I’ll be the first one to admit that I know nothing about economics, but the “Bush Stimulus Package” seemed like magical thinking to me. As I understand it, unemployment is up, consumption is down, and our credit is shot because we’ve been spending beyond our means so our government plans to rejuvenate the economy and guide us towards productivity by borrowing money and giving it to us to spend? This sounds to me like an alcoholic’s resolve to achieve sobriety through drinking. But, like I said, I’m no economist. I’ll also confess that I’m such a squint-eyed peasant that Wall Street seems to me like little more than the Vegas Strip without topless women. I’m not a gambling man. Farming gives me as much of a risk thrill as I need. But to make a long tale short, after I got my “Bush Stimulus check” I suffered a rush of irrational exuberance and spent all the money on stock. That story next, but first, a word about the karma of meat.
Some people say that it’s evil to eat meat, especially considering all the grain cattle eat that could go towards feeding the hungry. Other people say, “If God didn’t want us to eat meat he wouldn’t have made cows out of beef!” But I like to frame the debate differently; I say that cooking meat is the way nature allows us to eat grass. By profession I’m a vegetable farmer, but as a hobby I keep a flock of goats and sheep along with a tiny herd of Dexter cattle and I think of them collectively as my “meat garden.” My animals eat cull vegetables, like over-ripe tomatoes, under-ripe winter squash and deformed beets, but mostly they eat grass from the hillsides around my home that are too steep and dry for me to farm. Remember the Dust Bowl? One of the most profound and long-lasting catastrophes of the “dirty thirties” was that speculation in grain caused vast tracts of arid, marginal land in the western Great Plains to be ploughed down for wheat. When the drought came there was no turf to hold the soil down and it blew away. That land should have never been taken away from the Buffalo and the beef cattle.
When my $1,800 “Bush Stimulus check” came in the mail I didn’t feel moved to indulge in a spasm of patriotic consumption. Julia put the check under the mattress against the day we’d be hard pressed to meet our farm’s payroll obligations, and I went on with life. Then, when tomato season was drawing to a close and I could think again, I found myself surfing on-line cattle markets and fantasy shopping for a handsome bull. I found “Tuck” at Glennland Farm. Tuck is a young, red Dexter, and he looked perfect to meet the needs of my cows, Yoko, Twiggy, Kelsey, and Jezebel. I don’t mind buying stock as long as it walks on four legs. It’s hard to chew and swallow worthless paper certificates, but when worse comes to worse with the economy you can always cash in your livestock at the soup pot. So I called Wes Patton, the bull rancher, and made a date to drive up to Orland and bring Tuck home.
Dexters are small, old fashioned, Irish cattle. The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy lists the Dexter as a “recovering” breed, along with the Ankole Watusi, the Belted Galloway, and the Highland. I would feel lousy spending money our Government borrowed for me on mediocre plastic crap from China that would soon take up space in my local, unsustainable landfill. I would enjoy having a herd of Made in USA Buffalo, but since I live in California, they’d be hardly more pc than a bovine of European ancestry that was born and bred in the Golden State! Besides, propagating an heirloom breed of cattle seemed like a worthier use of tax money than a lot of things the government thinks up.
Dexter cattle were never improved for feedlot performance. They are at home in small farm settings and one of the attractive attributes of the breed is that they’ve maintained their vigor and thriftiness on the open range. (If you want to get a sense of just how much cattle have been manipulated by husbandry check out the pictures at this historical cattle site.) Even mature Dexter cattle are only half the size of some breeds of beef cattle. Being small animals, Dexters aren’t so hard for a farmer to finish on grass, thus eliminating the karmically-challenged modern beef steer’s need for a corn-rich diet. I don’t claim to be a professional grass-fed beef producer, but I do want to learn, and the best way for me to dip my toe in the pool has always been to fall in head first. One of my favorite magazines is the Grassland Journal. Just to keep things interesting, Dexters come in three decorator colors too; black, like Yoko and Twiggy, dun, like Kelsey and Jezzie, or red, like Tuck.
Once I’d made my appointment to pick up Tuck, who weighs between 700 and 800 pounds, I started to think about my pick-up truck. The more I meditated on the issue, the less I wanted to find myself stalled alongside I-5 with a smoking engine and a trailer full of small, angry bull. The mechanic at Branciforte Auto who tuned up my truck helpfully pointed out that my tires were balder than Mahatma Gandhi, Kojack, Winston Churchill and Sinead O’Connor. So I bought four new Dunlop mudders from Pasilla’s Tire Service in Watsonville. The Pasilla family lives right across the road from our vegetable farm in Hollister and I wanted to honor the spirit of the stimulus package by spending the money locally. Then I inspected the tires on my livestock trailer. They were a scandal! I couldn’t believe they hadn’t blown already, so I went to Young’s Tires in Pajaro, because Young’s is always there for me when my tractors or delivery trucks need new rubber, and I bought four more tires for my trailer.
I was thinking that the only thing worse than breaking down with a trailer full of bull would be to break down in the dark. I tanked up on gas, headed north, and spent the night in a fleabag hotel in Williams, near Orland, so that I could make it to the ranch early, load up fast and get all my driving done in the daylight. The motel wasn’t free either. By the time I’d got back home with Tuck and turned him loose among his new girl friends I’d completely sizzled my way through my 1800 “stimulus” dollars. Now I’m looking at my fences, wondering how much barbed wire I ought to buy in order to keep my portfolio of stock from exercising their own fits of irrational exuberance and running off into Driscoll’s organic raspberry fields. It will take more than economic magic to keep my little herd at home, eating, breeding, and gathering interest. I’m still skeptical about how stimulated I feel because doubt and suspicion is the way of my people, but if I manage to sell my first grass-fed steers and at least break even, I won’t be squinting quite so hard. In fact, I might honor the spirit of the stimulus package by spending the profits for a few more cows.
1. A pair of amiable Buffaloes I met a week ago at the Douglas Ranch in the Panoche Valley behind Hollister.
2. My own little herd of Dexter cattle gathered around the water trough.
3. Yoko, showing the black pointed horns typical of traditional Dexters.
4. Heifer Jezebel looking cute in dun.
5. Kelsey mooing.
6. Tuck, making a splash in red.
7. Portrait of the farmer as a Future Farmer of America during High School years, showing a steer at the King City Fair circa 1975
copyright 2008 Andy Griffin
all photos taken by Andy except the last one.