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Brett McMurry walks past the painted hay bales on his ranch along Highway 285 on March 8, 2021, in Nathrop. Brett and his brother Ken, owner and operators of McMurry Land and Livestock, are encouraging people to continue to eat beef and support the livelihood of ranching economies across Colorado. “Without this ranch, this land would be developed into houses,” says Ken McMurry. (Hugh Carey, Special to The Colorado Sun)

LIMON — When Kelsey Pope watches her kids doing after-school chores, scattering hay for some of the 1,200 head of Red Angus cattle on their high plains farm, a beef-bashing proclamation from a governor 70 miles away doesn’t feel like a distant nuisance. 

Colorado’s official embrace of “MeatOut Day” on March 20 feels like a personal attack. 

“This is not the first time I would say that he has stepped on agriculture,” Pope said of the governor. Her family has raised beef cattle on River Bend Ranch for 40 years. Colorado cattle ranchers were already mad at the governor.

“We’re just kind of tired of it,” she said. “And we want to say, ‘Hey, this is who we are. This is what we do.'”

The classic farmer-townie clash, coming in a cancel-culture era when America is taking sides on everything from food to celebrities to Dr. Seuss books, is another sign rural folks feel not just ignored but assaulted by urbanites. And it draws a dividing line between celebrating one kind of food versus trashing another.

“It almost feels like food has become a front line for the politicization of deeper issues,” said Dawn Thilmany McFadden, a professor of agriculture and resource economics at Colorado State University and co-director of CSU’s Regional Economic Development Institute. “Everything that’s feeling polarized about the world is now emanating through food values and food discussions.” 

The backlash against “MeatOut Day” was instant, fierce, and viral. And it hasn’t subsided.

A cow on Frasier Farms and River Bend Ranch, owned by the Popes, this week in Limon. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Gov. Jared Polis first stepped in the beef controversy two years ago when he suggested the state should open a fake-meat factory and then chomped on an Impossible burger while chatting in his office with a political columnist. To smooth things over, he then ate a real beef patty at a National Western Stock Show barbecue put on by the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association. 

Then came the wolves. 

The livestock industry wanted Polis to condemn the ballot measure Coloradans passed last year to reintroduce wolves into the state. The measure was narrowly approved, thanks to support from Denver voters and other cities far from where the newly placed wolves will actually roam and, ranchers fear, feast on their cattle. The governor didn’t take a stand either way and then directed Colorado Parks and Wildlife to expedite the reintroduction plan, though the wildlife commission opted instead for a slower approach.

So when Polis signed a proclamation promoted by animal rights activists designating March 20 as “MeatOut Day,” the state’s ranching community revolted. 

Within hours, or maybe minutes, there was a counterplan for “Meat In Day.” A Facebook post from Greg Brophy, an Eastern Plains farmer and former Republican state senator, has 2,800 shares and counting: “Polis wants March 20 to be a meat-free day. It’s your duty to eat bacon, burgers and steak for each meal that day.”

In Collbran, a ranching community outside of Grand Junction, the local Cattlewomen’s Association announced a beef-eating party and contest — restaurants will serve steaks and burgers that night, and anyone who posts a photo of their family eating beef for dinner gets entered in a prize drawing. 

In Limon, Pope and her family picked apart the “MeatOut” proclamation and fumed over the perceived slandering of their stewardship in seemingly every word. 

“Why our entire industry is fired up this time is because we’re fighting so much misinformation,” Pope said. Lean beef is part of a healthy diet. Ranch animals are not treated with violence. Cattle thrive on high-desert grazing land unsuited for anything else. “There’s so much in that proclamation that is just not true.” 

In Buena Vista, a bull sale previously scheduled for March 20 is morphing into an eat-meat event, with free burgers for the town. 

And on his Chaffee County ranch, Ken McMurry piled up a stack of round hay bales along U.S. 285 and spray-painted a message to anyone who passes by: “Eat Beef Every Day.” But it includes one date as most important of all: “3/20/21.”

Brett McMurry, right, and his brother, Ken, release hay from the moving truck to feed the cows on their ranch in Nathrop. (Hugh Carey, Special to The Colorado Sun)

McMurry, who runs about 450 head of cattle for his cow-calf operation, took a break from calving to talk politics with a reporter last week. The fourth-generation rancher who is hoping his youngest daughter will continue the family business is fed up with what he sees as antagonism against the livestock industry from the Democratic governor. 

“For a governor to call out an industry and make it an anti-day is just wrong,” McMurry said. “If it had been a pro-vegetarian day, those of us who grow cows probably would have bristled. But this? How about an anti-vape day or an anti-smoke marijuana day?”

The farming and ranching industry feels the larger public perception of what’s vital to Colorado is warped. The media spends enormous time and space on the marijuana economy, for example, which last year accounted for $2.2 billion in legal sales

Cattle sales from ranches and feedlots, even before processing into higher-value products, amounted to $4 billion for Colorado’s economy in 2017. Beef is raised in nearly every county of the state. Weld County and its feedlots consistently rank in the top 10 agricultural sales counties for the entire nation, CSU’s McFadden said.

The MeatOut proclamation names a host of reasons not to eat meat, including that it’s bad for your health and that cattle contribute to global warming. 

“It strikes us that he is not just indifferent and tone deaf, but I think hostile to the livestock industry,” said Brophy, the former state senator who grows corn and melons. “This is the third strike.”

MeatOut Day invented by national animal rights group

The great “MeatOut” was invented in 1985 by the national group FARM, or Farm Animal Rights Movement, based in Washington, D.C. The group has been writing the proclamation for years, then pitching it to states and cities across the country. 

This year, Colorado was the only state that bit. 

“This is the most controversy that’s ever been stirred,” said Eric Lindstrom, the group’s executive director. And while the attention has been most welcome, Lindstrom worries that no other governor will ever want to proclaim “MeatOut Day” again.

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, watching the controversy unfold in neighboring Colorado, proclaimed March 20 as “Meat On The Menu Day,” erasing any possible doubt on Nebraska’s official stance on beef. The Republican governor mentioned Polis’ proclamation in his news release

What’s curious is that U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper signed a similar “MeatOut” proclamation back in 2011 when he was Colorado’s governor — without controversy. Ranchers say they don’t even remember it and maybe never heard about it because they weren’t on Twitter and Facebook back then. 

The strong backlash also might be due to a particularly rough year, economically and politically, for rural Coloradans. And they’re at a breaking point with Polis, who they felt gave a less-than-enthusiastic welcome to the industry during his inaugural Governor’s Forum on Colorado Agriculture. 

Add to the list the Polis’ appointment last summer of ardent animal rights activist Ellen Kessler, who has criticized 4-H clubs, to the State Board of Veterinary Medicine, which regulates and licenses veterinarians. Ranchers told The Colorado Sun they protested to Polis’ Agriculture Commissioner Kate Greenberg, but it didn’t change the outcome. 

Ronny and Kelsey Pope’s son Chisum, 7, and niece Maelle Frasier, 8, play after school on their Frasier Farms and River Bend Ranch near Limon on Tuesday. The hay bales are a playground for Chisum and Maelle. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

After the appointment in July, the agricultural news outlet The Fence Post, published a photo from Kessler’s Facebook page depicting her side-hugging the governor’s partner and fiance, First Gentleman Marlon Reis, who is a vegan and speaks out regularly on animal rights matters. 

Ranchers who dislike the governor’s policies have questioned whether Reis has too much influence. But Reis isn’t responsible for “MeatOut Day,” according to FARM, which dispatched one of its activists from Boulder to make the pitch to the governor’s office. Marlon “had no involvement whatsoever,” Lindstrom said. 

But Lindstrom concedes he has no idea if the governor himself reads all the proclamations and decides which to sign. 

Controversy is publicity, and FARM is thrilled with how worked up Coloradans are over a proposed no-meat day.

The day is planned to coincide with spring, when people are thinking about lifestyle changes. “You stop and think about what you’re eating,” Lindstrom said. “I completely understand the plight and the difference of opinions that are raging over MeatOut Day. At the same time, I just have to give it up for the governor.”

“Having the state of Colorado is a very proud moment for us.”

It’s only a proclamation, not a new state holiday

Polis declined an interview request for this story, but the message from his administration was simple: Calm down everyone, it’s only a proclamation. 

Besides, the governor eats meat and has joked that he would win against anyone in a brisket contest. He went to Fort Morgan last week as workers at Colorado meat-packing plants received the coronavirus vaccine, and afterward, the governor’s Instagram account showed him clutching a thick steak. 

Polis’ press secretary Conor Cahill released a statement saying the governor’s office rarely declines any of the hundreds of requests it receives throughout the year for “nonbinding, ceremonial proclamations that get autopenned by the governor.” Among other days proclaimed by Polis: Agriculture Day, Colorado Farm Bureau Day and Truck Driver Appreciation Day.

And the governor’s agricultural commissioner wrote an explanation published in various newspapers trying to quell the outrage.

The proclamation does not create a new state holiday, Greenberg noted, and said she and Polis have worked since “day one” to open up new business from Taiwan to Mexico for the state’s agriculture producers. The administration also put agricultural workers on the state’s coronavirus vaccine priority list. 

“The livestock industry is an essential part of Colorado’s past, present and future,” Greenberg wrote. “No proclamation will change that.”

Painted hay bales this week along Highway 285 in Nathrop in Chaffee County. (Hugh Carey, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The whole dustup comes at an unfortunate time for Polis, amid a cattle-centered power play involving the National Western Stock Show. 

When coronavirus restrictions canceled the annual stock show in Denver, the party moved to Oklahoma in the form of the Cattlemen’s Congress. Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, speaking at the event, poked at Colorado, accusing the state of putting the livestock industry in danger, and noted that Oklahoma was “so proud to get it done.” 

“In Oklahoma, we’re always going to fight for the ag community and this way of life,” he said, according to media reports. And Oklahoma officials are now encouraging big names like Angus and Hereford to move their national shows to Oklahoma for good. 

In response, Polis and ag commissioner Greenburg wrote a letter praising the agriculture community as “the cornerstone and foundation of our state.” 

“My administration has done everything possible to successfully keep agriculture open for business through the toughest of times because we understand that agriculture is Colorado. We are also steadfastly committed to the future of agriculture.”

The proclamation is only a “pro forma exercise,” but one that’s poorly timed, said Shawn Martini, vice president of advocacy for the Colorado Farm Bureau.

“Neighboring states are seizing on the Polis administration’s perceived lack of support for traditional agriculture, doing all they can to woo away significant parts of the show,” he said.

“The crap end of the stick”

Yuma rancher Kenny Rogers, incoming president of the Colorado Livestock Association, put it plainly.

“We’ve been feeling like we’re on the crap end of the stick,” he said. “Why do you just keep poking us?”

Rogers said he asked the agricultural commissioner for help on the wolf reintroduction bill but got nowhere. Rogers asked Greenberg for help again when Polis nominated animal rights activist Kessler to the veterinary board. He recalls telling her, “I would strongly urge you to march into the governor’s office and say, ‘With all due respect, this is not a good idea and I urge you to reconsider.’”

The day of the “MeatOut” proclamation, ranchers across the state began calling, texting and emailing Rogers asking what they could do to protest. “My social media blew up. My email blew up. It’s continuing. It hasn’t died down too much,” he said. “A lot of rural folks finally just said enough. We’re nice people. We typically don’t react. But it’s finally a tipping point with many and they just feel like they have to do something.” 

“It’s just been one thing after another, after another, after another.”

The sentiment goes far beyond one anti-meat day, he said.

“Some of this divide we’re seeing, it’s not Democrat versus Republican — it’s urban versus rural,” Rogers said. “It’s deeper than politics. It’s one more thing that you are trying to cram down our throats.”

Ken McMurry fixes the neighbor’s fence to keep the cows within the properties this week in Nathrop. (Hugh Carey, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Lynne Sherrod, who owns a cow-calf operation in Collbran with her husband, Delbert, said, too, that the current outcry goes much deeper than a rancher rift with Polis. 

“It’s really an urban-rural divide,” she said. “I don’t think there is a conspiracy against us or that people hate us. I think there is a lack of understanding. People don’t understand our lifestyle and our culture.” 

On her Mesa County ranch, with mountains in the distance, Sherrod feels forgotten by urban Colorado, so much an afterthought that Denver residents seem shocked or dismissive when ranchers get angry. “We all seem to rise from the dust and it takes people by surprise,” she said. “We tend to not speak up enough.”

“I don’t care what people eat,” Sherrod said. “It’s a free country. I would never denigrate anybody for how they live their life or what they choose to eat.” 

What she can’t stand is the misinformation about the livestock industry that’s shared on social media and mentioned in the proclamation. Cattle emit only a small fraction of the methane gas that’s contributing to climate change, but Sherrod sees numerous posts online that make it seem otherwise. 

“Agriculture is the second-largest contributor to the state’s economy,” she said. “The fact that he doesn’t understand or appreciate that more is disappointing for all of us.” 

Can’t we all eat in peace?

CSU’s McFadden grew up on a farm herself, with meat at every meal, and doesn’t understand the urge to criticize one source of nutrition in order to elevate another. Why not just pick days to promote the positive side of all of Colorado’s rich food heritage, she wonders. It makes more sense for the state’s economy, and certainly would turn down the heat on culture wars.

Even if people want to promote vegetarianism, they could spotlight Colorado products that have made farmers a living long before lab-grown meat substitutes came along, McFadden noted. Previously popular vegetarian burgers, sausage patties and meat-like crumbles are made from Colorado farm economy staples like black beans, quinoa and millet. Even mushrooms grown indoors at a massive facility in the San Luis Valley. 

“We can all kind of play together nicely in the same pool,” she said. “Anything that makes it so we can keep more of our food dollars here in the state, for a whole realm of foods people are buying. That’s great, too, right?”

Kelsey Pope’s family has ranched near Limon for more than 40 years. She and her husband, Ronny, are preparing for calving season at Frasier Farms and River Bend Ranch. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The either-or mentality grinds on Limon rancher Pope, too. Why not promote all the choices at once? Pope went to Kansas State University with vegetarians, has friends who are allergic to certain meats, and others who say they don’t want to eat something that was alive. All fine with her. 

What Pope loves to do with those friends, and through a group of volunteer farm women called CommonGround Colorado, is explain how cattle on her ranch are making something valuable from land that can’t grow other crops besides shortgrass.

“And that’s why cattle are so awesome,” Pope said. “They produce protein from plants, it’s really their superpower. That’s a great way to utilize and be sustainable. And that’s an ‘ah-ha!’ moment for people. Like, OK, I get what you do.” 

Ranchers who are fully aware of their impact on the state economy are baffled by a supposedly business-minded governor like Polis agreeing to insult a key agricultural industry. That it may have been done by autopen makes it worse, not better. 

Beef is by far Colorado’s most lucrative export. And the ag industry consistently vies with tourism as the second-largest sector of Colorado’s economy, behind No. 1 oil and gas. 

As Kelsey and Ronny Pope unroll a massive bale of hay for 75 heifers who will start birthing cows in about six weeks, wind towers generating electricity for Front Range cities twirl on the horizon bracketing the ranch to the north and south. 

As their son, Chisum, and niece, Maelle Frasier, ignore warnings not to dip their boots in the water tank, the Popes tick off a list of things they wish people knew about raising cattle for beef: 

Friends of prairie dogs in the city save the critters from development and drive out to release them on ranches. The prairie dogs compete with the cattle in grass consumption, and leave dirt potholes across the pastures. 

The snowstorm about to hit metro Denver will leave desperately-needed moisture on the ranch, but will also send pregnant heifers in search of any hillside lee for shelter from the blizzard. 

When the calves do come, gray wolves that have migrated to northwest Colorado from Wyoming may stalk the young animals on their friends’ mountain ranches, and coyotes will circle River Bend waiting for their own chance. Each time the coyotes take a Red Angus calf — and they always get some — it is a loss of $1,000 in potential income for the ranch.

Pardon farm and ranch country, always on alert to threats, for being sensitive even to seemingly empty gestures, Kelsey Pope said. 

After one of Polis’ previous missteps, she said, “they brought him out and he ate a beef burger, and I think that made everybody happy.

“But then,” she said, “here we are, back again.”

Wind turbines generating electricity for Xcel Energy bracket the ranches near Limon where Ronny and Kelsey Pope run Red Angus cattle. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Jennifer Brown writes about mental health, the child welfare system, the disability community and homelessness for The Colorado Sun. As a former Montana 4-H kid, she also loves writing about agriculture and ranching. Brown previously...

Michael Booth is The Sun’s environment writer, and co-author of The Sun’s weekly climate and health newsletter The Temperature. He and John Ingold host the weekly Sun-Up podcast on The Temperature topics every Thursday. He is co-author with...