Special Interest / Apr/May 2012
Say words like “organic” and “sustainable” and “farm fresh” in the presence of Jaime Harris and you will watch his brow furrow in frustration as he launches into a long, carefully constructed argument explaining why he feels those labels are misleading. Instead, he insists on replacing those words, which he calls “marketing labels” with one word, or rather one question: “Is it authentic?” And, it’s his passion for authenticity in food, particularly beef that has been a constant throughout his life and career. “It’s simple: I want to have legitimate, authentic, traceability of a product,” says Harris who pauses between each word for dramatic emphasis.
Harris grew up on a 7,000-acre cattle ranch in Argentina, a country with a long, proud tradition of producing high-quality, grass-fed beef. And, after spending time in the United States for his early education, he returned to his native Argentina where he managed several large ranches. During that time he also became an expert at training horses. His horsemanship skills developed to the point that he became a professional polo player, a sport whose competitions led him back to the States.
Today, Harris can be found in Atascadero building what he calls his Rancher’s Alliance here on the Central Coast. His objective is to help local ranchers as well as consumers understand the benefits of raising beef in natural, authentic ways, using the same practices he has learned over his lifetime growing and processing cattle in Argentina. Harris, who often serves as a consultant to ranchers, insists that our area, the Central Coast, can be a wholly self-sufficient food economy and stresses the health and economic benefits of going in that direction. “Sure, you will probably pay more for your meat, but who cares? It’s going to be healthier, taste better, have less impact on the environment and you will be supporting a local ranching family. That’s good for all of us - the rancher, the cattle, and the consumer,” claims Harris.
Of course, if there is one thing that is bound to stir the passions of a huge swath of society, it’s a discussion of the merits of raising cattle. Arguments have been developed over generations, and are seemingly hard-wired into our DNA. Food is culture, and Harris is no more a vegetarian than he is controversy-free. Although we were unable to find anyone to speak on the record about Harris and his practices, it was made clear in our conversation with him that he has been swimming upstream against the currents of traditional corporate cattle ranching, particularly as it pertains to the current guidelines of the USDA for processing and selling beef to American consumers.
“They’re just labels to sell stuff,” Harris warns about product claims such as “grain fed” on packaging of meat for sale in grocery stores. “People don’t understand what they are buying - they would be really surprised to know the truth,” he continues on with the earnestness of a missionary. And, it’s his passion for the subject that draws you in. Or, pushes you away. It’s impossible to not feel something when talking to Harris, but it’s going to be either a drink the Kool-Aid or a run for the hills moment - there is no middle road with this Argentinian cowboy who is fond of quoting his father’s simple admonition that, “Black is black, not gray.”
For all of his bluster and claims of being a splinter in the side of Big Beef, it’s hard to argue with Harris’ experience and credentials within the industry. And, it’s harder still, particularly as a consumer, to disagree with his insistence on authenticity in our food. In this age of pink slime (highly processed chicken parts used in fast food) who doesn’t want to know what we are putting into our bodies? Especially here on the Central Coast, where farmers’ markets are celebrated and people generally place a high value on pure, natural foods. Our area would seem to be about as receptive to Harris and his preaching as anywhere. To borrow a farming term, he has found fertile ground.
But, his is a message that is hard to hear and not quickly or easily understood. It’s difficult to imagine a bumper sticker that reads: “Is your beef authentic?” And, it is difficult, frankly, to stay focused on long, nuanced conversations about omega-3 versus omega-6 fatty acids ratios in beef; or the optimal percentages of water content found in muscle tissue prior to processing; or fat content as it relates to the speed in which cattle is weaned; or the amount of waste found in traditional USDA-approved processing. It’s just not sexy stuff. And, when presented with this point-of-view, Harris claims to have saved his best argument for last. “Then, forget about all that,” he waves the comment away with his right hand, and leans in as if to share a secret and whispers, “You have to taste the difference.”