The USA is the land of milk and honey. To a wide-eyed Aussie like me, more used to bone dry paddocks and water restrictions, the lush landscape from coast to coast in America is a dream come true.
Americans can grow colossal amounts of food and their politicians even pay the farmers NOT to grow some crops, like corn and wheat, to keep the prices sweet. Walk into any shopping centre and there will be a cornucopia of fresh produce stacked as high as the shelves can hold, all for relatively low prices and in amounts that put UN air drops to shame.
As Carmen and I drove across the states we were surprised by how good the quality of the food often was. The USA is famous for obesity, fast food and High Fructose Corn Syrup, so it came as a surprise that most supermarkets now have huge whole foods sections groaning with fresh, organic, locally farmed produce. Organic is fashionable in the US.
Just about every young person we met was obsessed with farm-to-table food and experimenting with veganism, vegetarianism, whole food diets, paleo diets, smoothies and quinoa. The big question when it came to food in America used to be ‘how much does it cost?’ but now it’s ‘where did it come from?’
To find that out, Carmen and I went to visit a cattle ranch in the far eastern corner of New Mexico. It was all arranged for us by Judith, a woman we house sat for in Port Angeles, who suggested we visit her sisters who both live on ranches to get a true American experience. Now bear in mind that Judith works for a Democratic senator and spent time in the Peace Corps, while her sisters live in New Mexico and Texas, the heartland for the Republicans. Judith joked, ‘just don’t talk about politics or religion and you’ll be fine!’
Full disclosure – I’m centre right in my politics (left on a few things though) and while I was raised Catholic my religious beliefs are now leaning towards agnostic. So avoiding talking about all of that could be difficult! But I promised to keep my lips zipped.
A month or so later we drove across the stunning landscape of the Hat T Ranch in New Mexico owned by Gerry and Jane Tully. The Hat T is an iconic symbol branded onto each of their cattle where a letter t is capped with a flat line and semi-circle – a hat on top of a t. It’s been in Gerry’s family for generations and is so well know it was shown on Carmen’s GPS map. It sits in a long valley with a freshwater stream running through it – every inch of it is like something from a Western movie.
Food and politics
When we arrived after a long day’s drive, Gerry and Jane gave us a friendly reception at their ranch house and invited to sit down with them for dinner. We joined hands at the table and Gerry said a prayer thanking God for the food and welcoming us to their land. It has been years since I have prayed (save for a few Hail Marys when I’m on a plane taking off) and Carmen and I both agreed that taking the time to reflect and show appreciation for what you have is a good thing, regardless of your beliefs.
The food was delicious – we had beef brisket, chillies baked in batter and cheese, and a peach cobbler for dessert. The beef was from a Hat T cow and the vegetables all came from Jane’s garden or somewhere close by. The table we ate from was made from local wood and the entire ranch house had been built by Gerry and Jane. They were truly self-sufficient, self-reliant Americans and it occurred to me that even though it’s in fashion now to ask where your food comes from, they’ve always known.
Inevitably, the conversation steered toward politics but I must say I found myself agreeing with a lot of what they said. They see the government as a fat, messy, incompetent pack of liars who only want to tax them more and make their lives complicated. Fair enough! Time and again they spoke of how their lifestyle is criticised and under threat from people who have no idea what it is they actually do. I worked as a journalist for many years in Australia’s rural areas and that’s a common complaint from farmers there too, but in America it seems to be more pronounced.
And no wonder. The mercifully few times I watched American TV I was shocked at how polarised the politics is. Fox News is like a fortress of right-wing thinking and the leftist networks like MSNBC are a mirror image upside down. There is no middle ground and precious little discussion between the sides. It’s all an echo chamber where each side preaches to its converted in shrill voices and nothing actually gets done. Why would someone from one side change their mind or give ground about anything when all the other side does is call them a backwards hick or a bed-wetting hippie? Beats me.
Time for work
When we woke up in the morning Gerry told us over breakfast that we had arrived in time for branding. Gulp! Though I have spent a decent whack of time on farms, the thought of poking a red-hot iron into the side of a cow made me feel a bit nervous. But Carmen and I didn’t want Gerry to think we were soft city slickers so we put on work shirts, jeans and some cowboy boots and met him at the cattle pens.
Gerry told us at one time most people in America had agricultural roots, either through living on a farm or having someone in their family involved with the land. These days less than two percent of the USA’s population has a link with the land, and Gerry said that means most people think the things rural people do are a little strange.
He fired up a gas burner and arranged half a dozen branding irons into a holder that funnelled the flames so the tips would get red-hot. Then I joined him in the cattle pen to help him separate the animals. It is a legal requirement in the state of New Mexico to brand your cattle and the young bulls and cows in the pen had reached the age where it was necessary. The noise of the hissing flames heating up the branding irons played in the back of my mind as I corralled the cattle into a smaller pen. Would it hurt them much?
My first job was to pull a lever that shut a pair of doors around the neck of each steer that Gerry pushed into a tunnel made from metal pipes. While the doors held the cow in place he would take an iron shaped with the Hat T brand and push it into the side of the cow until the mark had been made. The first time he did it, the smell of burning hair was overwhelming and the cow bucked and mooed. But it was over quickly and when I opened the doors the animal raced away into the pen, relieved to be out of the trap.
Gerry told me cattle’s skin is very thick and the feeling of being trapped bothers them more than the brand. I looked over at the cow he had just branded and it was true – it was hardly bothered and stood there staring at the grass beyond, probably wishing it was grazing instead.
Half a dozen cattle later it and was my turn. Jane helped me get the beast into place and I picked up the brand. I had to get this right. A poorly done mark will fade as hair grows back over the top and has to be done again… so I picked my moment carefully and pressed hard. Five seconds sizzled past and it was done. Afterward, Gerry took the cows up to another pen and hand fed them grass. It was clear that he loved his cattle and when he showed us the rest of his ranch in New Mexico he did it with a modest pride that is rare these days.
When we drove away from the Hat T Ranch in New Mexico Carmen and I talked endlessly about the experience and what it was like to see the world from a totally different perspective. We came to see where beef really came from and left with new friends who had taught us their side of many arguments. That sort of transaction is far more valuable and lasting than watching some biased news story or buying something with a 100% organic label slapped on it. I hope one day they can visit us in Australia and we can show them our part of the world in return.
Dave: Carmen and I are both city slickers – but when we were invited to stay on a cattle ranch in New Mexico we jumped at the chance.
Carmen: This is Gerry and Jane Tully – their property is called The Hat T – named after the shape of the brand they put on all of their cattle – can you see the mark there? We just so happened to arrive on branding day.
Dave: While those Hat T brands got red hot I helped Gerry sort the cattle out – it’s a legal requirement for animals to be branded in New Mexico and some of his cows had reached the age where it has to be done.
We had a bit of help from the farm dogs but Gerry has decades of experience handling the cattle and in no time at all they were separated.
Carmen: I watched Dave work nervously – all he had to do was catch the cows in a trap as they came through – would my soft handed husband stuff it up?
Good work Dave.
Now Gerry took the branding iron and with some help from his wife Jane he made the Hat T mark.
Don’t worry, the smoke is from burning hair – which smelled a bit!
Dave: Gerry is very careful to make sure the brands are nice and wide so they don’t fade and have to be done again. The cows have thick skin and seem to shrug off the pain. I was watching very carefully because it was my turn next!
Dave PTC: So I’ve just branded my first bull.
Carmen: The Hat T ranch has been in Gerry’s family for generations and he has a deep connection with the land and his animals, something he thinks most people have lost.
Gerry Tully: Today I think 2 percent of Americans, maybe one a half percent feed the rest of them. Which that is a very small percentage and those people no longer have roots on the farm and sometimes we can seem a little strange I guess, the things that we d0. It’s a different lifestyle.
It’s what I’ve always wanted to be. I have other occupations, still do. But ah, it’s just something that I love to. I love to take care of my cattle, sometimes I just come out here and look at them, make sure they’re well taken care of and well fed and it’s money in the bank.