We began farming in the San Luis Valley, just north of Alamosa in 1990 and began grazing cattle and sheep in 1997 to add fertility to our organic potato crop. The more we learned about the benefits of pasture based farming, the more convinced we were that it was the right thing to do, keeping them on pasture, eating their natural diet, keeping them out of the feedlot. Selfishly, we wanted access to meat that we were learning was amazingly healthy and delicious.
Another factor in our decision was that as we began to graze livestock there began a decline in the water table in the San Luis Valley. We have about a fourth of the water available on our farm of what we had twenty years ago. As it happens, grass production is an excellent approach for dealing with climate shift and drought conditions. Grass adds organic matter to the soil which holds moisture. Using animals, you can harvest and fertilize your crop at the same time – using cow power instead of diesel. Properly managed, grazing domesticated livestock simulates the great herds of migratory mammals across the plains that created the topsoil of the corn belt. Unfortunately, overgrazing, as well as plowing and chemical application for corn and other crop production has been the topsoil’s undoing…
When we began finishing cattle on pasture it was an old fashioned concept that had long been forgotten. There was a lot to figure out, primarily how to achieve the marbling and tenderness of grain-fed beef and in a timely and cost-effective way. The keys were high quality forage and bovine genetics that produced animals that would fatten on grass alone – with no grain or added hormones. Cattlemen tend to be touchy about their herd genetics. They put years into developing whatever it is they’ve got and trying to get them to change is like talking bad about their mama.
In order to pull this thing off, we needed creative partners. We were blessed with George Whitten and Julie Sullivan, cow-calf producers in Saguache County, who were willing to develop their genetics for grass finishing and were open to new ideas, such as grazing cattle on fields with center pivot irrigation systems. We began taking their calves (all of whom we named George) at weaning and finished them on pasture. Thus, we began taking the steps across the bridge from conventional monoculture crop production to grass farming.
One of the main things missing was a way to sell the animals. There literally was no market. Most of the people who had heard of grassfed beef associated it with shoe leather – tough, off-tasting, lean to the point of being inedible. And even though we were ultrasound testing for tenderness, dry aging, and keeping the animals until they were fully finished and marbled, we had a long way to go to building a customer base.
Our granddaughter Zen Rose with the Georges- then and now.
Along came the likes of Sally Falon, Michael Pollan, Erich Schlosser, Barbara Kingsolver. The whole locavore movement took off, which has been a real boon to our business and a real joy to witness. We’ve come upon the most wonderfully thoughtful people who’ve become our customers. They enrich our lives and educate us about what we’re doing. Most recently they’ve been telling us about the value of “good fat”, the kind you get from animals fed their natural diet.
Our friend Lauren claims our beef is “meat vegetarians can eat.” In fact, our beef is often the choice for vegetarians at the time they choose to break their meat fast. It is from animals who are honored. We give thanks for what they have given us and the land, and honor them with the decisions we make regarding every stage of their life, from what we grow for them to eat to how we have them processed. It is a worthy and enjoyable collaboration.
Collaborations are an essential part of our business. Last year we began pasturing our cattle in the summer at Bill Brinton and Kris Steinberg’s pasture in East Alamosa. It is the perfect partnership – it gives us the summer to raise winter forage at home, and Bill and Kris are happy with the pasture improvement the animals are bringing about on their place.
Another collaboration we’re part of is Sweet Grass Coop, a group of organic grassfed beef producers in Colorado and New Mexico. Officially we are a marketing cooperative, but we also deal with production issues, such as drought management. Sweet Grass beef can be found in Whole Foods in Boulder and La Montanita Coop stores in Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and Gallup, and through Purely Organic in the Denver area.
Where the magic starts-Photo by Danny Ledonne
In the last few years we have added other types of meat to our fare. We are very proud to offer pastured pork from Lucas Salazar down in the Manassa area. Rancho Salazar is a green gem nestled in the base of craggy foothills of the Sangre de Cristos and is one of the oldest family-run ranches in Colorado. Lucas left the San Luis Valley for college, studied classical guitar in Spain, and for a time taught school in inner city New York. According to LeRoy and Michelle, Lucas was the least likely of their kids to come back home to participate in the ranch, but that is indeed what he did. In fact he went whole hog, so to speak – put in a smokehouse and USDA meat processing facility in which he does custom cutting, makes sausage, meat sticks, jerky, bacon, and more... Aside from his passion for charcuterie, LUCAS LOVES RAISING PIGS, which is good for us because it is good meat, and we are pleased to be able to offer it to you, along with a variety of sausage that Lucas makes with Kretsinger beef and Salazar Ranch pork.
As of Autumn, 2013 we are also offering pastured lamb from Elena Miller-ter Kuile of Cactus Hill Farm in Capulin, just west of Lucas. Elena is part of a hullaballoo of a large farming family, with deep roots in the San Luis Valley. She is a Renaissance woman who went off to get a degree from Cornell, travelled the world, and came back home because of her love of family and her boundless curiosity about what she could make happen on the land and in the community of her home. Elena honors the traditions of her roots, raising historical crops of our area - bolita beans, corn, calabacitas. She cans the produce from her garden and cooks in an horno. But, she is not bound by tradition and will introduce more experimental things, such as hops for brewing and is always looking for crops that optimize water and uses animal impact to improve soil health.
When you visit with Elena, what is clear about her besides her zeal, creativity, and intelligence is her love of and respect for the animals she raises. The way people treat their land and animals is important criteria for our choice of partners. The cost and administrative burden of organic certification is great and we realize that it is not possible for everyone, especially for smaller producers. However, all our partners, whether they are certified or not, abide by organic and pasture-based standards in their production protocol.
So, let us hear from you if you’d like some righteous meat. We make deliveries to Denver, Boulder, Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Alamosa, and Monte Vista every other month. Email us if you’d like to receive notices about delivery locations and times. You may also find us at the Alamosa and Monte Vista Farmer's Markets.
We hope you enjoy your supper as much as we've enjoyed growing it.
John & Trudi Kretsinger