2000s Archive

No Place Like Home

Originally Published July 2004
In Kansas, where cattle are grown on industrial megafarms, rancher Nancy Vogelsberg-Busch keeps it small, local, and organic.

There’s a spot along Kansas Highway 99 where the California-Oregon trail once ran. Throughout the frontier days of the mid-1800s, this was where the beginning of the final westward trek began, a busy intersection where traffic stalled into a sprawling pioneer campground. Now only a wind-beaten covered wagon and picnic table mark the spot; but when I drive past I always pull over, drawn to the ghosts of thirsty cattle resting for the long, dry haul ahead of them.

It was Nancy Vogelsberg-Busch who first brought me to this place. Well, actually, her cows did. For three summers running I have driven 150 miles into north-central Kansas from my home in Bonner Springs to pick up Bossie’s Best beef from Nancy’s VB Farms.

It might seem a fool’s errand, given the amount of beef in Kansas. Drive from point A to point B anywhere in the state, and you will see cattle pressed up against barbed wire fences, grazing at the side of the road. They ride the back roads, stacked two high in vented aluminum trailers. We even have do-it-yourself car washes for those big trucks that taxi cattle wherever it is they need to go. According to the Kansas Beef Council, the industry generates nearly $5 billion of annual revenue and ranks second in the United States for total number of beef cows processed every year, more than 7 million head, nearly three times the state’s human population.

The bulk of this activity happens down in the southwestern part of the state, around Dodge City and Garden City. Except for the soggy earth pounded by cattle in feedlots, the land there is flat and dry, and the silhouettes of processing plants look like hissing dinosaurs on the horizon.

But I have come to different terrain, to the shaded hills surrounding VB Farms, because Vogelsberg-Busch’s cattle are different. Her cows are pasture-raised and grain-finished, the way they were back in the days commemorated by that lonely wagon. From her small ranch in Home, she feeds 40 families who come, as I do, to buy beef from her door, and she markets smoked franks and grass-fed ground beef in select stores throughout the state—all under the Bossie’s Best “USDA Organic” label. Of the handful of farmers raising organic livestock in Kansas, Nancy is the most visible. One day soon, she hopes to develop some kind of selling network among her colleagues.

Before you go calling FedEx, however, you should know that this cult of the cow is destined to remain local. “I’m never going to be any bigger,” says Nancy. “My hope is to stay on the farm and have people continue to come out here.” For a fourth-generation farmer and single mom like Nancy, this connection between the land and the consumer represents both a link with the past and a hope for the future, especially in an age of mad cow disease and high-volume production.

In fact, it was a massive beef recall back in 2002 that made me decide to get out of the conventional cattle loop. My husband and I belong to a grocery co-op in Lawrence, and we ran across Nancy’s ad in the monthly newsletter. These days I wouldn’t think of getting beef any other way.

Here’s how it works. Nancy calls to say that the cow has been slaughtered at Welch Brothers meat locker in Frankfort—a town about 15 miles south of VB Farms—and is hanging to age. Next we call Ron Hards, who owns the locker. He bought the place five years ago (around the same time Nancy started Bossie’s Best) after working for more than 17 years in a nearby sausage factory. Ron’s facility has been certified organic as part of USDA compliance standards that Nancy must adhere to, though like most rural butchers, he processes livestock from other farmers in the local community as well as his own. “Not too many people choose to do this kind of work,” says Ron. “It’s hard. It’s not the cleanest. And you’re tired at the end of the day.”

Ron walks you through your options. Me, I like everything bone-in, whole muscle, not stew meat. I’ll take all the bones my carcass mates don’t want. I ask for the oxtails, the flat end of the brisket, some short ribs, and the skirt steak, but in the end Ron divvies up the meat so everyone gets cuts from all four parts of the animal. On the day of the pickup, right in the heat of summer, I load up my car with coolers and blankets and hit the trail. All told, including gas, my haul of beef costs about $4 a pound.

In case you were wondering, there really was a Bossie. The cow’s bloodline curls among the branches of the Vogelsberg family tree, entwined in a complex relationship of mutual sustenance that traces its beginnings to Nancy’s great-grandfather, Nicholas. In 1878 he staked a claim near Home and began raising cattle. Eventually Nancy’s grandfather left the homestead to her father, John, on the condition that he would never use chemicals on its land or its livestock. By the time Nancy was born, in 1956, John had helped found the first organic farmers association in Kansas. Today, her brother Joe works the home place—still true to the promise.

Nancy, who had originally planned to be a sociologist, was completing an internship with the Navajo in Arizona when she realized the risks facing her own heritage. “Here I was working with women who were losing their culture because, basically, no one was paying attention to their elders,” Nancy recalls. And yet neither was she. So Nancy returned to Kansas, became one of the first students at The Land Institute, in Salina, and farmed with her father, learning how to raise cattle in a sustainable, single-ranch system.

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