Mobile Matanza protects ag heritage by tying together local food systems

A slaughterhouse on wheels run by the Taos County Economic Development Corp. takes beef from pasture to platter.

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In January, a small herd of cattle dallied in the grass off Upper Ranchitos Road as a white semi slowly pulled into the field. An hour later, two sides of beef hung from a meat hook inside the truck. A month later, the meat was in a stew at a local restaurant.

From pasture to platter, this cow was never more than 5 miles from the center of town. That kind of close-to-home food system is only possible thanks to the Mobile Matanza — a slaughterhouse on wheels run by the Taos County Economic Development Corp.

Better known as TCEDC, the Corp. operates in relative obscurity from a nondescript campus on the southside of town. But for nearly 30 years, the Taos nonprofit has found inventive ways to sustain the traditions of Taos’ land-based cultures by adapting them to modern regulations, as wells as the mounting pressures of growth and development.

The Mobile Matanza may be the flagship of TCEDC’s operation. Started in 2006, the Matanza makes it simpler and more affordable for small-scale ranchers to slaughter livestock. Rather than paying to have animals hauled to a slaughterhouse hundreds of miles away, killed and processed, then shipped back, the Matanza comes to the ranch and does everything on site.

”It’s so peaceful for the livestock. It’s so low stress. Look how relaxed they are,” said Mark Schuetz in January while watching Matanza employees Gilbert Suazo Jr. and Juanice Romero butcher one of his steers with Taos Mountain looming in the background.

The whole slaughter was quick and simple.

Suazo Jr. used a rifle to shoot the cow through the head, killing it instantly. Schuetz used his tractor to carry the animal about 100 feet to the back door of the Mobile Matanza. Then Suazo Jr. and Romero got to work. Everything they need to butcher the animal is in the back of the truck. Once finished, the meat goes back to TCEDC’s headquarters to hang.

Schuetz might save some time and money using the Matanza, but he also points out it keeps him and other Taoseños in business.

”Gilbert’s my neighbor. So is Juana, They’re jobs are related to mine,” Schuetz said. “So we’re all helping each other out.”

Schuetz only got into ranching a few years ago, and getting meat wasn’t the main motivating factor. His primary goal was to replenish pasture land that had been depleted by generations of overuse.

”Overgrazing has caused so much harm, and I really thought animals were destructive,” Schuetz said.

But a lightbulb went off in his head after learning about sustainable grazing advocated by the Santa Fe-based Quivera Coalition. Rather than abusing the land, Schuetz said limited numbers of animals rotated regularly can reinvigorate and replenish “tired” Taos Valley pastures.

Schuetz is constantly hustling to lease or borrow open land to graze his herds. He puts up the electric fence and keeps the herd moving. If all goes to plan, the land is re-fertilized by limited and targeted grazing.

Putting ag land back into production has other advantages, like restoring centuries-old acequias in need of some TLC.

For Pati Martinson, co-director of TCEDC, the fringe benefits the mobile slaughterhouse has on land and water aren’t accidental. Fostering the connections between food, land and culture in Northern New Mexico is at the heart of what she and fellow co-director Terrie Bad Hand have always hoped to accomplish.

Martinson explains the Matanza supports small-scale ranchers who otherwise couldn’t afford or don’t want to send cattle elsewhere to be slaughtered. In turn, local producers are able to maintain the tradition of raising livestock like cattle, pigs and goats. Protecting agriculture also preserves irrigated lands and open space — both of which are under threat from continued development and rising land prices in and around Taos.

Many of the Matanza’s customers keep the meat to feed their families, or to trade or sell with neighbors.

“It’s not an underground economy,” Martinson said. “It’s a land-based economy and it’s still working for a lot of people.”

Martinson said TCEDC is also on the verge of opening a refrigeration facility at its campus that would serve as a retail outlet for local producers — including ranchers — to sell to the general public in volumes that make it affordable.

Schuetz now taps another market by selling some of his beef to The Love Apple — a local restaurant that goes out of its way to source local ingredients. Schuetz can legally sell to a restaurant because a USDA inspector tags along with the Matanza to oversee the slaughter. The TCEDC’s existing cold storage center is also USDA-certified, meaning meat that gets an inspector’s OK can be sold retail.

Jen Hart, owner of The Love Apple, said her emphasis on buying from Taos ranchers is part of supporting the community as a whole. It keeps the rancher in business. The meat is healthier. It’s more humane for the animals. And it helps keep agricultural land productive.

Hart, a Taos native, is especially frustrated that buzzwords like “natural” and “organic” have become so trendy in the affluent Anglo sphere while there is relatively little support and attention given to the Hispano and native producers with generations of wisdom on the subject.

That’s why Love Apple chef Andrea Meyer says TCEDC and the Mobile Matanza are so important.

”We’re just trying to do what’s real,” said Meyer. “And something like the Matanza helps protect that knowledge.”

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