BEAUMONT, Texas -- Across the pastures of James Gentz Jr.’s family ranch north of Winnie, longhorn cattle lie around, chew their cud and fatten up.
Looking over the field, Gentz, 56, admired the breed he has raised for 30 years, known for their diverse colors, wide-set horns and hardiness in tough Texas summers.
"People like to see animals lying in grass, grazing and being happy up to the day they are processed," said Gentz, a tall, typically quiet Texas rancher.
For five years, Gentz has bypassed the traditional commercial route his peers take—selling cattle to a feedlot to be prepared for large slaughterhouses and sale at the grocery store.
His cattle are processed a few at a time at small slaughterhouses 80 or 120 miles away and directly sold to the consumer.
Gentz’s customers are the local food advocates who don’t mind paying a premium price for locally raised, grass-fed and hormone-free beef.
Since the Gentz Cattle Company Ranch first tried direct sales to customers in 2005, the local food movement has grown and farmer’s markets have popped up again in almost every southeast Texas county.
Each head of cattle butchered and sold online or at a farmer’s market can bring two to three times the amount Gentz made selling them for shows or roping practice.
"I’m not getting filthy rich off this, but I’m doing all right," said Gentz, who also raises cattle for roping and farms rice.
The local food, direct-to-consumers movement has steadily grown in the last decade, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Direct sales of meats, fruits and vegetables to local consumers have more than doubled, rising from $551 million in 1997 to $1.2 billion in 2007, the last year an agricultural census was taken.
Along with sales, the number of small farms has almost doubled from 2,756 in 1998 to 5,274 a decade later.
"Paying attention to your local farmer is helping them with their enterprise and their livelihood," said Becki Stedman, who helped form the Beaumont Farmer’s Market this year.
"As you get to know where your food is coming from, you develop a relationship with these people and you learn about their way of life. It’s more enjoyable."
Consumers differ in their reasons for shopping locally.
Some say they look for fresher vegetables and meats than they find in a chain store. Others want vegetables untouched by pesticides and meat raised without aid of hormones.
"It’s nice because it’s fresh," Shelly Trahan, a 32-year-old mother of two in Brookeland, said of locally raised products. "It’s not frozen and shipped to the store. It’s nice and it lasts longer."
The Beaumont Farmers Market has been a boon to Gentz.
Selling from his booth every Saturday morning, he can barely keep steaks and ground beef in stock. Even cuts that didn’t sell before—livers and oxtail—are popular.
"Once you taste it, you never go back," Stedman said of Gentz’s product. "He’s very conscientious about how he raises it and where he processes it."
For that conscientious work, consumers must be willing to pay a premium. His lean ground beef is $5 a pound on the Gentz Cattle Company Ranch website.
The state average for lean ground beef is $2.89 a pound, according to the Texas Farm Bureau’s Grocery Price Watch.
His costs come from greater overhead.
Gentz must drive his cattle a few at a time to Santa Fe, south of Houston, or to Bellville, 60 miles west of Houston.
Because of a higher cost for locally raised products, the small, local farm represents only a small portion of U.S. agriculture—0.8 percent.
The small farm is not expected to edge out commercial operations that stock supermarkets anytime soon, said Bryan Black, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Agriculture.
"We need choices," he said. "These complement each other."
Gentz is pleased with his success at the Beaumont Farmers Market.
Having grown up in a family that slaughtered its own meat straight from the pasture, he is not surprised by the renewed popularity of local foods.
Walking out of his pasture, he looked back and said, "I was raised up on this, the grass-fed beef."