The reporter decided to buy a steer from the Blairs but have them take care of it as they would their own. This way, he could follow the typical beef cow from birth to slaughter and gain an understanding of the business’ slim profit margins.

The animal—“No. 534,” as the ranchers referred to it—spent its first six months on the grassy ranch in Vale before getting trucked to a crowded Kansas feedlot, where, over the next eight months, it fattened to 1,200 pounds on a diet of corn and antibiotics.

Then it was off to the slaughterhouse to be stunned to death and processed.

“The opportunity to put beef on the front page of The New York Times—wow!” recalls Troy. “We wanted to do the best possible job that we could.”

But the morning the article appeared in the Sunday magazine, the ranchers felt they’d made a huge mistake by showing how the proverbial sausage gets made. “It sent shock waves through the entire beef industry,” Hadrick explains to the Fargo audience. “Cash prices dropped. Futures dropped. Packing plants and feed yards worried about protests. And every person who read that article had their perception of reality shifted in the wrong direction.”

Their phone started ringing. Hadrick recounts how he was called a “rotten, horrible, disgraceful human being” and told he’d rot in hell. “Somebody wanted to buy a steer and put it on a farm sanctuary in New York to ‘live out the rest of its natural course,’” he says. “We told him the steer was on its natural course. It’s a steer.”

Hadrick had been a 25-year-old ranch hand at the time, taking care of “No. 534” and corresponding regularly with that now-famous scribe:

Michael Pollan.

Adding insult to injury, says Hadrick, are Pollan’s hugely successful The Omnivore’s Dilemma—which was derived from the seminal Sunday-magazine article—his appearances on national television programs such as The Oprah Winfrey Show and his lucrative speaking gigs across America. (Pollan commands $20,000 per speech; the Hadricks get $2,000 to $3,000.)

Perhaps worst of all was the floating of Pollan’s name in the mainstream press as a potential U.S. agriculture secretary. “He’s not an expert,” Hadrick sums up for the Fargo crowd. “You are. And you’ve got to get out and tell your story so some journalism professor at UC Berkeley”—that would be Pollan—“doesn’t do it for you.”

After the session, the Hadricks describe how their feeling of betrayal by Pollan propelled them into activism. “He called [the day after the article appeared] and said, ‘I guess you’re not too happy with me,’” Troy recalls. “He ended up talking with my father-in-law and basically admitting, you know, that to make it a good story that people would read, he had to sensationalize it.”

Through an assistant, Pollan declined to be interviewed for this article.

Advocates for Ag urges farmers and ranchers to take every opportunity—at state fairs, meat counters, even at ride lines at Disneyland—to tell consumers one-on-one about the animal care and science that go into producing cheap meat. That way, when the curtain goes up on a movie like Food Inc., viewers will have heard the other side from the horse’s mouth.

“Just because you’re a big farm doesn’t mean you don’t care about your animals,” Hadrick emphasizes. Is it negligence when a rancher brings a calf into the house on a winter night and warms it with a blow dryer? Or uses ultrasound to monitor a pregnant heifer? “It’s so frustrating for us to hear people say we’re abusing our livestock,” says the rancher.

The Hadricks say their speaking has accelerated over the past year and a half. They’ve been to both coasts and up and down the nation’s midsection, speaking to meat cutters, veterinarians and farmers of all stripes, handing out “I Met a Rancher Today” stickers at every stop.

Stacy works a 9-to-5 job at the state ag department’s extension office, is studying for a master’s degree and keeps house with three kids. Troy toils on his blog, where he runs down press on everything from poverty to activist outrage at the “sport” known as donkey basketball. He has been urged to shoot a clip similar to the Yellow Tail rant, but the right opportunity hasn’t come along yet.

Though they miss day-to-day ranching, for now, this is the right tack, the Hadricks say—even though beef cattle aren’t a current Humane Society target.

“Say tomorrow they got pig crates, veal crates and [chicken] cages banned throughout the country,” Troy posits. “They’re not just going to stop there and say, ‘Okay, we met our goals.’ They’re going to say, ‘What’s next?’ If we don’t talk about the care that hog and chicken and veal producers put into their animals, then there won’t be anybody left to help stand up for us when it’s our turn.”

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