For the Valdez family, ranching in Conejos County - a poor, rural, largely Hispanic and Catholic area of southern Colorado - hasn't changed much since their ancestors settled there five generations ago.
Except that Olive and
Demetrio Valdez are now reading a book on Judaism that explains the
Kashrut, the Jewish rules governing a kosher way of
"It's really interesting reading," says
Olive Valdez. "If an animal has a blemish, or if it struggles or
fights (just before it's killed), it isn't kosher."
The Valdezes aren't planning to switch
religions; they're working to convert a local slaughterhouse into a
kosher meatpacking cooperative. They envision their plan as a way
to get fair market value for the area's lean, chemical-free,
"We cringe every time we go to
the sale barn, because there are only three buyers for our cattle
in our area," says Olive Valdez. "They sit above us on a platform
and joke and laugh together.
"We know they are
making agreements on how much to give us for our cattle ' Once they
decide what the price is going to be, you know how little you're
going to live on the rest of the year."
Valdez first thought of the cooperative in 1994 when he heard that
the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union - a support group for family
farmers and ranchers in Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico - had
given a visiting Israeli diplomat a kosher buffalo. Valdez called
the union to see if it could help.
the union's president, jumped at the chance. The union, founded in
1907, supports cooperative activities for its constituents and had
just started to investigate the kosher
According to Jewish laws, kosher (which
means fit or proper in Hebrew) meat must come from a cloven-hoofed
animal that chews its cud. The animals must be killed by
individuals trained in the kosher slaughter method, not by
machines, and salted to remove blood. Animals with certain flaws
cannot be certified kosher.
After the call from
Valdez, Carter arranged for a Maryland rabbi to fly to the San Luis
Valley to demonstrate the kosher slaughter method. Sixty Catholic
men and women met the Rabbi Mayer Kurcfeld and shared a kosher
lunch with him. Most had never met a Jew, let alone a rabbi, and
all brought their Bibles so they could follow what the rabbi meant
when he referred to the Old Testament.
Kurcfeld told them 80 percent of the Valdezes' carcasses met kosher
Then last spring, Carter and Olive
Valdez traveled to Ames, Iowa, to present their plan at the
national conference on rural life, televised by C-Span and attended
by President Bill Clinton. Most people who attended the conference
or saw it on television tell the same story: Olive Valdez stole the
Valdez had a written speech ready for the
conference, but at the last moment, she decided to
"We are not poor people, we just don't
have any money," she began, which made the group of politicians,
academics and rural residents chuckle. "What I mean is that we are
rich in culture, rich in natural resources, and rich in heritage,"
she explained. "We in the (San Luis) valley want to work and make
our own way."
Valdez, whose speech was quoted in
The New York Times, says the conference helped drum up high-level
support for their cooperative. In June, Mike Dunn, head of rural
economic and community development for the U.S. Department of
Agriculture, came to the San Luis Valley to tour the slaughterhouse
the San Luis ranchers hope to buy.
told the support is there and we're just flying," says Valdez. If
all goes well, they could begin remodeling in as little as 18
months, she says, though they need to raise $100,000 in government
grants for a feasibility study.
looking for handouts," says Valdez. "We just need a leg-up to get
Valdez says 60 producers in her area
could supply beef to the cooperative processing plant. Her cattle,
a brand called Blonde d'Aquitaine, tested at .02 and .09 percent
fat. "They are the leanest meat you can get," boasts Valdez.
Eventually, she'd like to see Conejos County cattle filling other
niches for high-quality beef, in both organic and commercial
The Farmer's Union is a perfect partner
for San Luis ranchers, says Valdez. Both groups want to get family
farms and ranches out from under control of the big processing
industries. The union's Carter says four meat processors - IBP, Con
Agra, Cargill and Farmland - hold 72 percent of the slaughter
capacity in the United States.
"If producers are
to compete in a marketplace dominated by large conglomerates, they
must have the means to organize farmer-owned, value-added
processing cooperatives," says Carter.
Farm Bureau spokesman Andrew Colosimo says that if cooperatives can
narrow the gap between what a consumer pays for food and what it
costs to produce it, the Farm Bureau isn't necessarily against the
idea. But he's skeptical that cooperatives can compete against big
"Like it or not, the romantic vision of
the family farm is no longer viable," says Colosimo. "They just
can't make it any more. This is a business. You have to be able to
provide to the consumer at the lowest cost."
Olive Valdez says her family doesn't have a
particularly romantic vision of the family farm or ranch. They just
don't want to leave the only life they've known.
"If we didn't love this way of life and love
this valley, we'd get in our old pickup and say "Adios." But we
love it and we want to stay. We want to earn a decent living.
There's a sense of outrage inside me that good folks should have to
live this way."
For more information, contact
Olive Valdez, Box 84, Conejos, CO 81129, 719/376-5873, or the Rocky
Mountain Farmer's Union at 800/373-7638.
Ron Baird works in
Colorado for the Boulder Daily Camera. Staff reporter Elizabeth
Manning contributed to this