Rising from the sea

Driving along the coast road from Normandy to Brittany, we began to see Mont St. Michel when we were still miles away. Rising from the waters of the surrounding bay, it was enshrouded with mist as though trying to conceal some mystical secrets.

From a distance, you can see why 12th and 13th century citizens would travel long distances on a pilgrimage here, its spirituality rising like the Mont and drawing them nearer. We felt that same anticipation.

Unfortunately, most of our excitement dissipated as we drove over the causeway and were overwhelmed, not by the monument, but by the crowds. As one of France’s main tourist attractions, Mont-St.-Michel, declared a historic monument in 1874 and listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1979, draws thousands of tourists each day on their own pilgrimage – to eat, shop and swim.

Llet the llama carry your lload

Imagine a furry horse with a long upright neck, rabbit ears like parentheses, a face like a kindly squirrel, eyes like a giraffe’s, legs like a camel’s.

What you’ve got is a llama, ears tipping out at maybe six feet, weighing 300 or 400 pounds. Not overly friendly, with a cat’s independent attitude that says, “I’ll tolerate you, but we’re not bonding.”

That was my hiking partner on a recent day-long trek in the Pisgah National Forest within the Great Smoky Mountains. Aloof to the point of turning his head every time I looked at him, projecting disdain tempered by tolerance – after all, I did hold the halter rope which gave me dominance if not acceptance.

A Tour of What We Eat

Standing in a pasture with cows roaming around behind him, fourth-generation farm owner Jamie Ager, of Hickory Nut Gap Farm in Asheville, NC, pointed down to the abundance of wild grass that reached half way up his calves.

“When grass gets this thick, roots go down that much more. Our soil is full of nutrients and minerals,” he says. “We’re all about grazing management. By that I mean we move our cattle every day so they have fresh grass to feed on and so the grass can restore itself quickly. When you graze a plant off like that, the roots stay healthy and the plant comes roaring back.”

It all works by fencing off the creeks and then piping water to each grazing area so the cows can easily be moved from one section of the farm to another and the grass can restore itself, without the aid of commercial fertilizers. The farm hasn’t put an ounce of the stuff on the land in 10 – 12 years and the grass appears far healthier than pasture land we’ve seen out west.

Milling around us are 45 cows that actually look really healthy too.

“From an environmental and agricultural standpoint, most beef ranches have a lot of problems,” Ager says. “One is the run-off coming out of feed lots. It often contains traces of the antibiotics and hormones that are given to the cattle. These pharmaceuticals are showing up in people’s wells.”

The other issue, he describes, is “human health.” In a feed lot, cattle are fed highly processed corn. That’s then part of the beef we eat.

“But when beef are allowed to graze openly on grass this thick,” he continues, “it’s the equivalent of their eating their salad, kale and collards. They’re eating healthier and therefore are healthier.“

Plus, at this “hands-off” management-style farm, Ager allows his cows to do what they would do naturally, such as self medicate. To combat worms, the cattle will eat bitter buttercup plants that spring up within the grass. “I haven’t had to worm our cattle in ten years,” he says.

Standing there in the field, there seems to be a lot of movement around as the cows go about their daily routine. Who knew they had a routine?

“It’s always funny being around cows,” Ager says. “You think of them in terms of cowboys. You know, rough and masculine. But really, it’s more like a bunch of ladies out here. They’re nursing and having babies.”

Indeed, just 90 minutes before we arrived, a 60-lb calf was born. With no help from the farmer, who believes the cows know far better how to survive out here than people do.

While it’s evident that Ager loves these animals and this farm life, make no mistake. This is a business. The farm’s 45 cows are bred once a year by one bull. It’s all timed to produce a calf every spring.

“It is a business. And we have to treat it as such” says Ager. “If any one of these cows doesn’t produce a calf each year that will eventually reach 500-lb, well, she’s hamburger.”

But you can be sure, it’s good hamburger.

To learn more about Hickory Nut Gap Farm, visit www.hickorynutgapfarm.com.

– Judi Janofsky