Excerpt: Cattle Beet Capital

Michael Weeks is a lecturer of history at Utah Valley University. His book Cattle Beet Capital (Nebraska, 2022) is now available.

From the Introduction

Few companies in the American West articulate the agricultural transformations of the twentieth century more completely than Monfort of Colorado. During the early 1970s, its Greeley-based operations possessed the greatest concentration of commercially fed cattle in the world. Monfort fattened, slaughtered, boxed, and shipped over half a million animals each year. The company and its peers dominated regional agriculture, contracting with farmers to cultivate more than three hundred thousand tons of corn grain and silage annually, thereby enabling penned steers and heifers to pack on nearly three pounds of heft daily. These impressive gains depended on a complex irrigation infrastructure that diverted every drop of water within the South Platte River watershed and tunneled the headwaters of the Colorado River beneath the Continental Divide to slake industry thirsts. Monfort’s appetites extended beyond its Northern Colorado headquarters in purchasing synthetic chemicals, fertilizers, pharmaceuticals, and machinery from far-flung research labs and factories. The company also contracted with multinational chemical and fossil fuel corporations to synthesize the plastics and dry ice used to pack, box, cool, and ship its beef across the globe. Greeley residents could not ignore Monfort since it was as recognizable by its smell as by its beef. Hundreds of thousands of cattle packed into feedlots produced copious wastes whose odors invaded olfactory senses up and down the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains. Some simply referred to the odor as the smell of Greeley while, for others, it was the scent of profit. Either way, Greeley smelled like industrial agriculture.

Before I stepped foot in Colorado, Monfort was both foreign and familiar to me. I grew up in a rural town south of the San Francisco Bay Area where my family raised goats, ducks, a horse, and more litters of Cocker Spaniel puppies than I can recall. During my adolescent years, we fattened and slaughtered several pigs and a steer on our modest acre of land. Regular chores included feeding animals, cleaning their pens, and scooping scattered piles of manure for deposit in a compost pile that functioned to replenish the nitrogen and phosphorous content in a garden that supplied our family of five with most of its vegetables. I experienced animals and their manure as both repelling and regenerative. By contrast, commercial feedlots were an oddity that revolted, and yet peaked, my curiosity. During frequent road trips to Southern California along the I-5 Freeway, I marked the midpoint by the smell of Harris Ranch—several roadside miles of beef cattle packed into commercial feedlots whose concentrated excrement saturated the air in our modest vehicle. Though we temporarily held our noses, for me, the idea of Harris Ranch always lingered long after its scent faded. The vast chasm between backyard animals and roadside cattle left much unexplained.

I lived within whiffing distance of Monfort’s Greeley feedlots from 1997 to 1999, while teaching high school in Commerce City, Colorado. As the regional home to food processing and agricultural corporations, as well as the region’s most prominent oil refinery, Commerce City played the role of industrial stepchild to nearby Denver, which was rapidly developing a reputation as the hub of outdoorsy hipsters who were fast erasing the city’s cow-town past. Greeley’s commercial feedlot odors permeated Commerce City on days when prevailing winds blew from the north or when inversions stagnated airflow. Despite its pervasiveness, the smell of Greeley was not foreign to Commerce City, since it mingled with other industrial outputs— sulfur from the oil refinery and meat byproducts being transformed into dog chow at the local Purina factory.

Eleven years later, when I arrived in Boulder, Colorado, to study environmental history, Greeley’s aroma took on a different air. When its feedlot smells descended on Boulder, an upscale haven of liberal politics and environmental activism, my pungent curiosity evolved into academic study. I wanted to understand how this place, which defined industrial meat production and was a metaphor for olfactory putrescence, had come to be. In the process, I discovered a compelling story that traces the arc of modern food production in America.

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