By Kate Daly | Special to the Almanac
Where's the beef? For one company owned by a Woodside couple the answer is in a word: local.
Pomponio Ranch cattle is pasture-raised on 2,800 acres of coastal hills in San Gregorio. The meat is served in a handful of restaurants on the Peninsula and is sold at farmers' markets and Roberts Market in Woodside.
Located about five miles inland, Pomponio Ranch has been used as a cattle ranch off and on since the late 1880s. When Intuit co-founder Scott Cook and his wife Signe Ostby bought the property in 2011 from Ann Bowers, the widow of Silicon Valley legend Bob Noyce, the land came with a Peninsula Open Space Trust conservation easement.
Mr. Cook and Ms. Ostby have since acquired the neighboring Cypress Ranch. They also share fences with a recently acquired POST property, Memorial County Park, and TomKat Ranch. The latter is owned by retired hedge fund businessman Tom Steyer and Kat Taylor, and raises grass-fed cattle sold under the label LeftCoast Grassfed. Another competitor, Markegard Family Grass-fed, raises cattle in various locations nearby.
Ms. Ostby says when they first took over the ranch there was a "rent-a-cow" herd of about 150, and the land was overgrazed. Now that they own twice that number of cattle, and feel the land is "in better shape," she believes they could support an even larger herd, in addition to the Heritage pigs, Belgian Warmblood and quarter horses, sheep, and alpacas that also live on the ranch.
What has changed? "We practice holistic grazing," Ms. Ostby says, crediting South African Allan Savory with popularizing what he observed works in the wild.
At Pomponio Ranch, the herd is moved on an almost daily basis so the grass is trimmed, not decimated, and therefore has a chance to regrow.
She says one employee spends half a day setting up a week's worth of grazing. Using permanent fences, stakes and solar-powered electric fencing, he maps out a grid of contiguous 17-acre plots.
After a day of grazing, the cows simply amble into the next section when he takes a portion of the fence down to show them the exit/entrance. In 24 hours or so they will trample the land enough to churn their manure into the soil, naturally fertilizing and breaking the ground up, trapping moisture in place.
With a six- to nine-month break between grazings, each section usually grows back a fresh cover of native grasses.
An additional part of managing the land is seeding pastures with oats, orchard grass, timothy grass and barley, and later baling it as hay.
Stream runoff from the Pomponio Creek headlands feeds into the ranch's reservoir. With an additional gravity-fed pump system used to fill water tanks, and about 25 natural springs on the property, the cattle always have a water source.
Ms. Ostby says the drought caused some cattle ranchers to sell off their herds, so Pomponio Ranch was able to "build (its) herd from top-quality bloodlines" of Angus, Angus cross, and Akaushi, a Japanese breed known for tasty meat marbled with fat.
"I just love how glossy their coats look, and they're well-rounded," she says, pointing to the cows lazily grazing in a temporarily fenced green pasture.
"Compared to feedlots, it's not very stressful," she says, (although) "this year we have lost seven calves to mountain lions."
Pomponio Ranch breeds for calves to be born in the spring and fall. Some are kept to replenish the herd. The others are headed to the meat market and toward the end are "finished off" in a separate pasture where they are fed a combination of oats grown from seed on the ranch and "spent grain" from Freewheel Brewing Company in Redwood City.
The brewer describes it as the byproduct after the barley malt is mashed husks, protein and a small amount of sugar and or rolled or malted wheat, depending on the beer being made. The barley malt primarily comes from England.
All the animals on the ranch also eat barley fodder, which is made on the premises in a temperature-controlled container, outfitted with lights, that turns trays of watered barley seeds into sheets of nutritional sprouts in six days.
One reason Ms. Ostby likes the process is that it uses much less water than growing grain feed the conventional way.
The animals are treated with antibiotics only when they are sick, and are never given growth hormones, she says.
"Fattening up, it can take a long time; that's what makes high-end beef so expensive," Ms. Ostby says. "We're not trying to get to market fastest."
Their cattle can take 24 to 36 months to be ready for the market; they are then taken to Marin Sun Farms in Petaluma, the last major slaughterhouse in the Bay Area.
The old abattoir at the ranch is used only during deer hunting season, she adds.
Pomponio Ranch tri-tip and flank steak are now available at Roberts Market for $19.98 per pound and $18.98 per pound, respectively. Meat manager Walt Seehorn says with most beef coming from the Midwest, these are the only local meats he's carrying, and he likes the idea of "smaller production, with more attention to details."
For several years Viognier, the restaurant at Draeger's in San Mateo, has featured Pomponio Ranch meat on its menu. Executive chef Chris Aquino says he has built up such a close relationship with the ranch that he can suggest they feed the animals differently to help tweak the flavor or consistency of the meat. The carpaccio on his menu is fresh from the butcher, but other cuts he prefers to serve after a period of dry aging.
As for Pomponio Ranch pigs, he's such a fan he uses the "whole pig, nose to tail" for everything from pork chops to pate.
Consumers can go to Pomponioranchmeat.com to buy boxes of meat and arrange for a delivery to a dropoff location in Belmont. The ranch is working on adding a dropoff in Half Moon Bay.
Distribution may be small, but Ms. Ostby says they are now out of "investment mode" and she's optimistic that the business will break even this year.