Archive for September, 2009

Rain, finally.

From Texas AgriLife News:

COLLEGE STATION – Much of Texas received substantial rains in the past weeks, but nowhere was it more needed than in southwest Texas, said Dr. Jose Peña, Texas AgriLife Extension Service economist based at Uvalde.
“The average was about 5 inches, but there was 10 or even 12 inches in some places,” Peña said. “An excellent rain after many months of severely dry conditions.”

Though the rain came hard and fast over the first two days, which resulted in more runoff than would have been optimal, the rain improved conditions across the board. One of the biggest benefits was to rangeland and pasture grasses, which were in danger of being lost after one of the hottest, driest summers in history, Peña said.

“We might be able to save a lot of the grasses,” he said. “As the drought continues, birds eat the seeds, and the whole area degrades. By the rain coming, a lot of seeds will be able to germinate.”

The rain was also a plus for field crops, even commonly irrigated crops such as peanuts and cabbage, pickling cucumbers and green beans, he said.

“In terms of fall-planted crops, we have many winter vegetables that will be able to take advantage of the rain,” Peña said.

Though there was a lot of runoff into rivers, stock tanks, many of which were dry, were also replenished.

“Without water in the stock tanks there’s no way that livestock and wildlife can survive,” he said. “There are some wells, but we need stock tanks, and they were dry.”

Still, it would have been better if the rain had come a little slower, as much as the water was lost to crops and rangeland.

“The statistics are going to indicate we got better than we actually did in terms of rain capture,” Peña said. “We need more rain to sustain everything. We’re still at 60 percent of our long-term average. There’s just no way we can say the drought is over.”

More information on drought in Texas can be found at the Web site of the Drought Joint Information Center at http://agrilife.tamu.edu/drought/.


SOUTH: From 1 inch to 5 inches fell, with reports of 8 to 10 inches in some areas. Rangeland and pasture conditions were improving. Stock tank water levels rose; some tanks were completely filled. Livestock were in fair condition. The peanut crop continued to develop and should be harvested in one to two weeks. Sesame fields neared being harvest-ready. In the western part of the region, producers were planting cabbage and preparing fields for the planting of spinach, onions and carrots. Cotton ginning was very active. In the southern part of the region, vegetable planting was already under way. Sugarcane planting continued.


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This is a wonderful article from the archives of Gourmet (2002) about S.H.A.P.E. ranch in Carrizo Springs, TX, a bison ranch run by Hugh Fitzsimons. This snippet should pique your interest. Buy some today.

In the deferential way they’re treated, the Shape’s 600 head of buffalo seem more like guests than the principal assets of a meat business. Unless it’s harvest time, the animals are never penned up in feedlots, as they are on most ranches; instead, they’re free to roam over the whole 20 square miles, which means it can take a week to round them up. “The way I live my life and run the ranch,” says the 48-year-old owner, Hugh Fitzsimons, “I think of myself more as a hunter-gatherer than as someone in agriculture.”




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Loncito’s Lamb

Addie Broyles, a well-known Austin food blogger, wrote this piece about Loncito Cartwright and his lamb. I prefer the taste of lamb to beef, and hope more South Texan caterers/restauranteurs use it on their menu.

Loncito Cartwright knows every rut, mesquite tree and hill top lookout on his family’s sprawling ranch near Dinero, between Corpus Christi and San Antonio. Cartwright is a sixth-generation Texan too humble to say exactly how much land, but it was enough for his father and great-uncle to raise cattle and it’s more than enough land for his current project: raising grass-fed lamb, 90 percent of which he sells three hours away to eager customers and restaurants in Austin.

But lamb isn’t the same as beef, neither in the fields nor at market, Cartwright learned after buying his first sheep four years ago. A single bobcat can wipe out 25 of them in a night. Lambs are much smaller than cows, so the cost per pound is higher than beef. At the farmers’ market, the flavor, cost and variety of cuts can be off-putting to customers at first.

An important part of Easter dinners and Passover Seders, lamb is also a favorite around Christmas, but Cartwright has spent a lot of time convincing people, including his dad, that lamb isn’t just a meat reserved for special occasions.

Cartwright is one of a growing number of ranchers who raise grass-fed animals, allowing them to graze their entire lives instead of bulking them up on grain or corn in the months before slaughter. Late one afternoon last month, Cartwright drove out to a pasture to check on a few hundred sheep that were munching on emerald green alfalfa and rye in the steady coastal breeze from the Gulf of Mexico 60 miles away.

It’s a sight the 48-year-old, with his sunburned arms perched on the steering wheel of the farm truck, soaks in through his thick Buddy Holly-style Ray Ban glasses. It’s more than providing a good life for these animals; it’s about changing how we think about food. “Now, I’m not a tree-hugger; I’m an old redneck,” he says. “But a while back, my daughter said, `Daddy, if you didn’t do what you do, I might be a vegan,'” he says. “I told her, `Heck, if I didn’t do what I do, I’d probably be a vegan, too.’ ”

As Cartwright learned more about the concentrated animal feeding operations that rely on corn and grain to fatten up animals in the last months of their lives, he became consumed with making grass-fed lamb into a successful business just like his dad did with cattle.

“Red meat has been given a black eye,” he says. “It’s not the animal’s fault. They’ve been fed corn instead of what nature intended them to eat.” He wanted to create a sustainable product that used less petroleum to raise and that was better for consumers. Grass-fed red meat, for example, has the same kinds of beneficial omega fatty acids as salmon. “When they eat leaves, they are good for you. That’s science.”

Science aside, the result has to make business sense, too. “Sustainability means profitability, too,” he says. “You can’t be sustainable if you’re not profitable.”

Even though he believed the meat industry was broken, Cartwright was pretty clueless about lamb. “I didn’t know one end from the other,” he says of the early days. “I made so many errors.”

Now he has about 600 sheep on a couple hundred acres of the property. Every two weeks, Cartwright transports 60 or so animals to Fredericksburg for processing, and then heads to Austin, where he sells 90 percent of his meat. He has worked the Sunset Valley and downtown farmers’ markets nearly every weekend for the past four years, greeting customers with his strong handshake and upbeat, pie-in-the-sky attitude and selling frozen cuts of meat to home cooks, restaurants and catering companies.

But he knows he has to sell the idea of lamb as much as the chops, sirloin and ground lamb in his coolers.

“It’s a killer lean meat with a different flavor,” he says. “The problem is, a leg of lamb is a complicated cut. Nobody knows how to cook meat with a bone anymore.”

Americans eat about a pound of lamb per person a year, compared with 60 pounds of beef, according to the American Lamb Board. New Zealanders eat about 40 pounds of lamb a year per person.

He’s found a reliable customer base and a close circle of friends in the Austin food community. “I couldn’t do what I do without Austin,” he says. “Where do you have a job where people say, `I want you to be successful?’ ” he says of his home away from home.

His lamb appears on the menus of about a dozen restaurants, including at Lake Austin Spa and Resort. Chef Terry Conlan has had Loncito’s Lamb on his menu for years, from grilled skewers to lamb chops and burgers and a London broil, which Cartwright calls a softball cut because it’s so easy to cook.

Conlan says guests at the spa love both the flavor and the fact that the meat comes from a local source. “I think (grass-fed) is a really good way to go,” he says.

However, just like nearly every other small-business owner in the country, Cartwright is frightened by the economy. “People might stop experimenting with different cuts of lamb,” he says.

But as more people are moved to know where their food comes from, they are willing to spend more money on meat if they know it’s raised right, he says. “People, including chefs, are getting it.”

Cartwright cites two reasons he has a growing business: “We have good water, and I’ve got my dad. Every day, he wants me to succeed,” Cartwright says.

Lon Cartwright, 86, still is referred to as the boss, but Loncito Cartwright watches after him, the property and a few full-time workers who help with the land and animals.

Father and son are the only two residents of the large two-story house built in the 1920s that Loncito Cartwright grew up in. The home emits the feel – if not architecturally, then spiritually – of Reata, the fictional West Texas mansion in the movie “Giant,” where families lived by hard work and faith in one’s neighbors.

Loncito Cartwright’s three children, ages 11 to 17, and their mother, from whom he has been separated for eight years, live a few hours away in San Antonio.

Lon Cartwright, who was in the cattle business for nearly 70 years, will still tease his son now and then about raising lamb instead of beef, but when it comes time to pull mutton steaks off the grill at a Sunday afternoon barbecue, they both praise the tender, flavorful meat.

“Five years ago, I would have said agriculture is my passion,” Loncito Cartwright says. “Food is my passion now.”

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From UT Pan American, an informative article about how a South Texas entrepreneur built her tortilla business:

La Abuela Mexican Foods first opened its doors in 1984 as a food manufacturer of various tortillas and tortilla products whose taste, freshness, and convenience make into high sellers. Since then, the company, founded and managed by Ms. Wells, has experienced tremendous growth. Recently, La Abuela embarked on yet another growth experience: obtaining capital resources to initiate an expansion plus physical relocation.

Cristina M. Wells, President and the creator of the company, moved to the United States in 1990 from Monterrey, Mexico. Using the traditional recipes used by Mexican housewives, she began producing homemade, uncooked, flour tortillas, with no preservatives, conditioners, or extenders. This idea has blossomed into a successful small business which offers its products to thousands of customers in an area from the Rio Grande Valley to Corpus Christi.

Initially selling the tortillas to friends, she evolved her concept and tested its marketability. Her first opportunity to introduce the product to a bigger market came from HEB on N 10th in McAllen. Ms. Wells then cautiously increased production for a number of HEBs and later expanded into every main grocery franchise in South Texas, a few convenience stores, and several local restaurants. To keep up with product demand, she moved into a location with a few employees. She combined mass production and distribution techniques to create a product which has a superior taste and is unparalleled in quality.  

Recently, to ensure her company’s continued growth and expansion into new markets, Ms. Wells decided to expand the operations and relocate from its current downtown McAllen facility to Weslaco. The move gave La Abuela the space and flexibility it needs to continue to increase its year round production capability in pursuit of La Abuela’s growth goals.

In preparing for the expansion of the facility, Ms. Wells sought the assistance of various agencies, among which were the Texas Manufacturing Assistance Center, the Department of Agriculture, and the Southwest Trade Adjustment Assistance Center.


Making tortillas at La Abuela

Making tortillas at La Abuela

One particular obstacle, shared by many small and expanding businesses, was the need for capital to support the expansion. La Abuela sought capital assistance from the SBA with counseling support from the Small Business Development Center, a component of CoSERVE. The SBDC assisted Ms. Wells in completing the business plan and loan proposal to the bank and SBA.

Ms. Wells takes pride in leading an organization with a positive business forecast and a positive impact on the community. La Abuela works closely with the Department of Agriculture and is involved in the “Go Texan” program: over 80% of the La Abuela’s product comes from Texas. Ms. Wells welcomes success for La Abuela, its employees, and its vendors.

La Abuela’s greatest assets are its accumulated knowledge of production and marketing combined with its experienced workforce. The staff has grown and Ms. Wells expects the business to continue to grow, creating an overall impact on the local economy. Ms. Wells and La Abuela have garnered a wealth of information and numerous allies in their path to success. They look forward to the new challenges the expansion will bring, working in new markets and strengthening their current knowledge.

For further information on the services offered by the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) and the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), please call the SBDC at (956) 292-7535.  SBDC staff will be more than glad to answer any questions you have on starting and/or expanding a business venture.

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