Interview by Noah Graff
Today’s Machining World Archive September 2008 Volume 4 Issue 09
For the past 18 years, Jim & Mary Rickert, managers of the Prather Ranch in Northern California, have sold animal tissue from their organically raised, closed her, to biotech companies for use in medical procedures and to produce medical components such as bone screws. They also run a world renown organic beef business.
Noah Graff: What is a closed herd, and how did you get into selling animal tissue?
Mary Rickert: We’d been managing [the Prather Ranch] for a little over 10 years, but we had begun making it smaller because it just wasn’t making money. More by accident than anything else, we just hadn’t added any animals to it. In 1990, we were approached by a friend of ours, a plastic surgeon who had developed a patent using collagen from bovine hides. He was looking for a herd of cattle that was in an area somewhat isolated and pristine and not surrounded by other cattle; we met all the criteria of what he was looking for. We attributed a lot of his thought process to a gentleman by the name of Claude Miller, who realized that the Mad Cow Disease going on in the United Kingdom could very easily come over here, which it eventually did.
NG: When did you start selling the bones?
MR: Well, we also sold blood for awhile and we had another company that worked with arteries for a long time. As far as bones, it was originally for the Florida tissue bank associated with the University of Florida. We shipped them just a few bones and they stuck them in baboons and everything seemed to work really well. It’s been in the last couple years [they’ve been used with humans].
NG: What is your opinion of the conventional meat you buy at the store?
Jim Rickert: I think that it’s a mass produced, commoditized product. Something like 90 percent of the beef slaughtering in the United States is done by about three companies and there’s some Brazilians who are trying to buy all three of them. A normal commercial slaughter plant does between 1,000 to 4,000 head per day. But, I think [the U.S.] has relatively good quality. I think USDA does a pretty darn good job given how big the situation is, and we’ve done a lot of work with the breeding herds as contrasts to other parts of the world. Yet [Prather] does very low volume. We slaughter one day a week. I think our smallest slaughter was 18 beef and our biggest was 25.
NG: Define organic for me.
JR: It basically means that you don’t use synthetic animal production items and the land that the animals graze or the feed the animals receive is raised in an organic manner. That means basically [that there are] no synthetic fertilizers, no growth hormones, no antibiotics fed in the feed, no little things like feeding them cow manure and chicken manure.
NG: Does your meat taste different?
JR: Yes, we do a few other things on the meat side of it that are kind of unusual, but they’re very traditional in my family. A real important part for meat quality is handling [the animal] very gently and making sure it’s not stressed out. When animals are stressed, there are a lot of stress hormones that come out and they don’t make good meat. We also do dry aging. We hang the beef for at least two weeks in a cooler at about 36 to 38 degrees before we cut it up. What happens is about three percent of the moisture evaporates from it and it concentrates the flavor. Also the muscles start to relax and basically it becomes more tender.
NG: What are you most excited about for the future of agriculture, beef?
JR: Well, it’s interesting. In a little business like ours it’s kind of returned to what it was like in the United States let’s say about 1900. There were a lot of little slaughter plants and little localized businesses that provided products and hired local people. At least there’s a few of them now out there doing that, and I wonder if this might be the future that we don’t have the mega facilities. In these rural areas, we’ve had a hard time keeping young people in our communities They’re just dying from that standpoint. Our schools are getting smaller and smaller, and wouldn’t it be exciting if young people could come back and produce jobs in our area, and they could raise families here and we could not just have a greying community out here..