Those looking to source superior meat should visit a small farm. Dave Heafner of Da-Le Ranch explains, “For the most part local protein farmers should allow the chef to view some of the animals. Some bio-security issues prevent visits at all sites, but the proof is in the raising.” Dave points out, “There are farms that sell many animals but don’t allow any visitors to their facility. Don’t know if that’s good or not, but we are pretty open.”
Da-Le Ranch in Lake Elsinore in owned and operated by husband and wife duo Dave Heafner and Leslie Pesic. The two reinvented themselves as farmers after leaving other careers. Dave tends to the business side, sourcing and transporting young animals, meat and feed, along with some actual farm chores and Leslie is the primary animal care giver. At Da-Le, the animals are grass and pasture fed with fresh veggies and fruits. “They’re tasty because they’re raised with love, care and respect. We even slaughter in a humane manner,” Dave says. The animals are hormone, steroid and antibiotic free, making for meat with notably better flavor.
USDA processing of meats is required for restaurants Dave notes. Farms that skip this step and sell custom processed beef, lamb, goat and pork are flouting the law. “Both the restaurant and farmer can get in trouble with the Health Department, Dept of Agriculture and USDA.” The only exceptions are animals raised for personal use. “You raise a hog and have it prepared for your family to eat or game legally taken in the wild for your own personal consumption,” are examples that are allowed.
Dave explained some of the USDA requirements and procedures. “To help insure public safety regarding meat, there are myriad regulations pertaining to every facet of processing, from slaughter to preparation, through to delivery to the consumer.” In California the USDA is responsible for and regularly inspects the slaughterhouse, transportation, cut and wrap, food prep kitchend, restaurants and catered event sites.
The USDA approved slaughterhouses in southern California usually specialize in a single animal. Transportation to and from the facilities must also be in USDA approved refrigerated vans and transport bins to ensure the integrity of the process.
“Animals are not often cut and wrapped where slaughtered. After transport to the USDA cut and wrap facility, whole animals are broken down to smaller packages for sale to the customer under the watchful eye of USDA inspectors.” Dave continues, “The process can take from several days to a month. For example, I have a hog slaughtered, and it is generally cut within a couple days, depending on the facility’s work schedule, which I try to plan delivery around.”
USDA inspected facilities prepare many cuts, from sausages to bacon, hams and mixed meats and monitor restaurants through the Health Department. “They are also required for mixing meat with ANYTHING. For example, there is a USDA facility that inspects the small microwave burritos that one can buy at any convenience store.”
Dave cites a few of the regulations he’s directly observed. “It’s mandated that every batch of ground beef go through an e-coli lab test.” When a company decides to make sausage the recipe must be approved, a process taking about a year. A single ingredient modification, say switching thyme for cilantro requires a newly written HAACP plan written by a registered spec writer and sent through an expeditor to the USDA and that one ingredient change will take six months.
“The regulations are designed to keep the meat industry absolutely safe and protect the public,” concludes Dave.
Meats are generally available year round at Da-Le Ranch. “We raise in nine locations spread around central and southern California, so we don’t run out or lose an entire flock as we’ve had happen from unforeseen weather and predators.”
Animals are inspected carefully to determine the appropriate time for slaughter. At large-scale factory farms, pigs weigh 240 pounds at six months, but at Da-Le Ranch they need twice that time to make weight. “Ours take about a year to grow to size due to the running around in their arena, pasture and foraging,” Dave says. “Chickens are another example. Our birds are ready for market at about 12 to 14 weeks, not six to eight like some processors.”
Their meat is popular among chefs and they have a steady customer base who purchase at various farmers’ markets in places such as SoCo (Costa Mesa), Newport Beach and Escondido. Dave notes demand for lamb is growing with consumers. Whole ducks along with livers and fat sell well for pate and French fries. Pork, beef, rabbit, chicken and eggs from chickens, geese and duck make the grade with chefs and farmers market customers. “We only have so much of each item. Customers are happy to wait or make another choice if we are out of their first one,” he says. Farmer Dave recommends parts of the animals that customers might not try on their own. “Many have learned and had exciting cooking experiences with jowl, belly and shanks,” he notes. Chefs and home cooks are also rendering fat for cooking.
If your kitchen is supplied by Da-Le Ranch, you and your guests will taste it. Better product makes a difference and an impression, so meet your meat. Farming is not for the faint of heart or body. You can take a free tour at Da- Le Ranch and experience a day in the life of a farmer. You’ll muck pens, feed and water animals and clear weeds among other tasks. Learn how the meat you serve is cared for and see the work and dedication it takes to get it from the farm to your kitchen.