Earlier this year, the group Aspen Meatless Mondays gathered in a private home for a screening of the documentary "Cowspiracy".
Dawn Shepard began Aspen Meatless Mondays five years ago as a way to bring awareness to the health and moral issues involved with consuming meat. The group gathers most months for a potluck and activities like lectures, cooking demonstrations and dancing.
This evening is a little different. Instead of focusing on personal health, the topic is environmental health — what the livestock industry does to our global ecosystem.
Shepard informed the group — mostly older Aspen locals — of a new John Hopkins study that was released days earlier.
“If global trends in meat and dairy intake continue global mean temperatures will more than likely exceed more than 2 degrees celsius, “ said Shepard.
"Cowspriacy" was filmed by documentarian Kip Andersen. It focuses on the large effect the agricultural industry has on the environment — like methane gasses from livestock, and the amount of water that animals and their food require. There’s also emissions released from farm equipment, and the destruction of natural habitats in exchange for grazing and growing land.
The movie also points out that even powerful environmental organizations are not talking about the detrimental effects of big ag — what Andersen calls a conspiracy.
When actor and environmental activist Leonardo DiCaprio saw a screening of the film he became so passionate about getting the information out that he came on as a producer. A new edit of the film is now available on Netflix.
After the screening, the group discussed the film’s themes. The contrast between big ag and smaller local solutions came up repeatedly — specifically the Roaring Fork Valley’s own Rock Bottom Ranch.
Rock Bottom Ranch is a project of the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies. In February, the ranch was awarded the “Certified Wildlife Friendly” designation — the first in the state to be named as such. The gold standard award lets consumers know that livestock has been raised without harming its surrounding environment.
Jason Smith is the director of the 113-acre property, located off of the Rio Grande Trail near Basalt.
"We have sheep and lamb, there are a couple of goats over in a different pasture that will join this group, and then we have a couple of burros here for predator protection,” said Smith.
One way that Rock Bottom ranch mitigates impact on the natural ecosystem is to allow for native plant and animal species to coexist with the livestock being raised. That means predators like mountain lions and coyotes are present at the ranch. Burros act as bouncers of the animal kingdom — protecting the rest of the animals they are penned up with. A 30-year-old male burro named Smoke is recovering from a mountain lion’s cuts on his back and belly — but the lambs are all safe.
Using a system of portable electric fencing, Smith can always assure that natural wildlife has access to the river that runs through the property and can follow their migratory paths without coming into contact with the livestock. The movable fencing also helps mimic the natural cycle of the Colorado grasslands — just substituting cattle, sheep and chickens for what was once buffalo and cowbirds.
“The sheep come in first,” said Smith. “The sheep are our little lawn mowers and then the chicken are our cowbirds. They are going to go in after the sheep and clean and sanitize, and then the biggest component of that is the rest.”
While most commercial farms use 100 percent of their land 100 percent of the time hoping for the biggest production and highest financial gain — Smith said the smaller, cyclical use of the land is actually more profitable. While most area farms are happy to get two cuttings of hay annually Rock Bottom Ranch gets six because of the health of the soil.
Using chickens to clean up the land by eating parasites and larvae that can sicken the other animals, Smith said his livestock have virtually no vet bills. And by using goats to lead the pack, the ranch does not use tractors or mowers to tend to the grass — saving equipment costs and lowering vehicle emissions.
Back at Meatless Monday's screening of "Cowspriacy", the group grappled with the connection they just learned about factory farming and climate change. Members discussed that it might be futile to hope that small groups like their could change an industry as big as agriculture.
But Smith said all of the environmentally friendly tactics used at Rock Bottom Ranch are scalable — from private back yards to enormous agricultural corporations.
And if that gold standard “environmentally friendly” designation matters to buyers — farmers will make sure to meet that demand.