Cattle Culture: a feedlot story by Kiki Kane-Owens

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Stuffed with 13 stinky backpackers, our beloved WRFI van, Dolly pulled up to Cody Yeager’s feedlot in Choteau, Montana. Surrounded by gray skies and prairie land on either side of the road, I tumbled out of the van onto an industrial farm-scape. My feet sank into a brown sludge of mud, cow poop and grain as the prairie wind blew and inundated my nostrils with the putrid smell of cow waste.

I began running through the negative assumptions I had made about feedlots, the people who owned them and “factory farming.” I expected to be confronted with a red-faced nationalist wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat, a man consumed with making money and advocating for the importance of big business—set on making it even at the expense of the people, landscape, and animals around him.

To the contrary, I was greeted by the good-hearted Cody, a sweet middle-aged man with rough hands, a warm smile and a deep love for animals and people alike—bringing them together with a big ‘ol pile of American raised beef. I encountered cows who were treated humanely, and kept healthy. A business run by a man with an exceptional commitment to community and sustaining community-run business.

After an introduction, we got a tour of the feedlot—a medium sized lot, averaging about 8,000 head of cattle at any given time–that Cody took over about 15 years ago. Cody’s father, originally a rancher, built the feedlot in the late 1970’s in response to an increasing demand for high quantities of beef coupled with the reduction of beef prices that made ranching economically unfeasible for many families in the West. Pressured by a market dictated by efficiency, Cody and his family, were forced to grow or die; and so they grew.

The feedlot buys calves and young cows from grass-fed ranches within the area and generally aims to add between 700 and 1000 pounds to the animal before sending it off to slaughter.  Cody made it clear that a moral tenant of his business was to minimize waste and keep production input as local as possible by sourcing animal feed from local businesses. Each cow is fed a mix of fattening grains, primarily sourced from the agricultural byproducts of other surrounding businesses (such as barley from local breweries). Faced with the pressures of competing with supersized beef production corporations minimizing profit margins and maximizing infrastructure costs, Cody has remained committed to working with his local agricultural community—an effort that has provided both a financial benefit for him and a boost to the Choteau agricultural economy.

To say all of this, of course, is not to make any statement about feedlots as a whole, or to excuse moral or environmental injustices that are often associated with them (and, in many cases, rightly so), but rather to point out that there is a network of good people behind every sweeping assumption made about environmentally questionable practices. It is to point out that any environmental issue—especially those in which people’s economic welfare is involved–is much more nuanced than “feedlots are bad.”  It is an attempt to give a small voice to those often villainized.

While it is easy to criticize every environmentally unfriendly business, especially industrial agriculture, I think it is of paramount importance in solving any issue to understand that the people involved in these systems are doing what they do because they need to financially survive. It is not that they lack a moral compass and disregard environmental or ethical standards, it is that they need to make a living and support their family.

It brings forth the idea that in establishing a land ethic and formulating opinions about human-powered ecological destruction, one must remember to humanize the people behind the larger systems. It becomes important to remember that resistance to moving towards environmentally friendly practices, especially in rural environments, is rarely founded in mal intent, but is rather founded in people’s effort to maintain economic stability. Cody, for example, pointed out that ranchers and feedlot owners alike are often very weary of environmental degradation because they rely on it for their livelihood. And so, the next question is: how do we balance ecological well-being with human welfare when the two are often at odds?

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Gavin Ratliff: Restoring the West in Who’s Image?

Gavin Blog 1From Missoula to the Rocky Mountain Front, we’ve read and met with Montanans about what’s valued in an inclusive, working landscape. As our readings and guest speakers have so far indicated, defining the ‘Original West’ is tricky, if not counter-productive. But a question lingers in many of our class discussions and peeks its head around bison herds, burnt conifers, and small western general stores: to continue enjoying and relying on this powerful landscape, what needs to change?

We tend to picture the American West as untouched wilderness before European settlement: fenceless ground with a fully sustainable ecosystem. Our time in the Scapegoat Wilderness gave us a similar impression: the ‘Wilderness’ sign abruptly turned cow prints to deer, and a rustling bush into potential danger. Yet before white settlement, there were millions of people thriving throughout the plains and mountains, draining wetlands and damming rivers. Wilderness areas today are maybe even more ‘wild’ than the land was on the frontier! Do we return the west to a pre-human, pre-European, or pre-vacationer landscape? All three have altered the terrain and culture of Montana to some degree.

The ideal western landscape has bits and pieces from each group who inhabit this place—some benefitting Native Americans, some ranchers, some developers and recreationalists. Despite some isolated efforts to work together on a collaborative landscape, we’ve seen little physical evidence so far on this field course. As we read William Cronon and Aldo Leopold, and meet with a fascinating variety of Westerners, I’ve begun to play with the idea of what the West could look like if interests remain individual; how would fragmented regions perform, splitting these beloved mountains into territories of agriculture, recreation, preserved wilderness?  Traveling through reservations, national parks, and ranch lands we’ve seen these groups at home in their west. But they could each easily belong to different countries the way they avoid coexistence.

Still, these thoughts imply an anthropocentric landscape. Where do the plants and animals come in? Do these taciturn species have no say in the future of the landscape?

Our two weeks on the Rocky Mountain Front and my college years in Colorado, the Tetons, and Bozeman have proven to me that West is as much a mindset as it is a place. The west, in European history, has been a cultural push back against outside authority—stemming from our roots in Manifest Destiny to a country voting red last November. Like the west, the rebels who first journeyed into unknown territory have been romanticized and admired in society. Are environmentalists—and those in favor of restoration—the next wave of western rebellion, challenging the way we live with the land?

For me personally, restoration to an imagined wild past holds the wrong implication. While our journey through Montana so far has certainly shown some of our misuse of the land, to discount the place humans have in this landscape seems detrimental. To remove species and developments critical to a working land’s future would be a step backwards in Western progress. Instead, why not work with our current ecosystem striving for a more unifying and holistic approach to conservation?

Maizie Smith: Why Environmentalists Should be more like Journalists

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WRFI students talk with Hal Herring in Augusta. Photo Credit: Holly Herring 

In this day and age people are increasingly confined to their echo chambers of information. Whether it be the news sources we consume, the people we discuss issues with, or our previous assumptions, we are all suffering from some amount of confirmation bias. Meaning, we seek out information that confirms what we already know or believe and find ways to poke holes in any argument that differs from our framework. While avoiding these biases are important when looking at variety of issues, it is critical to bring this approach when engaging with complex environmental issues that involve a wide variety of stakeholders. Environmental issues are increasingly complicated with many stakeholders involved. These complex issues require creativity and collaboration by many different people to produce effective outcomes. So, as bias crowds out critical and collaborative thinking about environmental issues, both sides of the political aisle are failing to create meaningful change for their communities and ecosystems.

This is why I, as an environmental studies student in a liberal college town, look up to and seek out journalists like Hal Herring. Hal lives in Augusta, Montana, a town on the Rocky Mountain Front with just over 300 residents. He has been a conservation journalist since his mid-thirties. He writes for publications with a more pro-conservation readership like High Country News, as well as publications like Field and Stream, where he is a contributing editor, that have a less environmentally minded readership. Hal has the ability to look at conservation issues with nuance and depth. He waits to form an opinion on issues until he has acquired the facts and talked with a multitude of stakeholders. He prefers to do research on the ground, meeting with and talking to as many people as possible who are involved in these issues in varying degrees.

When I met Hal this fall he was as lively and insightful as ever. His southern accent and big smile couldn’t outshine his wit and attention to detail when discussing conservation in Montana. We talked about Forest Service budgets and conservation projects, as well as the diverse audiences he writes for. He is one of those rare people that enjoys reading the comments on his articles. He noted when writing about conservation for Field and Stream, in the comments he gets called “just about anything but a straight white male.” Beyond the fiery comments, Hal embraces the feedback from online readers and community members he talks with.

He talks with the people who are most intimately connected with the land, the people who rely on these places for financial and spiritual wellbeing. The people who have lived in these places for centuries and have acquired information, weighed all the pros and cons of an issue, and who are often fighting to be heard. Hal gives a voice to rural people and conservation issues all over the country, and he isn’t catering to anyone but a good story while he shines a truthful light on communities and wildlands. He takes pride in advocating for conservation to an often hard-nosed conservative Field and Stream audience, as well as having realistic, balanced, and place-based assessments when writing to a farther left audience. Hal’s best ally when writing to such varied audiences is telling a good story that is focused on relevant facts and experiences.

Beyond his talent to tell important stories, Hal is a great teacher in his own way. He meets with groups and talks about conservation issues in the west. For me, Hal reminded me that I should make no assumptions before I approach a new environmental issue. They are all unique. I am no journalist, but I am trying to help promote responsible land use, while also trying to meet people where they are at in terms of needing a way of life. I also want to respect and account for human and nonhuman historical knowledge intertwined in any environmental issue. To help guide myself and others in acquiring knowledge, I have a few guiding principles inspired partly by writers like Hal.

  • Avoid echo chambers and confirmation bias
  • Listen to multiple stake holders, seek out their opinions
  • Know that one universal ethical framework cannot be applied to every diverse landscape and environmental issue you encounter

Hal is not trying to get people to act in any way, instead his “passions as a writer and storyteller lie where they always have – in exploring humankind’s evolving relationship to the natural world, and all the failures, successes and deep tensions inherent in that relationship” (Herring). Like Hal, seek information that is as exciting as these landscapes we all want our children to see. Look at multiple sides of an issue before you make judgement, find journalists and publications that incorporate a variety of views, orient yourself to a landscape ecologically and historically, and always seek out a good story.

Rachel Bowanko: Common Ground

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Photo Credit: Claire Anderson 

When I was young I lived over the hill from a bustling creek. On days when the sun was shining, I would run downstairs and put on big black rain boots, ten sizes too big, grab a few black garbage bags, and race over the hill to that creek that I loved so dearly. The trees blew in, the wind and birds chirping above welcomed me back. I would find a large stick for balance and walk along the creek among the rocks, picking up trash along the way. Sometimes my mom would join, and other days I would make my friends come with me, pretending that we were grown-ups and that it was our job to clean the creek.

I spent a majority of my time by this creek, watching the fish, frogs, and birds among the trees, rocks, and mosses. I watched the seasons change around me and noticed patterns in nature such as the way the current flows and where the frogs find their homes at the end of the day. When I had a long day, I would walk down to the creek to think. Sitting on the rocks I could hear the wind through the trees somehow answering all my questions. The time I spent outside growing up taught me about the power of nature and my place within the world around me. It helped instill a desire and need to protect this world around me. Thinking back to the time I spent by this creek, I recognize just how instrumental it was in shaping who I am today. This creek taught me what it means to find your place within the world around you, and it taught me how to live among nature in a respectful and kind manner. With each change for the season, I became more grounded in my spot by the creek and my love for it grew deeper. From this love stemmed an obligation to protect it.

We spent one week in mid-October floating the Tongue River, and as we floated I remembered the time I spent near the creek by my house. Compared to the creek near my house, the Tongue River is a much more complex ecosystem with a larger community connected to it. The creek near my house supported fish and frogs, several insects, some mosses and vines, and some deciduous trees growing nearby. The Tongue River out here supports fish, insects, Cottonwoods and wildlife such as deer and coyotes. While the creek in my yard crossed through one habitat, the Tongue River spans riparian habitats, Ponderosa Pine forests, native grasslands, and rocky cliff banks lined with red strips from burned coal. The creek near my house was a place for fun and play for the neighborhood kids; out here the Tongue River supported several communities. Native Tribes relied on this sacred land for generations and homesteaders chose the Tongue River Valley to begin new lives in the late 1800’s. Intertwined with the river are all the stories of those who were here before and their connection to the land. Today the Tongue River continues to support agriculture through irrigation and in turn it supports our food supply. The creek was visited primarily by the neighborhood, often simply driven by in passing. The Tongue River, on the other hand is a home-utilized and revered by many different communities.

Despite these differences, there were also enormous parallels. The rush of the current near the storm drain at the end of the creek reminds me of the strainers we navigated around on the Tongue River. The abundance of minnows in the creek and frogs on the banks were reflections of how well the creek was doing, just as the fish and beavers in the Tongue River reflect that ecosystem’s health. Both bodies of water change with the seasons, as leaves turned bright yellow and fell before us during the float.

Beyond the environmental parallels, both bodies of water connect people to the land. The Tongue River Valley was the proposed site of a coal mine and a railroad to transport the coal. Recognizing the travesty this could lead to, members from all different communities came together to fight against the development of coal in this area, especially around the watershed. We’ve been lucky enough to meet several people from different groups who have organized the community around stopping the railroad. Most of those who we spoke to grew up by this river and had ancestors who did the same. Over the years they had formed a deep connection to the river and relied on it greatly. Although they come from different backgrounds, every person we spoke to had one thing in common: a connection and respect and love for the land. By finding this common ground and working together, they were able to create a meaningful difference as the railroad has finally, after thirty years, been stopped.

As we spoke to those in the Tongue River Valley and heard about their love for the river and land, I was reminded of myself as a child and the love I developed for the creek by my house. I believe that lasting change begins with a deep seated love for a place and a personally felt obligation to protect it. As Turner wrote in The Abstract Wild, “We value only what we know and love, and we no longer know or love the wild.” The value I placed on the creek growing up stems from the time I spent sitting with the frogs and watching the leaves change. Those who fought against the Tongue River Railroad grew up on this land and know it better than anyone else – they have seen the seasons change and recognize its value. With each passing day I am grateful of my childhood by the creek, a childhood that grounded me in nature and taught me the values of knowing and loving the land.

Shannon Quinn: Silent Warriors

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Photo Credit: Claire Anderson 

My belief is there is no feeling of greater warmth and security in nature than sitting beneath a ponderosa pine.  These wise old trees are indescribably beautiful, gentle, and majestic.  They provide shelter, a sturdy backrest, and the sweet smell of peeling vanilla bark.  The shedding of their bark and needles provide a soft bed of ground, decorated with fallen ornamental cones; they sacrifice themselves.  As I become encapsulated in a ponderosa pine forest in eastern Montana, I realize that these old trees have seen more than I have in my lifetime.  Their mere existence is a metaphor for timeless wisdom and grounded spirit.  If the age-old ponderosa pine could speak, what would it say?  Perhaps its virtue lies in its silence.  Perhaps humanity couldn’t handle the truth of its visions, for these old trees have seen how the land has fought for survival.  Sometimes the land has lost at our hand.

We must be the voice for these silent warriors.  We must use our gift of verbal communication to defend that which is so important, yet cannot defend itself.  In eastern Montana, people have chosen to fight back against those who wanted to destroy the land.  The threatened invasion of the Tongue River Railroad and proposed mining of the Otter Creek coal tracks have plagued a community for over three decades.  The railroad would have cut through the precious land and forests.  The mine would have sucked the land dry of its resources, offering nothing in return but money and energy that was destined to be shipped off to be used elsewhere.  If Otter Creek were mined, the trees and wildlife inhabiting the area would have been decimated, completely wiped out forever.  Through reclamation the land and forests might eventually return to a shell of its former self.  Dry, dead, torn up and soulless soil would coat a place that once breathed life.  The plants and grasses would have been placed there, the hills carved into the landscape by machines.  It would be unlikely that trees would ever be able to grow in this kind of wasteland.  Years of reclamation can never return the earth to its true state; it desecrates the place. In this particular case, Otter Creek and the surrounding area was rescued through a twist of fate.  The people took on the task of defending the environment and community.  They said no to the railroad and the mine.  They used their voices to protect what belonged to them and what belonged to the land, and they were able to stop this development project by persistence, passion, dedication, patience, and voice.  This required the binding together of diverse groups of people, from ranchers, to farmers, to the Northern Cheyenne.  When people believe that they have the ability to speak out against government intervention that they believe is wrong, then they are able to defend the wildlife, landscapes, and forests that cannot speak for themselves; those who would have so much to say if they could.

If the ponderosa pines of eastern Montana could speak, they might speak of the battles they have seen as humans fought for their rights to the land and to existence.  They might speak of the changes to the landscape that occurred from these battles.  They might express gratitude and respect for those who have dedicated their time to learning to understand them and to protect them from harm.  The ponderosa pine that I sit beneath today almost did not exist to see my lifetime.  I like to imagine a world where future generations might be able to sit beneath the same tree long after I am gone.

Claire Anderson: Connection of Soils and Souls

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The Summer Day by Mary Oliver—

Who made the world?

Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?

The grasshopper I mean-

The one who has flung herself out of the grass

The one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

Who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down

Who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.

Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

At first my eyes are drawn to the big trees and bright wildflowers, the turquoise and purple rocks, the birds and bugs. Lastly, they settle on the soil I am sitting on.

We were told to observe our surroundings, so I sat staring at the soil for a while. Just looking at the dirt; searching for any sign of movement or life that I could have missed at first glance. I know there are tons of tiny bacteria and organisms moving around, influencing other essential parts of this ecosystem I’m sitting in, but I just don’t see it. I have difficulty taking time to myself to quiet my mind and pay attention to what’s around me, but the beginning of this course has sparked a conscious effort to reverse this. I want to attempt to acknowledge the processes I understand and more importantly, what I don’t understand, and the significance of relationships happening beneath my feet and all around that are unapparent to me. The soil offers so much more to me than what first meets the eye; a place to sit and reflect on what’s around me.

Our first reading on this course was about natural history and one of the eight steps to becoming a natural historian according to Thomas Lowe Fleischner is attentiveness. Fleischner explained this idea by quoting the poet John Haines, “passionate attention to the world—an attention to which the least detail has its instructive significance—is perhaps the most telling and important trait in our inheritance. Without it there is no art, no love, no possibility of domestic or political harmony. On it alone may rest our prospects for the future” (23).

I really like the phrase “passionate attention” that Haines uses. This suggests a more intense observation of detail that I don’t normally give to things. I’d say I’m good at giving passionate attention to people I care about, but not something like the soil. Yet, it is the soil that helps to sustain the people that I give passionate attention to. The things I pay passionate attention to tell a lot about me as a person, and the things I don’t pay passionate attention to may say even more about my understanding of the “instructive significance” of what I don’t see as important. By starting out with what I care about passionately, say it’s my family, and then paying attention to what sustains them, it is easy to see how connected to me and how precious these tiny bacteria and fungi and lichens in soil are. They strengthen the health of the soil that holds and nourishes the foods that are planted and harvested by farmers and sold to grocery stores or farmer’s markets where a cashier sells the food to my mom or dad, brother or grandma.

This is a very simplified example of how things are connected, but think about what would happen if we did this with everything we are passionate about. I’m a big fan of writing letters, I love having something tangible to give to others that contains words that reassure and affirm just how much they are loved and cherished. What are the resources and who are the people involved in helping me write these letters that are so important to me? I have to think about the paper I have, the person I purchased it from, who supplied it to the store, all the way back to the workers at the paper mill, loggers who cut down the trees, who right off the bat I would say I have no see-able connection to, down to the soil that sustained the tree that grew to give me paper to write my letters and sustain these connections with my people. These materials, people, and processes are absolutely linked to me and the people I know and it’s such a shame to forget that.

Harmony and progress comes through deep connections with each other and that can also be applied to the land. We don’t understand each other because we don’t take the time to sit and listen and quiet our own minds. In order to gain understanding we can have no preconceived notions or biased views of what we’re observing. It is just as important to pay attention and listen to the land as it is other people.

Paying attention to that last detail is hard. I walk over so much soil in my daily life, so much soil! And regardless of taking numerous environmental ethics classes that get me thinking about my connection with the land, I haven’t thought about this soil and all that it holds more than twice, if even that many times.

I think a lot about the poem The Summer Day by Mary Oliver, particularly the ending.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

Into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

How to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the field,

Which is what I have been doing all day,

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

With your one wild and precious life?

Realizing how little I actually know is overwhelming, but I know how to fall down in the grass, and stroll through a field. Coming upon new environments during our backpacking through the Scapegoat Wilderness, we’ve been asked to sit and use all of our senses to understand the new environment we’re in. These reflections have helped me to be idle.

Just by sitting still and letting my hands slide across smooth rocks and listening to individual water droplets gliding up the shore, I realize that just being open to the fact that I don’t understand how everything works, is half the battle.

So, I do not understand many of the connections that are essential to producing healthy soil and healthy crops, or how much detail and work goes into producing the materials I use every day. I am, however, figuring out how to be still and listen to the earth and realize that it has a lot to say and I just need to listen.

Ben Warzon: What a “place” can mean

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs we left the shore of the muddy Missouri, we crossed a cow burnt field and started up a draw. We worked our way through the rolling hills, which flanked the mouth of what would soon be Neat Coulee. We bobbed or way up canyon, slowly pristine white Virgelle Sandstone rose like the walls of Zion. Juniper and limber pine dominated the plant community, species hardly seen down the river. Moist, white sand replaced the gumbo mud and welcomed our softening steps as our heads craned skyward. My neck creaked with the stark contrast from staring at the flat surface of the ‘Mo’ for days on end. With this tinge of pain, I was flooded with confusion. Are we still in Montana? We surely didn’t teleport to the Southwest. But there is no way we are on the plains, or in the mountains for that matter. As we sit at the head of this bizarre slot, all it takes is a moment of presence and it all comes together.

What do I mean by a moment of presence? Basically the simple awareness of where one is by feeling the soil, hearing the wind, and just engaging with the surroundings. The familiar can often let presence slip away, but an unexpected or large change snaps us back rather quickly. For me, the experience of Neat Coulee on the Missouri River was certainly one of those moments.  The initial feelings were definitely unsettling, almost a loss of where I was. Such contrasting landscapes must mean a new place. In reality, however, it meant a deeper understanding of this complex place. This was not an anomaly, rather an important step in understanding the breaks. A billion years of processes have created this place and the experience it provides. It is these intimate interactions that create a sense of a place.

This is a phrase we often hear thrown around but rarely stop to think about what it means. There are many pieces to an individual’s sense of place, but it starts with simply being present.  A sense of place is not an abstract or conceptualized idea. It cannot be defined by science or really even words. A sense of place is as simple as the feeling that you are home after a long day. It might just be a touch of fabric on your bed or the smell of the trees. Truly it is just an awareness of where you are. Without that small awareness, though, we lose our culture, traditions, values and roots. That is place.

On a grander scale, a sense of place means being an engaged participant where you live. We can develop a sense of place by exploring our world–both near and far–all it takes is walking out the door and paying attention. Through these explorations we will become invested in our neighborhoods and communities, we will know more about them and understand what they mean. As I sat in the sand of Neat Coulee, I was able gain a greater understanding of and connection to the mighty Missouri River and the state it is born in.