Since 1999, Cindy and Mike Ridenour, along with their daughter, Mary, have successfully operated Meadow Maid Foods – a sustainable producer and purveyor of grassfed beef and numerous heirloom and open-pollinated vegetables like beans, kale and shallots – on their nearly self-sufficient ranch in Yoder, Wyoming.
Surrounded by conventional ranches and farms, Meadow Maid is unique because of the sustainable practices employed by the Ridenours, with their 100 head of beef cattle being “raised from birth to finish on pasture, on a single ranch…with respect for the cattle, and in harmony with nature.” While their methods often exceed organic standards, what really sets Meadow Maid apart from the sea of conventional practitioners is their commitment to self-sustenance and low-input agriculture. Almost every bit of their cattle’s forage diet is grown on the farm, and the Ridenours avoid chemical fertilizers on their vegetable crops, both practices that lower their water footprint and their dependence on fossil fuels. At Ecocentric we get excited with this type of closed-loop system because it perfectly illustrates how the integration of food, water and energy systems – the “nexus” – can be put into practice.
We have known about the impressive work being done at Meadow Maid ranch since it was a stop on Sustainable Table’s 2007 "Eat Well Guided Tour of America." Then, as now, the Ridenours have been generous with their time and knowledge, as confirmed by my phone conversation with Cindy at her home in Yoder.
If you're interested in sustainable agriculture and pasture-raised animal production, check out the edited transcriptof our entire conversation, which touched on topics like drip irrigation, the challenges of product transportation and their hopes for younger farmers. Below is a sampling of our illuminating and wide-ranging conversation.
On how an integrated approach to Meadow Maid’s operations helps them to pasture-raise their cattle in a sustainable manner.
Well, we're 100 percent grass-fed and our ranch is self-contained, in a sense. So we breed all of our own heifers to be cows. We occasionally bring in a bull, but we have a pretty much closed herd and the ranch is all in one contiguous piece. So our animals are born here and they spend their whole life here and they are on pasture the whole time. So we have a lower stocking density than typical ranches. But what we do is let them graze all summer, but we stockpile feed for the winter and they eat that during the winter. And we do bring in some hay from a local ranch, about fifteen miles from us. And that hay that we bring in, for emergency supplies through the winter is the only feed that involves fossil fuel input. These animals live their entire life, and we estimate that their hay is probably just a couple percent of their total feed over their lifetime. And that’s the only fossil fuel input in these animals, from birth until the time we take them to slaughter. And then, of course, we have to put them in a truck.
And then slaughtering involves some input. There is a lot of energy, water, and that sort of thing. But when we sell custom beef to a customer – a custom beef is where they buy a side or a split side of beef – then the only fossil fuel input in that meat is that little bit of hay, which is just a couple of percent of their lifetime feed, the trip to the processing plant and then whatever energy it takes to process that meat.
And since we have a closed herd, we don’t have to use vaccines, we never pour pesticides on our animals and we don’t use any pesticides or herbicides on our ranch. So it’s a pretty low input process and our ranch is on grassland, what would have been grassland before white people arrived. So it’s a natural grass ecosystem. We have a lot of wildlife here and we have some riparian areas and wetlands, and we keep all those pretty native and natural and allow the wildlife to coexist with the cattle herd. So it all works pretty well together.
On the minimal inputs associated with their vegetable production.
On our vegetable production, just like with the beef, we try to minimize inputs as much as possible. I do buy some liquid fertilizer, it’s a fish emulsion kind of stuff, it’s a natural product, it’s not a petroleum product or chemical fertilizer at all, but we do buy it and we use [it] during the summer. It would be nice to make that ourselves, we do make some compost teas, and it would be nice to stick strictly with the compost teas.
We're not certified organic and one of the reasons that we don’t certify organic is I think they have some ridiculous rules on the book about the use of compost and compost tea, because they are so worried about pathogens. They are living in fear of pathogens these days. Well, our forefathers used compost for millennia and the biodynamic people use compost and compost tea all the time and people aren’t just falling over dead from pathogen contamination.
On the Ridenours' sustainable food production philosophy.
Well my husband likes to say we're a progressive step backward.
In other words, we've combined a lot about what we know about soil life and ecosystems, animal husbandry and the technology of drip systems, being able to irrigate very carefully, and nutrition, what we've learned about plant nutrition and human nutrition and so on. We've combined all of that modern knowledge with the ancient wisdom, of growing with nature instead of battling nature.
I think that any place the farmer can reduce external input is a step in the right direction. You can make the system work, and there’s a lot of data out there saying too, that if you got to a total 100 percent vegetarian system that you can’t make it work, you have to have input. If I just wanted to raise vegetables and grain products, eventually I'd have to bring inputs into the farm, that animals are part of a total farm system, and to me, when you think about it, it makes sense. Because this earth was not populated just by plants. A functional ecosystem includes animals.
And there have been a number of studies on grass-based ecosystems. They have to be grazed. You don’t have a natural grass ecosystem that isn’t grazed, it’s not healthy.
So we have to have these animals grazing and then the grass pastureland is actually one of the best ecosystems in the world as far as soil health. They measured soil life and root mass under grass systems and it’s better than forest. And any time you are producing annual crops, you are constantly disturbing the soil and the soil life, and releasing CO2 and other nutrients that the soil’s been holding. So yes, I grow vegetables and it’s an annual cropping system, but my healthiest ecosystem is not on the vegetable crops, it’s on the pasture.
That pasture ecosystem is healthier than the vegetable crop land. So you gotta do it all.