Reno Gazette Journal – Sunday, December 13, 2015
Article written by Johnathan L. Wright, firstname.lastname@example.org
A tomato is not a tri-tip.
Obvious? Of course — manifestly obvious. But when it comes to local food, the distinction is worth making. That’s because it’s far easier for family farmers to sell their tomatoes (and other produce) than it is for family ranchers to get their meat in front of buyers.
Why? Raising animals is costly. Labyrinthine regulations govern the meat industry. And commercial buyers like stores and restaurants want a consistent supply of product (a challenge also faced by smaller farmers with their crops).
Put simply: “Bringing animals to market is a tough thing to do,” said Chris Flocchini, whose family both distributes meat, through its Sierra Meat & Seafood of Reno, and raises meat, through its Durham Bison Ranch in Wyoming.
In the past year, Sierra Meat began distributing higher-end cuts — tenderloin and top sirloin, rib-eye and strip loin — from Sanchez Ranch, a family outfit in Smith Valley that raises its animals without growth hormones.
“We thought, ‘How do we support some of the local agriculture?’ Flocchini said. “ ‘How can we help? What role can we play?’ ”
The account is small by Sierra Meat standards — and unusual, too. “Most of the ranchers probably sell directly to consumers,” said Ann Louhela of NevadaGrown, the nonprofit that promotes Nevada agriculture.
The partnership between Sierra Meat and Sanchez Ranch offers a potential model for the future marketing of local meat. It also opens a window on how two players in the legacy meat industry — rancher, distributor — are approaching the next frontier in local food.
You might not have heard of Sanchez Ranch, but you might very well have heard of the Sanchez name. About five years ago, Jon Sanchez, CEO of Sanchez Wealth Management and host of radio’s “The Jon Sanchez Show,” purchased the 150-acre property, which dates to the early 20th century (the associated water rights date even earlier, to the mid-1860s).
Certain questions must be asked early on: How does Sanchez move from financial models to pasture management? Is this just a rich man’s hobby? Is he crazy?
“I get that all the time,” Sanchez said the other afternoon, smiling, sitting on bales of hay at the ranch, a corral running behind him. “It’s an outlet for me, my stress. My release is coming to work the land on the weekend. The longer I own it, the more passionate I become.”
A business acquaintance introduced Sanchez to Flocchini and Sierra Meat & Seafood. What was supposed to be a 20-minute chat about ranching and the meat industry turned into a 2 1/2-hour conversation, Sanchez said.
Flocchini later came out to Smith Valley to inspect the ranch and its practices, its herd of black Angus cattle and its passel of registered Berkshire pigs, a breed famed for its rich juiciness and marbling.
“We had to make sure he had a good, viable product,” Flocchini said. “We will only support a local program if it has an exceptional product.”
The day-to-day running of Sanchez Ranch falls to cow boss Forrest Cox, ranch foreman Sage Pommerening and ranch manager Brooke Sullivan, Sanchez’ daughter. The ranch runs about 50 head of cattle, primarily Black Angus, at any one time, with about 10 a month now going to Sierra Meat & Seafood (and up to 100 a month planned for the future).
From the first delivery in November, the distributor sold top sirloins to Campo, tenderloins to the Crystal Bay Club in Crystal Bay, and rib-eyes and strip loins to the Nugget Casino Resort in Sparks. Sanchez Ranch sells other cuts like brisket, ground beef and tri-tip directly to consumers from its website.
The other afternoon, one of the ranch’s abundant yellow Labradors bounded by with something wet and limp in its mouth (don’t ask). June the goat, sporting a bell, greeted visitors. And Cox, the cow boss, took a moment from working a group of cattle while on horseback.
Pastures stretched, low and hard, into the distance. Mountains pasted themselves against an impossibly blue sky. A flourish of cottonwoods along the West Walker River offered a golden glow. Louis L’Amour could have written the scene.
Cattle at Sanchez Ranch roam the pastures, grazing on grassland. “A cow digests grass easy,” Cox said. “A cow was meant to eat grass.” What’s more, the cattle are never moved to crowded feed lots because “when you have higher numbers and a smaller area, you increase the potential for sickness.”
In winter, when pastures are barren, Cox feeds the cattle hay that was grown on the ranch. Grains are used sparingly. The goal, the cow boss said, was to promote a healthy rate of weight gain, not speedy fattening designed to get the animals to slaughter more quickly.
“You know how you don’t want to be like the gym guy on steroids?” Cox asked. “Same with cattle.”
Cox and Pommerening, the ranch foreman, headed over to the 4,600-square-foot enclosure they built to house 30 to 40 weaners, young pigs that have been weaned from their mothers. (Across the ranch in the pigsty, Tex the boar and Violet, one of five sows, slumbered in muddy post-connubial bliss.)
“I’m a cowman. I’m a cowboy. But since I started doing this, I like them at this stage,” Cox said of the weaners. He and Pommerening feed them a grind of alfalfa, grass, hay, and spent grain from Reno breweries that comes in 1,500-pound loads.
“It’s really high in nutrients,” Pommerening said of the brewing leftovers.
The plan is for Sanchez Ranch to send eight to nine pigs a month to Sierra Meat & Seafood, depending on litter size.
Clean, Clear Flavor
Evening at Sanchez Ranch turned dark and cold, the kind of cold you really feel in the country.
Inside the ranch house, Brooke Sullivan and some other members of the Sanchez family set out a tasting of New York, rib-eye and top sirloin steaks, as well as pulled brisket spread across thick slices of toast, the juices soaking the bread. The beef had a fresh, clean, clear flavor, as if you were tasting the open pasture, the expanse of sky.
Cox and Pommerening, who’d dropped by, headed back out. On the couch, three yellow Labs napped like an act of God couldn’t move them. Somewhere on Sanchez Ranch, June the goat bedded down for the night.