June news- gratitude and saying goodbye
June 11, 2018
Our cows are like bourgeois characters in those novels set on the eastern seaboard. “We summer in East Alamosa,” they say, noses in the air. For several years we’ve leased Bill Brinton’s pasture on the east side of town. He’s got plenty of water all season and there’s a lush stand of diverse grasses and forbs. John just moved the herd over last week, and the next night, a neighbor called to say our cows were out. This is the call livestock producers dread getting, especially after dark on a moonless night. Highway 17 is only a half mile down the road, which makes everyone more nervous than when they’re grazing out in the boonies.
John had just come in from working on sprinklers and was eating a bowl of soup when the telephone rang. Thankfully, there wasn’t an emergency situation we had to deal with that night. Being in a new place, the animals decided to meander. The neighbor, being neighborly just moved them in with another herd across the way. They weren’t in the right place, but they were safe and not on the highway.
By the time he got off the telephone it was about 9:30. Old John was tuckered out. “I don’t have as much hoot as I did last year when I was just seventy nine.” I kissed his forehead as I took his plate. His skin was salty.
It had been a long day, unusually hot and hideously dry, despite a recent rain, which adds to everyone’s stress. Jeff Stonesifer, our customer down in Albuquerque, and a really nice guy is a meteorologist who says the dryness has been due to La Niña. The Bitch Child is what I call it. Jeff says she’s passing on, and then things will go back to “normal”. Nowadays “normal” always has quotation marks around it.
After a few years of raising alfalfa hay, which depends on reliable weather patterns, we began seeing significant changes in amount and timing of precipitation. This was in the late 1990’s and was explained in a climate change conference we attended back then. With maps, graphs, and astute, courageous observation, climate experts explained that in response to an overload of carbon in the atmosphere, weather patterns would be shifting. Where it’s dry, it will be drier. Where it’s wet, it will be wetter, everything intensifying, with tumultuous weather events becoming the norm. Instead of gentle breezes, we’ll have gales. Showers will come in the form of thunderstorms, hurricanes, and twisters. And across the west, water will become even more limited, with warmer temperatures climbing northward.
Along the way of learning about the detrimental effects of atmospheric carbon, we learned that there is 7-12 times more carbon sequestration in a properly grazed sward of diverse grasses than in a forest. What John took home about climate change was, “If we’re going to save the world, it will be with grass!” This has been his mantra over the last twenty years.
We had begun grazing livestock when we transitioned to organic production on our crop lands a few years before, but the conference on climate change cinched our decision to proceed with our plan to finish cattle on pasture, which was at that time, both a financial leap of faith and a subversive notion. To this day, consumers in cities have greater appreciation than farmers and ranchers of the immense benefits of things like grassfed beef and organic production. This is no doubt due to the fact that neither is easy. As John says, you can’t just call the co-op and say, “Bring me some feed!” “Bring me some NPK!” You have to think it through, plan years in advance, take the long road around.
Another event that shaped the course of our lives, also in the late 1990’s, was a conference hosted by Allan Nation, editor of “The Stockman Grass Farmer”. This was the publication that introduced John to pasture-based farming, which he knew was the right path. The problem was, there really wasn’t a bridge out of commodity production. There weren’t models of grass finishing cattle in the intermountain west. Producers had no idea you could finish animals outside a feedlot, much less come up with a superior product. All anyone knew about grassfed beef was that it was pretty much like eating your shoe. Not a very pleasant eating experience because nobody knew how to do it properly. It was a forgotten art.
Besides this, consumers didn’t know what grass fed beef was. There was no market for the animals we finished on pasture. But, the speakers we heard at Allan’s conference convinced us we needed to find a way to make it all happen. They were Jo Robinson (“Eating on the Wild Side”) and Sally Fallon (“Nourishing Traditions”), who spoke of such things as conjugated linoleic acid, Omega 3 fatty acid, antioxidants - the powerful benefits to human health of eating beef from 100% grassfed cattle, and other pasture-raised livestock.
In those years we were getting the message loud and clear that aligning agricultural practices with Nature was profoundly positive in every regard. We took it as an imperative to manage our water more wisely and do our part to move carbon out of the atmosphere and into the soil, where it belongs, creating a bi-product of truly nutritious food for people. We spent the next twenty years building a model to do just that.
Because of such pioneers as Jo Robinson, Sally Fallon, word got out and consumers appreciated that not only was it possible to produce good meat, it was a critical part of a healthy diet. This really made it possible for us to build our market.
Around the time of the drought of 2002, with a little pressure from the State of Colorado, water users in the San Luis Valley began to face up to the fact that due to prolonged drought and increased groundwater consumption, water levels in the aquifer that supports life in our valley were rapidly declining. SLV water users, government officials, and other concerned individuals worked to create a self-taxing legal entity to address the problem. By paying water users not to pump, the aquifer could be restored. The concept is simply to quit digging a hole.
With our farm’s location and water usage, we are eligible to participate in the set-aside program (Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program) instituted by Sub District 1 of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, and KW Farms has now retired most of its water rights.
We are very grateful to those who dedicated over ten years of their lives to create this entity, a herculean effort. Any time water is involved it’s difficult, especially in the West. Wars are fought over less. We are so proud of our community’s resourcefulness, creativity, and tenacity in coming to terms with this problem and its solution. When I first told my ranching friends in California about this a few years ago, they didn’t believe me, didn’t believe it was possible. The formation of Sub District 1 has been a great inspiration for many western states, however, and the San Luis Valley, once primarily known for UFOs, sand dunes, and poverty, is now considered a pioneer in innovative water management strategy.
According to the terms of the set-aside, we have three growing seasons and eighteen acre inches of water to establish permanent pasture prior to fallowing the land. Our transition is almost complete, and we are taking this opportunity to retire our cattle business – both the direct market and the cattle we sell through Sweet Grass Coop to La Montanita and Whole Foods - along with our water rights. John balked mightily when I first brought up the notion of retiring. “We’ve just gotten to the fun part!”
He would do it forever if I’d go along with it. But, this business is all-consuming, and I’d like to do some other things. Do some poking around off the beaten path of our delivery routes, do more work to build a better food system, including a label for bona fide grassfed beef and other pasture-raised meat, continue furthering the cause of regenerative agriculture. Right now, only 5% of this country’s farm and ranch lands are managed in a way that regenerates soil. We’re going to need a lot more participants to turn the climate corner.
We’ve had great partners through the years, most importantly our customers, who’ve been such great collaborators in building this alternate universe of a new food system. One of the great difficulties in retiring is telling you we won’t be there for you anymore, saying goodbye to people we’ve enjoyed keeping in touch with and seeing every month or so. We’ve learned so much from you and appreciated being part of your lives.
As long as we can keep the cattle from playing on the highway, there are enough to get us through September, eating that luscious pasture at Bill’s. We’ll be getting a regular supply of pigs from Mitch Buhr and charcuterie products from Lucas Salazar over the summer. Elena’s lambs won’t be ready by then, but we’ll put together a way for you to get lamb other than through us. In fact, we’ll build a solid list of sources of all kinds of good meat, and invite you to make your suggestions of anyone you know or would like us to check out. We’ll share our list of criteria of what to look for when making your decisions, since there really aren’t labels that make these things easy. Your taste is the greatest test of all and we want to hear from your taste buds about any meat you try. We’ve built a marvelous circle, all of us. Let’s continue to share.
On behalf of John Kretsinger, Renee Mackey, and A.J. DeBerard, have a Sweet Solstice. Enjoy the light. Be kind to that septic and it will be kind to you.
San Luis Valley, Colorado