Archive for the ‘DINERO’ Category

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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