Rick Kingsbury's old "93 Ford pickup bounces along the primitive road that parallels the Pecos River. Shovels, rakes, and picks rattle in the back of the truck. His two Jack Russell Terriers, who go everywhere with him, keep us company in the front. He shows me a small dam on the river. Just upstream from the simple concrete barrier and the artificial waterfalls it creates, water is diverted into an irrigation ditch that winds its way for miles along the river, giving life to his ranch. Downstream, he stops in front of a sixty acre pasture, where the herd of cattle that belong to him and his business partners graze out of view.
We're in Ribera, although there doesn't seem to be much of a town, in a gorgeous stretch of valley midway between Pecos and Las Vegas. Water ribbons between the banks of the Pecos. Escarpments in multi-colored rock hem in the valley, a couple of miles wide at this point. To the west the valley narrows until it creates the canyon dedicated as Villanueva State Park. To the east it widens, with snow-covered Pecos Baldy in the distance.
"I love this place," Kingsbury says in a gravelly voice. "I've been feeding cows here all winter. It gives me great pleasure to come here every day."
Wearing jeans, a cowboy hat, and boots, he sports short-cropped hair and a handlebar mustache. He's a cowboy who sometimes moves the herd with horses. He buys cattle, feeds them until they get to a thousand pounds or so, then sends them to be slaughtered. He feeds his animals a combination of organically certified and certifiable grass. He uses no hormones, no antibiotics, and the cows produce high quality, lean meat sold at farmers' markets and restaurants. He has a strong sense of land stewardship. With his commitment to sustainable ranching practices, he is, as localflavor publisher Patty Karlovitz puts it, the new face of the Old West.
"This place used to be a wreck," Kingsbury says. Farmers left the land perhaps two generations ago, unable to make a living. As the fields went wild, numerous weeds invaded, contributing to soil depletion. Willows soaked up precious water. Grants from the National Resources Conservation Service, administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, have provided money to help Kingsbury reclaim the land. First he cleared it, here and in their other pastures. To enrich the soil he planted fast-growing grains and plowed them under to naturally enrich the soil without artificial fertilizers. Then he put in irrigation with underground pipes from the acequia to various points of the enclosed pasture. He points to a pipe emerging from the ground with a circular head. "That's an alfalfa valve. It's still flood irrigation but we can control it better than an open ditch." He mostly plants gamma grass, a native species widely found in the United States and Mexico pretty enough to be used ornamentally.
In spite of the illusory abundance of water, Kingsbury's concerned. "It's been a trying season." There's a tenth of the usual snow pack, he estimates, and he doesn't even want to think about what could happen if the water dries up this summer and the ranch has to fork over big bucks to buy grass for the cattle.
Kingsbury and his partners raise only Scottish Highlanders, a longhorn that's one of the oldest known breeds of beef cows. They're healthy, thrive in harsh conditions where other cattle would perish, and "marble up real nice," making low fat, low cholesterol meat. The current head count of thirty-two will be supplemented by another fifty to seventy calves purchased from an organically certified ranch. Kingsbury expects some of his herd to be certified organic within a couple of years. His goal: 150 head.
Driving to the house where he lives with his wife Sheila, a seamstress, Kingsbury explains that he and his partners use several sections of land for grazing. They can't afford to buy, and long-term leases make economic sense. In the summer, they truck their herd up to Gonzales Ranch on a nearby mesa. That's another hundred acres, but it borders BLM land, and they may have use of up to two thousand acres next summer.
Although Kingsbury solely runs the ranch operation, his partners are as committed to sustainable practices as he is. Michael Coffman, whom I meet a little later, used to be a Santa Fe lawyer, but now has a beautiful straw bale house and owns enough acreage that they've cleared land, leveled it, and put in irrigation, getting it ready for crops that will nourish the soil and eventually create another pasture. Third partner, Eric Biederman's main interest as a general contractor is arroyo restoration, something Kingsbury works with him on.
The Kingsbury house is a simple but well-built structure surrounded by pastureland. His wife makes jam from the blackberries and raspberries that thrive here. She grows vegetables in a 15 by 24 foot greenhouse. She'll soon be seeding a fenced-in summer garden, with a statue of Buddha in the center. Beyond that horses are grazing in a large pasture. The view of the valley and the rocky hills that border it is stunning.
Inside, as we drink coffee, Kingsbury's more interested in explaining the ranch operation and the grass-fed movement than talking about himself. Now fifty, he grew up in Virginia on a farm/ranch that sold black angus beef and raised dairy cows. He's been farming and ranching all his life, has run heavy equipment, been a large animal vet tech, and trained horses. He's been all over New Mexico during the past twenty years. "Ranching's a hard way to go. There are other things that are more lucrative. But I love it. I love the animals, taking care of them." He gets so attached to them, it's hard to send them off to be butchered. (He's about to start using a certified organic packer.) The meat is dry-aged for a month before packaging.
He abhors high volume ranching, with its disease-promoting crowded feed lots and indiscriminate use of drugs. Cattle aren't treated well, and each year more and more antibiotics must be used. "It just makes sense not to pump things into animals they don't need. I've seen a lot of feed lots. It's not the right way to do it, the natural way. Simpler is better." When two steers seemed a little sick, Kingsbury took them apart, gave them extra grass, and they got over it in a couple of days. "It's better to keep the cows not stressed. Everything we're raising is going for meat, you want it to be as healthy as possible."
Kingsbury's not alone. A single rancher and two environmentalists formed the Quivira Coalition in 1997. Now small, ecologically and health-minded ranchers along with environmental activists and scientists throughout New Mexico belong to the Santa Fe-based organization, which promotes a "new ranch" ethic. Their projects include watershed restoration, grazing land restoration, workshops and demonstration projects on healthy grazing practices in sustainable habitats, and an annual conference promoting sustainable solutions to ranching, rangeland, and other environments. A 2003 outgrowth was the Southwest Grassfed Livestock Alliance, composed of like-minded ranchers. Although Kingsbury and his partners aren't members, they go to meetings and embrace the practices promoted. Their ranch supplied the beef for the last Coalition meeting.
Kingsbury sees other grassfed operations as support rather than competition. He likes working with his neighbors and thinks "there's room for anybody who does a good job." And he's confident in the excellence of his own meat, from the choicest cuts to that ground for hamburgers. "People rave about what we're doing," he says. "I'm stoked about the product." He plans to be at it the rest of his life.
Look for Pecos Valley Grassfed Beef at the farmers' markets in Santa Fe, Los Alamos, and starting in the summer, Albuquerque. Santa Fe Restaurants serving the meat include Mission Café, Joe's Diner, and Cloud Cliff. Write to Pecos Valley Grassfed Beef, PO Box 668, Ribera, NM 87560, or call 505-421-4727.