Nine Questions with Darrel Sweet, Founder of California Rangeland Trust

From foodtank.com, by Jacob Siegler
Nine Questions with Darrel Sweet, Founder of California Rangeland Trust

Food Tank, in partnership with the Sacramento Convention & Visitors Bureau, Farm-to-Fork Program, and University of California, Davis, is excited to announce the 1st annual Farm Tank Conference at the Hyatt Regency Sacramento on September 22–23, 2016. This two-day event will feature more than 35 different speakers from the food and agriculture field. Researchers, farmers, chefs, policymakers, government officials, and students will come together for interactive panels.

The event will feature interactive panels moderated by top food journalists, networking, and delicious food, followed by a day of hands-on activities and opportunities for attendees.

Food Tank recently had the opportunity to speak with Darrel Sweet, Founder of The California Rangeland Trust, who will be speaking at the summit.

Food Tank (FT): What inspired you to get involved in food and agriculture? 

Darrel Sweet (DS): I’m the 5th generation on our ranch, and from the time I was a little kid, that was my inspiration. I grew up in it, I was very involved in raising cattle and managing livestock, and I enjoy it. I wish everyone had the opportunity to visit a cattle operation, because that’s how they can understand how their food is raised and see where my inspiration comes from. 

FT: What do you see as the biggest opportunity to fix the food system?

DS: This assumes we have a broken food system, and I don’t buy that. We supply food in a way that’s safe, economical and affordable to the majority of the population and I think that is a good thing, but there is always room for improvement. I get up every day and take care of my cattle – I feed them, water them, and make sure they have veterinary care. Most people couldn’t come take care of my cows like I do, and most people don’t understand what I do. I think that’s the opportunity – understanding improvements that have been made, why things are done a certain way, and how much care goes into raising these animals.

 FT: What innovations in agriculture and the food system are you most excited about? 

DS: Farmers and ranchers are constantly innovating – always looking for ways to improve how we raise food. Specific to the beef community, we’re producing more beef today with fewer cattle than we did 40 years ago. We use less land and resources to produce more of a better product through improvements in genetics, animal health and safety. We’ve also made a lot of improvements in animal welfare and treatment. Those are all important strides in the production of beef and ones that I’m most excited about.

 FT: Can you share a story about a food hero that inspired you? 

DS: I’ve had a lot of teachers and people that I’ve learned from over the years, no one famous, so it’s hard to choose one person. But Dr. Gary Smith is an emeritus professor in meat science, and he’s helped the industry improve meat safety and meat quality. He’s also able to work with other producers to create movement and change. In essence, because if you treat your animals poorly and keep them in poor conditions, you won’t be in this industry very long. We do not tolerate that. 

FT: What drives you every day to fight for the bettering of our food system?

DS: The idea that there’s always room for improvement. We are constantly trying to improve what we do here and that’s my inspiration every day. 

 FT: What’s the biggest problem within the food system our parents and grandparents didn't have to deal with? 

DS: One of the biggest problems today that my parents and grandparents didn’t have to deal with is that we are now on a worldwide communication system where markets are tied to international circumstances. What happens in other countries, affects us here. Exports are a huge factor in this industry and this food system, and the information about where our food comes from is told in a different way by every producer. Everything is connected online and is being told from different perspectives, and it affects more than just us – it’s international. 

 FT: What’s the first, most pressing issue you’d like to see solved within the food system? 

DS: Food waste is a huge issue. A third of what is grown is wasted and that’s a pressing issue that everyone can be a part of and take action. The good news is beef is one of the least-wasted commodities we produce, at around 20 percent, but there is still room for improvement. Cutting that waste in half would improve our sustainability 10 percent.

FT: What is one small change every person can make in their daily lives to make a big difference? 

DS: Consumers are a huge part of the food waste story, and it’s something we can all make an effort in our daily lives to waste less. We have in mind a picture of ‘perfect food’ or ‘pretty food’ and it doesn’t matter what it looks like, we can eat ‘ugly’ produce because it all tastes the same. 

FT: What’s one issue within the food system you’d like to see completely solved for the next generation? 

DS: An issue in the food system today is that consumers don’t understand how their food is produced, and more importantly why it’s produced or grown the way it is. I didn’t wake up one day and decide to raise cattle, I do this because I love this lifestyle and there is science to back up the ways that I raise my animals. Cattle producers, use millions of acres of grasslands that would otherwise not produce food for human consumption. The cattle feeding industry also feeds a lot of products to cattle that would otherwise be a waste product that would end up in a landfill. Distillers grains, from ethanol plants, can be eaten and broken down by cattle, almost exclusively. The same goes for almond hulls, we would be burning or trying to dispose of tons and tons of almond hulls unless we feed them to cattle. There are many other examples in other regions of the country of feedstuffs leftover from plants grown for human consumption that would go to waste if it was not fed to cattle. I would like for the next generation to not only understand how their food is raised, but also why it’s done that way.