Roger Warner has pastures east of Hickman that are too small for cattle but just right for goats.
He sees potential in the small but growing U.S. market for goat meat, a favorite for many ethnic groups.
"Everyone in the world eats goats except Americans," he said. "The Greeks like them. The Africans like them."
Warner was among the livestock producers who turned out for a two-day conference this week on niche markets for meat. The event, sponsored by the University of California Cooperative Extension, took place at the Stanislaus County Agricultural Center.
The participants had several ideas on just what "niche" means:
"Basically, what we're looking into is going back in time, if you like, going back to smaller processing centers," said John Harper, a UC farm adviser in Mendocino and Lake counties.
Participants acknowledged that their products tend to cost consumers more than conventional meat -- generally 10 percent to 30 percent, according to one UC expert -- but they said many people are willing to pay extra for local, natural food.
Harper said California has a shortage of processing plants for these producers.
Cutting Edge Meat Co. opened last month southeast of Newman. Owner Sallie Calhoun, who raises grass-fed cattle in San Benito County, said the plant will process beef, lamb, goats, hogs, bison and possibly poultry for small to medium producers.
"We will treat our employees, our community, our neighbors right, and we will treat our environment right," she said.
Lou Cruz, general manager at the 23-employee plant, said it can produce meat to each supplier's specifications. The process, from slaughtering to butchering to wrapping, is under the watch of a U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector.
Warner, the goat rancher, said he plans to send some of his animals to Cutting Edge. So does Joe Morris, another grass-fed cattle rancher in San Benito.
Morris said his business has been growing 20 percent to 25 percent a year. The animals are smaller than on conventional ranches, he said, but his profit margin is larger.
"I think high-quality meat is an indication of rangeland health, and I think this is a message we have to go out and trumpet," he said.
Advocates for grass say it is cattle's natural diet. The feed is produced mainly from the energy of the sun and fertilized by the animals' manure.
Corn, on the other hand, comes largely from Midwestern farms and needs a lot of water, fossil fuels and synthetic fertilizer to produce, critics say.
Advocates of corn say it is ideal for producing beef that tastes good, and that it can be grown sustainably.
The conventional beef industry also defends antibiotics and growth hormones. They are used in judicious amounts, and studies have shown no risk to humans, according to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.
The distinctions between niche and mainstream meat are not clear-cut. Foster Farms in Livingston, for example, is a mainstream poultry company but has joined the no-hormone cause. And some niche cattle producers have no problem with using grain to supplement the grass on their ranches.
Things get fuzzy also when it comes to defining "local." Some say it means supplying people in perhaps a 100-mile radius, but some producers consider all of California to be their market.
Whatever the specifics, producers said the idea of being at least somewhat close to consumers is a healthy one.
"They want to know who us ranchers are," said Clint Victorine, an organic beef producer in Humboldt County. "They want to put a face with the meat they're eating."
Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2385.