A pioneer of grass-fed beef in Chileno Valley

Braden Cartwright
Mike Gale faces many challenges as a cattle rancher—climate change, shrinking pastures and increased competition—but after 20 years of selling grass-fed beef directly to customers, he remains committed to his cows.  
09/02/2020

Mike Gale never planned on being a rancher. From a life as a champion football player at the University of Southern California to volunteering for the Peace Corps in Venezuela and later working as a civil servant in Hawaii, he travelled a long road to his Chileno Valley ranch. Once he arrived, he was quickly humbled by the challenges of raising cattle, but you wouldn’t know it today. 

After 20 years raising grass-fed beef, Mike is a rancher to his core. He speaks expertly on animal husbandry and pasture management, and his demeanor around his cows is caring and comfortable. He’s built a successful business, and he feels good about the way he’s done it.

Behind every successful woman is a man who supports her, and Mike is that support for Sally Gale, his wife of 53 years and a dynamic force in the ranching community. Whether it’s restoring a creek, protecting migrating newts or chairing the Marin Resource Conservation District board, Sally gets things done. A retired social worker, she is passionate and outspoken, while Mike is more reserved. 

Mike and Sally pride themselves on their business model of raising their herd from birth to butcher and selling directly to consumers. Today, selling direct rather than to a feedlot is more common, but when they started two decades ago, the concept was revolutionary.

“I think we’ve done it the right way and have found recognition by the number of loyal repeat customers that are pleased with our product,” Mike said. “The learning curve was very steep. We made mistakes but learned from them… and I think we’ve earned the respect of the ranching community for what we’ve been trying to do.”

Sally inherited the 600-acre ranch from her family, the Dolcinis. The land, just south of the Marin County line, is a grassy mix of pasture, hills and woodland, with streams running throughout. When she and Mike moved to Marin in 1993, the property was unlivable. The ranch’s centerpiece, a two-story Victorian, had sat vacant for seven years and had taken a beating. The ceiling had holes, the windows were broken and graffiti covered the walls. Bees, foxes, owls and bed bugs resided among the litter inside. The outbuildings, including the barn, were in disrepair or decay.

Contractors advised the Gales, who lived in Novato at the time, to demolish the buildings and rebuild. But Sally saw the potential of the 1883 Romantic Italianate house, and she made the emotional and uneconomic decision to renovate it, a four-year undertaking. While the property had no mortgage, the cost of renovation was equivalent to several mortgages over. Sally and Mike did much of the work with friends, and they hired contractors for the bigger projects. 

Today, the Victorian stands stately and trim, with high ceilings, shining chandeliers and redwood floors. The barn is restored, and Sally has carefully landscaped the entrance to the property. She has many gardens: a rose garden, a vegetable garden, a bee and butterfly garden and flower gardens around the house. Mike has one, a flower garden modeled after the gardens of Claude Monet.

Their dogs, two springer spaniels named Pip and Pup, greet guests as they drive in, and sheep and cows roam. At one end of the property, the restored Chileno Creek provides salmon habitat; Sally won awards for the restoration, which involved planting hundreds of willow trees and native plants, where previously there were none.

It’s an idyllic life for the Gales. They’re relatively isolated but still manage to entertain plenty of guests in normal times. Business is healthy, and they both seem to be happy and know what they’re doing with life. But it wasn’t a certainty that it would end up this way, especially for Mike, whose family has no background in ranching.

Mike was born in Los Angeles in 1941. His mother worked in a dress shop, and his father was a dancing instructor on the fringes of Hollywood. As a kid living in an apartment, the playground was his escape, and in high school, he became an all-city football and baseball player, earning a scholarship to play football for the U.S.C. Trojans. 

He had a successful college football career, improving each season and seeing plenty of playing time on a talented squad. He redshirted his sophomore season and instead did the discus throw, and his junior season he even received a few inquiries from professional teams.

His final season was bittersweet, ending with a neck injury that he considers one of three pivotal moments that led him to the ranch life. It was December 1962, and the Trojans were undefeated with a national championship on the horizon. Mike was a key player on the defensive line, and on a single play in the game before the Rose Bowl, his life changed forever. 

As he tackled the quarterback, he felt a terrific pain in his neck. The team physician said it was probably a pulled muscle and gave him a numbing shot at halftime; Mike finished the game. But afterwards, Mike could tell something was wrong, because he couldn’t move without pain. He went to the hospital, and an x-ray showed that he fractured a vertebra. His football career was undoubtedly over, and he was placed in a full upper-body cast for two months before graduating to a neck brace.

For the 50th anniversary of the Trojans’ national championship, a team representative asked the players to write about their best day of the season. Mike chose the day he was injured, because it set him on a path that led him to Sally, three kids and a rewarding life.

“The life that resulted from the injury has been remarkable in both its diversity and challenge,” he wrote. “The path that I was on with football would never had crossed paths with Sally, and the life we have led has taken us to many interesting places in the world and challenges that were met… What could be better?”

Coming out of college, Mike wasn’t interested in a traditional 9-to-5 job, so he signed up for the Peace Corps and moved to Venezuela, where he taught sports at the schools. After three years as a volunteer, he moved back to the states and got a job with the corps as a recruiter on college campuses.

At a retreat in Maryland, Mike saw Sally for the first time, sitting by a pool. He was a jock, and she was an artist, but they quickly hit it off and had plenty of chemistry.

“For me, it was just the kind of woman I always hoped to meet,” Mike said.

After a couple of years recruiting in different places, they were both transferred to tour college campuses in the South. Their relationship got serious after only a few months, and they married in Knoxville, Tenn., with seven students they had met on campus attending. Over five decades later, Sally and Mike’s relationship remains strong, and Mike considers meeting her the second pivotal moment of his life.

After the school year and recruiting jobs ended, Mike and Sally worked a few different jobs coordinating federal volunteers on the West Coast. Ultimately, they moved to Oahu to raise their son, Ivan, and two daughters, Katie and Amy. Mike felt like he was living the dream. They lived in the Tantalus neighborhood in Honolulu and were active in the state sport of long-distance canoe racing. The neighbors were friendly, as they all dealt with the same challenges of living in the rainforest, and the canoe races allowed Mike to fulfill his competitive side.

In the late ’80s, Sally’s mother and brother arranged for her to have the ranch. The kids were grown up, and after 21 years in Hawaii, the next challenge awaited. Deciding to become a rancher was Mike’s third pivotal moment. 

To prepare, he reached out to a professor of beef science at the University of Hawaii who met with him monthly and encouraged him to subscribe to Drover’s Journal, a publication about livestock. But reading could only do so much.

“You get a perspective from these articles that you think will help you make decisions, but it doesn’t help you when you’re pulling a calf out of a heifer,” he said. “It’s a very steep learning curve—the nutrition needs, how to manage your pastures, how you select for good-quality animals.”

Mike bought his first herd of 20 cows at two auctions in 1997. After raising them for a year, he sold them to a broker who shipped them to a feedlot where they are fed grain before slaughter. This was the typical model for raising cattle, and it earned Mike a nice check. But the process felt disconnected from both the animals and the consumers. 

In the second year of sending his cows to a feedlot, the broker wasn’t interested in a pair of small twins. Mike raised them through the winter, and by spring, the cows were perfect. He had them butchered and sold them to eight families. By skipping the broker, he was also able to make more money per pound.

“I thought, ‘Well maybe this is the model,’” he said.

The next year, he kept another 11 steers to sell direct. Because the cows had lived their entire life grazing on the ranch, with a diet supplemented by hay and alfalfa, they avoided the grain diet served at the feedlot. Eating grass leads the cows to produce less omega-6 fat and more omega-3 fat, which is better for the heart. Grass-fed beef also has a more distinct flavor and a tougher texture than conventional beef. 

At the time, Mike had no idea that he was pioneering grass-fed beef; the description hadn’t even entered his lexicon. He was simply following his morals and looking for a viable business model. The switch coincided with the Marin Agricultural Land Trust purchasing the development rights from the Gales’ ranch, giving the couple a financial cushion and ensuring the land would remain in agriculture for perpetuity.

A year after Mike switched to grass-fed beef, author Michael Pollan wrote a widely read article in the New York Times Magazine, called “This Steer’s Life,” in which Mr. Pollan tells the story of buying a steer and selling it to a feedlot. The story exposes the beef industry as separated from animal welfare in the name of profit. The steer, No. 534, is quickly fattened up on corn at a dirty lot, where thousands of cows are injected with antibiotics to allow them to keep eating and are then slaughtered in a factory.

The article garnered interest and outrage. Toward the end of the story, Mr. Pollan offered an alternative: grass-fed beef sold directly by ranchers to consumers. He included a link for EatWild.com, a website with information on the grass-fed industry. The Chileno Valley ranch was included on the website’s list of beef ranches in the United States.

Mike soon went from selling 11 steers to 41 steers, and then up to 80 steers just a few years later. Along with Dave Evans, a Point Reyes rancher who founded Marin Sun Farms, he was featured in a number of large newspapers writing about the grass-fed beef revolution. Business continued to grow, with loyal customers from all over the West Coast coming back each year for either a quarter, half or whole cow. Mike, still feeling somewhat like a faux rancher, struggled to keep up, and sometimes had to turn buyers away. It was hard work, with long days and lots of paperwork.

After several years of overwhelming demand, business slowed as more ranchers entered the grass-fed industry in Marin and Sonoma Counties, selling smaller cuts than Mike could offer. He and Sally adapted to the competition by hosting U-pick apple days, when customers could come fill bags with apples and pears from their orchard. The trees—over 400 of them—are grown shorter so people can easily pick the fruit, and the business now accounts for half of the ranch’s income.

Over time, as fewer articles were written about Mike and Sally, they decided to grow their presence on social media to attract customers. Ivan, who works in communications, took the lead.

“I’ve always seen people gravitate to my parents, and it felt like they have a good story to tell,” Ivan said. “So this year we’ve created more of a presence on Facebook for both the apple and the beef businesses to introduce them to a new audience of people in the Bay Area who want to know where their food comes from and who want to support local agriculture.”

After more than 20 years of raising beef, Mike has faced all kinds of scenarios. He’s birthed calves, rescued cows struck in the road and has had three unfortunate confrontations with an angry bull. He’s a professional now, but ranching still has its challenges. 

Wooly distaff thistle, an invasive weed, is an ongoing threat to the health of his pastures. Thistle fields become so dense and prickly that cows won’t graze the area, and the invasion got to the point that Mike had to abandon the ranch’s organic certification in order to use herbicide. 

Water is also a worry, especially as climate change disrupts weather patterns. With scant rainfall this winter, Mike is having flashbacks to the last three-year drought, which was a nightmare for the ranch. He had to sell off a third of his herd, including valuable young mother cows, because his wells were empty and the grass was dried. The price of alfalfa went up, and the price of beef went down. He still hasn’t fully recovered his herd since those tough years, and he’s worried about having to downsize again.

Mike and Sally’s health is the biggest factor in the future of the ranch. He turns 80 next year, and admittedly doesn’t have the same energy that he used to. But he’s come to define himself as a rancher, and he doesn’t plan on quitting anytime soon.

“I’m still very interested in the ranch, I still enjoy the spring of all of these young calves, I still enjoy somebody saying, ‘Your cows look good,’” he said.

In the last year, he’s taken up discus throwing, a sport he hasn’t practiced since college. He is competing in virtual track meets and has his eyes set on the record for 80-year-olds. He clears the sheep from the field where he sets up a discus ring, and he throws while his dogs wait patiently in the ATV. 

 

To order apples, pears and beef from the Gales, visit mikeandsallygalebeefranch.com