Last week Sisters Cattle Company butchered our first crop of feeders. We had them sorted and waiting in a pen by 9 a.m. and a short time later Paul and Mike from the Redmond Smokehouse arrived with their kill-wagon to get the job done. It was a beautiful day for it, unseasonably warm and bright, a postcard-perfect morning with the Cascade peaks illuminated above the treetops in the distance. Butchering, particularly at scale, is never a pleasant exercise, but it’s fundamental and necessary, and in the immortal lyrics of Tom Waits: “There’s always some killing you go to do around the farm.”
My partner, Hobbs Magarét, gave each of the feeders an apple while they waited.
It’s no secret that I was ruined by my upbringing. On the occasion of my birth my grandfather announced to the nurses in Los Robles hospital that I was destined to become a cowboy because, in his words: “He’s all shoulders and no ass.” So naturally, over time, I became one, and remained one until $600.00 a month, gas, and groceries, wasn’t quite paying the bills. But I chased the life as hard as I could, for as long as I could, until it finally took me where I wanted to be: as far away from people as I could get in the lower 48 states, with an excellent reason to be there.
Time takes a hard toll on our dreams and aspirations, but the cowboy life, and visions of ranching the west, are more like an incurable virus. There is no known antidote. Most carriers will just die as carriers. I’m a carrier, and wherever I have been, whatever I was doing, I have always nurtured dreams of building a cow-outfit.
It turns out that Hobbs and I share similar backgrounds, and have nurtured similar visions through our adventures. He too had a granddad that he worshipped, who happened to be a hard-bitten cowboy from the ranches of west Texas, where Hobbs was raised. And Hobbs has fought all of the good fights that young men in America must when chasing down their dreams. In the end he landed in Sisters country, and decided to start building a regenerative ranching enterprise.
There isn’t anything magical about regenerative ranching. The theories put forth by the gurus of holistic management, guys like Allan Savory, Johann Zietsman, Gabe Brown, and others, just make sense. The practitioners tell us that it’s possible to build and repair our soils while raising food and actually improving environmental conditions over time. And we know how to do this. But our models for worldwide economic growth all collide with doing anything that is healthy and endlessly repeatable. Which is why we dump millions of tons of fertilizers on the ground every year to sustain monoculture pastures, fertilizers which eventually leach into the waterways, killing everything in the water and zombifying the ground. We can’t even argue that isn’t the case. It just clearly is the case, on a massive scale, because we have millions upon millions upon millions of people who are hungry each and every day. They have to be fed. It’s because of that fact that sustainable, endlessly repeatable models of agriculture cannot stand up to the agri-business giants who suck every cow into feed lots and every chicken into an electrocution bath.
There are consequences for doing things that way and our environment and our mental and physical health are showing signs that perhaps it isn’t very good for us in the long term.
The dream that Hobbs and I share is to raise great beef and sell it to our neighbors. We want to sell it to our local restaurants and sandwich shops. We want to do that while building herds that are resistant to diseases — this is possible to do, by the way — rather than reliant on chemical baths like Warbex from the enormous smoke-belching laboratories at Monsanto. We want to do it on pastures that are planted in such a way that the soil holds moisture and creates biomass and life that regenerates every time we run cows over it. Pastures that aren’t saturated with chemical fertilizers and pesticides and herbicides. We want to renew pastures here that have been essentially killed by decades upon decades of bad practices and chemical IV’s.
The question is: can we do it?
I think we can. I think if we can make a great product and sell it at a competitive price we can see this dream come to life. We can do it if we get buy-in from our neighbors, if people in our community say to themselves, “Hey, screw the grocery guy who gets his beef from who knows where, we can buy our meat from those two guys who are raising cows in that field just outside of town.” We can do it if people here see value in knowing where their food comes from, and can drive around and look at the animals grazing on great pasture in their back yard. We can do it if we become a menu item in a couple of steakhouses locally, which would make us happy because if every calf we raise spends its entire lifetime in our zip code we will have built an enormously important off-ramp from the world of food insecurity and the fragility of complex systems. Beef raised locally, sold locally, and consumed locally, builds resiliency into a community. Which would seem fundamental to the goal of living well and responsibly.
But it remains to be seen. We have secured a lot of ground, building leases from forward-thinking people who seem to believe in what we are wanting to do. And to be clear, we aren’t inventing anything. All we are doing is what people have always done before the food industry consolidated into a many-fanged corporate bloodsucker killing off every small farm in the country in favor of gigantic agri-business conglomerates with feedlots you can smell from twenty miles away.
Next year we are going to crank up the size of our herd considerably, and we are going to graze them like wild men along the eastern slopes.
We’ve come some considerable distance from the days when a two-bitted axe cost .07 cents and every man with a cow could turn it loose on the grass and hope for the best. The question now, in our day and age, is whether two cowpokes from different parts of America can meet in the rainshadow of the Cascades and build a cow outfit from scratch. Can we raise beef and sell it to our neighbors and actually make a living? Can that still be done in America? We are fully aware of the fight we have on our hands. But our powder is dry, our aim is true, and we are motivated.
So maybe stay tuned, and we will all find out together.