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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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