Sunday, September 27, 2009

Sometimes Things Can Go Very Right

I love it when the peaches resting in their boxes on the kitchen floor reach perfect ripeness on the evening I have time to can. Or when the dogs lie down in the exact spot that keeps two renegade pairs from quitting the Bunchgrass Beef herd. Or maybe when the number of cucumbers from one picking just equal the amount needed for the pickle recipe. Or when the lead cow looks at the open gate, looks at me on my horse, feels the herd milling behind her and decides to walk into the corral.

That’s what happened on Saturday when I was riding Mestizo, and it felt especially good. A lot of animal experts, Temple Grandin, Tom Dorrance, etc. tell us how as predators, we can interact with prey animals without either them or us freaking out. In theory, it seems clear. In practice, I often fall short of my intent.

Mestizo is our tall red horse, who, after ten years of thinking he was a pack animal, is learning that he will be carrying me around on his back the rest of his life. The Peruvian Paso of his mother gives him a long smooth gait and the thoroughbred of his father makes him high-headed and nervous. Mestizo does an excellent job in the comfort of the pack string and he enjoyed his place on the ranch until we ran short on horses this year.

I needed to ride him again, but I wasn’t looking forward to it. When we were given Mestizo as a colt he was already terrified of a few things, like being tied up and sprayed with liquid. His flight instinct had kicked in, but he couldn’t run away so he had learned to rear violently in response to stress. A bucking horse can make me nervous, but a rearing horse unleashes a flood of icy fear in my brain. Adrenalin explodes throughout my body and I’m incapable of sensibly communicating with the animal between my legs. Combine Mestizo’s fear with mine and it’s not a pretty picture.

This June when Bryan decided to ride Mestizo on the cattle drive to the summer range, I watched how Bryan pushed Mestizo through his anxiety with forward motion, instead of working against it. Mestizo danced around and turned a lot of circles, but he didn’t rear. This time when we gathered the herd I was ready to try again.

Yes, Mestizo humped up a few times as we rode through the dark grove of wind-whipped Ponderosa pines. Yes, he whinnied and danced when Mike and Zip got too far away from us on the other side of the herd. But when we reached the corrals, there was no more worrying about us. The cattle were either going in the corral or we were going to be chasing them all over the prairie.

I stopped thinking and let my body guide the movement I knew would help the cattle decide that entering the corral was easier than running away from it. Mestizo flowed beneath me, yielding to pressure, turning, striding, turning, scooting in front of the red cow, then back to head off the brindle. The first cow finally chose the open gate and the rest of the herd followed. A stiff breeze chased the dust north into the timber. Mestizo blew softly as my hand reached under his mane to scratch his supple neck. We had done a good job. Together.

From the Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Neighborly Economy

The night frosts are upon us, down to 25 degrees on Monday, and we’re in the thick of the harvest. I picked pears and apples this week and today I lugged a bucket of cucumbers in from the garden for a batch of honey-curry pickles. It’s also the season for meat and the first hunters are out in the hills. In a few weeks, we’ll be butchering and starting our delicious Bunchgrass Beef on its way to hungry families anxious to lay in a supply for the coming winter. Think of all those kitchens that will soon be filled with the tantalizing aroma of simmering stews and savory roasts. I’m starting to salivate.

One of the best parts of having a family ranch is having family. Our “real” family, and our amazing “family” of friends who work for each other, lend each other stuff and barter to get things done. This week Prairie was here helping sort and move cattle and build fence.

Prairie also stretches our thinking with discussions about local food systems, sustainable communities and economic justice. We’re lucky to have her out in the world learning, traveling and working towards positive change. One thing she shared with us was a list of Wendell Berry’s 17 rules for a sustainable community that appeared in YES! magazine. Berry is a farmer and well-known author and many of his rules resonated with me. I especially liked rule #15:

“Always be aware of the economic value of neighborly acts. In our time the costs of living are greatly increased by the loss of neighborhood, leaving people to face their calamities alone.”

When asked what they value about living in small rural communities, I often hear people say it is that we help each other when we need it. A house burns down, someone is injured in an accident or becomes ill, and suddenly a whole swarm of people tumble out to organize meals, set up donation accounts, raffle quilts, hold dances and auction off $150 huckleberry pies.

Our family certainly relies on and enjoys being part of the neighborly economy. Just this week we had Prairie’s help with the cattle, Bryan was here to lay out the new corral, Pam called to offer green beans and another friend let us glean fruit from his orchard. We then passed on apples and cucumbers to other families.

While she was here, Prairie also took over the kitchen and whipped up some tasty meals. Working at Zenger Community Farm and immersed in the thriving food scene of Portland, she collects a lot of interesting recipes. The Carne Asada tacos she made were perfect for Gabe’s birthday dinner. Try out her simple and savory recipe. With a few neighborly acts, you might even be able to rustle up some of the ingredients right where you live. In any case, you can start "economizing" by having the neighbors over to enjoy it. Maybe they'll bring the beans and rice.

Prairie’s Carne Asada Tacos

A nice piece of grassfed beef - sirloin, flank, or round steak
Juice of 2 limes mixed with several cloves of minced garlic, some olive oil, salt and pepper

Marinate the meat in the refrigerator for 4-8 hours in the lime juice/garlic/olive oil. Then cook the meat. You can cut it up into small pieces and sauté it. Or you can grill or broil it whole and then cut it up. Don't overcook it.

Serve on warm corn tortillas garnished with:

Chopped white onion in fresh lime juice with fresh cilantro
Fresh jalapenos minced
Hot pickled veggies, jalapenos, carrots, cauliflower, etc.
Fresh or home canned salsa
Shredded cabbage
Chunked avocado

Goes good with a side of rice and beans.

From Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef