Where’s the beef?
Chico State’s meats lab makes local grillin’ easy
The lazy days of summer are just around the corner, bringing with them hikes in Bidwell Park, blockbuster movies, and dripping ice cream cones. But to many people, summer just wouldn’t feel quite right without the sounds and smells of something sizzling on the grill.
Although there are many opportunities to buy locally grown produce in the area, tracking down locally raised meats can present more of a challenge.
A hidden gem is tucked away about five miles south of the main Chico State campus on Hegan Lane: the university meats lab, which is open to the public from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every Thursday and Friday. The nondescript building is situated near the sheep and goat unit at the Chico State University Farm. Inside, students learn how to process and package a variety of species for market under USDA inspection. Products are then sold directly to the public.
The farm, formally known as the Paul L. Byrne Agricultural Teaching and Research Center, was established in 1960 and includes 800 acres of pasture, orchards and crops, and is home to beef and dairy cattle, pigs, sheep and goats. Fifteen full-time staff members and about 40 students keep the farm running, with five specifically assigned to the meats lab.
“We are entirely local and everything is done by the students,” said Randy Long, a Fresno State graduate who is finishing his first year as director of the meats lab.
Students working at the facility earn units toward graduation and a small monthly paycheck. The facility processes all of the meat raised on the Chico State farm, including the beef supplied to the Sierra Nevada Taproom and Restaurant. Some products, such as lamb, are seasonal, because the lab can handle only a few animals at a time.
Long estimates that a supply of products available to the general public will be well-stocked by July, just in time for the summer barbecue rush. The crew typically harvests two to four head of cattle each week, selling 400 pounds of ground beef and an additional 200 to 300 pounds of sausage. A variety of other cuts are also offered. The staff and students are currently kept busy with the brewery’s order, which is the bulk of the work.
All of the animals are supplied by Chico State’s beef unit: 40 purebred red angus cows that calve in the fall; 40 purebred angus cows that calve in the spring; and a feeding facility that can accommodate 150 head of cattle. Students are responsible for the day-to-day upkeep of the animals.
Currently, certified organic ground beef from cattle raised at the farm is offered at $6.75 per pound. The product comes from animals raised naturally, without hormones, antibiotics or animal by-products in their feed. Organic production techniques ensure that animals are given access to fresh air, water, sunshine and pasture.
Total organic sales in the United States grew from $1 billion in 1990 to an estimated $20 billion in 2007, according to a 2007 Organic Trade Association manufacturer survey. As U.S. consumers learn how far their food is shipped (produce from the average grocery store travels 1,500 miles from farm to refrigerator, according to research by www.sustainabletable.org), the “locavore” movement is increasing in popularity. A student and faculty member are currently investigating whether local interest in organic beef is mirroring the nationwide trend of rising organic sales. The answer will help determine whether to expand the farm’s organic offerings.
In Chico, farmers markets are popular spots to pick up local goods, though most focus primarily on providing the community with fresh fruits, vegetables and flowers. Only a minority of vendors specialize in meat.
While meat is available year-round at the meats lab, the facility isn’t well-known.
James Salyer, an enthusiastic senior animal-science major and self-described “newbie” at the farm (he is finishing up his first semester of work), often interacts with customers who visit the facility. Many of them are regulars.
“Some people have been coming here for over 30 years. They make it a weekly trip,” he said. “They know they are getting a quality product.”
Salyer said the biggest reason people come to buy meat is that they want to support the university.
“People should know that we are out here, but we aren’t like a supermarket,” Long said. “We are state-funded, so we can’t undercut prices.”
University farm-grown New York steak and pork tenderloin, Salyer’s favorites, sell for $9.25 and $3.25 per pound, respectively. Conventionally grown ground beef sells for $3.50 per pound at the meats lab. By contrast, hamburger meat can be purchased in a value-pack for $2.69 a pound at Safeway.
Still, consumers have peace of mind knowing where their meal came from, and, as Salyer notes, the meat is just plain good.
“I took some New York steak to my parents and they said it was the best that they had ever eaten,” he said.