On Cows and Coveting Colorado
Why doesn't North Carolina have more cattle? And why can't every new neighborhood here be flourishing with parks, bike paths, schools, and more? Maybe *you* know?
What I Know: North Carolina’s Underwhelming Cowness
I want to take a moment to talk about cows. Do you know how many cows North Carolina has in it? Any guesses?
Well, I’ll tell you. There are 810,000 cows in North Carolina, which seems like a lot. Guess what: It’s not a lot. Texas has 13 million cows. It has more cows that North Carolina has people. That is a lot of cows.
In fact, if you want to know where the cows live, just look at this:
(That map comes from the federal government’s Census of Agriculture, which comes out every five years. Twice as often as the, you know, Census of humans. I digress.)
So why aren’t there more cows here? I asked that question once to V. Mac Baldwin, who raises white French Charolais cattle in the rolling hills outside of Yanceyville:
“It’s been said that I hate a tree,” V. Mac says, chuckling. “I don’t hate a tree. It just gets in my way when I’m trying to grow some grass, you know?” Once the land is cleared, it’s great for cows. There’s plenty of rain and fertile soil, and that leads to good grass. If you want to be in the beef business in this state, you need good grass.
North Carolina is not a beef state. For one thing, there isn’t enough open land. That requires clearing trees, which takes time, money, and a consistent, grueling effort. The Midwest, the Great Plains, and Texas, with their naturally wide-open expanses, are all turnkey ready for cattle. All of those areas are set up for large-scale beef operations because they’re also close to plenty of grain.
“There’s no feed yards in North Carolina,” V. Mac says. “We are a grain-deficient state. We don’t produce enough grain to feed our chickens and hogs.” Even so, it’s far more economical to bring in the smaller amounts of feed you need to raise chickens or hogs than the huge amounts for grain-guzzling cows. The result: This state is the second-largest hog farming state in the country, behind Iowa. It’s in the top five for chickens. But only about 1 percent of our nation’s beef cows are raised in North Carolina.
North Carolina is a good location for a lot of things. For example: thanks to the Isothermal Belt and our cheap and accessible electricity, North Carolina is a wonderful place for gargantuan data centers. We are not set up, however, to raise a lot of cows. Which is fine, I guess. But, say, what if you really liked cows? What if you wanted to start a blood feud with Nebraska and try to kneecap their coveted cattle industry? THE CORNHUSKER STATE HAS HAD IT TOO GOOD FOR TOO LONG. If we really wanted to become the home of Big Cow here, we’d be out there cutting down trees and cordoning off acreage with barbed wire, planting wheat and building feed lots. Why do all of that? Because Omaha sucks, but they need to know that they suck.
Humans have the ability and the necessary jealousy/spite to go to these lengths, but usually, we just move toward the path of least resistance. So, it’s simple: If there were fewer trees, we’d have more cows. Alas, we have a lot of trees, and so I will never be able to be feared in this state while dressed like this:
What I Don’t Know: Why is Colorado?
I’m saying all of this because I was out in Colorado last weekend, and I was like I want all of this in North Carolina. Not the cows. Like, everything else.
North Carolina has a great zoo. Colorado has a great zoo CARVED INTO A MOUNTAINSIDE. North Carolina has many Top Golfs. Colorado has many Top Golfs in thinner air where your tee shot hypothetically travels further. North Carolina has the Grove Park Inn. Colorado has the Stanley Hotel, which inspired The Shining and is where they shot this critical scene in Dumb & Dumber:
Yes, I got a picture on the spot.
But, mostly, Colorado, or at least the greater Denver area, is tantalizingly close to the Rocky Mountains, yet it’s also wide open. It feels like a different sort of livable. Everything seems to be closeby. Running paths. Schools. Parks. Day cares. Beers. I especially feel that in Thornton, where wife’s sister and her family live. That city is at the northern edge of the suburbs, where farmland is constantly being converted into neighborhoods. This sort of thing is happening in suburban areas across the country, and is usually a worrisome harbinger of scary change: pristine pastoral landscapes being plowed under to make way for a bunch of vinyl-sided homes and Quick Trips. But somehow, I don’t get those vibes from Thornton. It was farmland, like, all farmland in 1954, and it’s now the 6th-largest city in Colorado. Which allows it to have certain amenities, like the world’s biggest liquor store.
And yet, not every single square foot is crammed full of housing. I mean, the new houses are really close together, but there also seems to be a lot of land set aside to build … nothing. This appears to be by painstaking design. The city’s main streets are all laid out in a grid, and everything is connected. There are parks and greenways and open spaces and tunnels under streets. For instance: I like running, but I run way too much while I’m visiting because you can literally just go off forever in WHATEVER DIRECTION YOU CHOOSE FOR AS LONG AS YOU WANT.
And the whole time, I’m like, Why can’t we do this? Why didn’t this happen in Charlotte when I lived there? Or Greensboro? Or in Oak Ridge? I’m not bemoaning any of those places, which have, in many ways, tried to do right by their people. Still, I’m watching a huge development fight over what Charlotte is supposed to look like in 2040, while out there in Colorado, everyone seems to have plenty of space set aside for the things that allow you to breathe, raise a family, get to work on time, and so on. Is it really just because there’s plenty of open land out there?
Here’s my “to be sure,” paragraph. Yes, there’s a lot more nuance to it, like politics, history, geography, diversity (Thornton is 77% white), and economics. Plus, while North Carolina is only starting to meaningfully talk about allowing medical marijuana, recreational weed is legal and ubiquitous in Colorado, and the tax revenue goes toward, in large part, building a lot of new schools (although notably, not toward teacher salaries). But the whole exercise out there reminds me of someone playing an extremely responsible game of Sim City. Thornton seems to be the type of player that actually places police stations and parks and schools and hospitals thoughtfully and deliberately, instead of just zoning for high-rise apartments and mega-factories and turning the taxes down to 1% to embrace chaos.
The latter sort of game is fun and also lasts, maybe, 20 minutes, whereas providing the actual services needed for responsible growth means you’ll be playing at an agonizingly slow rate and not releasing the dopamine you’d get from a wild session of, I don’t know, Doom. But in real life, it’s interesting to see what emerges when you put limits on runaway growth.
There are a million reasons why we’re not Colorado, but it’s a healthy exercise to think through the differences, and wonder what works, and what doesn’t, and why not. Maybe it really does come down to this: you don’t have as many pesky trees to contend with out West. After all, 2.8 million Colorado cows can’t be wrong.
Here’s the part where I, an ignorant dolt, ask you, an informed and refined specialist, to explain why we can’t have nice things, or why we already have nice things that I’m conveniently overlooking for the purposes of this newsletter. Leave a comment, or reply to this email if you’re reading this as an email.