Mindful Meats Farm Tour + The Queen of Beef

America's first organic, GMO-free beef producer offers chefs an inside look at its program

You’ve probably heard of GMO-free milk but GMO-free beef? The two share a very symbiotic relationship here in Northern California, where thousands of acres are home to dairy cows.

Mindful Meats is a progressive company that brings local, organic, non-GMO, pasture-raised meat to chefs. In 2013, the start-up became the first non-GMO Project Verified beef company in the United States. How did they do it? They partnered with organic dairies throughout Sonoma and Marin counties. Dairy farmers typically sell their cows once their milking life is over (around four years old, surprisingly). In the past, there wasn’t an artisanal beef company willing to purchase the animals; they’d go to more commercial processors for fast-food chains or corporate groceries. Mindful Meats has changed the marketplace in just two years.

Our Executive Chef Todd Knoll discovered Mindful Meats last summer while doing menu development research for the Jordan Estate Tour & Tasting and was excited about its philosophy. “The key was whether or not the meat could be as delicious as it was local and sustainable.”

Mindful Meats delivered. It became Chef Knoll’s source for his miso-glazed beef served on the Estate Tour & Tasting excursion for the first two seasons. “We have found that a life of good care, idyllic pastoral surroundings and organic feed yields a beef of character and flavor unmatched by the conventional lot system,” Chef Knoll says.

Mindful Meats Cofounder Claire Herminjard runs the company under the guiding principle that superior beef begins with well-cared-for animals and respect for the land. “We are providing the purest source of beef we can find,” Herminjard says. “The quality of our cows’ lives is very important to us and to our farmers.”

Todd Knoll and Claire Herminjard

This summer, Chef Knoll invited me to join him for Mindful Meats first farm tour, hosted for Bay Area customers. Held at Tresch Family Dairy west of Petaluma in Sonoma County, the event gave chefs an opportunity to learn more about non-GMO testing and the benefits of converting dairy cows to beef cattle, while exploring the ranch and enjoying a lunch showcasing local cheeses, creams, fruit, vegetables and Mindful Meats brisket.

Our hosts were Herminjard and farm owner Kathy Tresch. Herminjard isn’t your typical CEO, and definitely not the garden-variety stereotype of a farmer. She’s 31 years old with an ever-present smile and rosy cheeks—a natural beauty who seems to have found her home in T-shirts, jeans and boots on dairy farms after years in the tech industry. She makes a great “queen of beef.”

Tresch is an equally kind, naturally pretty woman in her fifties with a passion for Sonoma County farming and preserving local land for agriculture and conservation. She led guests on a driving tour of their more than 2,000-acre ranch where about 900 Holstein milking cows reside in the pastures surrounding the family home. (The Treschs’ three children have all joined the business in recent years.) They are deeply connected with their land and started with organic farming in 1995. The following year, their cows became the second certified organic herd in the California.

“We were already operating in a more organic protocol even when we were a conventional dairy,” Tresch said. “Having a gentle touch on the land and feeding our cows a natural diet was always important to us.”

According to the University of California at Davis Extension, there were more than 150 dairies in the Sonoma/Marin area prior to the 1980s, many of which were small, family farms, but today about 90 left. Why? Prices for non-organic milk are set by the California Department of Food and Agriculture, and according to Tresch, “Small dairies could barely pay the bills with the money earned from the milk.”

To help solve the economic problems family dairies were confronted with, Albert Straus, a second-generation dairy farmer, took a radical step: He converted the family farm to organic in 1994 and founded Straus Family Creamery, the first 100% certified organic creamery in the country, creating the first field-to-bottle infrastructure for organic milk. Going organic saved the remaining farms from going out of business, as organic milk commands a much higher price—and those prices are set by the creamery, not the state government. As of 2013, 71% of dairies in Marin and 63% in Sonoma are certified organic and more are making the transition.

While overlooking Tresch’s ranch from a golden hilltop, one chef on the tour asked Kathy how she felt about seeing her cows go from milk to beef cows.

“The animals are like family to us,” Tresch said, “but we can’t keep them all their entire lives. Claire looks every cow in the eye and says ‘thank you,’ and that means a lot to me.”

Mindful Meats sees its role as increasing people’s access and connection to organically, sustainably raised meat through a fair and transparent system. Their cows spend their lives grazing the grasses of Marin and Sonoma counties, about 45 minutes southwest of Jordan Winery. They live an average of five years on pastures as dairy cows, with more than 80 percent of their diet coming from pasture grass. (Approximately 20 percent of their diet is balanced throughout their lifetime with organic silage, alfalfa and grains.)

“We believe healthy soil, healthy grass, and a healthy herd lead to a healthy planet and to healthy food,” Herminjard said. “It’s been difficult for many chefs and consumers to find animals that were sustainably raised and respectably harvested. We are changing that.”

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Born and raised in rural Kansas, Lisa Mattson fell in love with wine during college in South Florida and worked for a wine magazine before moving to Northern California. Her days are spent being a writer, photographer and videographer for Jordan Winery and nights cooking Thai food or microgreen salads. When she’s not eating and sipping her way through Sonoma County, she travels the world with her husband in search of the best restaurants, snorkeling spots and tiki bars.

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