Man of La Muncha here: One of our readers, Jenni, is one of the organizers of the Montlake Meat CSA, which will share a beef purchase from Crown S Ranch. She writes about her field trip to the ranch earlier in July. Seattle-area readers who are interested in the meat CSA are welcome to contactfor details. The deadline is August 1!
We celebrated my husband’s July 22 birthday by going to visit our cow. We really own only an eighth of a steer, and don’t have any responsibility for him besides making space in our freezer for our beef deliveries, but I still think of him as our cow. He lives on the pastures at Crown S Ranch in the Methow Valley, where he’s cared for by Louis the farmer and the rest of the Sukovaty-Argraves family – partner Jennifer, son Geza, and daughter Zoe.
We’ve come to own our cow by working with other families to create the CSA of beef, pork, poultry, and eggs that the Ethicureans have described in previous posts. During the planning process, a few of us met with Jennifer Sukovaty-Argraves to hear about Crown S farming practices and taste their beef. The beef was yummy, but it was Jennifer’s nearly electric enthusiasm for our group, the CSA program, the animals, the land, and the other farming families in the valley that drove our decision to work with Crown S. After hearing Jennifer describe their approach to farming, we felt eager to see the ranch for ourselves. We arrived about noon on Saturday, and joined Jennifer, Zoe, and Geza in the cool green shade beside their house.
On this 100-degree day, we sat with lemonade in our hands and our feet dipped in the creek that runs steps from their porch. We had found them talking about what animals they might raise next year, and as we settled into our lawn chairs, five-year-old Zoe resumed lobbying for ducks. The ducks would be hers, and she would sell some of the eggs and hatch others. As she told us about the plan, it was clear that hatching was the part that excited her. Zoe and Geza, who’s eight, each contribute to the care of the farm. Geza already understands his dad’s management-intensive grazing system and if Louis ever has to be away from the farm for a day or two, it’s Geza who takes the lead.
Today, Louis was running an errand and was expected back shortly. Once Louis returned, we gathered the courage to venture into the heat and started our tour of the farm. First we walked through one of their vegetable gardens, enclosed to keep out deer, to peer into the turkey pen just on the other side of the fence. The turkeys sat under the shade of a tree in the same stream that runs past the house. Louis told us the turkeys help the garden by eating pest insects. Next we looked in on the young turkeys, which were, in Louis’ words, too old to be cute and too vulnerable to be outside. For the next few days, they would continue to live in the brooder, which, like almost everything on the farm – buildings and equipment alike – Louis had built himself. Louis and Jennifer both are engineers by training, and they own and operate an engineering firm in addition to running the ranch. Their intelligence and curiosity, along with their skills and education, serve them well when it comes to caring for their land and animals.
Louis described their management system as like a “gigantic video game” where everything is connected and there are dozens of factors that you have to consider in making your next move. To his mind, it’s the constant challenge of perfecting the existing operation and introducing new projects (whether buildings, animals, or processes) that makes farming fun. One of Louis’ early projects was building a passive system for ridding cattle of flies. The fly population is kept down partly by the chickens, which are moved onto the pasture after the steers. The hens eat the larvae from the cow pats, performing the double service of reducing the pest population and spreading the manure to fertilize the field. To further eliminate the flies, Louis looked to his library of books published in the 1930s, when farmers still relied on pasture management instead of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, and subsidized corn. He found and subsequently built a contraption that looks a bit like a cow-sized crate with open ends. A steer passes through it and the material attached to the top and sides of the box brushes the flies off the animal. The flies then head toward the light and are captured in the mesh traps that make up the sides of the box. The fly contraption sits at the hub of several of the pastures, where the cattle go to get water or move through to get to the next day’s grazing.
We were making our tour just in time to see Louis move them to the next pasture. Actually, as Louis pointed out, they move themselves. Once they see that they have access to fresh pasture, they gallop gladly to the new field – or they would have if strangers weren’t standing so close. Our presence slowed them down a bit, so we had to step back a few yards. When I planned this visit to our cow I hadn’t expected him to be shy.
The pigs, though, weren’t at all skittish in our presence. After they calmly allowed our 15-month-old daughter to pat their backs, we moved on, walking from their current pasture to their last one, where the laying hens now are. We found most of the hens avoiding the heat by staying under the chicken mobile home, in which they’re confined at night to protect them from predators. To get them to come in, Louis turns on the light for a couple of hours, and once they’re all inside, he closes and latches the door behind them. Louis told us he’s planning to automate the process by rigging the light to go off by timer and linking a solenoid switch to it, so that when the light goes out the switch drops the back door on the chicken house.
On our way from the hogs to the hens, we had passed a recently built feed storage building. The pigs and poultry get organic grain in addition to pasture, and it is protected from the elements and the deer by this large shed built almost entirely from salvaged materials. A neighbor wanted to remove a barn from her property, so in a sort of old-fashioned barn-raising in reverse, Jennifer and Louis and several friends spent a day toppling it and claiming the materials. They then used the trusses and siding along with some new wood to build the shed. The new wood came from trees on their property sawed into boards on their own sawmill.
We’d seen the mill on the way to move the steer, and alongside it sat lumber that was drying so Louis could use it to build the boxes that Jennifer will use to package and deliver our products for the CSA. This sort of reliance on the resources at hand was apparent all over the ranch, and next to the storage shed we observed another example. Here was a manure spreader that Louis had cobbled together by rebuilding a box steel trailer meant for some other purpose and adding a conveyor belt and a mechanism to break up and distribute the manure. He’d refashioned these materials into a device that would have cost $30,000 dollars to buy. As we walked away from the spreader, and through a gate that cost hundreds of dollars, we talked about how expensive it is to farm this way.
Our CSA membership isn't cheap either, but after seeing the animal husbandry and environmental stewardship that is evident at Crown S, we're confident we're getting a bargain. We are among the many beneficiaries of the great energy and intellect that Louis and his family bring to the business of farming; and during his life (and even his death) on the ranch, our cow is, too.