In Part 2 of our Summer 2015 roadtrip (See Part 1), we checkout some Red Wattle Hogs and more Wagyu cattle during our roadtrip vacation to Crater Lake / Lava Beds / Oregon / Fort Bragg. Here’s the story. . .
Road trip to see Red Wattle hogs at White Oak Ranch, Oregon
By Donna Fong
Ironically, my supervisor at work is a vegetarian. The sight of meat grosses her out. As fate would have it, she’s married to a devoted meat eater. So I often transfer leftover competition meats to her wife, trying hard to not gross out my boss in the process. In that transfer, I once received in return some butt bacon from Holbrook Farms in Holbrook, CA.
The shape of the bacon looked a little different from what I get in the grocery store. Still, I fried some up and put it into a sourdough BLT with the freshest organic ingredients I could find. When it comes to feeding my family, I like to start with the healthiest food. Both my daughter and I swear, this was by far, the best BLT we have ever eaten. Healthy or not, it was hard for us stop making more and more BLT sandwiches for ourselves. So the search began for the owner of Holbrook Farms.
Our trip to Ashland would bring us very close to Holbrook so I contacted the owner, Bill Eddy. Turns out, he sells butt bacon on Wednesdays at the Heart of the City Farmers Market in San Francisco. I tried but just couldn’t make it to the city on a weekday. A visit to the farm seemed like the next best thing. Our paths never crossed during our trip because of scheduling but Bill introduced me to his friend, Devon Benbrook, who also owns a local ranch. What I found out during our visit with her is that she is much more than just a rancher.
Devon sent us her address in Eagle Point, Oregon. She asked us to call her when we were close because people always get lost. She was right. We got lost. The address looked pretty clear, but the problem was her ranch was too big. She said first barn on the right but as I found out later, there was no way I was going to actually see a barn on the right. My city eyeballs aren’t accustomed to looking that far down the path for a barn. I live on a quarter acre plot. This means that I try to not scream too loud at the television during baseball games. You don’t want to disturb your neighbors. So the idea of living on 300 acres is unimaginable.
From her house, we see Devon waving at us from the barn, and we drive over and park next to her Prius. On the other side of the Prius is a large chicken coop. We greet each other. Devon gave us a tour of her big ranch. She points to her Arabian horses which she has been raising and breeding all of her life. As we walk down a path in search of her Wagyu cattle, she explains how a woman from Los Angeles ends up owning a 300-acre ranch in southern Oregon.
After a divorce, he ended up property in Hawaii and she ended up with the ranch in Oregon. I wasn’t sure which I would have preferred but the ranch seemed like a lot more work. It was overwhelming at first, so she worked on one section, figured it out and moved on to the next section of the ranch. Not knowing how to milk a cow, she watched a YouTube video and tried. I’m convinced if I were in her shoes, I would have done too. The first effort was less than successful. So she ended up buying milking machine and made the process much easier and more sterile. Now her dairy operations look seamless.
Intelligence has its benefits. Even if you don’t know how to do something new, you rely on your brains to figure it out eventually. Devon isn’t afraid of very much. She bought some Red Wattle pigs from Bill Eddy of Holbrook Farms and got to thinking. What did she want to eat? She wanted to eat Prosciutto Di Parma. This is a prosciutto from the area of Emilia-Romana defined by European law as the region of Parma. Prosciutto Di Parma is regarded as perhaps the only true prosciutto. It also happens to be the same area where parmesan cheese is made. Pigs from that area are fed a diet of corn, barley and the whey left over from Parmesan production. What does Devon do? She sources cheese whey to feed her pigs.
Before we approached the pigs, I could smell sour milk in the air. I looked down, sure enough; there was a single ditch running along the length of the pig pen filled with fresh whey. Devon had arranged with a creamery to have whey delivered regularly to her ranch as pig feed. I had to admit that I admire Devon’s chutzpah. I’m not sure if I know of another rancher doing this, but now I wanted to try Devon’s pork products.
We walk around the dozen or so pigs that she has. There are a few types of breeds and some are Red Wattle, some are Red Wattle Berkshire cross. However, the Red Wattles are easiest to notice, with characteristic tassels (or wattles) hanging from each side of their necks. Their red coats were coarse and you could only pet them in one direction. I watched Devon as we entered the pen and tried to feel at ease with animals that could squash me. The pigs were gentle and lovable. She had names for the ones that were family. The rest would become prosciutto, I guessed.
On our walk across the field, I notice her cows have horns, I asked if it weren’t a little dangerous to keep them horned but she assured me that her cattle haven’t presented any problems. The question about the horns reminds her of a funny story about how she once owned miniature horned cattle. So she tells me that back then, she could afford to have a staff tend her herd. The miniature cows were feisty and tenacious. She laughs about it now, how silly it was to own small mean cows with horns. But since she didn’t have to take care of them, she didn’t know.
Devon purchased a Wagyu bull a few years ago and now she has a small herd of Wagyu, Red Devon, Wagyu Red Devon cattle. As we continue walking, the herd moves to another area of the ranch. The heat of the day and the expanse of the land, turn us around and we head back to the barn. There, we admire the beauty and size of her pigs and rest a bit in the shade.
She runs the whole farm, along with the help from her 76-year-old father. Dad keeps the pumps running and fences fixed while Devon focuses on the animal husbandry work. Towards the end of her mother’s life, Devon realized that commercial meat didn’t agree with her mother’s health. That changed the way she thought about food. Now, Benbrook approaches ranching with the goal of producing healthy food for consumers. Her proximity to a farm that produces products for Amy’s Kitchen, which uses organic, non-GMO products, means that any rejected products (e.g., a huge bag of corn meal with a small nick), can end up in Devon’s animal feed. She’s trying to enter the high-end market present in California with her philosophy.
Locally, she sells eggs, pork and milk to her neighbors. She’s got a refrigerator full of milk from her grass-fed cows. A thick glass jar holds the grassy colored milk topped with cream inside. Devon explains how she has to test the milk for any impurities before selling the product.
She also has them typed for the presence of a milk protein called casein. Apparently, most cows in Europe, US, Australia and New Zealand produce A1 beta-casein milk while Asian and African cows mostly produce A2 beta-casein milk. 70% of Guernsey cows produce A2 milk. Why does this matter? Some will argue that if you are lactose intolerant, the culprit might be the proteins in the milk, rather than the sugar. She says she has difficulty drinking milk too but the A2 milk isn’t a problem.
Devon hands us a gallon of milk to take home as a tasty souvenir. We linger a bit longer and joke about the coyotes that come around her ranch. The coyotes prey on her chickens and her goats, when she had them. I learned that llamas are good at protecting goats from coyotes. The guys that hunt for the coyotes haven’t had any luck on her property. She swears the coyotes come straight back as soon as the hunters leave. With 300 acres, I’d be inclined to discourage the coyotes myself. We nodded our heads together.
She explained to us her plans for the future. She knocked down a barn used for housing cows to make room for a vegetable garden since there was already irrigation. On the end closest to the road, she would construct a BBQ pit and host weddings, education field trips for children and parties. Whenever she was ready, we said that we would be happy to help with the barbecuing plans.
I admire Devon’s vision and drive. Along with her Dad, Devon is able to run a 300-acre ranch. Devon is doing things her way and, in the process, redefining the regions sensibilities about food production. She’s pushing the envelope on what are healthy food, healthy animals and healthy ranches. And I can really appreciate that. Back in the hotel, I enjoy a full glass of sweet and earthy grass-fed milk. It is the best glass of milk I have ever drunk.