Adventures in Business-Land

This week, during a solo trip to Madroño, Heather spent much of her time knocking on doors in Kerrville, Bandera, Medina, Tarpley, and vicinity, hoping to convince chefs and restaurateurs to buy locally raised, grass-fed bison meat from the ranch. Our initial herd of fifteen animals has grown to thirty-six, including a couple of young males who have already, by their obstreperous behavior, nominated themselves as the first to be harvested this fall.

I’m not particularly objective, of course, but I think she could make a pretty compelling case to those potential customers. To wit:

  • Bison meat generally has more protein, iron, and nutrients than beef or chicken;
  • Bison meat is lower in fat and calories than beef or chicken;
  • Our bison spend their lives ranging freely on Madroño’s 1,500 acres, and never set foot on feedlots;
  • Our bison are never injected with or fed growth hormones, steroids, or any other supplements;
  • To ensure the quality of the meat and reduce stress on the animals, our bison will be field-harvested on site under the supervision of a licensed inspector from the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Another point we hope to emphasize is that, since we’re a small-scale, local operation, our customers will also be our neighbors, which means we’ll be accountable and responsive to them in a way that Big Agriculture isn’t. It also means that every penny our customers spend on our meat will stay right here in Central Texas.

Our hope is that the sale of bison meat, eggs, and produce from Madroño will (eventually) provide significant financial support for the residential center for environmental writers we hope to open at the ranch. We know there’s a growing market in Austin for fresh, local, sustainably raised food, but we’re not planning to sell in Austin—too complicated and expensive logistically, plus we wouldn’t want to compete with our friend and mentor Hugh Fitzsimons of Thunder Heart Bison—so we’re hoping to find a comparable demand in the area right around Madroño. (And based on Heather’s schmoozing this week, the early returns are encouraging.)

Make no mistake, though: going into business—especially the business of turning a creature into a commodity—presents all kinds of challenges for a couple of recovering English majors. Virtually all of my adult work experience has been in the nonprofit sector; shifting to something that is explicitly designed to make money, no matter how noble we believe the cause to be, is a bit of a shock. (A couple of years ago we were told that the mother of one of our daughter’s schoolmates referred to us as “just a couple of old hippies.” She did not intend it as a compliment.) As entrepreneurs, we are babes in the woods.

I imagine our first bison harvest will be quite an adventure, as will the processing and distribution that will follow. We’re already moving out of our comfort zone—I’m pretty sure Heather never imagined herself as a salesperson—and confronting a couple thousand pounds of dead buffalo will move us even farther into unknown territory. I mean, business plans? Financial projections? Balance sheets? Puh-lease!

Of course, it’s probably good for us complacent old hippies to be forced out of our comfort zones occasionally; we just have to hope that we don’t make a total cock-up of it.

On the other hand, maybe we don’t want to get too caught up in this whole mercantile thing. I’ve been reading Ian L. McHarg’s influential book Design with Nature, originally published in 1969. McHarg, an expatriate Scot who pioneered the field of environmental planning in the United States, writes witheringly of the prevailing view in his adopted homeland: “Neither love nor compassion, health nor beauty, dignity nor freedom, grace nor delight are important unless they can be priced. If they are non-price benefits or costs they are relegated to inconsequence. The economic model proceeds inexorably towards its self-fulfillment of more and more despoliation, uglification and inhibition to life, all in the name of progress—yet, paradoxically, the components which the model excludes are the most important human ambitions and accomplishments and the requirements for survival.”

Of course, McHarg is hardly the first thinker to decry a fixation on financial gain. In the sixth century BCE, Lao-Tzu put the same sentiment somewhat more pithily: “Chase after money and security and your heart will never unclench.” In a similar vein, I Timothy tells us that “the love of money is the root of all evil.” (I Timothy is also the source of the phrase “filthy lucre,” by the way.) Jesus himself reminds us, in Matthew’s gospel, that “You cannot serve both God and Mammon.”

And yet, and yet… we live in a fallen world, and money is an intrinsic part of it. The love of money may be the root of all evil, but money itself is not necessarily evil. (Or, as Peter J. Gomes writes in The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart, “Wealth is not a sin, but it is a problem.”) The trick, obviously, is to learn money; to use it; to see it as a means to an end, not an end in itself. I mean, why can’t Madroño become an example of enlightened capitalism, a model of a countercultural way of thinking about commerce—a way that emphasizes the small-scale, local, sustainable long term, instead of the bigger-is-better, metastatic, smash-and-grab short term? I think we’ve all seen enough of the latter way of thinking, and its consequences, to last us a good while.

Of course, it’s easy for me to preach self-righteously about the corrupting dangers of the profit motive; we’re unlikely to make enough money selling bison to threaten the state of our souls. Indeed, just breaking even seems like an ambitious goal right now. I’m sure we’ll be writing more about Heather and Martin’s Adventures in Business-Land in the weeks and months to come. In the meantime, pray for us – and our bank account.

What we’re reading
Richard Powers, The Echo Maker
Martin: Ian L. McHarg, Design with Nature (still)

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