Earlier this week, on Monday, I spent the afternoon in Kansas -- specifically St. Francis, Kansas, a small, sleepy town just a few miles east of the Kansas/Colorado border, population a mere 1,200.
Cattle far, far outweigh humans in St. Francis -- there are thousands and thousands of them -- and on Monday, I, along with several chefs from Linger, Root Down and Fuel Cafe, experienced what most people never have, and likely never will: We witnessed the slaughter of a steer, a beautiful, majestic Black Angus beast that suffered a single shot -- a bolt -- between the eyes before he slumped to the ground with a dull thud. The knocker was quick and precise.
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Callicrate, the cattle ranch and slaughterhouse where we all herded -- and which is owned by a fiercely opinionated, radically passionate man by the name of Mike Callicrate -- exposes sloping hills pelted with short, lush, green grass, and it's small in comparison to most industrialized farms.The lackadaisical cows and steers -- hormone- and antibiotic-free Black Angus and Wagyu -- graze on grains, hay and grass, and they're slaughtered, singularly, on an outdoor kill floor, often in front of witnesses -- in our case, twenty. Photos are allowed, even encouraged. It's an unusually humane, transparent business practice.
Most industrialized feedlots are completely cut off from the public -- and certainly from journalists -- while packers with dehumanizing jobs that I can't even begin to fathom, slaughter, often brutally, upwards of 400 head of cattle each hour. That, too, is a number that I have a very difficult time comprehending.
But this 9,000-acre ranch stretched across winding turns of dusty dirt road? A quick kill, just one every 45 minutes, on site, at the farm. They're slaughtered and skinned by stoic men and women with very fast, precise fingers and unfaltering intensity. The cattle -- Callicrate has a head of around 2,500 -- don't travel hundreds of miles in livestock Semis, through blizzards or blistering heat, to wait out their fate. Instead, Callicrate has its own mobile trailer; the cattle are never transported on trucks. Still...under a brilliant blue sky, the mood was somber and gray.
Even now, I'm still struggling to make peace with the death...with watching the heavy chains wrapped around the steer's legs while his sleek, clean hide shimmered in the blaze of the sun and his tail still flicked from side to side; of looking upwards to the tractor above, where his body was suspended in air as he bled, a flowing river of blood staining the concrete red after his aorta was sliced with a sharp knife. There is no pleasure -- none -- in watching an animal die, especially at our expense.
"Industrial agriculture is going to lead our country into starvation; it's a totally corrupt system," insists Callicrate, who describes himself as a "rural advocate, people advocate and animal advocate" -- and a man who's long had a beef with what's commonly known as the "big meatpackers," as well as their lobbyists. And it's no wonder: In the 1970s, the top five beef packers controlled just 25 percent of the market; today, the top four control more than 80 percent.
In 2012, Callicrate even chest bumped the USDA and the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA), filing a lawsuit alleging oversight on the part of the USDA, with specific regard to the national beef checkoff program. The lawsuit compliant claimed that the Defendants violated the Beef Research and Information Act of 1985 (the "Act"), which prohibits any beef checkoff funds from being used in any manner for the purpose of influencing governmental action or policy. More to the point, the complaint alleged that Defendants gave the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) hundreds of millions of dollars in beef checkoff funds even though NCBA is a policy and lobbying organization and uses beef checkoff funds to influence governmental action and policy in ways that serve the NCBA and are often against the interests of the same cattle producers who pay the beef checkoff.
Callicrate later dropped the lawsuit "without prejudice" -- meaning he can still pursue it -- and the vocal rancher, who has operations in Kansas and Colorado (his meat is distributed at Ranch Foods Direct, a retail shop in Colorado Springs), likely will.
In the meantime, he has plenty of other pointed words -- most of them brutal -- for Whole Foods, Chipotle, Sysco and, not surprisingly, Wal-Mart. "That shit they're selling at Wal-Mart? It's worth $3,000 head of cattle at the price they're selling meat for, plus just think about what it's been injected with," he thunders. He refers to Sysco as the distributor of "pink slime burgers" -- a company, he adds, that's responsible for "human exploitation, animal suffering and environmental degradation"; Whole Food, he claims, is a "farce." In fact, he'd rather shop at Wal-Mart, because there, he contends, "at least you know you're getting screwed."
As for Chipotle, which sources its pork from Niman Ranch, a San Francisco-based company that distributes all-natural beef, lamb and pork -- and a company that Callicrate calls a "zombie brand," meaning that it "used to be wholesome but was bought by a bigger corporation" -- he balks at the fact that the homegrown burrito chain refuses to accept livestock treated with antibiotics in cases where antibiotics are necessary to treat illness. "Under Chipotle's 'never-ever-not-to-buy' protocol, animals treated with antibiotics, whether responsibly, or for treatment, or irresponsibly for sub-therapeutic use, must be removed from its program, leaving Chipotle mostly buying meat from animals with false affidavits and/or far cheaper meat from the big industrial packers," contends Callicrate. Animals, he adds, "should be treated in a way that they never get sick to start with."
Who does Callicrate respect? Author Michael Pollan, who turned this country on its head with The Omnivore's Dilemma. "No one," he insists, "has made a bigger difference than Michael Pollan. He's incredibly significant and people need to listen and pay attention to him."
During our tour of the ranch and the subsequent slaughter, Callicrate never deviated from driving one point home: "I realize what these animals are doing for us, and we have a contract to honor them." Indeed, we do.
I hesitated to post photos of the slaughter, and I'm not going to sugarcoat it: They're graphic, but the next time you have a steak for dinner, or a burger, remember that knowing where your food comes from -- and how it was raised -- should be an integral part of your consciousness.
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The slaughter photos continue on the following pages.