Thursday, February 20, 2014

GMO's - A Plea for Reason

One of the best parts of being a member of Country Natural Beef is the annual meeting where we meet and mix with our retail partners. Whether it’s a regional director for a mega-store like Whole Foods, or a meat cutter at a small independent like Overland Market in Lake Tahoe, these men and women sit in our circle and help us work through issues, big and small, that affect our shared industry.

This year the message they carried to us from the front lines was this: our customers are asking for meat produced without the use of GMO's (genetically modified organisms). Plain and simple - either we do it or someone else will.

At first I was on board; GMO’s scare me. But then Seth encouraged me to take a look at the other side of the issue. Turns out that genetically modified crops can do a lot of good. The use of Round Up Ready corn, for example, means less tillage passes through the field, lessening erosion and preserving soil health. GM crops, manipulated to resist a single pest species, don't need to be sprayed with toxic chemicals that kill the good bugs along with the bad bugs. Other attributes including drought tolerance, improved yields on depleted soils, and higher nutritive values help fight hunger. In our world today, with climate change on top of exhausted soils in developing countries, to refuse this promising technology seems selfish.

So, just as I had gotten my mind around this information, I ran across an article on Monsanto’s latest food producing technology. They know that consumers won’t tolerate GM foods in the produce aisle so they’re reinventing traditional crossbreeding. They cross two plants showing desirable traits, sift through the offspring and then fast forward by growing only those plants that display those traits. What nature would have taken thousands of years to accomplish, they do in just a few years. The fruits and vegetables they create are - you name it - sweeter, more nutritious, have a longer shelf life, smell better, etc. They've even developed an onion that won’t make you cry! And they’re doing it without genetic modification.  

So what does it all mean? Does resisting GM technology lead to positive research in other areas? Can I endorse genetic modification as a valuable tool in some cases, but still market a product that shuns its use?

Rather than making a black or white determination, I believe in a case by case evaluation of food production technology. Tell me how it affects soil health. Tell me if there’s a plan to protect wildlife habitat on the field's perimeter and biodiversity of the total resource. Can it be used to help subsistence farmers in developing countries? Will it keep families on the land? Let’s get the questions right and then we can make sense of it.

Meanwhile back at the ranch -

calvey heifers on feed (yes it's non gmo!)

Jesse and Gary to the rescue when we got stuck

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Winter Grouse Meetings

I’ve been in on some enjoyable meetings lately with ranchers, biologists and range scientists around a familiar topic, sage grouse.

Political sparring is in full swing over the bird as we move closer to the deadline for an Endangered Species listing decision in September of 2015. Cutting through the rhetoric and posturing, getting down to what’s best for the bird can be difficult sometimes . . . actually most times.  

The meetings were held to address rancher concerns and to nail down sites for a grazing and grouse research project to be conducted in Idaho over the next ten years. And as far as meetings go, these were great. It feels good to finally scientifically address the continuing debate over whether grouse and cows can co-exist. The research promises to be common-sense based and applicable to real world situations, and though the ranchers are understandably cautious, they signed on.

One meeting was held at a local fire station. It doubles as a community center evidenced by the boxes of canned food for locals in need. Another meeting was over coffee at Martha’s CafĂ©, another at a government agency conference room with high-tech overhead mapping, and finally we shared lunch at The Country Kitchen. Different ranchers in every setting, but all interested in learning ways to protect their livelihood and still do right by the bird. 

We listened to a member of the Shoshone-Bannock tribe talk about the medicinal qualities of sagebrush leaves and the long tradition of hunting grouse in tribal lore. Another long time rancher told of grouse flying up under his colt, watching summer broods scurry to cover and seeing large flocks rise late in the year when gathering cattle in the fall. A woman rancher described the beauty of the desert when wild flowers are in bloom. A middle aged ranching couple talked of the miles and miles of fencing they maintain each year and how to handle rats in the cabin over the summer. 

These ranchers are the real deal. I applaud them for stepping out as leaders, willing to move forward whatever the outcome.   

one frosty morning

Anna's Mater horse

new cedar post

Saturday, February 1, 2014


It’s been so dry and sunny this month that I’ve been mulling a blog entitled, “The Winter that Wasn’t.” I’m holding off until March, though, and hoping against hope the blog won’t materialize. We finally got some snow and rain this week and the mountains are a good solid white in the distance. Our summer water supply depends on snow accumulation throughout the total Snake River and Blackfoot River watersheds and it's looking bleak so far.

If the ranch has a slow season, it’s now. Mark comes in relatively early and the evenings stretch out in unfettered luxury. Yes, he might watch TV, but often he busies himself with some kind of ranch book work. He may research composting on the computer, read an article on herd health or tackle any number of management questions to implement in the upcoming production year. Soon enough he’ll be back working “in” the business, so we need to make the most of this time working “on” the business. 

My favorite winter spot in the house is the glider next to the wood stove. I keep a dictionary and thesaurus handy for working on the daily crossword puzzle from “The Morning News,” (no googling allowed). Also at my elbow are the 2-3 books I’m currently reading. It's lovely, but the tough part is staying awake until lights out at 9:00 p.m.    

It’s the continuing education time for the larger ranching community as well. Yesterday we attended a tax seminar and next week we’ll learn about soil biology and meet with a group of ranchers to go over our strategic plans for the future.  

I got a nice surprise this morning. I’ve asked Mark for years to weld me a step on the back of our 1977 Ford 2-ton Truck. It’s a great truck, we use it every day feeding cows, but it’s awfully high and getting on the bed is a real conundrum for me. I’ve had to strategically place a pile of hay underneath it to climb on or get assistance from the driver. I hate needing help, especially when I watch younger more agile feeders leap on without assistance. Well, it finally happened! Mark designed a dandy step that slides down into the slots on the bed so it's removable when winter feeding is done for the year. I can even get on while the truck is moving! Who said a woman is hard to please?

So beautiful this morning . . . .