Grass Rivalry

"They haven't seen my cows."

The Game has never interested me — in four years, I’ve never been. But while taking this semester off, I unexpectedly found a rivalry I could get behind.

When I got to California this August I stayed at first on a grass-fed cattle ranch, a small, family-run operation 50 miles south of San Francisco. Its area’s proximity to the city and to Silicon Valley means that land is too expensive to buy for all but those who have made fortunes. What results is a present-day feudalism, in which those landowners pay a salary to a “ranch manager,” who works the land. My ranchers — who leased their land — were one of only three operations left in their county whose livelihood came through income from their stock.

I learned from a newspaper article that there was another grass-fed operation nearby on a ranch owned by a hedge-fund manager from San Francisco. I wondered what my ranchers thought of their grass-feeding neighbors, but didn’t hear any mention until one lethargic morning, when they were lingering over coffee until seven instead of six.

“Why are we sitting around?” Jakob said.

“We’re having a meeting,” Maria joked, squaring off table space to mimic papers and laptops.

“A meeting,” Jakob scoffed. “This is what people on salary do. Sit and have meetings.”

“This is what the Bobkats do,” suggested Maria.

Bobkat, of course, was the other grass-fed ranch.


A week later, Bobkat Ranch appeared in person, in the form of its towering and bulky ranch manager Zachariah, whom Jakob invited to his daughter’s fourth-birthday campout in order to liven up the party once the kids went to bed. Zachariah showed up wearing a cowboy hat and red boots and was perpetually holding a can of Tecate. When it got dark and all the adults settled around the campfire, he started to gab.

“Any kind of grass I have, I can get my cows to eat it,” he said. “People say there are some plants cows don’t like — they haven’t seen my cows.” He went on and on. Finally the ranchers and I went to sleep in their converted train car, their friends returned to their tents and Zachariah lay down in a C-shape around the fire pit.

Maria and I got up the next morning at 5:30 to milk the dairy cows.

“Hold on,” she said as we got in the truck. She took off the door magnet and stuck it to Zachariah’s passenger door. “The only reason Jakob agreed to get these magnets was so we could put them on Zachariah’s truck — we’re pretending that he’s leaving his job to work for us. Now he’s gonna show up at work with our sticker on his door!”

When we came back, though, Zachariah’s truck was gone, and the magnet was stuck to the side of the boxcar.


A few weeks later, Jakob and I pulled up to the town tacqueria after hauling fence posts all morning. We were tired and already on edge. As we parked, Jakob got even more agitated. He turned off the car and started rummaging through the things piled in the backseat.

“C’mon, c’mon, c’mon!” he said, finally pulling up something black and flattening it. He jumped out of his truck and into the bed of the one in front of us. He started trying to stick the bent magnet to the roof of the truck’s cab.

Zachariah appeared in the doorway of the tacqueria and watched as Jakob realized he’d been caught. Jakob jumped down from the truck sulkily.

We walked over to Zachariah.

“Maria was over at your ranch, I hear all the cows are just jumping all over the electric fence!”

“Yeah, yeah,” Zachariah said. “I’m training ‘em.”

“Well, sounds like that hotwire’s working out real well for ya. Anyway, when are you gonna come over for a beer?”

“Why don’t you come to one of my meetings?” Zacharah said.

“Meeting? That sounds boring.”

“A meat-ing. That’s what I’m calling my barbeques.”

“Oh, a barbeque. With your meat? I’ll bring over some of mine and show you what good meat tastes like.”

“Okay. See you at the next meat-ing.”

We headed back to the truck.

“I can’t believe that magnet was bent!” Jakob shook his head. “I’ll get him next time.”

I said to Jakob that someone ought to make a TV series out of his antics with Zachariah and the two ranches’ competitiveness. He replied that it would be silly — comparing the two operations, one big-wealth, one family-run — was apples and oranges. That was exactly why it would be so perfect, I told him: the underdog holdout versus the super-rich! The changing socio-ecological landscape!

He shrugged and got back to work.

EDITOR’S NOTE: All names have been changed because, in Tracey’s words, “not everyone likes being portrayed as a goofball.”

Comments

  • Moira

    For the record, I’ve also worked for “Jakob and Maria.” I know that Jakob considers Zachariah a good friend, and in reality, there is no rivalry. As for divulging some of the more intimate personal nuances of a small, tight-knit farming community for tabloid gratification…well, might just be me, but that might be missing the point.

  • Moira

    .

  • Fergy

    Your focus was misdirected. I would have found it more interesting if you had gone into the bigger picture of what truly matters – that this modern-day feudalism is barely better than big ag subsidized by the government. These wealthy land-owners and farmers are not changing the system, they are simply subsidizing production so the farmers can sell their products at exorbitant prices to other rich people. Who is making good food produced on a small scale available to people who actually need it? Jakob and Maria manage to be good land stewards while still providing the highest quality food to people across a broad economic spectrum.