Hydesville-based Eel River Organic Beef recently expanded its contract with multinational supermarket chain Whole Foods in a deal that will bring the company’s grass-fed beef products to stores in Northern California, Oregon and Washington.
The homegrown company’s steaks, ground beef and other products have been available for more than a decade at Whole Foods stores in Southern California, Las Vegas, Arizona and Hawaii, though owner and founder Clint Victorine says this latest expansion is a big deal.
“It nearly doubled our business,” he told the Outpost in a phone interview from Maui, where he’d gone for his annual check-in with the Whole Foods store in Kahului.
Now one of the largest producers of grass-fed beef in the country, the company has come a long way from Victorine’s humble beginnings as a high school kid, active in Future Farmers of America and 4-H, showing livestock at local fairs — “just like that fair going on right now,” he said in reference to this week’s event at Redwood Acres.
Victorine’s dad spent three decades working for the Pacific Lumber Company, and Victorine recalls growing up in Scotia “when it was still a lumber town.” Through FFA, where in 1996 he launched his career with a single commercial cow-calf, Victorine slowly expanded his operation, buying cattle, raising and selling them and eventually leasing land so he could buy and sell more.
“Fifteen years ago I was in the right place at the right time,” he said. With growing consumer awareness about the environmental and animal welfare impacts of industrial feedlot operations, demand for organic, grass-fed beef took off. In 1998 there were only around 100 producers of grass-fed beef in the United States; by 2016 that number had grown to about 3,900. Victorine started selling his products through independent grocery stores, then signed a deal with Whole Foods in 2011, well before the company was purchased by Amazon.
His company’s cattle are 100 percent grass-fed and grass-finished, meaning they don’t get shipped to feedlots to be confined and fattened on grain diets before slaughter. And while many are born and raised here in Humboldt County, Eel River now contracts with around 30 independent cattle producers who meet the company’s criteria. Most are in Northern California, Victorine said, though there are also operations in the Klamath Falls area of southern Oregon, near Reno and a few in Southern California.
As the name implies, the company is certified organic, meaning its products are non-GMO and raised without any antibiotics, growth hormones, feed additives or animal byproducts. Victorine said the company is now in the process of getting certified as regenerative agriculture through the American Grassfed Association, with Foggy Bottoms Boys co-founder Thomas Stratton managing the process.
Meat production has been identified as a major contributor to climate change, with beef an especially egregious source of greenhouse gas emissions. But regenerative agriculture can lessen the industry’s environmental impacts by requiring wildlife barriers and pasture rotations, which increase carbon sequestration in soil and plants.
Eel River also employs a “whole animal utilization program,” selling everything from steaks and grind to boxed primal cuts, bone broth, sausages, chorizo and other products in an effort to leave nothing to waste. Victorine said his company is also the largest provider of hides to Timberland, the boot, shoe and clothing company.
“If you buy regenerative leather boots or wallets [from Timberland], there’s a good chance they got the hide from us, and a good chance the animal came from Humboldt County,” he said.
The company has more products in the works, including a line of sausages using Rumiano Cheese and Eel River Brewing Co.’s California Blonde Ale, Victorine said.
Of course, the nearest Whole Foods store for Humboldt residents is probably the one in Santa Rosa, but Eel River Organic’s products can also be found at both Eureka Natural Foods locations as well as the North Coast Co-op and Murphy’s markets, and Victorine’s other label, Pacific Pastures, is even more widely available.