Food Conversations

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The Unconventional Harvest: Melstone, Montana—Population 136

Although the event depicted below is true, the names used in this excerpt have been changed to protect the privacy of those I encountered in Melstone.

Route 12 near Melstone, Montana

Route 12 near Melstone, Montana

Endless fields of yellow and brittle grasses swayed gently back and forth, baking to a crisp under the eastern Montana sun. Biking through Mother Nature’s burning furnace in the heat of the day I spit on my arms as often as possible. Just to feel a cool sensation on my skin – even if it was just for a split second. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

In the triple digit heat, I made the decision to remove my protective biking attire. My cargo shorts, helmet, gloves, socks and shirt were now stowed away in my bags. I was now riding my bicycle in nothing more than padded spandex underwear (which I had rolled up tightly and resembled a Speedo), sandals and a pair of cheap sunglasses. In a land where people wore jeans, boots, and rancher hats all year round – I stuck out like a sore thumb. And I didn’t give a damn.

10 miles east of Melstone, Montana, a stiff wind barreled into my path. The air was hot – yet it felt fantastic. I belted long fits of loud and insane laughter into the abandoned countryside where nobody could possibly hear me. In late August my psyche had started to take pleasure in the pain and agony of loneliness and physical torture. Come September, anything less than a gruesome day of biking, had become boring and left me thirsty for something dangerous.

According to Wikipedia, Melstone, Montana is a town along U.S. Route 12 with a population of 136. The town was established in 1908 as a base for operating crews on the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad, then under construction in Montana. Although the railroad was abandoned in 1980, Melstone survives as a community center for farmers and ranchers in the lower Musselshell River valley.

Outside Melstone, MontanaTo my naked eye, Melstone, resembled a trailer park, slowly rotting into barren soils. Mobile homes were faded and stood cockeyed and ready to fall. Dilapidated wooden structures in which I couldn’t identify were abandoned and had been left to rot for what must have been decades. Finding a place to sleep felt nearly impossible and coming across a good food story was no longer on my radar. In eastern Montana, finding shelter was my only priority.

A handful of washed out pickup trucks with peppered tailgates were parked in a gravel parking lot outside the Melstone Café and Bar. I parked my bike against the side of the building. Thinking wisely, I knew that if I had planned on making it out of Melstone alive, I had better get dressed before I announced my presence. Something told me that the people inside the bar would not welcome a young man wearing nothing more than a Speedo and a suntan.

Anxiety shot up from gut and out through my arms as I pushed the door open. Without a sound to be heard, a hard light was casted into the dark and smoky barroom and onto three rugged looking men. The sun beating on their leather like skin, each of them turned and stared directly at me in a synchronized fashion. The awkwardness of my presence lingered in the air. It was so thick you could have cut it with a knife and served it for lunch. My entrance felt like a lifetime, but it was merely a few seconds. The men looked away quietly and went back to their booze. Ready or not I knew this was my opportunity to talk with one of our nation’s most stoic and proudest contributors to our food system. The American cattle rancher. Once again, and in the loneliest place imaginable, I had found my story.

Without a word spoken between us, how did I know these men were ranchers and responsible for producing a small fraction of the 25 billion pounds of beef produced in the U.S annually? All it takes is a bit of basic math to understand the equation. Montana is ranked 4th in the United States in terms of landmass with a staggering 147,042 square miles. When it comes to human population, 46 out of Montana’s 56 counties are considered “frontier counties” with an average population of 6 or fewer people per square mile. During my visit in 2009, Montana had more than 2.6 Million beef cattle grazing the countryside. I didn’t need to be a genius to figure it out.

Feeling nervous I sat down, ordered a Bud Light bottle and a glass of ice water. Wrapping my hands around the frosty bottle of beer, I could feel my body temperature drop. I drank them both to the very bottom in less than two minutes. In silence the men tapped their beer bottles on the counter. The reflection in a mirror behind the bar allowed me to observe the men inconspicuously. My intuition told me that everyone was eager to know who in the hell I was and what I was doing in Melstone. I ordered another beer.

“You the kid out there on route 12 riding a bike in his underwear?” asked the man next to me. I could smell the whiskey on his breath 4 bar stools down. His voice deep, speech slurred and eyes glazed over from drinking more than his share.

Nathan Winters Bike Sometimes you just have to take chances. In the dark and smoky bar I made a risky attempt at fitting in with a little barroom humor. “Well sir, I highly doubt anyone else is dumb enough to ride a bicycle through this part of the country. So I guess that would be me.”

I held my breath and waited for a beer bottle to come crashing over my head. Instead, I heard a small bit of laughter coming from the two other men at the end of the bar. I finished my beer, tapped my empty bottle on the bar, indicating that I was thirsty for another round. And I was.

Well I’m Bill and these men over here are Tim and Greg. “I passed ya about a few miles back in my truck. Around here, a guy on a bike is worth 60 points. But with all that gear you got tied down on that rig, I’d say you’re worth at least 100.”

Tucking away a smart ass response, I decided I had better not bite off more than I could chew and thanked Bill for not turning me into road kill. Seconds later, the phone rang and the bartender answered.

“Nope, I haven’t seen him. If he comes in I’ll tell him to get home right away”

With a proud smile, the bartender hung up the phone, looked at Tim and said:
“Your wife just called looking for ya. I covered your ass, now you owe us all a drink.”

Tim took a long swig from his Budweiser and said “Well then I guess you better get the us all a shot”.

While performing a small victory dance, the bartender turned around, grabbed a handful of shot glasses, and poured 3 shots for his regular customers and one for himself. Uncertain, he walked back over to Tim and quietly said “what about the guy on the bike?” All eyes were now on me.

“Yeah go ahead, get him one too!”

I gave a small head nod and took the stiff shot of Crown Royal down to the pit of my stomach. It burnt like the dickens and seconds later my nerves were at ease.

“So what brings you and your bike out here anyway?” Asked Greg.

I am biking across America visiting farms and learning more about our food system.”
Deep and weary breaths were passed down from rancher to rancher.

“So are you one of those whacky environmentalists?” Bill asked.

Bill’s question did not catch me off guard. Things in eastern Montana were now far different than my stops in progressive-thinking towns across the Northeast. To say the least, eastern Montana was a very conservative state and outsiders were not widely accepted. I brought with my bicycle a different point of view and that seemed to scare the shit out of people. Because I wasn’t visiting the frontier state on an all inclusive hunting expedition– locals had often assumed that I was in town to stir up some dust and preach my “whacky environmentalism”. In Roundup, Montana I had an intimidating encounter with a man who looked me dead in the eye and called me a “nigger loving, tree hugging, hippie”. I had simply made the mistake of announcing that I voted for President Barack Obama in the 2008 election and that I had raised money for The Nature Conservancy.

There was only one road in and out of Melstone, Montana. My body could have easily disappeared in the Montana desert. I answered Bill’s inquiries with caution.

“I am just a guy riding a bicycle across America interested in agriculture and local food.”
The bar became silent. I figured that before I get into any more trouble I had better start working on my sleeping arrangements. Do you know a good place for me to pitch my tent? I asked the bartender. Out of nowhere a woman who had been sitting quietly and unnoticeably in the corner of the café raised her voice and declared “I’ll go get a room ready. I’ll be back in 30 minutes.” The bartender looked at me and said “According to my wife you’re staying with us.” I ordered the men at the bar another round of whiskey and lightened the mood.

“You’re not going to find a whole lot of local food out here in Montana.” Bill shouted with a smirk on his face.

“You see, here in Montana you can buy a hat made in China but you can’t buy a steak from a cow that was raised right down the road. The USDA has this whole system bent to hell.” Bill was right. In America, regulations are a major bottleneck to the meat producer hoping to earn a living by way of direct sales. Montana laws mandate that all livestock, poultry and meat and/or meat products be inspected under state and/or federal law before being sold for human consumption. After you shake out the cost of this inspection which requires hefty fees, packaging, labeling, marketing and often times requires a producer to travel several hours to the nearest slaughter facility; there is little opportunity for a rancher in Montana to make a whole lot of money in the deal. Never mind the impossible task of finding a customer base in a region as scarcely populated as Montana. This equation is partly why Cargill (Our nation’s largest private corporation) supplies about 22% of the US domestic meat market and rakes in over 100 billion dollars of revenue each year.

Strict regulations put on by the USDA that interrupt the logical workings of our food system was nothing more than a common cry shared by the most of farmers I had met nationwide. But when it came to beef, I was looking at an entirely different machine. Before I continue, take a moment to chew on a few facts in which Bill had hinted towards during our conversation.

In 2009, the year I had stumbled upon Melstone:

  • U.S. commercial slaughter accounted for 33.3 million head (26.5 million steers and heifers and 6.2 million cull beef and dairy cows).
  • The retail equivalent value of U.S. beef industry was valued at more than 73 billion dollars.
  • The total U.S. beef consumption weighed in at 26.8 billion pounds.
  • U.S. beef exports (commercial carcass weight and value) registered at 1.935 billion pounds and 2.9 billion dollars.
  • U.S. beef exports 7.4 percent of its total production to foreign countries.

That’s a lot of meat and money moving around now isn’t it? It wasn’t until I shared a few cold brews with Bill that I truly understood how industrialized our food (specifically meat) chain had become. The wee hours of 2 AM had arrived before Bill was done bestowing his rancher wisdom onto me. One comment resonated with me far more than the others. “What I would like to know is why we are importing meat from Australia? We don’t need all that kangaroo shit coming into our country when we have plenty of the good meat right here in Montana. We shouldn’t be eating any food from any other damn country – especially meat. We have more damn hamburger here in America than we know what to do with.”

Bill had me thinking. And once again he was speaking the truth. After I had left Melstone and started on an endless trail of research regarding beef imports and exports did I started to see the writing on the wall. Or should I say printed on the label? For me, trying to make sense of our food system in 5 months time was a full blown chore in of itself. Understanding the inner workings of the food industry… was impossible. Because it just don’t make sense. Per Bill’s gripe with beef imports, I came to learn that in the year 2005 the United States imported a staggering 260,000 metric tons of Australian beef (PDF). That’s more than 570 million pounds. If you think that is a sizeable portion of meat – Wrap your head around this: According to the U.S. Meat Export Federation (USMEF) U.S. imports are projected to grow to 1,748,000 metric tons (3.85 billion pounds), an increase of 277,000 metric tons (610.6 million pounds) or 19 percent over the next 10 years.

So… where’s the beef? One needs to look no further than America’s fast food industry. Namely, the golden arches of McDonald’s (one of Cargill’s largest clients). In 2002 McDonald’s starting rolling out Australian beef to over 400 restaurants in the southeastern portion of the U.S.- McDonald’s senior director of U.S. food and packaging, John Hayes told Beef Magazine that the multi-billion dollar fast food joint was “supplementing the domestic lean beef supply for those restaurants at a 25% rate” – Anyone who has stepped foot in the corporate arena knows that Hayes’s response was an elusive way of admitting that it was cheaper to buy lean beef in Australia rather than the United States. To a business executive at McDonald’s – shipping cheaper beef into America is a wise decision and protects the corporation’s bottom line. To a hard working cattle rancher in Montana: It’s just a bunch of kangaroo shit.

4,300 miles and 5 months on a bike had me asking countless food producers one question. What is wrong with our food system? Farmers of all scales and practices seemed to have their own personal opinion. Organic dairy farmers, Garin Smith back in Skowhegan believed that a major part of the problem is USDA regulations that make access to local food a challenge. Mimi Arnstein at Wellspring CSA claimed a disconnection between humans and Mother Nature was to blame. And conventional dairy farmer Art Thelen felt that there was nothing wrong with our food system at all. With brute force Bill had woven his relentless voice into the fabric of my story. “America needs to get hungry! That’s the only way to fix our food system.” Bill shouted with anger.

Get hungry? “Huh!” I thought to myself. I had witnessed young children in Cleveland, Ohio eating value meals. Overweight and piling on the pounds like cordwood. And even in the challenging economic climate of 2008, people were still spending their nickels and dimes on steaks and burgers nationwide. In fact, more than 5 billion pounds of beef were purchased by commercial restaurant operators. Here comes a good old fashioned mind boggler… In 2009, there were roughly 300 million people living in the United States. That same year, the meat industry slaughtered more than 26 billion pounds of beef. That’s 86 pounds a meat for every American. That’s nearly a quarter of a pound of beef a day. I don’t know about you, but that sounds like plenty of food to go around. According to Feeding America.org 1 in 6 Americans face hunger (50 million or more). And they provide emergency food assistance to approximately 5.7 million people per week. And if that doesn’t leave you scratching your head, I suppose I should remind you that somewhere between those who have plenty and those who have none, America is wasting nearly 100 billion pounds of food each and every year. At this point in the game, learning the truth about our food system was nothing short of painful.

What’ll be? Asked the bartender – I was caught in a battle between severe hunger and my moral values as I scoured the food menu. Meanwhile, Bill’s words had been going round and round in my brain — making my decision impossible. From that barstool in Melstone, Montana the homemade menu looked less like sandwiches and dinner meals and more like a strategic poker match. The pot set at 73 billion dollars in beef sales as the government dealt the cards. The corporate food glitterati sat pretty smiled and went all in with their multibillion dollar revenue streams and pocket aces. Meanwhile, the American rancher was forced to quietly fold his cards and get back to work. The games is played and wagered not by plastic chips, but rather, 26.5 million steers and heifers and 6.2 million cull beef and dairy cows about to meet their fate – each with their own denomination and predetermined value. The game looked and felt unfair. But it didn’t matter. I knew that in the end nobody wins. Common sense told me that if we continue to gamble away our food system and treat our food like a game without pride or compassion — We will all be standing in line, waiting to be led to the slaughter.

I think I’ll just have another beer.

Read the Unconventional Harvest series:

  1. On the Road to Find the Future of Food and Farming
  2. Grassland Organic Farm
  3. Wellspring Farm
  4. My Visit to an Amish Farm in New York
  5. Farm Sanctuary
  6. An Urban Oasis for Food
  7. Tantré Farm
  8. Conventional Dairy Farmer Art Thelen
  9. New Forest Farm
  10. A Large No-Till Organic Farm
  11. Melstone, Montana—Population 136
  12. In the Farmers Own Words

Nathan Winters rode a bicycle across America to discover first-hand why our food system had grown to be unsustainable, and to find alternative solutions. He traveled into the homes and communities of organic, conventional, urban and Amish farmers and community organizers. This ongoing series—to be posted every other Wednesday— represents select material from The Unconventional Harvest, a work in progress, by Nathan A. Winters. If you are a book publisher interested in working with Mr. Winters, you may contact him directly though his website or on twitter.

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7 Comments

  1. Wayne says:

    Probably knew a couple of those guys too. I was just in that bar a few years ago. Was born around that area and that’s what my dad did. It’s definitely a tough game to play.

  2. Hester says:

    A resident of Melstone MT found this article while surfing the web. The article depicts Eastern Montana very well. However the picture is of Ingomar. We believe the conversation happened in the bar in Ingomar as it has a mirror. Maybe you have changed the names of the people you talked to because we don’t recognize them. The Melstone Cafe is owned and operated by a married couple and it would be just like them to have you stay the night. Although I live 12 miles outside Melstone, it is my town. Population dropped to 96 in the 2010 census but is increasing again. I love your articles.

  3. Mary Ellen Ryan says:

    the picture is of Ingomar MT. Not Melstone MT. The bar in Melstone does not have a mirror behind the bar. Ingomar does. You need to get this straight before you put it on the internet. I live In Melstone so I know you have the wrong name on the picture.

  4. Rick says:

    I grew up in Montana and graduated from Melstone High School. Probably knew those old codgers you were talking to as everyone knows everyone there. It is a shame that farmers and ranchers in this country cannot make a living due to government intervention.

  5. Ryan Goodman says:

    Interesting thoughts here Nathan. I love the bar scene thrown in with the old rugged ranchers. It was pretty much the same feeling when I first walked into a bar/cafe in Wyoming. Though can’t say I was seen biking down the highway before hand.
    So many people get wrapped up in the image of “big ag” producing the food found in grocery stores and have even talked with consumers. I’ve been told that food from a local farmer, organic or conventional, is preferred because they “know an actual farmer produced the food.” So many do not realize there is a real face to the food on grocery shelves from companies like Cargill. Families like mine, too far removed from a population center, have yet to find a niche market for “local” food, and chose to sell products to “main-stream” markets because it is more feasible for us to make a living.
    I am glad you highlighted the facts of rules governing local food marketing. We can sell a half-beef while it’s still on the hoof, but can’t sell the actual meat. It’s always confusing, but somehow there’s a rhyme or reason.
    Yes our food system is broken, but it’ll take consumers putting their money where their mouth is to make change. These farmers have to make a living and buy many groceries from town, just like anyone living in town. Good post, enjoyed the thoughts.