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The ‘holy cow’ moment

May 9, 2008

‘The holy cow’ moment

As Clarice Swanson ’89 walks in the barn located on her family’s 400-acre Walla Walla cattle ranch, her mind isn’t on the hundred or so Herefords and Black Angus chewing on new grass just down the road.

It’s on the tiny balls of grey striped fluff peeping at her feet. These turkey chicks, or poults, represent one of the few Unimproved Standard Bronze flocks on the West Coast. Even if the chicks or their parents didn’t have the shelter of a barn to escape the snow-tinged wind outside, they’d survive on their own, Swanson notes proudly.

All told, about 100 of these chicks will be carefully nurtured through the summer and fall. Then, they will grace holiday tables of Seattle and Bellevue gourmands willing to pay $70 for about 15 pounds of meat.

The chicks are among the many animals raised at Thundering Hooves Ranch. The children of Lois ’59 and Gordon Huesby ’56 – Joel and Cynthia Huesby, Clarice ’89 and Keith Swanson ’89, and Brian and Jenny Huesby – have guided the ranch to produce mainly organic beef, as well as organic chicken, pork, lamb and turkey.

Thundering Hooves provides meat to food clubs in the Seattle area – and to PLU. The organic beef is just one of the many organic and local food items that have made their way into The Commons as roast beef sandwiches, pot roast and French dip.

Joel Huesby recounted the “holy cow” moment 10 years ago that prompted the family decision to go organic: The ranch had received a cow that was barren.

“So we decided to eat her,” he said.

The cow had been raised on grass alone, without the supplements and fillers typically found at feedlots. The meat was less greasy and tasted great, prompting the family to give organic and sustainable ranching a go.

While the ranch has been certified organic for the last six years, the century-old farm was always about stewardship of the animals, the soil and the general environment, the family says.

It can take up to three years to raise beef on organic cattle before they are ready for processing and end up on a dinner plate. That’s compared to 15 months in a feedlot, Joel Huesby said. But the trade off is worth it.

Once the land returns to its natural cycles and is weaned off expensive and corrosive pesticides and fertilizers, the soil is more productive. In turn, the animals are healthier, he said, with all the fervor of a revivalist preacher.

For Keith and Clarice Swanson, returning home to Walla Walla was part of the natural cycle as well. Both graduated from PLU with degrees in education. For the next 15 years, Keith taught English in the Federal Way School District, while Clarice taught music in the Highline School District before becoming a stay-at-home mom.

When a 10-acre spread became available next to the family ranch, the Swansons jumped at the chance to go into the business and embrace a new way of life.

“We’d taught for years, it was time to try something else,” Keith Swanson said. “This way our five kids could run around, and they love all the wide open spaces.”