Have you been listening or reading NPR’s “Meat Week” coverage?
When one of Morning Edition’s producers called my boss and told her that the show was doing a week of stories devoted to meat, it reminded me of what my mother always said when we asked her (typically on Mother’s Day) when there would be a Kid’s Day.
Every week is Meat Week, especially down in the West Bottoms neighborhood, where the Kansas City Stockyards once ruled and rivaled only Chicago for the largest array of animals for sale or slaughter. At its heyday in the 1920’s, sprawled across 55 acres near the Kansas River, some 2.6 million cattle moved through the yards and 16 railroads converged to ship Kansas City’s biggest export to the rest of the country.
At the yard’s heart beat the Livestock Exchange Building, “seen as a fortress of commerce for Kansas City and the western territory” when it was built in 1910, according to its current website. It was where everyone met, traded, ate and drank when it was the largest livestock exchange building in the world.
But most of that hustle and bustle ended in 1991, when the stockyards closed, despite the efforts by city officials who built the Kemper Arena there in 1974. Kansas City’s biggest tie to its cowtown background is now the American Royal farm and stock show, which is held in the West Bottoms every fall.
I drove down to the West Bottoms yesterday, and circled through the shabby, deserted streets on one side of the interstate, a lonely red-brick canyon. I saw a for-sale sign hung on a huge building that had “OIL PULL TRACTORS” in peeling-paint letters along the side. One of the buildings was called “The Beast” and is used as a haunted house each Halloween.
Then I drove to the other side and parked behind the Livestock Exchange Building, which has undergone a rehabbed revitalization, thanks to a local cattle baron, Bill Haw. The original tile floors, sweeping grand staircase and marbled bathrooms are still there – a kind of castle centered on cattle. Now it’s populated with artists’ studios, professional offices, a gym and even an acupuncture clinic.
My contribution to Meat Week is a look at beef production, which has changed dramatically and yet stayed the same, all at the same time. Most of the beef you eat today starts out at small farms and ranches – but it ends up a long way and in far larger hands before it gets to your grocery store.
Strikes me that Kansas City's old Stockyards District is a fair metaphor for today's beef industry -- it's a bit dried up and blown to other directions, although there are still stalwarts out there who are invested in the romance and history.
Part of my reporting on the story included interviewing Dr. Dan Thomson, a veterinarian at Kansas State University, who also serves as a roving ambassador for the beef industry. He believes it’s important that urban audiences learn about where their food comes from, as more and more generations get further removed from the farm.
“When I go in and ask a group of kids in a classroom, ‘Hey where does hamburger come from, their answer’s always: the store,’” he said. “They don’t understand the process or the heritage – the American history – that agriculture plays.”
Hopefully you’ve learned a little about American ag during this Meat Week. And if you listen in tomorrow to “Morning Edition” you’ll learn more about just where your hamburger comes from, as we’ll travel the road from a small farm in central Kansas to a Wal Mart near you.