February 2004

Local ranchers could find niche offering specialty beef

By Galen Larson

Farming and ranching in the West as we know it today will soon be a thing of the past, thanks to growth, limits on grazing rights and the changing eating habits of the consumer.

Public grazing is going the way of the buffalo. Legislators are already suggesting a voluntary buyout of grazing rights. Sounds good, but the small amount of money offered will not sustain for long those who sell. I haven’t heard any provision in the grazing proposal that would educate anyone who accepts the buyout for an alternative means of earning a living.

If we want to protect our Western lifestyle we’d best get involved and put forth some ideas and plans.

The folks that settled this area saw its potential or they wouldn’t have stayed. They diversified when the need arose. They used and prospered from what was on hand – in modern terms, if given lemons, make lemonade.

I see no lemons in this area, only opportunity. We have climate, natural beauty, open space, mountains, desert, attainable agriculture, water, wildlife, ancient history, diverse cultures, basic infrastructure and a large marketing region.

Residential growth is not the answer to economic problems. Its short-term attributes are negated by the permanent problems it brings. It consumes our water and land and puts a continuing burden on the infrastructure while reaping one and only one income or profit, instead of the continued income from agriculture.

So we must find a market niche for our local agricultural products, of which there are many: beef, fruit, vegetables, potatoes, fish, poultry, berries, herbs, lettuce varieties.

There is a big trend now toward more healthful beef. Grass-fed beef is one well-trusted standard, but it isn’t unique. Prime beef, however, has not been explored since the corporations pressured the USDA to exclude it from the top of the grading list. It cost too much to finish a beef in the feedlots. Under the concern that it was a cholesterol-increasing product it was removed from the steakhouses. Now upscale restaurants are not finding enough prime beef to serve their demanding clientele.

For many months now some local ranchers and I have been seeking to develop a specialty brand of prime beef for Montezuma County. It wouldn’t have to be organic, but it would be all-natural, fed a vegetarian diet of grasses and grains, and raised free of hormones and antibiotics. It would be excellent-tasting prime beef for consumers and high-quality eateries. This could be a niche product for our area.

Grand Junction is known for its peaches and other fruits. Olathe sweet corn is famous statewide. Paonia ranchers have opened their own home-grown beef retail shop. Here in Montezuma County, there is a large peach orchard shipping to other areas.

Some are intimidated by large corporations, but we shouldn’t be. Find the niche that the corporations can’t compete in. Offer better service or a better product, fresh, home-grown and free of chemicals. The buying public is tired of shabby goods and exorbitant prices. Bacon and ham are no longer slow-smoked but injected with artificial smoke and additives to embalm them. We get produce from other countries that is sold as fresh when it is days old. Research where things come from, then do the math. With the mileage, storage and handling one soon finds the big corporations are hedging to a large extent. With a little ingenuity one can overcome that competition.

Large feedlots are not necessary. Grazing is the answer for the cattle-grower and greenhouses for produce. Use less pesticide and artificial fertilizer; use natural methods to enhance the soil. In my youth I farmed in Minnesota during the Depression. I often kidded my father as to my worth on the farm, as he didn’t get a tractor till after I left. We knew nothing of organic produce or freerange chickens – there were no pesticides that I know of. We sold beef and hogs to the local butcher. Bread, butter, cheese, and garden vegetables were purchased by the local grocer. And everything tasted better then.

We don’t have to revert to those days completely, but with modern technology it could be accomplished in different ways. Only one thing stops us: negative thinking. But that can be overcome. We can form co-ops or small corporations. Have like-minded people get together, pick someone knowledgeable in marketing, form a committee to do research, pool efforts and money to become an established entity. Have a goal and when it is reached, strive higher. Pool ideas – like mushrooms, they may not look like much on first sprout, but will grow if nourished properly.

While ranchers and farmers are feuding with environmentalists, the real threat is advancing like toxic mold. If allowed to continue it will envelop and destroy this area forever. Growth – the scourge of the West. With our lack of water, continued growth will destroy our assets and deny our children the advantages we enjoy. We need a better way to prosper.

Galen Larson is a rural Montezuma County landowner.