Boulder, Montana is a special place. There are around 1500 people who call Boulder home. It is small but not so small that I don’t see a new face every once in a while at the post office. It’s nestled among towering snow-capped mountains, which not only catch the worst of the snowstorms but provide views I never thought I’d be so lucky to witness just by glancing out of my apartment window. I would bet there are more cows here than people. Okay, no need to bet; we all know, there are more cows than people in Boulder.
At first, I felt like I must be in the Twilight Zone when whole herds of cows would turn and stare at me blankly with their huge brown eyes while I jogged by on my morning run. Then there was the tripping-on-a-rock-and-falling-in-a-cow-pie incident which didn’t do much to warm me up to the ever-gawking herds.
Before living in rural Montana, I did not think much about cows as animals on farms. Instead, I thought about beef on my plate. Organic. Antibiotic free. Local. Running through the pastures everyday has given me the opportunity to challenge my view of the food system and think about cows in a whole new way.
There was a period of time in college when I gave up all animal products. I was vegan for about two years because it seemed easier to me as a consumer to just not eat anything that came from an animal than do the research to make sure the producer’s standards met my ethics and budget. But I decided I didn’t want to just opt out. I wanted to do something more that ignore animal products. I wanted to support local, sustainable food producers. I began learning more about which products I did support, and how I could maybe make a difference by encouraging others to take a second look at what they were putting into their bodies, both for their health and the health of the land.
Here in Boulder, cows are constants; they color the stark wintry landscape. Some of the most wonderful people I’ve gotten to know in Boulder come from ranching families and their deep knowledge of the land and of ranching tradition has opened my eyes. Along with this tradition comes a great sense of pride. I have friends here who hold very strong views on which products they will or will not consume. Some will only eat beef that they have personally raised; not just for economic reasons but because as one friend says, “I know how these cows were raised and I know what they’ve consumed. I don’t know what other cows have eaten or the shots they’ve had.”
These large gentle animals, quite unbeknownst to them, have inspired thoughtful discussion on sustainable practices and ignited passionate views on our food system in this small rural Montana town.
So what can I do about the position of beef in our food system, especially in the context of school food service? The current system makes it challenging for food service directors to choose local beef over its artificially cheap commodity counterpart. There is more to it than just going out and buying beef from a rancher; what about storage? What about a certified processor? What about budget? All are legitimate questions that present unique challenges, but certainly challenges that we can overcome.
We are literally surrounded by cows here in Boulder. But most of these cows are shipped off to feedlots in the Mid West. Things will need to change to make Montana beef easier to access by Montana schools, but that is not to say it is impossible. We’ll need to work with ranchers, processors, and school food directors to make it happen. Some schools are already taking huge strides in accessing local beef. And I hope that Boulder is next.
After six months, I’m happy to say that the cows and I are becoming friends. I’ve hiked through pastures next to them and they’ve moo’ed encouragingly at me during my morning runs. Dr. Seuss’ “The Lorax” comes to mind when thinking about change. He phrases it perfectly, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” There are a lot of people that care here in Boulder and slowly but surely it’s getting better.