Considering New Mexico is the fifth largest state, perhaps it’s not surprising that certain corners of the Land of Enchantment remain far from the beaten path. However, that El Morro Valley remains one of them probably is, or at least should be.
Turning south from I-40, NM-53 cuts through El Malpais National Monument, crosses the Continental Divide Trail, bypasses a (very well-advertised) ice cave, and comes within eyeshot of El Morro National Monument’s feature attraction before an inconspicuous road turns back north just after another turnoff with signs for the Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary. The highway traverses sagebrush steppe and meanders through savannahs of ponderosa pine, but when it’s time to turn north, the dramatic red rock features of west central New Mexico emerge along with the piñon-juniper forests that typically accompany them. With the dark, flat-topped Zuni Mountains providing the backdrop, the dusty road twists and curves through a narrow notch in the pockmarked sandstone buttes before opening into El Morro Valley proper, trading the scrubby conifers for open grasslands. If you keep driving to the base of the mountains, you may be lucky enough to find ranchers Charles Mallery and Rebecca Allina, who run El Morro Valley Ranch and have been at the forefront of New Mexico’s movement to promote sustainable ranching through local, grassfed and grass-finished beef.
Grassfed beef’s portion of the American meat market has expanded rapidly over the past decade. Compared to the more typical “supermarket” beef, which may spend part of its life on grasslands but is eventually fattened up and finished on corn or other grains at a regional feedlot, grassfed beef spends its entire life on open rangeland in order to more closely adhere to the food and conditions that cattle and other ruminates evolved with.
For some consumers, the main benefit of grassfed beef is the taste. “The native grasses impart a richness in flavor,” says Mallery. “Because all of our grasses are slow growing, they’re not watery.”
But beyond taste, there are numerous health and environmental benefits that advocates champion as well. According to a recent study, grassfed beef contains higher levels of good fatty acids, antioxidants, and other vitamins. Advocates point out that besides keeping cows out of environmentally impactful feedlots, rotationally grazed cows can have regenerative effects on formerly depleted rangelands. In addition to benefits to soils, wildlife, and watersheds, carbon sequestration has become a goal for many ranchers. Over the past decade, these efforts have proved fruitful. In 2012, retail sales of grassfed beef hovered around $17 million. As of this year, sales had reached $480 million.
Mallery grew up just a few miles east of the ranch, which he began purchasing in 1976. At the time, the only improvements on the land were the homestead cabin and barn, which he retrofitted into a woodworking studio and garage for restoring classic Citroën cars. Mallery first put the land to use breeding horses, eventually adding a few head of cattle to the operation. A homebuilding business temporarily stole his focus, but after meeting Allina, they turned their attention back to the ranch.
Allina had moved from California after falling in love with the area, and met Mallery when he started building her house less than a mile from his own. As it turned out, the two fell in love, and by the time her house was finished, Allina moved in with Mallery instead. As much as anything, the decision to ranch full-time was about the lifestyle and remaining close to the land they both love. “I like to say that we work hard but live well,” says Allina. “It feels clean, it feels real.”
This affection has informed their approach to ranching. El Morro Valley Ranch includes ten thousand acres of deeded land and private leases divided into pastures ranging from eighty acres to nearly four thousand. They rotate their relatively small herd between pastures to mimic the disturbance patterns of native grazers like bison and elk. The right amount of grazing pressure can encourage growth without impact to root systems and hurting the grasses’ ability to regenerate. Several years of drought had taken a toll on the ranch, forcing El Morro to reduce its herd. Even so, at the beginning of July, despite a measly monsoon season, the range appeared to be in good condition, with a variety of native grasses readily apparent.
Like any emerging market, the grassfed beef industry faces challenges—both for small-scale producers like El Morro and for the industry as a whole. Some of the greatest challenges are due to insufficient regulations that could undermine the value of its product.
Although the idea behind grassfed beef is that the animal spends its entire life on open pasture, the US Department of Agriculture has yet to create a definition for what qualifies as grassfed. Similar to how meaningless the word “natural” has become on food labeling, this has created ambiguity for the consumer, which large meat distributors have used to their advantage. Although a “grassfed” label implies grassfed and grass-finished, this is not always the case. Obfuscating labels advertising “grassfed, grain finished”—more or less the standard process for American beef—have become common.
And although part of grassfed beef’s popularity can be attributed to the local food movement, since the requirements for country of origin labels were lifted in 2015, processing facilities can import meat from other countries, process it in America, and then label it as a product of the USA. As much as eighty percent of grassfed beef is now imported, estimates Sam Ryerson, president of the Southwest Grassfed Livestock Association (SWGLA).
For consumers who want to eat grassfed beef, it’s easier and cheaper than ever to find. Retailers from Walmart to Costco carry grassfed beef products, but a pound of grassfed beef at one of these national retailers may contain the DNA of hundreds of individual animals.
So, how do small-scale producers like Mallery and Allina—whose ground beef contains the DNA of just a single animal—stand to compete against products that are effectively co-opting their industry while fundamentally undermining the spirit of the product being sold?
Like many small ranchers, they’ve sought new ways to make their product stand out, and most fundamentally, these efforts have focused on forming a personal relationship with their customers. Mallery’s daughter Sarah Mallery, and her husband, Shaun Johnson, moved to a neighboring property last year, so that they could help with sales and marketing. Every other week, they make the trip to the Corrales farmers market, where they’re able to meet their customers face to face and provide firsthand knowledge of the beef they’re selling.
“People just have more of an interest in knowing those types of things rather than going into a Safeway or Walmart and buying whatever beef off the shelf,” says Johnson. “It’s the ranch story—that connection. That’s one of the major ways we distinguish.”
El Morro has also started to have each of their cows go through an ultrasound that indicates how tender the meat will be. Although this information has mostly been for internal use, Sarah and Shaun have started to incorporate this information into their sales pitch. Additionally, they use the relationships developed at the farmers market to encourage people to visit the ranch, see the cows, and get to understand the ranch up close. “The people we’ve done that with, when come out here they’re just kind of blown away by the area,” Johnson observes. “It’s a powerful connection.”
Mallery is also interested in developing a sense of terroir within the local grassfed beef market, teaching consumers that a cow raised in Chama tastes different than one from El Morro. “As you have varietals in wine, realizing beef from a certain area [that] eats different things is going to taste different,” he says, making special note of the volcanic soils that dominate the region where he ranches.
While one-to-one marketing has allowed El Morro to build a loyal customer base, for scale, they, like many small ranchers, are members of multiple regional co-ops that bring together like-minded ranchers to help market their products to a larger audience. El Morro Valley Ranch is a member of both the Sweetgrass Co-op, which has a contract with La Montañita Co-op, and SWGLA, which helps build and grow new markets for these specialty products.
“Making the connection with consumers and selling beef is a whole different business from running a ranch,” notes Ryerson, who ranches as well. “It’s a challenge to market a unique local product while we’re competing with cheaper imported meat.” Ryerson also stresses the importance of ranchers forming those direct connections with the public. “Producers will need to work together to share our stories with consumers,” he says. To facilitate this kind of information sharing, SWGLA’s website has a searchable database to help consumers find their members, and this fall will be hosting workshops in the Albuquerque area to further develop these relationships.
Beyond traditional grazing associations and marketing co-ops, nontraditional allies, like environmental organizations, are also finding ways to promote sustainable ranching throughout the marketplace. In 2017, the National Audubon Society launched its Conservation Ranching Initiative to promote what it calls “bird friendly beef.”
Although the program is only two years old, it has enrolled ranchers across twelve states representing 1.85 million acres. In New Mexico, two ranches, including El Morro, have enrolled, with a third in the pipeline, and it’s Mallery’s goal to get all of his fellow Sweetgrass ranchers enrolled as well.
According to Jonathan Hayes, executive director of Audubon New Mexico, the program is “a market driven approach that provides incentives to ranchers by labeling their product ‘bird friendly’ which in turn in the marketplace gets a greater return because the educated consumer will pay a premium for that, knowing it was raised sustainably.”
“We think the only way to maintain the viability and resiliency of those large landscapes is to get as many of those acres into sustainable grazing and healthy plant communities as possible,” adds Hayes.
Beyond lending their brand to ranches whose land management plans include rotational cycles that mimic natural disturbance patterns, Audubon has also engaged in marketing its members’ products. In the past, similar “eco-label” campaigns have struggled because of the logistical component, but according to Hayes, what distinguishes Audubon’s efforts is that they are working to open new markets and build supply chains for their members where they don’t already exist. And he’s hopeful that the program will continue to grow. Although there’s interest on the part of producers, more than anything, it’s retailers who understand its appeal that are driving demand.
Back at El Morro, the focus remains on cattle, but like for many landowners in the twenty-first century, diversification is the name of the game. “There’s only so many cows this land can hold, so we can’t grow beyond a certain amount because the land just doesn’t support it,” says Johnson. “So [we’re] just looking for other ways to diversify.”
Leveraging the growing popularity of agritourism, Shaun and Sarah use farmers markets to encourage people to visit the ranch and buy beef on site. Additionally, Allina’s house—the one she never had a chance to live in—is rented through Airbnb, and a beef purchase qualifies customers for a discount on the rental.
For the past two summers, Sarah has also run a Little Ranchers day camp, introducing young children from surrounding communities in Zuni and Gallup to life on the ranch. As much as the operation is about making a living, it’s also about recreating that bond with the land, and the camp, as well as Sarah and Shaun raising their own daughters on the ranch, provides that opportunity.
“That’s what kids are missing these days, is the understanding of growing your own food, what goes into that, and what that lifestyle is about,” says Johnson. It may be awhile before any campers become customers, but instilling the persistence of those values and ethics into the next generation will be essential if small ranches are going to remain viable into the future.
*This story comes to us from Edible New Mexico. Photos by Stephanie Cameron.