Jolley: Five minutes with Mary Rickert, Prather Ranch & third party verification
1911-02-07
It has always been hard to cover missteps. With the internet casting a non-stop electronic eye on everything, there is no hiding bad practices. Loudly proclaiming you’re one of the good guys does little; the public eye is a bit too jaundiced. What you need, no matter how noble you are and how pure your intentions, is an unbiased, third-part audit; somebody who can come in and assure the public that you are doing what you say you’re doing.

You wouldn’t think a place as forthright and upstanding as the Prather Ranch would need a third party audit but when they started talking about how they ran their Northern California cattle business, an outside voice was a definite asset. Their buying public included some very sophisticated but wary San Francisco area foodies. I’m sure they wanted to believe but verification from that disinterested third party couldn’t hurt.

The Ranch makes a lot of bold claims. From their web site: “The Prather Ranch has become a stellar example of a self-sustaining agricultural operation that promotes strong environmental philosophies, holistic management practices and the humane treatment of livestock. Those at the ranch understand that the first step is to be good stewards of the land, which includes caring for the soil, the water, the air, the cattle and those who work the land. Food safety and a superior tasting product is the primary goal of the ranch.”

The proof of that statement came five years ago. Jim & Mary Rickert were chosen as regional winners of the 2005 Environmental Stewardship Award Program (ESAP). Their farm, Prather Ranch, was one of seven regional winners nationwide. The prestigious program is sponsored by Dow AgroSciences L.L.C. and the Natural Resources Conservation Services (NRCS).

But Prather Ranch made another claim, also stated on their web site: “There are two herds (natural and organic) that are raised separately, but very similarly. Of the utmost importance to the ranch and its customers is the ‘Certified Humane’ label. This certification ensures low stress cattle handling, provides open pastures and expansive grazing land to reinforce natural animal behaviors. The ranch follows a respectful and humane harvest process to ensure the highest quality of life for the cattle.”

“Certified Humane.” Now that’s a claim. To be clear, it’s a trademark that should be spelled with an ® at the end. It’s owned by Humane Farm Animal Care, a group that calls itself “a national non-profit 501(c)3 organization created to improve the lives of farm animals by setting rigorous standards, conducting annual inspections, and certifying their humane treatment.”

Prather Farms decided to make that Certified Humane® claim, even though the process was difficult and costly. I wanted to know why they made that decision and if they thought all that work and money was still worthwhile. I spent some time talking with Mary Rickert to find out.

Q. Why did you decide to get third party verification?

A. We got involved with Humane Farm Animal Care when it first started. I think it’s important - because we direct market our products - that we get a third party in to audit what we do. It gives a little more validity to what we say about our products.

Q. What’s the audit process? Is it difficult?

A. When they come out to audit, they look at everything – adequate feed, access to clean water, body condition score, shade - it’s a very thorough audit. They look at how we haul the cattle – because we’re a closed herd, we have to haul cattle in our own truck and trailer. We’re spread out here – over 5 counties - so I spend about 3 days with them. I take them to every location; our pastures, feed yards, everywhere we have animals so it takes time. We slaughter every Tuesday morning and they watch that, too. HFAC certification is a high hurdle to pass, they have very strict standards.

This last year, they came up later in the year so it didn’t take that much time. From our headquarters here in northeast California near Redding to the farthest winter range in the south is about 250 miles.

Q. Do your customers understand the third party audit?

A. I would say that it’s becoming more and more important, especially to the educated consumer. Some people don’t care where their food comes from and I respect that, it’s not a priority for them but there are many more than there were 10 years ago. They care about where their food is coming from and who’s producing it.

The majority of phone calls we get are about how we treat our animals. We’ve had a couple of ‘foodie’ books that have written about us and they go through and describe what we do.

Q. What guides your attitude about the animals in your care?

A. I grew up around livestock and shows dairy animals. It’s important to me that their lives are the best possible, that they have the best lives they can. It’s important to me personally.

We have a Temple Grandin quote that hangs over our knock box:

“I believe that the pace where an animal dies is a scared one, the ritual should be something very simple such as a moment of silence – no words just one pure moment of silence. I can picture it perfectly.”

We honor their lives and the contributions they’re making to our lives. We need to acknowledge and respect those contributions.

We know how much Temple has done to change the industry attitude and it makes for a healthier animal, a better piece of meat, so everybody wins.

Q. Where do you sell products?

A. We have stores in Klamath Falls and Mt Shasta and one in Redding. We sell direct from the ranch. There’s a Sacramento food co-op, too. And there’s a company called Prather Ranch Meat Company. They first sold only our products but it’s separate from the ranch. A majority of our meat is sold in the San Francisco bay area.

Q. Tell me about the size of your operation and the makeup of the herd.

A. We slaughtered 1170 head last year, averaging about 1240 pounds live weight each. Carcass weight maybe averaged a little over 700 pounds so that’s 819,000 pounds of meat. We’re a small operation. We sell most of it boneless so we’re talking about a little over half a million pounds of edible meat. Some of the bones go to a place in Florida where they’re used for surgical devices. That’s the other thing about these animals - they also are used to improve the life of humans all over the world.

We have a closed herd of Angus, Herefords, black baldies and red Angus, probably 40-50% Angus.

Q. The business seems like a closed loop operations, too. You own your own slaughter house?

A. Yes, the ranch owns the slaughter house, built right here on the ranch. We wanted a clean, sanitary facility. It’s 5,000 square feet and it’s a USDA federally inspected plant. We sever the head with one dedicated knife so there’s no chance of spreading any spinal or brain tissue. We dry age the beef for 2-3 weeks.

Q. And it’s an open house business?

A. We have visitors and tours regularly. We believe in total transparency. We have no problems with cameras. We handle our animals as best we can with professionalism and respect. We feel strongly that if we can’t let our customers see what we’re doing then we shouldn’t be doing it.

www.cattlenetwork.com

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Prather Ranch hosted the author for her book