Bet you thought I’d dropped off the face of the Earth, eh?
I’ve been in Florida for the past week (tough, I know) and I’ve been furiously working on this post, tweaking, revising, perfecting.
It’s about cows. Happy cows. Like there should be any other kind! This is the flipside to my previous post on EARTHLINGS which illustrates just how cruel we can be. Actually, it’s about more than just cows. It’s about how, when we don’t poke our noses in nature’s business, everything seems to fall into place…naturally. Imagine that?!
First off I have to admit that I have a HUGE guilty conscience!! Just ask my Mum. I used to “taste” (read: steal) grapes from the grocery store when I was a child. Later, I would feel SO bad about robbing the store of a few (usually sour) grapes that I’d confess everything to my mother. So, if taste-testing the produce without paying bothered me it’s logical to assume that eating an “unhappy” animal wouldn’t sit right with me either.
If I’m going to eat an animal then I make damn sure that it’s happy meat on the end of my fork. It’s not just that it’s better for me, although that does factor in to it. It’s the bigger picture. It has to do with the soil, the grass, the birds and the bees, the animals frolicking in the fields, the farmers and the community.
In my ideal world there would be harmony between humans, animals and the earth. We’d all be coexisting quite nicely, it’d be all lovey dovey, hippie dippy, and so on. But, instead, we (humans) seem to be doing a pretty good job of ruining everything for everyone. In my quest to change the world in some small way I’ve decided that I should use my investigative journalism skills and showcase some of the good guys that aren’t ruining everything for everyone! Disclaimer: If you find the following interview and/or report to be unsatisfactory it may be due to the fact that I have zero investigative journalism skills. I have a degree in kinesiology and am far more educated in knots used in rock climbing or calculating a person’s body fat by submerging them in water than I am at interviewing someone. Fortunately, my first subject made my job very easy and basically interviewed himself.
If you’ve followed my train of thought - petty theft as a child…guilty conscience…causing an inability to eat factory farmed animals…sparking a fire to learn more about the good guys - you’ll find yourself with me, in Tillsonburg, on Y U Ranch
, about to be blown away by cattle rancher and all-around-good-guy Bryan Gilvesy.
I briefly met Bryan at the Terroir Food Symposium (remember the post on putting “nyah” into your food?) and learned that he and his wife (Cathy) raise grassfed cattle. I didn’t really think about him and his happy cows again until a friend suggested that I profile a local farmer on my blog. Brilliant! I got in contact with Bryan and asked if I could visit the farm and pick his brain a bit. He seemed keen and we set a date. I’m always looking for ways to get out of the city and this seemed like the perfect excuse. I prepared some questions, hopped in the car and drove to Tillsonburg (near London).
I arrived at the ranch and Bryan invited me into his home (which he informed me he doesn’t usually do for strangers). He offered me one of his wife’s muffins and, never being one to turn down food, I happily indulged. The plan was to take me around the ranch and then we would come back to the house and taste test the beef. Sounded way better than the one hour Q&A I had envisioned.
With a tape recorder in hand, rubber boots on my feet and Daisy and Gunner, his two sheepdogs, in the lead we started our tour. Bryan explained that we would start with the environment first and get to the cows later.
"If you see how we look at nature then you’ll see how our cows fit. They aren’t interlopers. They’re part of the cycle."
Our first stop is a patch of tall grass…
People don’t understand that grasslands are as important an ecosystem as forests. And the grasslands have gone missing because they’re the easiest to till, right? They also found these grasslands, when they till them, to be incredibly fertile. So we started this as a grassland/bird ecosystem restoration project. We discovered that it sequesters carbon, it’s great for beneficial insects, it holds native bees and it’s completely drought-tolerant and loves heat.
Wow, who knew grass was so important?!
We let it grow up nice and tall so all the grassland birds and bees [can] use it. It incorporates flowers…round-headed bush clover, echinacea, compass plant. This has taught us the value of polyculture in agriculture. These require no fertilizer, no anything. It gets fertilizer by sucking carbon down from the sky, the roots change over every two years. So what it leaves behind is organic material that drives future growth. This eliminates the need for chemical fertilizers. It pulls what it needs out of the sky and puts it into the earth. It completely cycles. The first time I heard that when I was a conventional farmer I thought they were crazy. But we grow this and these systems get bigger and stronger each year with no fertilizer at all. So there’s immense power in nature and if you can harness it it’s fantastic.
We continue our walk into the forest and follow a stream down a hill where Bryan stops to explain the significance of this…
The green stuff you see growing there is skunk cabbage. It smells like skunk. It’s indicative of cold clean water. It’s a very good thing. You can see it following this little seepage. Our water table is only about 12-13 ft below that. Agriculturally we gotta be careful about what’s going on up there because it winds up in the water. But most of Ontario agriculture use drainage tiles which are four feet deep which directly takes what’s in that field into the water and we aim to try and change [that].
Clean water! Awesome! There are arguments against eating meat because the manure contaminates our water. Just Google “factory farming waste water” and you’ll see disgusting photos of sludge instead of water. But that’s only going to happen if you pack more animals than the land can sustain and if you’re not smart about the runoff. The skunk cabbage (and it definitely lives up to its name) is proof that cows and clean watercan live harmoniously.
We carry on through the forest and Bryan bends down to point out this flower…
There’s always something flowering in nature from now to October. The reason is God’s putting something out for the bees. Don’t confuse the [native bees] with honey bees. Native bees are much more important than honey bees. Honey bees are European and they were brought here. They’re domesticated bees. There are 1250 types of native bees. Problem with the native bees - some bees have co-evolved with some plants. So if you lose a plant you lose a bee. We try and do a lot of projects for native bees. By putting out things throughout the season that they can eat from as opposed to the 4 million acres of corn that all flowers within two weeks. We can’t survive without bees as a species.
"Everyone’s got a job to do."
The way this works is: typically woodpeckers go after trees with insects in them. An insect tree has somehow got a problem. So the woodpecker’s job is to get that tree on the ground as quickly as possible so it can rot and make fertilizer for the other trees.
We finish our walk through the forest and get to two fields. One that’s used to grow hay for the cows in the winter and the other one that the cows mow through during the warmer months.
How do you “fatten” them up for slaughter?
We don’t want that. Think about what the word means “fatten them up”. What the hell is that? It’s stupid. And the reason we’ve come to consider that is somewhere along the way we decided we could grade beef on a very simple scale of how much fat is in them (triple A). But that doesn’t tell you about terroir, or whether it was hormoned or antibioticed or kept in a pen. It tells ya nothing. So part of what we’ve got to do collectively is change the nature of how we define beef. The tenderness is made through the way we handle and care for the animals not through loading it up with fat. Fat animals are tense and shitty and their stomachs are upset the whole time. I’m not happy with it at all. It’s crazy!
And your cattle are hormone-free?
Yah. We’re LFP certified. Local Food Plus. I think, for me, that’s the best certification standard because it goes beyond the organicness of the beef. It speaks to the environment as well. So you have to be kind to the animals, you have to have an active biodiversity project, must be active in reducing your carbon footprint, can’t use child labour, and on it goes. And what I like about it is people have selfishly interpreted organic that it’s what goes in their bodies, but organic was never intended that way. This brings it back to a very sensible, very holistic view to how that food was raised, whether it’s beef, pork, vegetables…
Bird boxes: always two together.
The idea is the tree swallow goes in one (they need help too), the bluebird goes in the other and they sort of defend each other’s boxes from bad birds (house wren) they actually kill the young of the blue birds. The bird boxes are around simply because we’ve restored the grasslands here so how about giving the grassland birds a place to live.
We get to the first field of cows. The babies frolick about playing tag and learning how to be cows. Mamas are just chillin’ and chewing their cud. It’s beautiful! And I just want to point out how much land and grass they have!
Now that you’ve got a glimpse of the cattle it seems like the perfect place to end part one. Kind of like a commercial break before revealing the results on American Idol - annoying and a big, giant tease! Haha. I wanted to divide this into two posts simply because there’s a helluva lot of information in here and, if you’re anything like me, your attention span is probably at it’s max right about now. Tomorrow, there’ll be photos of baby cows doing baby cow things! And since no one can resist adorable baby animals I know I’ll have your full attention for part deux.