup raspberry jam

Combine ½ cup each wine and jam. Marinate lamb in wine/jam sauce for 12 hours in refrigerator.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Place rack of lamb in shallow metal pan and sprinkle lamb with rosemary sprigs. Roast at 400 degrees F for 25 minutes, or until internal temperature reaches 145 degrees F.

Combine remaining wine and jam in saucepan, bring to boil, then cook over medium heat until slightly thickened, about five minutes.

Carve lamb into chops. Spoon sauce over lamb and serve.

Resources

A note about cooking heritage meat

The lean meat takes less time to cook and benefits from lower temperatures. For added tenderness, brine poultry and marinate meat. Try Rob Holley’s marinade blend — a mix of red wine, garlic, and rosemary.

Are bison still rare?

Although American bison are off of the endangered species list, of the 500,000 or so bison in America today, only about 20,000 are free of cattle genes. According to the National Park Service, true American bison are considered rare. For bison recipes and cooking tips, see Bisonbasics.com.

Additional Resources

To order heritage meat and/or poultry directly from producers

Albaugh Ranch (sells heritage beef wholesale through DROPP (Dropp.coop). It sells lamb directly to customers, but it’s not heritage.) www.Albaughranch.com 

Alpine Ranch www.Alpine-ranch.com 

Black Rock Bison www.Blackrockbison.com 

Grow For Me Sustainable Farm/GirlFarm www.Girlfarm.org 

Holley Family Farms www.Holleyfamilyfarms.com 

LaFour Ranch (Soay sheep only) Call 775-578-0096 or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. For details, visit www.Lafourranch.com/Soays_of_Nevada/Welcome.html 

Nancy’s Green Barn Farm www.Nancysgreenbarnfarm.com  (order turkeys no later than six months in advance)

Markets and butchers that sell heritage products

Butcher Boy Meat Market
530 W. Plumb Lane, Reno
775-825-6328, www.Butcherboyreno.com  
Look for Bench Creek Ranch’s Gascon/Angus meats sold under the label of Sierra Basque Ranch. Also find Frank Reese heritage turkeys and Sierra Basque Ranch chickens, which are certified as being high in omega 3.

Great Basin Community Food Co-op
240 Court St., Reno
775-324-6133, www.Greatbasinfood.coop 
Sells a variety of locally raised products, including some heritage meats

Mountain Valley Meats
11209 Brockway Road, Ste. 101, Truckee
530-550-7197, www.Mountainvalleymeats.com 
Carries bison and other heritage meat products

New Moon Natural Foods
11357 Donner Pass Road, Ste. C, Truckee
530-587-7426
505 W. Lake Blvd., Tahoe City
www.Newmoonnaturalfoods.com 
Carries bison and other heritage meat products

Ponderosa Meat Co. 
1264 S. Virginia St., Reno
775-322-4063, www.Ponderosameatco.com  
Processes an array of heritage meat for local ranchers. They also sell wagu beef, heritage turkey, and heritage pork. 

Sierra Meat & Seafood
1330 Capital Blvd., Ste. A, Reno
800-444-5687, www.Sierrameat.com 
Sells a variety of heritage meat products

Tahoe Central Market
8487 North Tahoe Blvd., Kings Beach
530-546-8344, www.Tahoecentralmarket.com 
Carries bison and other heritage meat products

Village Meats
770 Mays Blvd., Incline Village
775-831-6243, www.Villagemeats.com 
Carries bison and other heritage meat products

Whole Foods Market
6139 S. Virginia St., Reno
775-852-8023, www.Wholefoodsmarket.com/stores/reno 
Sells a variety of heritage meat products

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