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Why We Should Be Eating Rare Heritage Meats

“Why would you eat a rare animal? Because they need a job and because not every single one is meant to be of breeding quality,” Jeannette Beranger says.

Out of context, that’s a quote that would make most conservationists cringe.

Santa Cruz Ram, Heritage Livestock
Santa Cruz ram | Jeannette Beranger/The Livestock Conservancy

But Beranger, Senior Programs Manager of The Livestock Conservancy, is referring to traditional livestock breeds that were raised before industrial agriculture became a mainstream practice.

In California, that includes San Clemente goats, which were introduced to San Clemente Island but eventually herded off because they were wreaking too much havoc on native plants, Longhorn cattle, which populated both California and Texas in the 1700s, and Navajo-Churro sheep, who have a double-coated fleece that weighs four to six pounds. Over time, these livestock breeds developed traits that made them well-adapted to the local environment; they retain essential attributes for self-sufficiency. 

While the term "heritage" can be up for interpretation, generally it refers to pure breeds of livestock and poultry with deep histories in the United States dating back to before 1925. They are known for their knack for foraging, longevity and the ability to mate naturally.

Yet they are in danger of being lost. According to Sustainable Table, a food program that hopes to educate the public about sustainable agriculture, "190 breeds of farm animals have gone extinct worldwide" within the last two decades and "there are currently 1,500 others at risk of becoming extinct." Furthermore, only a handful of breeds dominate the U.S. livestock industry:

Modern farm animals breeds are specifically selected for intensive production, feed efficiency, continuous milk or egg production, and rapid growth.

The problem with this is a loss of genetic diversity. While heritage breeds on average take a longer time to raise, they are more profitable over the long-term. “They are disease and parasite resistant, much more than commercial breeds,” Beranger says. 

Beranger herself has a brood of one of the rarest poultry breeds in the world in her backyard. After nearly a decade, only recently has she been able to breed them to a uniform size to her liking.

“You got to eat them to save them to improve the breeds,” she says. “In order for a farmer to raise these animals, they have to have a market.” 

Brice with Light Sussex, Heritage Livestock
Brice with light Sussex | Courtesy of Brice Yocum

Recently she helped the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles coordinate a series of heritage meat dinners, featuring Spanish goats, Standard Bronze turkeys and Texas Longhorn cattle. Longhorns were slow-braised into marvelous tri-tip. Turkey was cooked with mole and the goats were braised with dates, served on blue corn tostadas with cactus salad.

“These events give people a chance to come together, have a great meal. And people cultivate the culture of what our local food sources are,” Charles Barth, chairman of Slow Food Ventura County, who helped source the meats for the event says.

Sunbird Farms, Heritage Livestock
Courtesy of Brice Yocum

Barth has spent the last two years immersed in the heritage breed scene in Southern California.

“To go and find people who are actually growing these animals, you realize that they are in such limited numbers that it is just shocking,” he says. “You drive past miles after miles of farms and cities with millions of people and you end up in a place where there are just 20 to 40 of these animals and they’re clustered around in these little patches.”

For him, it’s much more than a loss of bygone days. It’s a loss of a resilient ecosystem that is deeply rooted in the conditions of the land.

“Animals managed appropriately in mixture with agriculture serve a real function. In sheep, you can use them to manage insects or eat down grass. Same way with goats. They all have a function,” he says. “Animals that fit into a farm’s ecosystem serve a purpose instead of just being there for meat.”

It seems like a win-win situation.

And so why aren’t heritage animals more widespread?

“The problem with Southern California is that we’ve been stripped of regional slaughter facilities and processing facilities to serve Los Angeles,” he says. “The system has been dismantled and it’s simply not in existence south of the Fresno area.”

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For example, he points out, if you own pigs in Southern California and want a USDA certified slaughter, you have to drive your pigs up to Fresno or Modesto to get them slaughtered and get them the next day.

“There is no industry that services that without having to get into a car and make this huge drive,” he says. “It has stifled development of small scale farming operations. And that is something that needs to change.”

Sunbird Farms, Heritage Livestock
Courtesy of Brice Yocum

In the town of Visalia, 50 miles south of Fresno, is chicken farmer Brice Yocum of Sunbird Farms. Today, he has close to 100 heritage chickens and five different varieties. Yocum is currently working on a project documenting how his chickens are making a positive impact on his walnut grove by foraging around the base of the trees.

“If you want the meat, you have to come to us,” Yocum says, mirroring Barth’s point. “Unfortunately we have a system that is built around the benefit of the mass producer.”

Marketing-wise, his biggest struggle is getting consumers to appreciate the time it takes to raise a quality heritage breed. Unlike commercial varieties, heritage chickens take three to six times longer to develop. 

“When it comes to food, you have two options. Efficiency and low cost or time and quality. There’s probably room in the world for a little bit of both but right now, we’ve lost that time and quality piece,” he says. “Chicken has become a commodity. With these heritage breeds, they are like wine and each have distinct tastes. Most people don’t even know what real chicken tastes like anymore.”

At the end of the day, it boils down to getting the consumer to care. For more information on heritage breeds and where to get them, The Livestock Conservancy has an online directory where it breaks down producers by region and product.

“We need to make the necessary sacrifices to protect our food system from the loss of these important genetics that are completely vulnerable,” Barth says. “The truth is that these heritage famers aren’t making money. They are just people who want to do their part and become a steward of these breeds.”

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