AVON, Minn. – The odds are against Christina Traeger.
And yet …
British White cattle browse the grassy slopes of her Rolling Hills Traeger Ranch, like mottled clouds of fog in the draws. The work of herding, calving and feeding is as relentless as when her great-grandfather settled these acres northwest of St. Cloud, although today it’s called “sustainable agriculture.”
Traeger is among a growing number of producers on a mission to provide people with what’s often called “better beef,” from cattle raised only on grass, their systems free of antibiotics, hormones or the chemistry that propels bumper crops of corn and soybeans.
She knows that most consumers shop at grocery stores, with little knowledge of whether their steaks came from large feedlots where the corn flows free or from a prairie where the spreading oaks should be in paintings. Instead of a “Bonanza” ranch house with a broad front porch, Traeger lives in an aging trailer, but that’s the reality of being a small producer these days.
For a dozen years, Traeger worked with her three daughters, a rarity in the ranching world. Now, though, the two oldest have married and moved out of state. It’s just her and 15-year-old Hailey, driving a freezer truck on weekends and many weekdays to co-ops and farmers markets from Fargo to Linden Hills.
If people would only ask, “Where’s this beef from?” or “How was it raised?” Traeger thinks she might gain an advantage, because her answers are, “Right here” and “The way nature intended.”
The hurdle is getting that message out.
“Marketing is everything, and that is where we have hit a wall,” she said. “We’re not in going-down-the-toilet kind of trouble, but we can’t go anywhere without help.”
She can’t afford what marketing whizzes charge, which, while worth every penny, is money she doesn’t have. “I have cattle.”
And passion. It’s a word on the verge of losing its meaning, perkily trotted out for everything from baking pies to traversing obstacle courses.
So when Traeger replies to the obvious question about why she works so long and hard for so little return, and she uses that word, the quaver that starts deep in her throat makes it seem freshly coined.
A minute earlier, she’d explained matter-of-factly how most small farmers make about $2 an hour. Now, tears well. “If I didn’t have the passion for these cows, I wouldn’t frickin’ do it. I just firmly believe in growing real good food for people and that someone out there will find me. But even if they don’t, we’ll keep doing this because it’s the right thing to do.”
Then she clears her throat and brightens. “It’s like that saying, ‘It’s not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.’ ”
Reality meets biology
Traeger was 21 when she, her husband and two daughters moved to the farm a mile from where she grew up. A half-dozen years later, the marriage ended. Still, she was determined to build a herd of “better beef” cattle.
She researched breeds for hardiness, flavor, how well they calved, the things that matter when staking your livelihood on an animal. But she also needed docile cows because the girls would be helping with chores — slinging hay, herding, vaccinating, branding and finding newborn calves in a cold spring rain.
British Whites proved the ticket, known for their gentle demeanor and so valued that during World War II, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered five cows and a bull shipped to the United States.
Building a herd is all about biology. Cows (and a bull) make calves, and gestation takes nine months, but you can’t sell the female calves because they need to grow into cows that can bear more calves, which takes another two years. Finally, you have enough cattle that you can, through the miracle of castration, begin turning bulls into steers and fattening toward a future as someone’s dinner.
To make ends meet, Traeger worked construction with her dad, coming home exhausted to do the chores with her daughters, who then made supper before she fell dead asleep. Calves, which respect no one’s clock, would be born and sometimes die while she was at work.
“It got so I was losing more money losing calves than I was getting working construction, so I quit.”
Her herd of 140 cows and 250-300 steers, bulls and calves is the foundation of most British Whites in the state. The “mama cows” live on the 75 acres she owns in Avon, while the steers graze on land she rents near Ogema, north of Detroit Lakes. This month, she’s hosting the conference of the British White Cattle Association of America at the Ogema ranch, but she’s contemplating moving everything to Avon to consolidate costs.
“Last winter’s hay’s not paid for yet,” she said.
Traeger, with a face as open as a sunrise and a build as sturdy as her cows, delivers this news frankly, passion trumping self-pity.
Expanding her options
So, how’s business?
“Slow,” she said. “Meat still isn’t something people expect to find at a farmers market.” (Her schedule is posted on her website, www.lovebritishwhites.com.) Nor are the prices what many shoppers expect to find during an outing that’s often as much about fun as stocking the fridge. “But it takes me three years to make a beef,” she said, from calf to steak.
That’s one reason she’s venturing into the veal market, keen to counter the idea of calves whose brief, bottle- fed lives are spent in tight crates. Her calves never leave their mothers, from the time they’re born in the spring to when they go to the butcher in the fall.
“It just makes more economic sense,” she said. Instead of feeding a calf over the winter with purchased hay, she can offer it as pasture-raised, milk-fed, fork-tender veal. Plus, she added, the calves don’t have the stress of being weaned from their mothers, nor of being wintered over.
“They spend their winter in the freezer.” It’s a small joke, but could prove her best option.
Beef isn’t her only revenue. There are some hogs and the chickens, which are Hailey’s responsibility. With last year’s egg money, she got her horse, Shawnee, broken to halter. Traeger would love to send Hailey to a horse training school in Colorado someday.
That would leave Traeger to run the place on her own, but that’s something to think about later.
She said her situation isn’t just hers alone, but just part of being a small-scale producer. “There are thousands of people like me,” she said. “Oodles and oodles. I’m nobody special.”