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.
I’m a naturally crabby person, sullen, argumentative and prone to paranoid conspiracy fantasies, so to maintain some balance I like to associate with up-beat, positive, can-do kinds of people. Here are some of the people I like to keep up with on-line.
1. Rebecca King Ardi Gasna means sheep cheese in Basque. I met Rebecca’s mother at one of our “U-Pick” days at our field several years ago. We had a pleasant conversation and she told me about her daughter who was the chef at Gabriela Restaurant in Santa Cruz, but had a dream of someday being a sheep rancher and making sheep cheese. I agreed that it was a wonderful dream. I’ve got dreams too. I’d love to make cheese. I’d also like to create an incredible living labyrinth garden employing only antique rose varieties, I’d like to be the curator of a cactus and succulent garden like the Huntington Gardens, I’d like to travel with my donkeys from Death Valley to Mt. Shasta, and I want to learn Latin, but do you see me doing any of it? Then I heard that Rebecca had bought some Friesan Dairy sheep and was leasing some grazing land from my friends Bob and Jeanne at Deep Roots Ranch. Out of the blue I got an invitation from Bob, Jeanne, and Rebecca to bring my sheep over for a shearing. The sheep industry has suffered such a precipitous decline in California over the last fifty years that it is very difficult to find professional sheep shearers any longer. But Rebecca had hired one to come down to the central coast from Mendocino. The more sheep the shearer had to trim, the cheaper the charge would be per sheep. So I took my sheep over to Deep Roots and finally met Rebecca. That morning, by coincidence, was the day the State Inspector came to advise Rebecca on what she would need to do to get the permits to milk sheep and make cheese. Months passed, and I ran into Rebecca in front of a cheese plate at a barbeque at Love Apple Farm . The cheese was Rebecca’s sheep cheese and it was delicious. It turns out that after Rebecca found out how much money she’d have to spend to build a facility that could pass muster for the CDFA (California Department of Food and Agriculture) she knew that she’d have to buy a ranch to justify the expense and make her investment secure. So she did, with help from her family and California Farm Link. How many women do you know (or men) who can move effortlessly from a hot kitchen to a world of white tablecloths and crystal to a sheep pen? Rebecca’s blog follows her progress putting her dreams in action. Today’s photo essay captures a few moments from a visit Julia and I had with Rebecca at her ranch.
2. Offal Good By some standards, Chris Cosentino is considered an “extreme” chef, since he embraces the art of cooking meat as a challenge to use the entire animal. Of course, there shouldn’t be anything “extreme” about not wasting part of an animal’s life. Chris’s blog shines a light on a side of the world that a lot of cooks– and eaters– don’t want to deal with, which is too bad, because we would all be healthier, mentally and physically, if food and our food infrastructure was understood holistically. Chris also takes the waste products of the restaurant business seriously, and is the most disciplined chef I know when it comes to recycling packaging. I like to keep on eye on what Chris is up too.
3. Hastings Reserve This blog is put out the University of California field station where I grew up. Things were different then, of course. When we first moved to the Hastings Reservation in the late spring of 1967 we were on an RFD route, which sounds for “Rural Free Delivery”. The postman delivered the mail, but he also had things like butter, flour, ammunition, nails, and handkerchiefs for sale out of the back. Our telephone system was a party line with half of upper Carmel Valley listening in, and nowadays they’re in the blogoshere. I moved away from Hastings after high school and my parents left when my father retired, but the place and its mission of environmental education remains close to my heart.
4. Susie Bright My friend Susie Bright is a university brat, just like me, but while my father was on his hands and knees looking for native plants, Susie’s father, William Bright, was digging in to native languages. Dr. Bright was also Carlos Castenada’s major professor. My mother tells me that when I was 12 years old I asked for a copy of Gudde’s 1000 California Place Names for my birthday. Later, Susie’s father rewrote this book and republished it as 1500 California Place names, having added a hundred California Indian names to Gudde’s list, and I bought that one too. It combined my interest in language and my love of California all in one package. It was perhaps inevitable that Susie and I would eventually meet. Susie has a very turned-on life and it shows in her writing and blogging. Susie is sharp, witty, snotty, topical, and eclectic and can zoom between erotica, politics, and food in one paragraph or tie them all up in one package. Susie is my first stop for news beyond agriculture into pop culture, and I look to her for guidance about writing and editing.
5. Edible San Francisco Bruce Cole is the editor of ESF. Edible San Francisco has given me a forum for my writing and I’m grateful and proud to have my essays published by this magazine. I like the company I keep between their covers. Though I live in Santa Cruz County and farm in San Benito County, my heart spends a lot of time in San Francisco and so do my trucks! We sell our produce to many San Franciscans, chefs and “civilians” alike, and I like to participate in a small way in the cultural life of the City. San Francisco is my adopted city, and I enjoy being a “San Francisco” writer.
6. Tablehopper from Marcia Gagliardi Marcia is a funny, spunky writer and I count on her to keep me “posted” on all the comings and goings in the San Francisco restaurant scene.
7. Xasáuan is a Native American name for the region we know today as Big Sur. If part of my heart is in San Francisco, then much of the rest of it is in Big Sur. Every once in a while my divided heart is even able to guide my feet down the road to Big Sur. Ever since I was a child and my father would take me with him on trips around the wilderness that lies between the Hastings Reservation and the Pacific Ocean I’ve loved the Santa Lucia Mountains. Usually I can’t travel, so I enjoy life on my farm and make a virtual visit to Big Sur by dropping into the Xasáuan Today. This site was extremely useful to follow the progress of this past summer’s wildfires.
8. The Ventana Wilderness Alliance is a group of committed citizens that advocate, work and lobby on behalf of the Ventana Wilderness. Our government– by the people, for the people, and of the people– can’t do every thing that the people want or need, so sometimes the people just have to step up and do it themselves. The Ventana Wilderness Alliance does its best to keep an eye on its own little corner of the world by fixing trails and following the twists and turns in the Federal Government’s policies that affect our local watershed.
more Rebecca Sheep photos