Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The oh-so-brief history of cattle ranching in San Diego County

Overall, the people I've spoken to over the last couple weeks have been very helpful in my quest. A good example of this is Randy, the manager of Bisher Meats in Poway. Bisher Meats has a good reputation here in San Diego, and they are able to order any kind of meat in whatever cut you may wish (crocodile, anyone?). Unfortunately, they don't carry anything organic or local. Like most suppliers here in San Diego, their beef comes from the Midwest. On hearing my predicament, Randy had a couple of ideas, the most memorable of which was his suggestion to call Sergio at Live Rabbit Source who raises “very clean” rabbits for research purposes. Hmm. Rescuing a rabbit from certain torture at the hands of scientists may qualify as an honorable act (even if I am going eat him myself), but turns out I’d have to do the butchering on my own. Uh, no. He also had some other suggestions for local meats, organic produce, and even dairies. I learned from Randy that there are no packing plants in San Diego, although when he started in the business years ago there were several. Just about everyone ships up to L.A. at this point (City of Industry and City of Commerce) where the beef heads off to other places around the country.

(Photo courtesy of the San Diego Historical Society Photograph Collection)

The conversation had intrigued me, so I did a little poking about in my San Diego history shelves (forgive me, but I am a historian by training and occupation and I'm afraid its unavoidable). I learned that San Diego once had a thriving cattle industry beginning with the arrival of the Spaniards and their missions in the late eighteenth century. The missions in San Diego stocked thousands of cattle to meet their needs. For the interested layperson, all one had to do to gain a land grant in San Diego was to be a Mexican citizen, submit a map of the boundaries, and promise to occupy the land, build a house on it, and stock some cattle. The land was free. The first rancho was granted to a Captain Ruiz in 1823, and by the mid-nineteenth century, almost all the land in San Diego County had been carved into ranchos. During the Gold Rush of 1849-50, the demand for beef from all those red-blooded gold miners led to a boom in cattle production throughout California. Everything changed with the passage of the No-Fence Law of 1872, however. Instead of farmers having to fence their fields to keep the cattle out (as they had been required to do since 1850), ranchers had to fence their stock to keep them in. Within five years of the law's passage, most of the arable lands in San Diego County had been transitioned to grain. Cattle raising managed to hold on in some of the inland valleys, but for many ranchers, the No-Fence Law led to their demise by limiting the areas cattle could roam and costing them an exorbitant amount in fencing material. We still have cattle ranches in San Diego County, but they're a far cry from the key players in the San Diego economy that they once were.

See, told you it would be brief.


Anonymous said...

Melanie, this is fantastic. Interesting, informative. This should be a column in the SD Tribune or Reader.

jules (camp-mate)

Melanie said...

Thank you, Jules! I love to get feedback (especially when it's positive =)).

Diane said...

I loved the history lesson, including the photo. Isn't it great when you can weave your varied interests together so seamlessly?

josie said...

hey melsie, love the site just discovered it now! great to see your passion for food and history combined!