GRASS VALLEY, Calif.—A cow pasture on a gentle slope facing east. Up it, a dozen heifers and their weeks-old calves, trotting, skipping, nearly dancing at their mamas’ heels. The sun rising over the foothills, our breath still smoky in the cool dewy dawn. Jim Gates spoke about—no, he pronounced, nearly shouted, above the long plaintive mooing of his motley herd—just why I needed to see this.
“See that,” Gates said, pointing to a cow and her calf. “That’s what they come up here to see. That black cow licking her blue baby right there. That’s it.”
Jim Gates is a rancher, has been all his life. He was raised on land down the slopes from here but still in Nevada County. His family homesteaded this plot, the 380 acres of Personeni Ranch stretching northeast from out of Grass Valley up into the plunging Yuba River canyon, more than a century ago. Sure, Gates tried other things: He worked at a sawmill, a pheasant farm, a slaughterhouse or two. For a while he was a dynamite man on construction sites throughout Northern California. “That was a job that never got boring, because you do it wrong, you’re a dead son of a bitch,” Gates said.
But the cattle were always there since the day he was born. He took over this plot when his brother Greg died. Greg was a timber faller, and the way he died among the trees in 1985 was an accident, only it wasn’t an accident. That’s all he’ll say about that.
About a dozen years ago, Gates got tired of hearing from folks that he should stop shipping his stock to Reno for auction and finishing. Finishing is what happens to at least 80 percent of cattle in America, their final months before slaughter spent ballooning in size and weight on dusty, flat feedlots, shoulder to shoulder with other cows, faces stuffed with grain and corn heavy in fats and additives, hormones and antibiotics. The tender, marbled nature of American meat is distinct and unnatural, but the practice is also wildly efficient—there’s simply no better way to rapidly pack the pounds onto a cow before market. Feedlots are an environmental disaster, places where poisoned air filled with the methane of a thousand bovine farts and the poisoned water of a thousand bovine shits commingle with the surrounding ecology, turning the whole land sour. They’re a bummer to see, too, as one inevitably does driving up to Gates’ ranch through California’s Central Valley, or along the eastern edge of the Sierra, the beginning of the typical rangeland and basin feedlots that dot the West.
So Gates declared himself finished with finishing the cows on those accursed lots and decided instead to finish his free range beef in meadows like the one we were standing in, where the clover was just coming up. “The grass will make ’em grow, but the clover makes ’em finish,” Gates said, poking his foot into little shoots of low-lying greens coming up through the wet, black earth, then turning to poke at the high yellow grasses growing along the edge of the field. “Standing turds. That’s what this is,” he said of the yellow stuff—the medusahead, barb goatgrass, and yellow starthistle that, dense and dried, are nutrient poor and weedy. Gates’ knowledge of grasses is vast, and his consideration of the grassland ecology among his 38 parcels of foothill pastureland is awesome to behold. He is familiar with dozens of grass species, annual and perennial, native and non-, along with the seasonal conditions that bring each on. He knows the names of a dozen more beyond those. “In the final analysis,” Gates said, “cattle are recycled grass. That’s right.” He prodded the earth and the green shoots as if hearing them agreeing. “That’s exactly right. If you can’t grow grass, you sure as hell can’t grow beef.”
Meat raised on grass has been a staple in America since before the first cow set hoof on the continent. Buffalo grazed on prairie grasses, and alongside the buffalo were pygmy and woolly mammoths and giant ground sloths. Then humans came along and wiped the plains clean of every animal, ungulate and otherwise, big and slow and meaty enough to stick a spear into and roast on a fire. Aided by trains and firearms, we very nearly got the buffalo too (a few species are extinct: Bison antiquus and Bison occidentalis). Perhaps because of this lineage and our present tendency to grasp at our Paleolithic diet—or perhaps because it’s simply far easier on the land and skips the feedlot—grass-fed beef is more popular today than it has been for at least a hundred years, probably longer.
Sales in recent years have quadrupled, though grass-fed beef still represents but a sliver of the overall industry. But beyond the younger and more marketing-savvy outfits raising cattle on nothing but rangeland and irrigated pasture, there are folks like Gates—old-timers who see a way into grass-fed beef that makes environmental and spiritual sense, sure, and economic sense too. In the future, forgoing feedlots would mean having less meat overall and more expensive meat at that. But old-timers have been around long enough to see the long-term effects of the current course, which is bleak for both humans and cows. A new course—which is really just an updated, more scientific version of a very old course—raises cattle for meat without hastening the destruction of the planet.
There is even the idea, as some biologists have suggested, of grassy ranchland such as Gates’ acting as a carbon sink—a place that traps CO2 in its green slopes and works against the earth’s warming. Whether or not such cattle ranges are indeed good for storing excess carbon is debatable, but what’s clear is that any benefit from the grass is offset by the cows.
Beef is among the costliest of our food sources: Irrigating land for cattle feed uses nearly three times as much water as pork, dairy, poultry, and egg production combined, and nearly nine out of every 10 acres given over to growing feed crops is dedicated to cattle. While there is no such thing as environmentally perfect cattle ranching, grass-fed beef is an important evolution that promises significant benefits to groundwater and soil quality, habitat and wildlife conservation, and public health.
That’s all in the future. The important thing for now, for Gates, is that it’s working as a business model. His all-grass herd started with just 12 cows and is now at 300. Every week he sells about 300 pounds of hamburger and two or three calves destined for steak cuts. He expects he’ll earn about half a million dollars off that this year. It’s not a big operation, but it’s solid. That’s not to say the work’s any easier or that he’s any less pissed off about the future or even the present. Gates has beef with damn near everything he sees.
Like those 10-acre ranchettes and smaller subdivisions scattered throughout these foothills. They don’t produce anything. Or worse, they’ve got a few horses doing nothing but looking pretty and washing all the topsoil away. Too many people mucking up too much land is what it always comes back to, Gates said. Unintended consequences. The drought? The drought isn’t just tough on cattle; it’s tough on every damn thing. There are places up in those hills where even the manzanita is dying for lack of water, where the blue oaks are losing their leaves and going dormant for winter in the middle of July.
Everything Gates does for his cows and the grass changes year to year and month to month and day to day, and that’s all changed again, radically, thanks to the drought. The rule is generally 10 acres of rangeland plus one acre irrigated pasture per cow, but what with the lower rainfall there’s less grass, so more land is needed, but there’s no land to be found. So Gates has a guy down the road growing sod on trays. The cows eat up the whole lot of it just like candy. “Desperate times is desperate measures,” Gates said, then trailed off, looking at his herd. Some of these, he said, will grow up and make a cow. Most will grow up and make beef. How does he know which will be which? “Sixty-six years’ experience.”
I press him on this because his cows look different from other cows I’ve seen, especially the ones I glimpsed driving by the feedlots. They’re stockier, lower to the ground, smaller and heartier looking. That’s on purpose. They are a varied crew of Devon and Angus and short horns, reds and blacks and blues, along with a funny breed from England called white park. None of them is pure; all of them are mutts, which is how Gates likes it—they grow faster, marble better, have sturdier hooves, are healthier cows overall. The white parks, for example, went feral during World War II and developed a resistance to pink eye. Pink eye can make a cow go stone blind—but not Gates’ cows, because they don’t get pink eye anymore, thanks to the inherited resistance from those white parks.
Gates hurried off down the hill toward a rusty old tractor under a scrawny old oak. I trailed behind, hearing him tick through his errands that day: picking up a barbecue rig he left in south county while selling some beef earlier in the week, taking a load of old barbed wire to the dump, getting the green machine (a little John Deere four-wheeler) unstuck from some boggy soil where it bottomed out, and then getting back in time to see a calf that’s about to get born. His day would end sometime after dark; then he would get up at two in the morning to load his truck, pick up more processed beef in Reno, and begin making deliveries.
“People see way too much John Wayne on television. That ain’t the way it is. John Wayne never got dirty,” Gates said. “This is daylight to dark. That’s something that hasn’t sunk in with Matthew yet: There is no spare time.”
Matthew Shapiro works with Gates on his ranch. He’s Gates’ mentee, meaning that after a trial period working together for half a year or so, if everything is working out, Shapiro will begin to take over the ranch from Gates.
Everything was not working out.
Shapiro has been up in Nevada County for half a decade and has known Gates off and on for about that long. He has grown vegetables and raised sheep, but neither was well suited for the foothill land. He left Nevada County briefly for UC Berkeley a few years ago, where he earned a master of science in rangeland management. When he came back in the spring, he started with Gates, first long weekends in April, then full-time in May. Shapiro is the reason I knew about Gates and his company, Nevada County Free Range Beef. He and I went to high school together but had lost touch until recently, when I saw a photo he posted online of a beautiful sloping meadow, some cows, a dog, his work.
Grass-fed beef had been on my mind since a TED Talk given by the biologist Allan Savory about how obsessively managed grazing wouldn’t simply maintain grasslands but could restore them, rescuing the earth from the onslaught of desertification, global warming, and global catastrophe. His premise was not unlike the idea of ancient grass-fed herds on grassy plains: Mimic the movements and “hoof action” of the animals on the soil, and the soil and seeds would come back. It was also perfectly counterintuitive and tweetable, and like a lot of TED Talks, it was oversimplified to the point of being dead wrong. Many of Savory’s trials that set out to prove his rapid-rotation grazing plans, for example, relied heavily on supplemental feed. Cows became stressed and lost weight. The grass cover didn’t improve.
But there are other intriguing aspects to keeping cattle off feedlots, beyond that feedlots are awful places to be avoided. Yes, grass-fed beef can be several times more expensive than conventional beef, but it’s also leaner, healthier, and considered far more complex in flavor. Much of that flavor comes from one simple fact: The meat is from older cows because cattle raised on grass rangelands take a longer time to bulk up. Also, they’re hearty enough to live for years and still pass USDA muster. Most beef in the store is maybe a year old, two at the most, and that year plus is sad and rough, ending in a feedlot and a trip to the slaughterhouse. Out here, Shapiro and Gates are raising healthy animals that live what appear to be pretty happy hillside lives for cattle. So what is it doing for the land?
That afternoon, while Gates was out picking up the barbecue and dropping off the barbed wire and we all waited for the calf to get born, I walked with Shapiro along an irrigation ditch pouring water onto one of the irrigated pastures. We talked about the idea of waste and conservation, about what is being used and what is being saved and the silliness of humans trying to use such words to define whole ecosystems. The water was raw, untreated, straight from a reservoir in the Sierra, secured through some of the oldest water rights in the state—water rights that predated California statehood. The water ran down a simple ditch, and along its banks tall grasses and flowers grew. There were frogs and birds and, spilling down the flooded meadow, a green blanket of new grass. One bird species, the black rail, survives almost exclusively in the marsh environments created by these foothill rangeland irrigation ditches and flooded pasture fields. As creeks dry up not just from drought but from overdrawing aquifers and funneling water to agricultural plains and coastal cities, natural foothill mountain marshes have dwindled—and flooding a meadow starts looking like a more nuanced act.
“This is the most water-intensive crop in the state, no question,” Shapiro said. The sheet of water moving across the field was glinting in the sun, and as we turned and walked up the ditch a ways, he opened more plugs for more water to pour out. “In some respects, you could argue it’s the most wasteful too. But then that’s looking at water for cows as an absolute—a cow does not simply equal all these gallons of water. All this water also equals this meadow, these bird species, all these species, and the groundwater recharge, and a green pasture that won’t burn up in a fire.”
It is difficult to eat meat and claim to be any sort of environmentalist. Although he (and many others) said the science doesn’t back up the kind of carbon sequestration systems Savory speaks of, Shapiro began to make an impassioned case for careful grass-fed ranching as a private act of vital conservation, a way to hold back the march of not just time and housing developments but the sort of intensive, single-crop agriculture that lends little to no benefit to the surrounding ecosystem—the farming equivalent of a feedlot. One acre of irrigated pasture like this one, after all, means that 10 acres of nonirrigated rangeland is left relatively untouched and more or less natural.
I asked him if he and Gates talked about stewardship of the land this way. Shapiro grimaced. “I have to admit,” he said, “Jim’s not very good at precisely articulating what he’s looking at.” Often, Shapiro would ask him what was triggering some decision on the farm: to bring out the hay for feeding or pick that cow for slaughter on this day but not the day before. Gates regularly falls back on his line about 66 years’ experience, and, Shapiro said, that might be true. It might be that all the decision making is purely visceral, that Gates is just waking up and looking out and responding to what’s there: the 300 variables that are his herd, the 38 variables that are his pastures, the millions of variables that are the weather and environment he raises beef in. “There are so many things to balance, so maybe it is actually that hard for him to articulate,” Shapiro said. “Maybe he just paid the hay bill, so it’s time to feed the cows some hay.”
But there was a deeper problem, and that was the growing sense from Shapiro that Gates simply did not want to give up the ranch—not just to Shapiro but to anyone. There was the sense that Gates expected his successor to be him, Gates, which was impossible. They broke the mold on dudes like Gates long ago. Shapiro had just a few months left to decide if he should stick it out for possibly years or move on, find another ranch or way to work the land and preserve it in these Sierra foothills. “I’m racked with this,” he said.
“You ever run one of these things?” Gates said. I was in the green machine, the John Deere four-wheeler, bottomed out in the bog. It was tied up to the old Ford tractor—a 1950, just like Gates. I hadn’t ever run one of these things, and Gates shook his head and got to checking the knot, saying, “Well, first time for everything,” before hopping up on the old Ford. The cows had come down near us, thinking something food related would happen, and Milo, Gates’ herding dog, nipped at a few of them, keeping their distance from the tractor and whatever was about to happen. “One more thing,” Gates said. “Keep your head down. The rope snaps, it’s coming right up at ya.” He fired up the Ford; I fired up the green machine. The Ford rolled forward; the rope tightened; I ducked and hit the gas; the green machine revved and rolled out and onto solid ground. I bumped along the muddy pasture until I was up next to Gates, who was grinning.
We stopped there and took in the hills above us, the old blue oaks and valley oaks and coastal live oaks. Gates cursed at the mistletoe in one nearby tree—if it blows down and a pregnant cow eats it, it aborts the baby. You didn’t used to see mistletoe like you do now, he said. Didn’t used to see so many things. “I have in my lifetime never seen the trees die like they did this year. The pines, the oaks, didn’t make any difference. They’ve all gone weak for lack of water. What’s wrong with the environment is real simple: There’s 8 billion people on the face of this earth, and there’s no free lunch—there’s no pie in the sky. It’s enough to piss you off, I tell ya.”
I asked him just what it is, if so much about the world he sees pisses him off, that makes him happy. “I’ll come out here at night,” Gates said, “and a bunch of babies will be out just full chargin’ around this field. They don’t know where they’re going, but nobody else is gonna get there first. And they’re just runnin’ for the sheer exuberance of life.” Gates sniffed. “Yeah,” he said, “I like this.”
I asked him what he meant by “this” and ventured a guess: the circularity of it, seeing life begin and end and begin again, day after day, year after year.
“No,” Gates said. “Not that. More than that. The wholeness of it.”