We stepped hesitantly over the live electric fence as Ted Fuller, owner and operator of Highland Hills Farm, told us a story about getting zapped once. The fence had touched his head and instantly knocked him out. “I remember coming to and staring at the clouds, wondering what had happened.”
Fuller’s 210-acre grass-fed beef ranch near Vacaville sports glowing green rolling hills and small clusters of truly free-range Highland cattle, Cashmere goats, and Icelandic sheep. The animals were so spread out that, of his 200 cattle, we could see only about 25. As we inhaled the warm, grass-scented air, the four of us from the Berkeley Farmers’ Market Community Advisory Committee were calmed by the land’s serenity and health.
The Berkeley Farmers’ Market Community Advisory Committee takes farm trips annually to see where food sold at the Berkeley Farmers’ Market is grown and raised. As a recent addition to our Saturday and Tuesday markets, Highland Hills Farm was one of our stops. Fuller made the most of our visit, giving us a lesson in the meaning of “grass-fed” and “organic” in the meat world.
After briefly introducing us to several of his cows, Fuller excitedly exclaimed, “I have to show you this pasture. Every rancher’s pride is his pasture.” We followed him, climbing over a tree limb to cross a creek, into a breezy flowing field full of many types of grasses, clover, and purple vetch, a type of legume.
Ted explained that this field had been yellow and barren when he took over the land five years ago. He planted several types of pasture grasses; later, as the animals ate the types they liked and needed, and fertilized the land, the plants diversified. New types still continue to pop up. This plant diversity is healthy for both the land and the animals, who get a variety of nutrients and therefore don’t need any supplements.
We looked beyond Ted’s land to the next hill, which was yellow in May. Ted told us that his hills do not turn yellow until August because his grazing animals keep the land so healthy and green.
“Where do your animals give birth?” I asked, noticing that there were no buildings, but only the gorgeous rolling hills and flat pasture. Fuller said that he believed in farming with nature, and part of that ethic means involving himself with the birthing process of his animals. Unlike those in most cattle operations, Fuller’s animals give birth on their own, in the process producing stronger, healthier animals. Fuller believes the strongest, healthiest, and happiest animals are those living as close to wild as possible. He does not interfere when animals are sick either, though he said this has generally not been a problem. The heritage breeds that Ted raises, like heirloom fruit and vegetable varieties, retain the ability to survive in natural conditions and reproduce unassisted. Most cattle raised today are so far from their natural environments that they need human assistance in birthing and illness in order to survive.
Fuller’s animals represent breeds that not only promote biodiversity on our planet but are beautiful as well. With their long shaggy hair, his Highland cattle appear to be majestically grazing the hillsides of another era. As we climbed the hill, unsuccessfully trying to avoid cow patties, Fuller explained the idea of a closed cycle in ranching: an ethic he strives for in which there is no need to buy cattle because his cattle reproduce at a rate that will support his operation. Many other ranches selling “grass-fed beef” buy their steers half-raised, then “grass-finish” them; these ranches don’t have cows for reproduction. “That’s one more step away from nature and from what I’m doing,” Fuller said. He pointed out that some “grass-fed” beef ranchers buy steers from several different suppliers, increasing the variables on each supplier’s raising practices. He stressed that when animals are born and raised on the same land their entire life, as close to nature and wildness as possible, the animals are happier, and the ecological and health impacts are more likely to be positive. Fuller hopes to close the loop on his farm within the next two years, when enough cows are born for the ranch to sustain itself.
Fuller explained how the term “organic” is used in terms of beef and other meats. When meat is certified organic, that means none of the feed or grass has been treated with synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, and that no hormones or antibiotics are used in the animal. Organic, however, does not mean that the animal was raised on the land where it was born or that it was “free-range.”
Nor does “organic” prohibit feedlots, a practice Fuller abhors. His weathered face cringed as he described them: “You know that smelly cattle lot by Highway 5 in the Central Valley? That’s a feedlot. It’s all dirt and mud with no grass in sight. There’s huge long troughs full of grains that are super-charged with protein and nutrients so the animals will grow as quickly as possible.” Besides being unnatural, Fuller believes the additives and overload of nutrients in the feed contribute to the general unhealthfulness of red meat. He portrayed the feedlot as an environmental nightmare, not only because of emissions from the lot itself, but because of the fuel consumed to get the cattle and the enormous amount of feed to the lot and the potentially harmful practices used to grow the feed. Natural grass-feeding eliminates that process completely.
Because organic standards allow for practices such as feedlots, Fuller refuses to certify organic, though he easily meets the criteria. He instead calls his ranch “beyond organic.” Far more important than eating organic, Fuller said, is eating locally and as close to nature as possible, a process that has been termed eating from one’s own “foodshed.”
Fuller’s strict standard for raising animals humanely is not an abstract concept: he was passionate as he described a dairy farm where the tails of cows were cut off so they would not swish mud on their udders. “That’s just typical commercial crap,” he said. “It just really hit me, hearing about that. It’s just so wrong.” Fuller calls this “just a business” while what he practices is animal husbandry. We saw first-hand Fuller’s personal relationships with his cows. They each have names, and he hugged a few of them as he introduced them to us. They are not pets to him, but Fuller views each as an individual, recognizes each from far away, and obviously has a real relationship with each one.
After stepping back over the electric fence back to our fast-paced world of freeways and smog, we discussed how important it is that small farmers like Fuller continue to survive. They do this mainly through direct marketing at farmers’ markets and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) Programs. Fuller said these are the lifeblood of small farmers, who generally cannot produce the volume required to enter wholesale markets. It’s yet another reason to shop at farmers’ markets, to support farmers like Fuller who not only grow food, but who are the real stewards of our land.