How Now Brown Cow

Negro & son

It’s been one year since Reed Burns gave me one cow to figure out how to produce grass-fed beef in San Miguel, and what a tremendous year of learning it’s been — and hopefully far from over. I find it all so very fascinating, interesting, satisfying and completely heartbreaking.

One year later still, the most difficult cow is Reed Burns, but that’s the price of this front line education on cattle ranching and making meat. Reed and I have evolved together in this partnership because we both have great regard and determination to make an agricultural contribution, but Lordy the road has been bumpy and difficult.

When I walked into that meeting with Via Organica last year, I wasn’t sure of the name of the ranch, how many cows there were, what they did all day, and I barely knew of the breed “Limousin”. I googled it that morning to discover they’re a hearty French cow, good in this terrain, known for easy birth and similar in meat quality to the Angus. Reed Burns knew what he was doing when he choose the breed for his Guanajuato ranch over a decade ago. And I knew that we needed a better quality of meat in our community.

I didn’t know many of the things I know today, and looking back, I may have thought twice if I knew what I was in for… but then again, no. I have loved all the challenges of learning about cows, ranching in Mexico, butchering — soup-to-nuts, as they say. I’d never have privy to the things I’ve experienced if I were in the States, that’s one of the beautiful things about an unregulated life in Mexico; I’ve had face-to-face access to the blood, sweat and tears of raising cows.

Morning

I am not hardened or immune to any of it and sometimes all this blood, sweat and tears takes my breathe away. It has brought me to my knees more than a few times. Ranch life is very close to the bone and I am surrounded by men who seem to be unaffected by the death or killing of cows, whereas I’m affected by it all and still want to be involved. I prefer to be affected, but it requires me to take care of myself so I can continue to tend to the job at hand with a clear mind. It requires me to elevate my thinking and continue to strive to be a better person in all that I do.

Yes, I do take it very personally and work diligently with the folks I am working with to provide a good life to the cows, before we take their final sacrifice. Who are we to ask for the life of a cow if we are not clear in our own lives?

Morning

My heart has grown with the cows and I get accused of being too emotionally attached to them. It’s true I love them. One of my most favorite places on earth is sunrise in the corral, when I can hear all the cows breathing and chewing and snorting. I breathe with them. I stare. They stare. They get up slowly and stretch their front legs much like dogs. An avalanche of poop and whiz begins to splat on the dirt. Sun up, time to eat, time to move out into the fields. It’s strenuous work getting out to the fields and these cows work hard and are quite lean, yet very well-natured. I bless them with reiki as they march out into the rocky pasture. Another day of hiking across the hills of Rancho Santo Niño in search of food.

Heading Out

I continue to work with Reed Burns because I want them to have a better life and their lives have improved over the past year. They eat better food, their housing structures have been expanded, and greater attention has been given to their health. If I were to walk away right now, I would be content to know their lives are better now than when they were a hobby ranch a year ago. But I haven’t walked away; I am also in on the butchering of these animals when it is time, because it is my commitment to make sure they have a good death, as well as a good life. None of it is easy, however.

Bone

We have been fortunate to have found a butcher in Dolores who has a tremendous heart and has taken time and consideration to teach me so many things about cows and meat. He has taught me how to smell a carcass and what to “look” for when smelling that carcass. So many cows are fed horrible diets and no matter what’s said when the animal is sold, the smell of the meat never lies.

My butcher has taught me the importance of a veterinarian who is not afraid to bend over. What, bend over??! Yes, when cows need shots, and they all do at some point, you want to work with a vet who will bend down to administer the shot in the lower leg quarter and not in the prime rump, because that affects the quality of the meat. Our butcher has also taken time to work with our ranch boys to teach them how unnecessary it is to hit or beat the cows. He takes care to photograph the results of a bruised cow — or rather, bruised meat, to show them the consequence of not taking care. It has worked! The ranch family now flail their arms and yelp to move the cows. It literally made me cry when I saw this the first time.

A good life and a good death, right?

I am emotionally attached, but I also butcher, deliver and devour con gusto. It’s the most profound and soulful work I’ve ever done. It also completely kicks my ass.

Recently, two bulls got into an argument as bulls do, and one bull took a horn under his jaw, which caused an existing tumor to very quickly grow and swell up the bull’s head. He stopped eating, became listless and motionless. We had to end his misery. I went to see our butcher to talk about it and he took from a very large bucket the head of this bull that I have enjoyed breathing with on occasion, and plopped it on the table in front of me. We looked at the jaw, we analyzed everything, as the dead eyes looked at nothing.  I knew that cow and I liked him a lot. “This is what happens Meag, just deal with it,” I kept telling myself. This is what happens, cows die, deal with it.

Guess what? I have no clue how to deal with it. I don’t want any of these cows to die and how in the world did I arrive at a place in my life that I’m in on the killing of cows?? How did this happen and will I ever be forgiven???

This has cracked my soul wide open to a very strange place and I find myself considering life and death, love and hate, sex and dying, as well as wondering how far away am I from having my head on a table being examined and considered if there was anything more that could’ve been done? Is this who I am, a murderer of cows, a happy carnivore, or is it forcing me to see and experience life from a place of extreme gratitude for all that I have?

The other day I began to sob about my part in the killing of these cows to the point where no sound came out and my rib cage trembled and ached. I asked for forgiveness, I asked if maybe I should go instead of the next cow. I looked to the sun and wondered am I good enough to be doing this work and to please help me become a better person.

There is more work to do. But first I will draw Negro el Toro because he is so handsome and strong…

Negro

 

 

 

What is a Modern Farmer

Two years ago, I was hit with a powerful waterfall of emotions and tears as I blurted out I wanted to be a Modern Farmer, in the last hour of the last day of a Sonia Choquette six-sensory workshop. A Modern Farmer, what the heck does that mean?!! Aside from the magazine of the same name, I was very unclear about where this explosion of feelings came from, and laughed and scoffed the entire way home, no way could I be a modern farmer, oh the audacity!

Truth be told, once I uttered those words, I felt as if I had been hit by lightning; the spark had been lit but I had no idea what to do with it. A modern farmer, you say!? Oh stop.

sonia_workshop
Moments after declaring my Modern Farming ambitions

I did spend the first few years of my life on a dairy farm in Huntley, Illinois, although I have little-to-no-memory of it. But now that both my parents were dead, the pull to be in the country was strong, much to my chagrin. I fought it, dug my heels in, as I really believed I was supposed to be in Chicago. I was a Big City Gal, in fact, I was afraid of the country and all its creatures that go boo in the night; the wide open spaces made me terribly nervous. Give me a deserted city street at midnight any time over a quiet country, star-lit night. Once while house-sitting for my brother and his wife in Hebron, Illinois, I called 911 because I heard noises and was certain I was about to be terrorized. After a brief inspection, the policemen said to me, “do you realize that’s the wind?”

I called the cops on the wind.

There had been such tremendous and rapid loss at this point in my life; jobs, addresses, jewelry, my truck — my mom — and through all this I could feel the magnetic pull back to the country. Or maybe it was fear? Or, I know, it was shame, because how embarrassing to lose my everything, so why not run to the country with my tail between my legs? And what was I supposed to do, pray tell, become a tomato farmer? Can I support myself on tomatoes? Maybe a sprout farmer? My track record with plants has never been great and now I think I can be a sprout farmer? Fat Chance. I may have been sitting squarely in the farmlands of Northern Illinois-Southern Wisconsin, but I had a snowball’s chance in hell to become a farmer, modern or old-timey, at this point.

I filed the day dream away and continued my desperate search of WHAT AM I GOING TO DO WITH MY LIFE?!

Days after Sonia’s workshop, it was Thanksgiving, and thanks to a wonderful invite from my generous ex-husband, Reed, I made my way back to San Miguel de Allende and then to Austin, which I now call home. I quickly forgot all about my farming declaration and moved on to the task of cleaning up the wreckage from my past. I was a fairly miserable girl when I was married to Reed and had felt terribly guilty about how our marriage ended. It ended badly. Certainly not the worst divorce in the world, but I never got over the guilt for my bad behavior and selfish ways. The years I lived in Illinois after the divorce were one big alcohol-fueled guilt trip. This was my opportunity to make amends for my harmful behavior.

frida_diego

Whether he would agree or not, I believe I have made amends to the best of my abilities, first and foremost by being kind to the deserving Reed, and then by trying to be there in ways I had not been in the past. Not everyone gets a shot at this, nor would many want one, and even though it’s been messy and painful all over again, I am super-grateful I had this opportunity to make right a few of my wrongs. This has helped me to grow up. I like growing up, it feels good.

In early August of this year, after returning once again to San Miguel, I overheard Reed on the phone making a deal to sell his Mexican cows to a factory farm in Northern Mexico. Wait, wait, whoa, whoa WHAT?! I said as he hung up the phone.

Reed purchased his ranch in Dolores Hidalgo after we married in 2005; there were little or few cattle when he purchased it, and he spent the past 10 years adding to and cleaning up the breed of Limousin cattle to create a fine, handsome, beautiful breed of cattle; in addition to drilling for water and creating a majestic, sprawling, lush, 250-hectare Guanajuato rancho. The sound of the wind is amazing out here; I would never call the cops on it.

RSN
Majestic Rancho Santo Niño

Given my recent experience with a thyroid condition and the need to eat paleo, yet finding little-to-no resources for grass-fed beef in San Miguel de Allende, I chimed in with, “we need grass-fed beef right here in San Miguel and that’s what you have. Why don’t we make meat right here instead of shipping them off to a feed lot, where the cows are mostly wanted only for their arrachera?” Reed responded, “If you can find someone to process the cows, you can have some cows.”

The next day I was at Via Organica, aka, Central Mexico’s Whole Foods, and within two weeks, the team was assembled to produce grass-fed beef.

RSN_cover
The handsome Limousin cattle of Rancho Santo Niño

And so began Rancho Santo Niño.

I had spent the past year living with the cows at Reed’s ranch in Texas; I practiced reiki on them, played crystal bowls for them, and especially loved watching the Texas sunsets with them within an earshot. I loved those cows and had (have) great regard for them. Reed says, “cows are dumb.” I say no they are not! They are amazing mothers and any creature that is a wonderful mother is not dumb.

crystalbowls
Playing the crystal bowls off the back of the pick-up for the Texas cows

While I have great respect for the cows and their place in the world, I do know why these cows are here. They are fuel for the people. Oh but how to get them to the people?!

I think factory farming is an unspeakable, horrible injustice to all the animals churned out through them, in turn turning out sick food; to which some people have responded, yeah but you kill the cows too! This is true, but how the cows are treated until it is their time to become fuel for the people is where I want to do it different. I see the hidden videos of how animals are slaughtered; it bothers me tremendously as well. Have you see the Temple Grandin’s movie? She understood this on an entirely different level.

The hard-working cattle ranchers out there producing responsibly raised grass-fed beef are my inspiration, and I don’t pretend for one moment to be a fraction of a rancher, nor skilled tradesperson that they are, but I have learned amazing things through them and with my own experience of working with the ranchers and butchers of Dolores Hidalgo. I have thrown my hat in the ring of producing responsibly-raised grass-fed beef and this makes me incredibly proud and I am excited as I forge ahead and learn new things everyday. I am in on every step of this process and believe it has made me a kinder person, a more mindful person and the gratitude I feel each day when I drink my bone broth is a feeling I don’t want to shake anytime soon.

Producing grass-fed beef been a profound experience thus far.

Cattle ranching done right can save the world’s global warming demise, so says Allan Savory; his TED Talk is extremely moving and inspiring.

Oh and that declaration I made two years ago? I suppose it came true…

reiki_cows