THE DRIVE FROM La Grande northeast along Highway 82 traverses flat, green plains flecked with blink-and-you-miss-’em towns like Imbler and Elgin. But where the road cuts through the 2,500-foot Minam Canyon and begins to hug the Wallowa River, the landscape shifts. Just north of the hamlet of Wallowa (population 869), a lush valley unfolds that might easily be mistaken for an Alpine village in Switzerland, with swaying meadows blanketed in prairie grass and snowy summits piercing the clouds.
Cory Carman grew up here, where weak coffee is the norm, every election is decided in the Republican primary, and some ranchers quip that they keep their semiautomatic rifles around “just in case the government comes for my land.” When Carman was in high school in the ’90s, she recalls, “It was like, ‘Are you an environmentalist or are you a normal person?’” Ranchers, on the other hand, were “cool.”
With a fat scholarship to Stanford University in 1997 and a burgeoning interest in the larger issues of food production, Carman soon found herself caught between those polarizing identities—and, ironically, enrolled in the environmental policy program. A rare creature raised around the challenges of both preserving and working the land, Carman still winces at the memory of how a professor shot down her ethics paper on the spotted owl. (She’d argued that the Endangered Species Act can encourage the destruction of habitat.) It was there she encountered her first vocal critique of ranching, primarily aimed at the industrial-scale beef production facilities known as confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs). “Everyone was a vegetarian, and everyone hated cattle because they were ruining the environment,” she says. “They were appalled at what we do.”
Initially, Carman didn’t comprehend the criticism. Her father, uncle, grandfather, and great-grandfather (Fritz Weinhard, Henry’s great-nephew) had always grazed their cattle on open pasture most of the year. During Wallowa’s bitter winter, the cattle moved indoors, into concrete bunkers where they ate a mix of hay, grain, and corn rations laced with protein supplements. In the spring, her family sold them at a livestock auction on the open market. “We never thought about where they went,” says Carman. The CAFOs that her classmates despised were so remote from her experience of ranching that she naively had failed to realize that her family had been indirectly supplying them with cattle for decades.
But one day driving to LA through the San Joaquin Valley, Carman got a whiff of the side of meat production that had turned her classmates vegetarian. “It smelled like something dead on the side of the road,” she says. For miles, she couldn’t figure out what the ripe stench was. But then she saw it: a veritable metropolis of cattle, over a hundred thousand of them packed together as far as the eye could see. It was Harris Cattle Ranch, the largest and most infamous feedlot on the West Coast. Carman found herself so mesmerized by the sight that she nearly drove off the road. “I had no idea this existed,” she says. “I said to myself, ‘This is what everybody eats.’”
The experience inspired a new mission: to prove to her classmates (and to herself) that beef did not have to be produced on the feedlot. Her grandparents in the ’30s and ’40s had done it. Ranchers in Argentina and New Zealand did it now. With a green light from her adviser and food economics professor, Wally Falcon (himself the product of a small farm), Carman tackled a work-study research project on grass-fed beef, staying on for three months after graduation to complete it. She found only 50 ranches in the US even attempting the method, many with mixed results. An uncle, Hoy Carman, a professor of agricultural economics at the University of California–Davis, soundly pooh-poohed the idea. (He had tried grass-fed beef while visiting New Zealand and found it inconsistent.) But for Carman, the research project produced a “retirement fantasy.”
“I’m going to do policy work,” she told herself, “but then, I’m going to come back to raise grass-fed beef.”
After a stint in Washington, DC, working for the House Ways and Means Committee in 2001—through both the September 11 attacks and subsequent anthrax terrorism mailings to federal offices—and a brief stop in Los Angeles managing a Japanese “comfort food” restaurant, the 23-year-old found herself pining for the untamed beauty of Eastern Oregon. In 2003, she headed home, only to discover her family ranch was on the edge of bankruptcy.
Carman’s father, Garth, died in a ranching accident when she was 14. In the decade since, her uncle Kent Carman had held everything together, running the operation exactly as her father had: growing wheat, barley, and oats and selling it, typically 1,800 tons, on the commodities market; buying a mix of corn, protein, and grain back to feed his cows; and, when they were 2, selling them at the spring livestock auction. But by the late ’90s, the profit margins had narrowed dramatically due to increasing competition from operations 20 times larger than Carman Ranch. Soon, the rising cost of nitrogen-based fertilizer and herbicides coupled with lower grain yields and a dive in grain and beef prices had sent the ranch spiraling to losses of $40,000 a year. Her uncle tried everything, lowering his inventory of cattle and applying for federal farming subsidies. But, according to Carman, “It was clear where the ranch was going.”
Looking back, Carman concedes her naiveté. She had written a college research paper on grass-fed ranching. She had begun seeing articles about the method in popular magazines. And one sleepless night, after poring over the ranch’s books, she simply guessed, “The time for this might be now.”
Her Uncle Kent was as skeptical as his brother at UC-Davis. “If you want to do something different,” he suggested, “what about beef jerky? That’s something people like.”