Chipotle Mexican Grill may never make it to the Methow Valley, but its philanthropy will have an effect on one local rancher.
Casey Smith of BCS Livestock, which produces high-quality natural grass-fed lamb and wool products on a farm near Winthrop, is a recent recipient of a $5,000 Chipotle Young Farmer Grant. He joins 49 other farmers around the country recognized for their dedication to agriculture and their tireless work to “secure a sustainable future with real food for communities nationwide,” said Caitlin Liebert, Head of Sustainability at Chipotle.
“The Young Farmer Grant Program recipients embody the future of farming,” Liebert said.
Smith is a fifth-generation sheep rancher, joining his parents Skip and Betsy at BCS Livestock in 2017, after studying animal science at Montana State University in Bozeman and competing on the international biathlon circuit.
BCS Livestock follows a regenerative grazing plan, which builds soil, produces healthy animals, and sequesters carbon into the earth. Mimicking the natural grazing patterns of large herds for millennia before industrialized farming, regenerative grazing moves densely packed animals quickly through a landscape, shifting them every few days to new pastures.
“We’re doing a lot with soil health and pasture quality,” said Smith. “Those two things provide a lot of benefits, including making healthier food and improving environmental conditions.”
Soil health is promoted through seeding trials, said Smith. “After we graze the sheep through, we’re working in some super diverse seeding mixes. Typically we might seed with just a couple of species – grass, alfalfa,” he said. “Now we’re testing 10 or 15 different species of plants with the idea that we’re bringing more diversity into the soil, creating environments for different soil organizations. We’re improving nutrient cycling and producing more beneficial organic matter.”
The sheep, said Smith, are “just a tool to manage what we’re feeding to the soil.”
Methow residents and visitors may see the BCS flock grazing in fields throughout the valley over the summer, and a lucky few will chance upon Smith on horseback, driving sheep down the road from one pasture to another, assisted by his mother, Betsy, or his fiancé, Johnnie Duguay, as well as Gertie, Smith’s sheep-herding border collie.
Watching this process is like watching a woolly river. The sheep gather and trot en masse, bells tinkling, ewes bleating, lambs like toddlers clinging to their mothers’ legs. Gertie runs with singular focus, herding the flock, and the flock follows, like – well, like sheep. And suddenly there are several hundred sheep walking down the road to greener pastures.
These sheep eventually turn into products available at all of the local grocery stores, which has been a bit of a challenge due to the global pandemic. “Typically we have a lot of our meat processed into bigger cuts for the wholesale restaurant business,” said Smith. “But with many restaurants still closed, we have this freezer full of bigger cuts of meat.”
Due to USDA regulations, says Smith, “we can’t fabricate these larger cuts into retail-ready cuts. We’re already sold out of those two-lamb-chop packages. But it’s hard for a family to eat a 7-pound roast in one sitting. It’s a big piece to eat and it’s more expensive than those smaller cuts that are easy to retail.”
In addition to being available at local retailers, BCS Livestock meat can be purchased through pre-sale and on-site systems at the Methow Valley Farmers Market.
Smith was one of 50 young farmers and ranchers across the country to win the first Young Farmer Grant, a program that was launched this year “with the goal of helping beginning farmers and ranchers – and historically underserved producers in particular – overcome the obstacles they face in growing their farm businesses, especially amid the COVID-10 pandemic,” said a press release from the National Young Farmers Coalition and the Chipotle Cultivate Foundation. In its inaugural year, 1,500 young farmers applied for the grants.
With the $5,000 grant, Smith intends to finish an automated irrigation system on 10 acres of his family’s grazing land on Twisp-Winthrop Eastside County Road. “We had a handline there,” said Smith, “but it’s a labor-intensive system. Sometimes it’s just easier to let the water run than to manage it for the most efficient water use.”
The new automated system, Smith said, is controlled wirelessly and can be turned on and off as needed to best manage efficiency and efficacy.
The automated irrigation project was initiated on a 1-acre plot with a grant from Tilth Alliance, which “works in community with Washington farmers, gardeners and eaters to build a sustainable, healthy and equitable food future.” The Young Farmers Grant will help Smith and BCS Livestock complete the project.
With the average age of U.S. farmers approaching 60, said a spokesperson from the National Young Farmers Coalition, “supporting beginning producers has never been more urgent.”
Said Chipotle’s Leibert, “Each [grant] recipient’s dedication to the survival and success of their farm is both admirable and inspiring, and we hope that the grant funds will help alleviate some of the financial barriers facing young farmers today.”