Out of a Hispanic valley: kosher beef
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 life.
"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, range-fed cattle.
"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."
Demetrio 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.
Dave Carter, 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 market.
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.
Rabbi Kurcfeld told them 80 percent of the Valdezes' carcasses met kosher standards.
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 show.
Valdez had a written speech ready for the conference, but at the last moment, she decided to improvise.
"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.
"We've been 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.
"We're not looking for handouts," says Valdez. "We just need a leg-up to get started."
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 markets.
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.
Colorado 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 business.
"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 report.