I am a mother, a rancher, a business partner and an animal lover. Some might say that a Harvard masters and an Air Force Academy educational foundation is a bit over-educated for life on the ranch. Perhaps it is, but there are aspects to life here, which I could never have in the corporate world.
I have the great luxury of sharing the days with my children as they grow and experience life. I get to live with nature; hear the sounds of chickens exclaiming that they’ve laid their egg for the day, watch a calf getting a milk moustache while nursing from his mother, work outside, enjoy the fruits of my labor and teach my children the value of working hard at work worth doing.
I am also heavily involved in our family business, Double Check Ranch, utilizing finance, accounting and marketing skills, to ensure that we are continually improving. My husband and I left the active duty Air Force in 2006, after six and a half years of service. I have remained active in the reserves because I love the Air Force and serving my country.
Animal lover - the term denotes different things for different people. For me, being a rancher who raises and processes beef, the term is much more of a realistic approach to animal-human relations - as opposed to the idealized and unrealistic method that most people have. Yes, I started out as an idealistic teenager, PETA-reader, vegetarian. However, I won’t deny it, I love beef, I love the flavor of meat and my body craves proteins. That said, I hated - and still do abhor, industrial agriculture and the unimaginable horrors that animals suffer in huge, industrial, factory operations.
At 29 years old, my husband and I decided to go into the grassfed beef business that his family had started. I had long since given up my strict vegetarianism, but the move to a home that was just a few hundred feet from the processing facility (slaughter house) actually was a pragmatic choice for me. This was a choice based on love for animals. I wanted to ensure that the animals under our care would always be treated humanely and would never suffer in industrial feedlots or slaughterhouses. I remain adamant that every animal produced by us remain within our business and not be sold at the auction where they would inevitably end up being treated much worse than they would under our care. The fact is that people will eat beef and if we provide a humane and healthy alternative, then that's the solution to ensuring our animals are treated ethically.
My husband wanted to go into the grassfed beef business because he has always been drawn to entrepreneurship and the joy of determining where his time and energies would be focused. This was a motivating factor for me, but I will admit that the insecurity and difficulties in self-employment are sometimes very difficult to bear. It is very satisfying when customers appreciate our product and value the soul that we infuse into what we do. They may not be able to empathize with what we go through or understand all of what we do, but those who express their appreciation for us really make the hardships worth it.
Here are a few snippets of daily life:
Chicken wrangling. While my husband deals primarily with the cows, chickens are my passion. We don’t have TV and we don’t miss it because we have chickens! These busybodies are so neat to watch as they strut around, scratch at the ground, take dirt baths, eat grass like spaghetti, catch flies mid-air and quietly coo in their sleep at night. They give you motivation to get up early in the morning to let them out of their coop so they can get to work ridding the ground of insects and producing some of the loveliest eggs for us to enjoy. Sometimes they get out of their enclosure and that’s where chicken wrangling comes into play. We get to ‘herd’ chickens back - much easier said than done. Chickens are fast and they bob and weave really well so that it’s quite hard to catch them. Truly an experience that many kids and adults should have.
Green living. So we don’t have a fancy hybrid vehicle, but we use grey water at the ranch house for our landscape plants, we feed kitchen scraps to our chickens, Paul makes biodiesel from the rendered fat that we produce, we use the chickens to fertilize our pastures, they mow down my yard and keep down the bug population too. Paul uses a solar fence charger for the electric fence. Our petroleum use is much lower than typical industrial meat operations - we don’t truck in fertilizers (no petrol in gas or petroleum-based fertilizers), we don’t truck our animals to the slaughterhouse (we do everything right here), we don’t make a separate trip to the processing facility to pick up our product and distribute it - we just take it from here to market. So green we are, though we don't have the cool license plate to 'prove' it.
Legal challenges. Paul and I have always been known to fight injustice and vigorously oppose injustice, no change in this life either. We’ve obtained inspection status for our small packinghouse. We successfully challenged the local health department who wanted to fleece farmers’ market vendors with numerous fees that had nothing to do with food safety. We are in a pitched legal battle with our county regarding a road that cuts through a federally-protected conservation area of our property, allowing people who drive their vehicles through this area to destroy the local flora and distress the fauna with their off-road antics, trash dumping, illegal shooting, illegal fires and joy-riding which endangers our family and animals - not to mention our rancher neighbors’ families and animals, as well. This battle started in May 2007 and is expected to continue through May 2010. It’s interesting seeing how the justice system works and this has been an eye-opening process for us, inspiring me to pursue a degree in natural resource conservation law - a goal to be achieved in the years to come - right now I am very busy with the children and the business - actually conserving natural resources - and that’s a more important job for me in the near-term.
I’m a chicken! Katherine, our two-year-old daughter, loves to crawl into the chicken coop and tell me that she’s a chicken.
My white whale is a black brangus. Bessie the cow was pregnant in 2007 and I desperately wanted fresh milk from one of our own cows, so I spent her gestation months trying to tame her so that she would allow me to milk her eventually. After Calf (yes his name is what he is - though this is a disclaimer that we do not typically name our cows, just the rare few) arrived, I tried to continue warming up to Bessie. However, the time just after having a baby, as many men either know or will learn, is a very emotional and sensitive time for us mothers. Bessie became a really protective mother (a very good quality for a ranch cow who has to defend their calves from predators) and actually head-butted me (more like a tackle by a 1100 lb linebacker). So now Bessie has me buffaloed.
Chicken information that most people don’t know:
White eggs or brown (or even green) what’s the difference? The breed of chicken determines the color of the eggshell. White shells are more popular in the industrial model because they are typically from White Leghorn chickens that lay more than the brown breeds (they're not only fantastic layers, but their white eggs are really easy to find when they don't lay in their nests).
Egg yolk color. The more vibrant yellow/orange yolks come from chickens that eat fresh food that consists of greens and bugs - thus they are higher in beta-carotene and omega-3s. You can see a marked difference between our pasture-raised eggs and store-bought eggs.
How to tell if your eggs are old. Rotten eggs will float to the top of a glass of water (only works if they’re still in the shell). Store eggs are typically well-traveled and older than eggs you’ll get at farmers markets because of the distance required to get them from the place where they are produced to the consumer.
The egg decoy. Some chickens need an egg in their laying box to stimulate their laying instinct. A fake egg (either carved from wood or a painted plastic Easter egg) will work.
Lessons that we’ve learned here, which apply to life outside of the ranch as well:
Slow is fast. Doing something slowly, carefully, deliberately, with thought to your purpose, is essential. Also, don't get distracted from the final goal.
Chickens are a lot like people - when one of them gets beaten down, the rest jump on top and pick on the one who is down. Don’t be like them.
Mothers will defend to the death their babies (doesn’t apply to most chickens and eggs). Don’t get in between a mother and its baby unless you’re in the mood for some serious bodily harm.
Slower more meaningful pace of life – it sounds
quaint. And it is, sometimes. During the winter time, the slower pace of
life means that we have to wait for the wood stove to heat the house, we have to remember to collect kindling and firewood during the day. It also means
that someone has to do the dusty duty of cleaning the fireplace of ash. Perhaps slower means also more deliberate. Because we live 1 hour from the nearest large grocery store, we have to plan carefully our town trips. There is a lot of thought that goes into our daily lives and I think this is good for us; it's not easy, but it's valuable.
Information on pasture-raised products
Food products that are raised truly naturally are truly different. They are a return to how our food used to be produced. You will most likely notice the taste and texture differences, before you’ll truly appreciate the health, spirituality and planetary differences that this food will allow you to become a part of.
First things first, yes pastured products are toothsome. Toothsome? Do I mean tough? Well yes and no. Tough implies a certain shoe-sole-ness, while toothsome means that teeth will be expected to do what they are designed to do - chew. This is meat, folks, not porridge. If you want tofu beef and chicken, then go to one of your neighborhood grocery stores where you’ll find industrially produced meats that are soft and insipid (and it is no insult to the animals who they are from, it’s no fault of their own that they are fed highly-processed foods that consist of industrial byproducts. Ever wonder why some eggs say that they were ‘vegetarian fed’ - so what were the others fed??
Why is the meat toothsome? The answer is really so simple that you might not believe it. Beef and chicken that are raised on pasture, namely grassfed and grass-finished, are allowed to walk around and behave as they naturally would. Contrary to what industrialists would have you believe, cows, chickens, pigs, sheep and goats are not the stupid animals that they are characterized as - yes they are not as smart as you (although some would say they’re smarter than some folks). These animals are designed to walk about foraging and browsing for their food, their brains are programmed to walk about in search of better food (aren’t we all) - so why is it any surprise that they would languish and be mentally disturbed by confinement that is designed to maximize their fat and minimize the amount of land required to ‘produce’ the meat products in question. Confinement operations that I am referring to are feedlots, chicken houses, and pig barns. Yes the animals are given amounts of ‘food’ (though I doubt it could be called food if you actually knew what it consists of) sufficient to keep them well fed and fat - but they are denied room to move about, to restrict their caloric expenditures (loss of weight). They are also confined to minimize the amount of land required to produce the meat (if feeder A can produce 50 cattle on 50 acres, and feeder B can produce 500 cattle on 50 acres, who do you think will have a nicer bank account?).
In contrast to this, our animals can amble about, in fact the cows were actually frolicking in the pasture today - a wonderful sight.
The first thing you’ll notice about feedlots is the smell, when you’re on remote stretches of highways, that’s where you’ll usually find them. That’s all most people ever experience of feedlots, but visit the Humane Society of the U.S. and Michael Pollan’s websites and you’ll find that feedlots are generally overcrowded, dirty dirty dirty places that produce not only tons of meat but also tons of water, air and soil wastes.
The taste of pastured products is different because they eat what they are designed to eat. Cows are designed to eat grass and it gives their meat a more full flavor than when they are fed a corn-based diet. Many people say that our beef tastes like buffalo, that’s because industrial buffalo had typically been fed a grass-based diet (though this is changing). The meat from pastured products tastes more like what your grandparents ate.
What you cannot taste in the meat is the Omega-3 fatty acids, the conjugated linoleic acids and beta-carotene that are all higher in pastured products. These are all good for you. Just like your mother told you at the dinner table, you are what you eat. If the animals eat healthy (as they were designed to do) then they will be healthy and you’ll reap the health benefits from them.
I like to tell my customers that choosing to eat our beef is like making the choice of eating either Chris Farley or Brad Pitt/Matthew McConaughey (the voice of “Beef it’s what’s for dinner”). One is going to be really soft, fatty and unhealthy to eat, the other will be healthier, more natural, have more character and flavor. Yes perhaps not as soft, but look at the tradeoff! Or our beef is akin to a small vintage red wine in contrast to a store bought white zinfandel. There is nothing wrong with the white zin, its easy flavors, smoothness and consistency are what makes it a great starter wine, but the small vineyard variety that you happen upon while traveling around looking for something rare, beautiful and exotic - now that’s what you’ll find in our beef. The color of our beef is different than industrial beef; it’s more vibrant red because it has less fat and more iron and beta-carotene.
Humane treatment is the most important category for me. Our animals live their lives in a natural environment, with soil and grass underfoot, trees and sun overhead. They are treated respectfully and we try our hardest to not stress them out with repeated moves, unnatural experiences. When it comes time for them to be slaughtered, my husband does the kills and he conducts them quickly, with dignity and the minimal amount of stress possible. We do this because we know and care about our animals, we have a relationship with them and, yes, our livelihood depends on them. Industrial meat operations depend on reducing animals to meat production units and removing the personal relationship that the people involved have with the animals. When industrial slaughterhouses kill upwards of a hundred animals every hour, the emphasis is placed on reducing the time required to get the job done and not on reducing the amount of stress that animals experience. Needless to say these workers also do not have personal relationships with the animals. I believe that there is something vitally important in the relationship that man shares with the animals that are under his care. The entire life process is important and experiencing that relationship is part of our humanity, not coincidentally, it is something that is missing in today’s culture. The moral culpability that we share in an animal’s death, when we eat that animal’s meat or wear its leather is not avoided by outsourcing the killing to a ‘select few’ who work in the industrial slaughterhouses. The dehumanizing of these individuals, through desensitizing them, is, I believe, a moral weight that we all bear, whether we like it or not.
Imagine this, just a short hundred years ago - 1909, most people had chickens in their backyards, they perhaps had a dairy cow, they knew their butcher and likely bought their food animals and brought them to him, knowing full-well that they were responsible for the animal’s death. The children were a part of this cycle, by feeding the animals, tending to their upkeep and knowing that their food came from the animals that they lived in concert with. Nowadays, some children don’t know the connection between bacon in the store and a pig that they see in a movie. Some people would like to believe that the steak they enjoy roamed the isles of their grocery store in the plastic-wrapped Styrofoam container all its life. Like it or not, if you eat meat, you are responsible for the death of an animal. You can choose to make this choice with dignity by buying from small producers who can show that their animals were treated humanely and by not throwing away food.
Price is an area that people will notice about pastured products, some people notice this first, because that’s what we’ve been trained to judge food by, price alone. Yes the price is higher for pastured products and that is because it takes more labor, time and land to produce these products. We are able to grass-finish our beef through management-intensive-grazing, meaning that Paul divides the pastures into smaller paddocks with electric fence that he uses to control the cows’ eating, a way of ensuring that they mow down their salad bar evenly, rather than just going after the choice grasses in the pasture. This method produces healthy fields and healthy animals, but does require a significant amount of labor in moving the fences daily. The same goes for the eggs we produce, we move the chickens to new areas with fresh greens for them to devour, but it takes a lot of work to move their coop and fencing. So in addition to the health benefits of the meat and eggs, the labor costs result in a higher price for pastured products. If you are eating properly sized portions for your meals and vary your diet with a lot of vegetables and fruits, then the higher priced pasture products will not make that significant of a dent in your budget because you’re going back to how your grandparents ate as well - meat is special and good food in general is special - buy quality and savor every last enjoyable bite of it. This is in contrast to how we have been trained in the past 50 years, where larger portions and lower price were the only determining factors. These two factors are inextricably linked to the reduced health qualities in our foods and ultimately in us.
Relationships. People are herd animals, like it or not we are just like the cows, we need each other and we feel ennui and disconsolation when we are separated from them. I believe that our modern life, with 500 channel satellite TV, the world-wide-web, drive-through windows, and speed checkouts at the grocery stores, are just a few causes of the social ennui that we are experiencing now. While the TV and Internet are supposed to make us feel more connected with the larger world, they have disconnected us from the world immediately around us. Relationships with neighbors are strained because people are content to dream themselves away to ‘unreality TV’; people decry the horrors of huge slaughterhouses while choking down Big Mac’s.
I think this is also connected to our lack of a relationship with animals. While many people have pets, they have outsourced their food production in such a way that they have no relationship with the food they eat and have forgotten the beauty of a hen’s cackle, the sogginess of a cow’s nose and the smell of a butcher shop. Children need to see animals behave naturally; it’s incredibly special for a child to collect an egg from a nest that is still warm from a chicken sitting on it. The knowledge of where your food comes from is something spiritual, it’s valuable in the respect that it brings about - from children and adults alike. You’ll value your food and your animals a lot more if you know that their wellbeing is directly tied to your wellbeing.
I think that’s why people go to farmers’ markets; they’re looking for different, special, honest tastes, foods, people and relationships. They want to take the time to talk with the rancher or farmer. They like to discuss recipes and cooking tips with fellow customers. The beauty of eating what is in season means that they get exposed to foods that they ordinarily wouldn’t try cooking with, such as the huge variety of squashes that are available. They don’t mind ugly tomatoes if they taste great. They love our beef because of its flavors and the white butcher paper that it is wrapped in - the way their grandparents used to have meat in the freezer. They love the relationships that they cultivate and watch blossom. We love having people out to the ranch so that they can see firsthand that we actually do what we say we do. They get to walk through the pastures, see the animals grazing, visit the river, let their children splash in the water, and experience a bit of what we live, if even just for a few hours. It’s not glitzy, it’s hot and dusty; it’s not white-washed picket fences (you’ll get a splinter or two from them); but you know what - it’s real, true, honest and it’s beautiful.