As a relatively new vendor at the Santa Monica, Calif., farmers market, Rancho San Julian would be a perfect brand to promote the firm’s marketing message: Locally grown beef from grassfed cattle raised without hormones or antibiotics.

But the company and its brand is more than some focus group-tested nameplate. Rancho San Julian is considered to be the oldest continuously operated family farm in California, according to a profile piece appearing last week in the Los Angeles Times.

The ranch, which is described as “nestled in the heart of Santa Barbara County,” dates to 1816, when José de la Guerra began raising meat for the Spanish presidio at Santa Barbara. In 1837, the governor of Alta California granted him title to the ranch, which has remained in the family for the next nine generations.

What isn’t mentioned in the story—other than the fact that de la Guerra’s ownership of Rancho San Julian was part of a privatization program that handed over the lands once managed by Spanish missions—is that 1816 happens to be smack in the middle of the lengthy, bitter and generally neglected War of Mexican Independence, which resulted in 1821 in California becoming a territory of the new country of Mexico.

As Americans, we sometimes forget the history of the Golden State.

The LA Times article describes the ranch as “extending over 13,000 acres of grasslands and oak forest, roamed by cougars, bears and hawks and home to 500 Angus cows and their calves. A majestic oasis of old California, the ranch has retained its natural beauty and the functionality of its historic buildings, while enhancing its vital agricultural operations.”

As I suggested, if you hired an ad agency, they’d be hard-pressed to invent a more effective backstory for the upscale clientele who shop for boutique beef at the Santa Barbara farmer’s market. (And if you’re not onboard with the “upscale” label for that locality, check the real estate ads for Santa Barbara, where you’ll find such bargains as a 2-bedroom, 3-bath townhouse for only $995,000. Sorry—no open house, price non-negotiable).

There’s not a whole lot of description of Rancho San Julian’s beef in the story (other than a throwaway reference to the animals being fed barley, not corn), which focuses much more on the family owners. Jim Poett, one of 15 owners of the property, manages the ranch, and his daughter, Elizabeth, lives on site in “a 19th-century adobe with two-foot-thick walls and museum-like rooms with antique furniture and ancestral portraits.”

Life should be so tough.

An alternative model

What is interesting, however, is the reporter’s recognition of the real limitations expanding the market for boutique beef. It isn’t lack of demand, nor the product’s premium price point—ground beef at $7 a pound, flank steak at $14 a pound and filet mignon at $25 a pound. It’s the bottleneck at processing.

“Until recently, relatively little red meat was sold at California farmers markets, partly because there were few local, USDA-inspected slaughterhouses, which disappeared in recent decades as the meat and retail industries consolidated,” the article stated.

True enough, as far as it goes, although food-safety, HACCP and other workplace regulations played a huge role in forcing small-plant owners to wither, sell out or get out of the business.

To help make local meat production viable again, the story noted that the Central Coast Agriculture Cooperative, a public-private partnership of 18 California ranchers that’s funded by USDA’s Rural Development program and supported by the local farm bureau and other state development agencies, operates a mobile harvest unit. The unit is used to slaughter Rancho San Julian’s cattle, while the carcasses are transported to a butcher shop in Paso Robles, about a 100 miles north of Santa Barbara, for fabrication and packaging.

Obviously, the model isn’t viable everywhere in the country, based on geography and economics. But the concept of a mobile unit, a local butcher and both online and farmer’s market sales channels would be well-suited to certain areas that have proximity to both rangeland or pasture and an urban marketplace.

No one’s suggesting that boutique beef could remotely replace the volume, availability or certainly the affordability of conventional beef. But how else do small-scale ranchers, butchers or purveyors stay in business, if not by selling a premium-priced specialty product?

More to the point, if USDA funded the creation of dozens of agricultural co-ops similar to the Central Coast Agriculture Cooperative the economic benefits—for small business, as well as rural development—would be substantial. Given the funding the department earmarks for subsidizing commodity production, a hundred million or so made available for establishing local co-ops would seem to be a sound investment.

Maybe not as lucrative as a Rancho San Julian’s original Spanish land grant, but one that ought to be a higher priority for our nation’s Agriculture Department.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.