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Friday, September 25, 2009

Vision without action is a daydream. Action without vision is a nightmare.

Before I started this blog, during my readings about buffalo I came upon a story about Native American hunters and their mythological relationship to bison.  According to this article, some Native Americans believed that bison were spiritually aware of their interconnection with humans and that a bison would "give itself up" to a hunter who honored and respected that connection.  Accordingly, Native Americans were respectful of the bison's gifts:  flesh for nourishment; hair for ropes; skins for blankets, moccasins and clothing; and bones and horns for tools, bowls, and spoons.

Our modern culture does not have that close connection to its animal food sources, and it shows in how we treat them.  As I began reading about the current state of bison ranching, I saw that people who raise bison for food and other products generally fall into two camps:  cattle-rancher types who have taken modern techniques and processes for raising and harvesting cattle and applied them to bison; and naturalist types who strive to provide a natural, stress-free environment for their bison, as free as possible from human interference.

In the cattle-rancher model, the bison are treated solely as commodities and so, like cattle, are grain fed while living in confinement for three months prior to their slaughter, to fatten them up.  In the naturalist model, bison roam freely within the confines of the ranch and feed on a variety of pasture and natural grasses, with quality supplemental food offered only during the winter as needed.

I already knew which type of rancher I wanted to be, but I wasn't so sure about my farm-raised, beef-loving partner, Page.  Since we had never actually discussed it, I started wondering if Page and I would have the same values and philosophy about how we wanted to conduct ourselves as ranchers -- our effect on the environment, the care and respect for the animals, and how to balance that with the need to earn money while doing it.  Page and I often poke fun at each other's political and philosophical leanings:  I'm a bleeding-heart, animal-loving, tree-hugging liberal and he's a selfish, hard-line conservative capitalist.  We joke because we know that neither of these stereotypes suits us, even if there is a small grain of truth to each of them.

So, it was with just a little trepidation that I broached the subject with Page.  I described what I'd learned about various methods and philosophies for raising bison and how those methods affected the quality of the meat and the quality of life for the bison.  I tried not to express an opinion one way or another, although I'm sure Page could guess where my feelings would lie.  I even pointed out that some of the ranchers who favor grain feeding say it makes the buffalo meat tastier and more tender.  I paused and waited for a response, hoping that this would not be something that we would have to hash out.

Page turned to gaze out the window as he considered what I was saying, and without looking at me he said "You know, when they do that [referring to grain feeding], it's to fatten 'em up so they weigh more; it doesn't make 'em taste better."  I was encouraged by this response, but still unsure, so I followed up with "so what do you think about grass feeding only?" This time, Page turned and grinned at me; he knew what was going on and was chuckling at my liberal earnestness; my heart started to sink, as I anticipated some smiling but rather callous response about how we're going to be in business and we can't worry about stuff like that.  Instead, he said "I think that's the way to go.  People care about that nowadays."  Turns out that not only does Businessman Page see grass-fed bison as the wave of the future, but he also cares about the effect of our actions on the environment and the well being of the animals.

Happily, one perceived obstacle, that turned out not to be an obstacle, was out of the way.  At that moment, I knew that our venture was another step closer to becoming real, because my partner and I shared a vision that included care and respect for the natural environment and our place in it.

For more information about the benefits of grass feeding, read Grass-Fed Basics by Jo Robinson.

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Saturday, September 19, 2009

Buffalo or Bison?

The North American creatures that we commonly refer to as “buffalo” are actually “bison.” True buffalo, such as the water buffalo or cape buffalo, are native only to Africa and Asia. It is possible that early North American explorers, unfamiliar with bison, likened them to the more familiar Asian animals, hence the name “buffalo.” In any case, here they are used interchangeably and both terms refer to this beautiful animal.

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The Squeaky Wheel

We've all heard the saying, “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.” My first memory of hearing it was from my Mom, when she was trying to explain why my two extroverted, high-strung brothers were let off the hook more often than myself and my quieter brother, G. She knew it wasn't “right” but that sometimes it was just easier to ask more of G than of B, because B howled the loudest and longest. Then she sighed.

Why am I thinking of this? Because I have noticed that in my own life, I had to learn the hard way that sometimes it's necessary and right to be the squeaky wheel, even when, or maybe especially when, it isn't in your nature.

Two nights ago, I had to visit the ER. I won't go into details about why, but let's just say that I had plenty of time to observe my fellow sick people during the long wait in the ER lounge, and by my observations, I was not the sickest one there; I was second in line for that honor. After waiting two hours while in excruciating pain and having to run to the public restroom several times to vomit, I decided to muster up the energy to become the Squeaky Wheel. And, in less than ten minutes I had a bed to lie down on. But, two days later and feeling much better, I began to think about the woman in the ER lounge who appeared to be the sickest one there, and how she and her husband waited patiently while she sobbed quietly in pain. I sit here wishing that her husband had become the Squeaky Wheel for her so that she could have at least gotten a bed to lie down on while she waited for a doctor.

So, how does this relate to bison ranching? I'm not sure exactly, but I think it has something to do with a willingness to push a little harder and not sit back and wait for things to happen. I believe this is a skill that both Page and I will have to use more than once if we want to bring our idea to fruition.

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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The idea

It all started in a cardiologist’s waiting room. My fiance’, Page, was paying a visit to Karen, the lively physicians assistant who knew just how to talk to a southern-born man. It had already been determined through an angiogram that Page’s arteries were clear, but we were here to find out the results of further testing, to figure out why he sometimes still had trouble breathing.

I picked up a magazine, the name of which I no longer remember, but it was oversized and had lots of beautiful photography. Page was also reading and discovered, to his delight, that his weight gain over the past two years was simply because he was happily living with me -- a recent study had said so. Of course, this is Page’s interpretation, which he was thrilled to share with me.

After a few laughs over that one, I thumbed through the magazine, skimming articles until I came across one written by a man who had converted his cattle ranch to buffalo. The bison are native to North America and he soon discovered that raising them was easier and more natural than raising cattle. They had evolved to live in the Prairie, where his ranch was located, and removing the cattle and adding the buffalo had brought new life to his ranch. The native grasses and flowers were returning, along with wildlife that hadn’t been seen for a long time.

By the time we were called to Karen’s exam room, the few paragraphs I had read had captured my imagination, and were still lingering in my thoughts while I focused on Page’s breathing problems (he had asthma), medications, and Karen’s admonitions about diet and exercise.

On the ride home in the car, I mentioned the article to Page. Page and I had, over the few years we’d been together, casually discussed moving to the country, even having a very small farm, but never in great detail or with any actual plan to do so. Money was tight, since Page was no longer working full time. But something about the idea of owning and raising buffalo had lit a tiny seed of desire within me. I’ve wanted to live in the country for a long time. I was raised in a small town, but I am not a country girl by any stretch of the imagination. I’ve never experienced the hard work needed to keep a farm running, and I know next to nothing about it. But, the idea has always felt right to me. Now, my thoughts kept returning to the buffalo. I knew enough about them to know that their meat is much healthier than beef. And I knew enough about Page to know that he might like the idea of raising buffalo. He grew up on a farm in Florida and knew about animals, farms, and hard work. Page has always been a nonconformist, and I had a hunch that raising buffalo, instead of something more ordinary like cows or pigs, would appeal to his adventurous side. I was right; he kind of liked the idea. But, for now, that’s all it was: a crazy idea.

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