WALLA WALLA TABLE - A steak is better when grown using sustainable ag practices

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Summer is just around the corner, I keep telling myself in hopes it actually happens. That means y'all are going to be grilling outdoors soon. And grilling to me, means meat. My apologies to all of my vegetarian friends out there, it's just how I roll.

While I am not big on grilling, I do enjoy meat, especially beef. And more importantly than how you cook it (trust me, my way is better) you need to start with great product. And just so we're clear that big box/warehouse store that on the Westside, does not have great meat.

Great meat comes from great animals and great producers. Animals that are well cared for and treated humanely. It has been proven that animals that undergo more stress before slaughter produce meat that is less tender and less tasty. While there are organizations that are doing some real good in the food industry, I have found that the guys who are the real family farmers -- the ones who care about their family, your family and the land they steward -- are the ones who need and deserve our support.

People like Joel Huseby from the former Thundering Hooves. Joel started with a vision that, in all honesty, should be the ONLY way that meat should be produced. This is the same vision that Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms (read Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma") has. Where the farm supports itself and its surrounding community. Where the people come to the farm to get their meat and eggs and poultry because it's worth it. Where the farmer only sells to a small area that makes sense. We call that sustainability.

The best way to get nourishment is the shortest and direct route. If we could turn sunlight into calories, that would be the shortest route. Eating plants is the next best thing. You get the most direct nourishment with the least input (anyone else see the business model forming here?). After that you need to get your sustenance from the animal that eats the grass. Not the best delivery system for calories and nutrients but it works.

So the idea is pretty simple. You grow the grass, let the animals do most of the other work, then you reap the rewards.

It works like this, cows do two things really well, eat and poop. Most animals in fact do these two things really well. So if you grow grass, cows eat the grass and then they poop, which fertilizes the grass and helps to grow more.

Cows, however, will eat everything in an area and if you want to control how grass grows and limit the destruction cows do, you fence them off in paddocks daily, then move them to a new paddock each day. They eat what's there, poop and go back to the barn.

In a couple of days you send in the chickens. Chickens will --forgive this if it too graphic -- scratch through the "cow pies" and pick out the bugs and worms and grubs and stuff. While they scratch, they spread the poop all around, so it doesn't pile up in one spot and fertilizes the whole area. The chickens go home at the end of the day, happy. You can use the chicken droppings to help fertilize the vegetable garden you are growing to supplement the meat you get, and the vegetable scraps go to the pigs.

So, besides nicely mown grass and vegetables, what do you get? You get beef, chicken and pork along with some of the best eggs you'll ever have. All of the animal parts get used or the throwaway bits, blood, and tissue can be broken down in the compost pile you create with other scraps from the garden and hay and stuff. The only thing that humans need to provide is land, structures, animal husbandry and some limited manual labor here and there. And if you do it right and you have enough room you can usually produce enough to sustain yourself and some of your community, too.

So now that Thundering Hooves is no more, what are we supposed to do? Well, you can go back to the way we were doing it 10 years ago and just buy meat where ever you find it. But no thank you, I will take my chances elsewhere. Say, some place like Blue Valley Meats that will be opening any day now.

Blue Valley Meats may not be the perfect model that was once Thundering Hooves, but the good should not be the enemy of the perfect. What they bring to the table is meat that is sustainably raised, humanely treated and cut to order. There is something to be said for that.

While Thundering Hooves pulled from its own flock of cows, pigs, chickens, goats, and lamb, Blue Valley will partner with family producers who raise their animals under strict guidelines. Animals raised on open pastures, fed a proper diet that consists mainly of natural grass, and not given antibiotics as a part of their diet.

Blue Valley Meats will offer custom cuts. They are locally owned and operated and source their animals from around the northwest. And they are buying from farmers who care about their products.

Damon Burke and wife Colby own Salumiere Cesario, an award-winning gourmet grocery in downtown Walla Walla. They can be reached at wallawallatable@gmail.com.

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