For those of us who have lived most of our lives east of the Mississippi, the term “cattle ranching” tends to evoke romantic imagery out of Western movies or Larry McMurtry novels: lonesome cowboys persuading great herds of Texas Longhorn cattle to ford treacherous rivers or plod across endless sunbaked, windswept plains (ideally, with a red sandstone butte or two picturesquely placed on the horizon). This quintessential mythos of the American West persists in spite of the fact that the hardy Longhorn stopped being the staple of our nation’s beef industry a long time ago, replaced primarily by the familiar white-faced, red-bodied Hereford cow.
If that offends your sense of nostalgia, you can blame a famous politician: Henry Clay, who imported the first Herefords to America in 1816. The stocky English breed supplies richer, fattier meat than the Longhorns, who originated as feral descendents of Spanish cattle imported by the conquistadores. Generations of survival in a harsh environment toughened up both the iconic breed and its edible parts, but this evolutionary advantage proved a liability in the marketplace once the West was won and well-marbled steak became the entrée of choice.
By 1927 the Texas Longhorn had become so unpopular for beef production that the breed was on the verge of extinction, the last stragglers preserved on a wildlife refuge in Oklahoma. Their offspring were installed as historical curiosities in Texas state parks, largely through the efforts of eminent Texan author/folklorist J. Frank Dobie. But in recent decades their numbers have recouped to the point that some ranchers are raising Longhorns once again, for the express purpose of meeting contemporary market demand for lean free-range beef.
In this era of locavorism and widespread suspicion of factory-farmed meat, the moist green mid-Hudson Valley has somehow, improbably, become a hotbed of grass-fed beef production, with Ulster County the epicenter of the trend. Fully five such cattle farms are now operating in the Town of Gardiner alone. Even amongst the artists, musicians and assorted counterculture eccentrics of Woodstock there now dwells a herd of beef cattle – Texas Longhorns, to be precise. Their little patch of paradise on Schoonmaker Lane – right off Route 212 past the Post Office, far from the blistering sun and desiccating winds of the llano – is called the Longyear Farm.
This third-generation family farming operation in the heart of Woodstock also raises pigs, chickens and turkeys, produces hay and sells such natural homegrown goodies as honey, maple syrup, eggs and pickles. It’s a family-friendly place that welcomes the little ones for a weekly story hour. And this Saturday, October 19 from 2 p.m. to sunset (rain date: Sunday, October 20), it serves as the bucolic setting for the Woodstock Land Conservancy (WLC)’s second annual Longyear Farm Fun-Raiser.
Unlike many not-for-profit organizations’ “gala” annual fundraising events, getting into this one is quite affordable. The $15 entry fee for adults – $5 for kids age 3 and up – covers a lunch of the farm’s own grass-fed beef burgers hot off the grill and what are advertised as “lots of veggie options,” salads, desserts, hard cider and microbrews, plus a day’s worth of entertainment and “sustainable fun.” There will be old-timey music from Deb Cavanaugh and friends, puppetry and storytelling by the great Grian Mac Gregor and her Ivy Vine Players, face-painting, lawn games, cider-pressing and hands-on crafts activities for the kids. The Farm’s own Matt Longyear, who also happens to be WLC’s current board president, will lead farm tours personally.
Best of all, the proceeds from the event will go to support WLC’s mission to preserve, protect and steward open space, farmland and wilderness in the eastern Catskills. Born in 1989 amidst the furor over the threatened sale of the iconic Zena Cornfield for development, the organization recently embarked upon a new five-year strategic plan prioritizing the creation of trail networks and a “vibrant” local food system through partnerships with other community stakeholders. Among other land preservation coups, the Fun-Raiser event will celebrate WLC’s recent acquisition, in partnership with the Catskill Center for Conservation and Development, of the 60-acre Thorn Preserve and the opportunity that this property presents for innovative local agriculture and food projects in the future.
And then, of course, there are those cute Texas Longhorns – a breed known, in spite of its fearsome equipage for battle, for its gentle temperament and for intelligence well above the bovine average. Bring your kids (or borrow some, if you haven’t any) to meet them, and dream together of the romance of the Old West, now happily transplanted to an arts colony in the Catskills.
Woodstock Land Conservancy Fun-Raiser, Saturday, October 19, 2 p.m.-sunset, $15/$5, Longyear Farm, 32 Schoonmaker Lane, Woodstock; (845) 679-6480, www.woodstocklandconservancy.org.