Most people who shop for organic foods are usually seeking better tasting strawberries and/or assurance that their peas and carrots haven’t been regularly doused in pesticides and herbicides before being shipped to the market.
But why should fruits and veggies get to hog all the attention? After all, only 5 percent of Americans identify themselves as vegetarians, according to a Gallup poll taken in July 2012. For the other 285 million of us, meat comprises a significant portion of our diet, if not the majority of it. So if we care about where our lettuce, tomatoes and onions come from, we should probably make the same considerations about that half-pound beef burger, which complements those vegetables oh-so well.
That’s where Petaluma’s Tara and Craig Smith come in. They’re the owners and main operators of the 300-acre Tara Firma Farms, and they’re dedicated to putting good-tasting, organically grown and well-balanced meals into our thoughts as well as our kitchens.
“Food seems to be the last thing on our mind, when actually, if you care about your health and the health of the planet, it ought to be one of the first things,” Tara says.
Unlike the majority of California’s organic farms and backyard gardens, Tara Firma Farms specializes in meat. Specifically, they raise and sell pastured beef, pork, chicken, turkey and eggs, using strictly organic techniques. One reason for this specialization, as Tara explains, is to clear up a common misconception about good eating habits. Many people don’t see the dietary value in meat and can view it as kind of a vice, rather than what it actually is: an essential piece of a healthy diet.
“A plant eater generally has several stomachs and eats practically 24 hours a day—like cows,” Tara says. “But human beings have an intestinal tread just like a carnivore. We are practically carnivores—we need just healthy greens and meat. That’s what we’re supposed to be eating. The science is so clear on that.”
Ironically, when Tara Firma Farms first started, the couple probably found themselves more at home with the business side than they did raising the animals. In fact, it was an interest in food science that took Tara and Craig away from their previous vocations—each having spent more than 15 years in the “corporate world” of the long-term care industry—and turned them into health-conscious organic farmers. Surprisingly, neither of them grew up on farms or had any farming experience prior to creating Tara Firma Farms.
“One of our kids brought home An Omnivore’s Dilemma,” Tara says, to explain where she and Craig’s desire to start the farm originated. “We read it and were fairly horrified by the food system, but didn’t think it could be as bad as the book made it sound. So we spent three months really investigating.”
They spoke to farmers and nutritionists, and even worked at a farmers’ market to get a behind-the-scenes feel of the food industry. Their findings?
“It was worse than what the book portrayed,” Tara says. “I was complaining so much about it, and finally one of the kids said, ‘Why don’t you start a farm yourself and stop complaining?’”
So they did—Tara Firma Farms officially opened in April 2009. Since then, they’ve been steadily feeding more than 600 families a month. They won a “Best of the Bay” Bohemian Award in 2011. More than that, they’ve found the work incredibly fulfilling, though Tara concedes it’s exhausting work.
“It’s an incredible lifestyle,” she says. “I love it; I wish I would’ve started when I was young.”
From the beginning, it was important to Craig and Tara that their farm could sustain itself as a business in addition to being environmentally friendly. They’ve resisted taking farm subsidies from the federal government and have focused largely on developing community partnerships instead. For instance, they also act as middlemen for some of the area’s other small-scale businesses, selling organically-grown fruits and vegetables at the Tara Firma Farmhouse from local growers and boutiques that might not otherwise be able to get the business.
So they’re kind of like a supermarket as well as a farm, but that doesn’t mean their prices are cheap. Because organic farming is labor-intensive, it tends to be more expensive than your average supermarket food. Tara Firma farm’s most pricey meat, for instance, is a tenderloin steak that costs $33 per pound, though they also have steaks and roasts for less than half that. Yet, Tara says, buying healthier food like theirs is worth it in the long run. “You buy more food when you’re buying food with less nutrients in it; you have to eat more,” she says.
When they’re not farming or operating the business, Tara and Craig hold monthly workshops at the farm about various social and environmental issues. For instance, they’ve discussed health statistics in Africa, animal tracking, and even had two workshops where they taught groups of 20-30 people how to slaughter, cut, process, cook and eventually eat a pig. “We’ll do that once this year for a cow and several times for chickens,” Tara says. “I used to have no idea how to do that stuff.”
They also hold regular barn dances, as well as the occasional concert, and they give farm tours several times a day on Saturdays and Sundays, in part to teach folks organic growing techniques. Almost 10,000 people have been given tours since the farm started, Tara said.
“I think people will find a little more reference for their food once they understand this animal had a really good life,” Tara says. “It lived in a pasture, it’s happy, and now it will provide us with food. It’s a big life cycle that we don’t get taught in school from a more connected standpoint. We’re part of that cycle.”
The Tara Firma Farmhouse is located at 3796 I Street, in Petaluma. They’re open daily from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. and their prices and other information can be found on their website tarafirmfarms.com. They also accept volunteer work for those who favor a more hands-on approach, and they’re making plans to formulate a residential work program in the near future.
Nate Gartrell grew up in Benicia, studied journalism in college, and has written for a handful of media outlets since age 15. He aspires to visit all 30 Major League Baseball stadiums and to hit the trifecta at the horse track.