Early in the morning on May 5, while dawn was still having second thoughts about even cracking, the New Mexico Beef Council’s semiannual Gate to Plate tour kicked off. Journalists, ranchers, legislators and industry insiders were pressed back in their chairs as our bus, the size of a rock band’s, tore out of Albuquerque and headed for Clovis.
On finicky, crackling speakers the theme to Rawhide played as the driver throttled us toward a two-day tour of beef ranching operations, dairies and other aspects of the state’s beef industry. Later, after picking up some stragglers in Moriarty, we were treated to the theme from Bonanza.
Beef and agriculture people are a good time and they’re willing to use cheesy theme music to prove it.
On the face of it, Gate to Plate is pure marketing—to journalists, certainly, but also to politicians who may be in a position to influence legislation that affects the industry. I sat within spitting distance of Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Bernalillo; Rep. Dennis Roch, R-Tucumcari; Rep. Jim White, R-Bernalillo; and Rep. Janice Arnold-Jones, R-Bernalillo, who happens to be running for governor.
David Abbey, director of the Legislative Finance Committee, was along for the ride. He looked like a younger, more Western Bill Clinton in his perfect cowboy hat and boots.
By the end of the day, Abbey was in the dirt at the T4 Cattle Company ranch, holding a 300-pound calf in a bizarre wrestling lock while grizzled cowboys branded, castrated, vaccinated and dehorned the beast.
After a day driving through some of New Mexico’s most productive agricultural land and spending intimate time among ranching and dairy families, it’s tough not to be an involved, in-the-dirt cheerleader for New Mexico beef. It’s the state’s second largest industry, after oil and gas, and New Mexico’s ranchers and dairymen are often part of third- and fourth-generation family operations. All the cattle we were shown were healthy and, with the exception of a few calves that had the most shocking day of their young lives, happy.
We had beef for breakfast, beef for lunch, beef for snacks and steak for dinner. The only problem is that none of it was New Mexico beef. This does not strike members of the Beef Council as an irony of epic proportions. To attend an expensive, professional tour showcasing New Mexico beef and to stand among New Mexico cows only to have someone hand you a plate of meat that can’t be identified past “Walmart” strikes me as a weird hiccup in the logic stream. But the industry is, after all, an industry. To people who work beef every day, there are business practicalities and conditions that precede notions of fresh, local food.
Certainly, there’s an awareness that it would be nice to have local meat on local grocery shelves and in local homes and restaurants—and there’s an acknowledgement that, in some cases, premium prices will be paid for local, antibiotic- and hormone-free meat—but that is not at the forefront of beef-industry thinking, not by a long shot.
That’s just the tip of the culture clash between ranchers and those whom they derisively call “enviros.” We enviros have our own equally unproductive names for ranchers. Let’s not even touch the subjects of regulation, immigration or how to handle wolves. But a lot of those contentions are red herrings. For all the difference we see in each other, our common interests are stronger.
That’s an insight that cuts through the Beef Council’s cheerleading and the elite “moral” high ground of those, like me, who’ve expressed concern about industry practices.
Getting to a real conversation doesn’t take much more than simple, ranch-style hospitality. At the T4 Cattle Company, a long-haired bicyclist rolled up to the ranch and asked rancher Scott Bidegain if he could camp for the night on his cross-country bicycle tour.
“Make yourself at home,” Bidegain replied, “Camp wherever you like. And help yourself to a steak.”
Check out a slideshow from the Gate to Plate tour
Video from the Clovis Livestock Auction:
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