Panorama Meats Past, Present, and Future: A Conversation with Founder Darrell Wood

Since the early days of the grass-fed beef business, Darrell Wood and his family, multi-generation ranchers, have been raising organic, grass-fed beef on their ranches in Northern California. Woods founded Panorama Meat Company more than twenty years ago, and he’s been happy to see more consumers understanding the value of grass-fed, not only for themselves, but for ranchers and their pastures, as well.

How long has your family been ranching?

I’m the sixth generation and my kids and grandkids are the seventh and eighth in northeastern California. We’ve been here a long time, since 1865.

Why did you found Panorama Meat Company?

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the cattle market was really bad. I was concerned about the financial health of our ranching business and I knew that I had to do something different. My son Ramsey went off to Cal Poly at San Luis Obispo as a freshman, and when we were dropping him off, he said, “Dad, I want to come back to the ranch when I’m done.” Of course, any father would feel good about that. But at the same time, I was worried that we wouldn’t be there in four years. 

Meanwhile, I had been in discussions with this individual selling grass-fed freezer beef in the Bay Area. He was looking for a cattle supplier and he asked if I’d be interested. I said yes, of course. At first it was very small, maybe one or two head a month. But quickly, it started ramping up, and he suggested to me that we could take this grass-fed deal commercial. He asked, “Are you interested?” I said heck yeah. Because what we had been doing wasn’t working. 

We started calling on mom and pop stores in the Bay Area. I don’t know if you’re old enough to remember the old police show called The Streets of San Francisco, but I was dragging an ice chest up and down the streets of San Francisco, knocking on doors trying to get people to try it. So that’s how it began, and it started growing from there. 

You were acquired by Perdue Premium Meats last year. How’s that going?

As we were building the business, we didn’t have deep pockets. We brought in a couple of new partners as time went on, and an employee or two. We knew if we were going to take this thing nationwide, eventually we were going to need to bring in a significant partner to help propel it forward. Perdue came into play two years ago and started talking to us. They had the Niman Ranch brand and Coleman, and I had done business with both those brands in the early days, so I had some familiarity with them. I thought Perdue would be good to do this with, so they bought us out. 

I have the best of both worlds. We formed this brand that we’re extremely proud of and very successful, and they’re going to take it to the next level. And I can run cattle and be a supplier to them. So it’s great. I feel strongly that it was the best thing to do.

What kind of changes have you seen, being a part of Perdue?

There’s been some consolidation to take advantage of efficiencies to lower the operational expense side. At the same time, at Perdue/Panorama we’re committed to paying premiums to the ranchers to keep them in business. The fact that they’re very strong financially means I don’t have to worry about that anymore. It’s been a really good transition. All of the producers I’ve talked to, including my brother and my daughter and her husband, are very comfortable with the direction Panorama is going now. 

What does Perdue Premium Meats bring to Panorama in addition to the  financial stability?

They’re going to continue to make the brand the dominant organic, grass-fed and grass-finished company in the nation. As their profits grow, we hope the producers get to participate in that income stream to make money on the ranching side of things so we can stay solid financially and bring the next generation of ranchers, or the next generation after that, into our business. I’ve got six grand boys and one granddaughter that I know are going to want to be in the ranching business. So we have to prepare for that. We’ve got to be financially strong to do that, and Perdue can help us.

Land conservation is a big part of the culture at Panorama. Let’s talk about that.

Early on, I knew that in order for a Panorama branded company to be successful, I had to have ranches—and ranchers on those ranches. It’s hard to own this land and make the payments to keep it going. The threat of development is very strong, and if ranchers aren’t successful financially, they have to carve off pieces of the property to pay the bills. I thought about how it would be if we were able to create a system that would buy the development rights for the land from them, give them their money, pay off their debts, and keep the ranch in open space forever. 

I was on the founding board of directors of the California Rangeland Trust in the early 90s. When we started putting this together there was no template. The only one close to what were doing was the Colorado Cattleman’s Land Trust, which had started before us.  We were able to see what they had done. Now, The California Rangeland Trust has protected almost 400,000 acres in the state. 

We also formed The Partnership of Rangeland Trusts in Western states that have similar trusts to ours. I think there are 12 Western states that have partnered and protected four million acres. Most of those states are in the Panorama service area where we have ranchers, so it’s dovetailed together nicely.  

All the lands we’re conserving probably carry 90 percent of the of the major species, both plants and animals, in their states, and those ranchers are protecting that. In addition to the cleaner air that comes from carbon sequestration, they’re also doing a good job of managing resources and protecting the clean water that runs through their properties. 

When people are talking to me about how scary it is to put a conservation easement on a piece of ground in perpetuity, I say yes, you’re certainly dictating what those landscapes will look like going forward. But I’ve never seen a strip mall or a housing development torn down and the land go back into ranching. So that, too, is in perpetuity. And that helps people understand.

Besides land conservation, what else is important about Panorama?

I spoke at the national headquarters for Whole Foods in Austin, Texas in January, on the subject of land sustainability and the regenerative concept and how by supporting organic grass fed beef they’re helping the lands stay healthy and sequestering carbon in the soil, which removes greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere. They’re actually selling beef that’s helping the environment. And it’s also a healthy food source, lower in saturated fats and higher in omega-3 fatty acids. It’s almost similar to wild salmon. In fact, we’ve done the research on that.

What do you see happening in the future with Panorama?

I see sustainable growth. I am confident that the entire circle of land conservation, financially strong ranchers, good healthy soils, and regenerative practices are going to continue to grow as we grow. It’s going to be very beneficial for the nation as a whole for Panorama to grow. Because we need to conserve these open spaces and we need to keep the ranchers that manage and maintain them strong and healthy. I’m just thrilled to be part of the new company going forward.