This Is Where They Make Meat

In 2006, escaping personal grief and researching a novel, Joanna Pocock crossed the United States on a Greyhound bus. The following extract is from 'Greyhound', her current work in progress, which charts this journey across the tarmacked highways of America. In our fourth post in tandem with the current Dark Kitchen issue, we are publishing her devastating piece about land and industrial beef production in the Texas panhandle, originally written for 'Dark Mountain: Issue 20 - ABYSS'.
is a British-Canadian writer and Dark Mountain editor, currently living in London. Her work of creative non-fiction Surrender, won the Fitzcarraldo Editions Essay Prize and was published in 2018.. Her writing has appeared in Dazed & Confused, Granta Online, the Sunday Independent, Los Angeles Times, The Nation and Orion Magazine. She teaches Prose Fiction and Narrative Non-Fiction at the University of the Arts, London.
From Tulsa, Oklahoma, I phone the only motel in Amarillo, Texas within walking distance of the Greyhound bus station. The Civic Center Inn has a room for 40 bucks, so I book it. It is only much later that I find accurate feedback for the motel on TripAdvisor: ‘1 star. We got robbed it was horrible. Some dude took our money and tried to beat us up.’ (The Civic Center Inn has since closed.)

We arrive in Amarillo around 9pm. When I step off the bus into a dusky Texas evening, what hits me is the tangy, intense smell of manure. During the short walk to my motel, I try to ignore the stench, but it is overwhelming. I can smell it inside my room. I can smell it inside my bathroom. I can smell it everywhere. The Texas Panhandle, the square box that sits on a ledge at the top left hand side of the state,  produces a fifth of the US beef supply. Amarillo is smack in the middle of this box. In the Panhandle, cows outnumber people by 40 to 1. That smell, which is a well-known ‘thing’, seeps into Amarillo from 45 miles away where the notorious Southwest Feed Yards hold 45,000 head of cattle captive in bare-dirt pens.

Cattle in this part of Texas are force-fed as quickly as possible until they are fat enough to be slaughtered. It used to take a cow five years to grow large enough to be considered for the abattoir. Now, with antibiotics, growth hormones and a sedentary existence in a small pen, a calf can go from 500 to 1,300 pounds in a mere six months and be ready for slaughter in 18. What I am smelling in Amarillo is not simply the manure from these intensively raised animals, it is ‘faecal dust’ – tiny particles of cow shit that get swept up and carried on the wind. As drought in the Southwest intensifies, so does the dust. It sometimes gets so bad here that the sun is subsumed into a giant brownish grey cloud and motorists use their headlights to see the lines on the road even in the daytime.

Between 2008 and 2017, over 100 complaints were lodged with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) about the smell and the dust from these feedlots. It’s not just the odour that is a problem; there are associated health risks with industrial- scale cattle raising. Breathing in ammonia and other chemical particulates in cow manure is known to contribute to asthma, lung disease and heart problems. From 2014 to 2019 – despite people gettig sick – the TCEQ took no action against any large feedlots in the Panhandle, issued no warnings and handed out no fines. And more facilities are being built.

The scale of these feedlots is hard to imagine. Harder so because in 2013, legislators in Texas passed a bill that made it illegal to take  drone photos of them. A trip via Google Earth to Hereford in Deaf Smith County, which lies to the west of Amarillo and is known as the ‘beef capital of the world’, gives you some idea of the scale. The hundreds of cattle pens are giant brown strips, like lined-up boxcars or shipping containers. The organic shapes around them are manure – millions of tons of the stuff. These shit lagoons come in all shapes and colours. The shades of emerald green, maroon, turquoise and oxblood come from the composition of various chemicals used by the cattle farmers to break down the urine and manure as it drains into creeks, rivers, soil and groundwater. According to the Food and Environment Reporting Network, one feedlot can produce over a ton of manure in a year. Some of this is stomped on by hooves and machinery and then baked in the Texas sun to a fine powder. This is what I was smelling in Amarillo. It didn’t just make me physically sick, it made me sick in my soul.

The hundreds of cattle pens are giant brown strips, like lined-up boxcars or shipping containers. The organic shapes around them are manure – millions of tons of the stuff.

In the 1960s and ’70s when feedlots began operating in the Panhandle, the Ogallala Aquifer was seen as an almost inexhaustible source of water. Spanning eight states – Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska and South Dakota – it provides 82% of the drinking water for the 2.3 million people who live in the High Plains. If the water from it were spread across all 50 states, it would be a foot and a half deep. It is indeed enormous, but like all earthly resources, it is finite. It is full of geologic water, meaning that when it’s gone, it’s gone. If emptied completely, it would take 6,000 years to replenish. This giant underground water table is one of the
most depleted groundwater sources in the country. Ninety per cent of its water is being used to irrigate crops. The tens of thousands of cattle squeezed into Panhandle feedlots suck 8.5 million gallons of groundwater from it per day. This intensive cattle rearing is not only sickening from an animal rights perspective, it is an ecological disaster. As the West gets drier, as wildfires get more extreme, as previously snow-capped mountains now display bare rock at their summits, water has become more precious. Poisoning the aquifer with hormones from cattle feed and the run-off from chemical-laced manure, while letting livestock suck this fresh water from the ground to keep America in hamburgers, is also what I am smelling here in Amarillo. It is the smell of Big Ag, intensive cattle farming, dead animals, ecocide and unfettered greed.

Like so many issues around land in the United States, the people backing destructive practices are livestock lobbyists like the Texas Cattle Feeders Association (TCFA). They oversee 6 million head of cattle in Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico, which adds up to 28% of the beef eaten in the US. Not only does the TCFA donate to political parties, they sponsor academic research while aggressively attacking scientists who don’t agree with their findings. Their most famous attack was in 1998 when, in a seemingly bizarre move, they went after Oprah Winfrey. She had aired a piece on her TV show about food safety, in which her guest, Howard Lyman, a vegetarian and animal rights activist, spoke about Mad Cow Disease in the UK and added that it was a matter of time before bovine spongiform encephalopathy reached American cows. Winfrey’s response was to state that she would never eat another hamburger. This was enough for the TCFA to
sue her for ten million dollars in damages, because her statement on live TV contributed to a drop in the price of beef. In February 1998, Winfrey took the witness stand in a packed Amarillo courtroom along with members of the public, journalists, and her  riend, Maya Angelou. In the crowd outside, people sported T-shirts reading: ‘The only mad cow in Texas is Oprah’. Despite concerns that the jury would be stacked with beef-supporting locals, they voted unanimously in her favour.

Then, in 2016, two scientists from Texas Tech University in Lubbock discovered antibiotic-resistant bacteria in some of the faecal dust being blown from feedlots. Texas Monthly reported that the TCFA allegedly went after these scientists by first requesting that they keep their research to themselves and then eventually attempting to get them fired. Writing in the Texas Observer, Christopher Collins added that, ‘Cattle feedlots, along with poultry and pork megafarms, are protected by a “right to farm” law, which shields them from legal action that might be taken against them by neighbors. Ostensibly enacted to protect family farmers from urban sprawl, the laws instead
disenfranchise rural people in favor of big agribusiness.’ When it comes to the beef industry, very few people can stop cattle farmers from spouting tons of chemical-laden manure into the water table, nor can they be prevented from allowing the wind to spread toxic faecal dust across ‘cattle country’. All the while, in the background, these hundreds of thousands of cows do what is asked of them and suck what remaining water there is from an aquifer that should be treated as the miracle it is – a body of pure water lying under land that is drying up, eroding and becoming infertile at an alarming rate.

My motel in Amarillo doesn’t have a lock on the door so I have shoved some of the particle board furniture in front of it. My ritual channel surfing has brought me once again to Turner Classic movies. Topper with Cary Grant takes my mind off the small brown insect I just spotted in my bed, a tiny thing that I am convinced is a bed bug. Blue and white lights from police cars hit my walls through the almost sheer nylon curtains as I hear arrests being made in nearby rooms. There is shouting. There is crying and banging. A woman screams. From what I can make out as I drift in and out of a light slumber, the rooms are being used by hookers and drug dealers.

Our current on food  and food culture: Dark Mountain: Issue 23 -Dark Kitchen

I give up on sleep very early even though by sunrise everything has gone quiet. I ask the guy working in the motel if there is somewhere to get breakfast and he says no, there is nothing nearby. I pack up and on my way to the Greyhound station, I find a café where, despite the horrible smell, I devour a plate of eggs, hash browns and a stack of toast. The earliest bus out of town is at noon – I have over five hours to kill. I had read about a neighbourhood in Amarillo called San Jacinto which was described as the town’s ‘arts district’. I ask a cab driver outside the Greyhound station if he can take me there. He isn’t busy, he says. He’d be happy to show me around town. If he gets a call, I
can keep him company. We have a deal and I hop in the passenger seat. He introduces himself as Norbert and tells me he is originally  from Nigeria. He likes living in Amarillo. The people are nice, he says.

The main street of San Jacinto is full of small, colourful shops and antique stores but they are all closed as it’s still too early. Norbert  drives us to a really rich area with large brick houses that look like they were built with old money. We stop in front of the neoclassical Harrington Mansion from 1914 with its fluted Ionic columns, wrought iron window guards and stone balustrades. It was built not just  with oil and gas money; it had an added cash injection from the cattle industry courtesy of two wealthy cattlemen, Pat and John  Landergin. By 1929 all their heirs were dead, and nothing is really known about the house for about a decade until it was bought by the oil magnate Don Harrington in 1940. According to its website: ‘Mr. and Mrs. Don D. Harrington’s extensive contributions to a wide range of civic, cultural and medical initiatives helped shape the future.’ And ‘Mr. and Mrs. Harrington’s philanthropy began in 1945 with a gift of land to the Llano Estacado Council of the Boy Scouts of America.’ So, that land Mr Harrington ‘gifted’? Camp Don Harrington sits in the Palo Duro Canyon, the second largest canyon in the United States. It has been home to Native Americans for 15,000 years. First Apaches and Comanches and later Kiowa Indians, most of whom were driven out in 1874 when the US military sent Colonel Ranald Mackenzie to forcibly remove the Native populations and send them to reservations in Oklahoma.

Famously, during what is now called the Battle of Palo Duro Canyon, Mackenzie’s men slaughtered around 1,300 Indian ponies and destroyed most of their winter food supply. This wasn’t a particularly bloody battle – three Native Americans and one white man were killed – but it is significant for being the last stand by Plains Indians to ward off encroachment by white Europeans who would bring disease, whisky – and cows.

Mackenzie’s men slaughtered around 1,300 Indian ponies and destroyed most of their winter food supply … (in) the last stand by Plains Indians to ward off encroachment by white Europeans who would bring disease, whisky – and cows.

Norbert then takes me to his barber shop run by a couple of friends. It’s a kind of hub for the neighbourhood and they exchange gossip and laughter. A call comes in for a pick-up and Norbert and I jump in his car and drive to a run-down part of town where we wait outside a building whose windows are partially boarded up. A guy in a formal suit, smoking a spliff, half walks, half saunters towards us. He is wearing black trousers, a black jacket, and an undone bow tie trails around his neck; he looks absolutely fucked, as if he’s been up all night. He is starting his shift at the Ambassador Hotel he tells us – the very hotel that Oprah Winfrey had stayed in when she was defending herself in court. We drop him off and it’s time for me to start thinking about getting out of Amarillo. Norbert won’t take any money, but I manage to drop a ten dollar bill onto the passenger seat as I get out and say my farewells. He writes his number in my journal in case I need anything. His number is a Brooklyn one. I never did get to ask him about that.

The bus is crowded and unlike all my previous Greyhound trips, the people on this one are loud. A woman with a walker has three small kids trailing after her like ducklings. She puts their bags on the shelf above their seats but every few minutes one of the kids asks for something to eat or to play with. The mother keeps having to stand up and is clearly in pain, but her kids don’t stop asking for stuff. She begs them to be quiet while simultaneously handing them enormous bags of Oreos and cans of soft drink.

We are all listening to the sugar bubble up in them as their energy levels teeter on manic. Surrounded by plains and dry ground, every now and then a canyon appears like a mirage, a hallucination. As we pass a cattle ranch as long as a freight train, the mother with the small kids says, ‘Hey, look kids, that’s where they make meat!’ As one of her daughters stands up to stare at this gigantic beef factory, I notice her T-shirt: ‘I AM A REAL BRAT’. Yes, this is where they make meat, I repeat to myself.

At Tucumcari, just beyond the Texas-New Mexico border, the driver tells us to turn our clocks back an hour. By Santa Rosa the ground has morphed from flat prairies to rocky, scrubby land. The bus has also emptied somewhat. It is finally quiet. We are in New Mexico and the light has taken on a pink glow.

We arrive in Albuquerque at 4pm. It is Good Friday and the clouds have gathered to welcome us. I walk to the Hotel Blue, which at 69 bucks a night is more than I have spent so far on a room. But after my sleepless night in Amarillo and the constant smell of shit, I want to be able to sleep. I want to feel safe. I want to process what I have just seen: the feedlots, the dry ground, the pens full of cows tortured and hidden from view, the obvious severing of our connection to the non-humans we share the land with – land that has been stolen and is being trampled, sucked dry and poisoned by the thieves.


IMAGE; Land of the Free by Michelle Walters

Acrylic on canvas

Land of the Free makes the statement that the Earth does not only belong to the human species; that our consumptive ways have devastating and heartbreaking results for all species. I painted Land of the Free during the George W. Bush regime when the climate  catastrophe was starting to hit the fan and my emotional state was worn out from being an animal and anti-war activist. In the intervening years, the state of the planet has only become worse, as has my eco-grief.

Michelle Waters is a long-time vegan environmental activist and artist living in the redwood forest bioregion of Northern California.  Her art expresses concern for the loss of the natural world and human exploitation of animals. She shows her art through Cactus Gallery in Los Angeles and other venues.


Dark Mountain: Issue 20 – ABYSS

Our Autumn 2021 journal is a special all-colour collection of art and writing that delves into the legacy of extractivism


Read more

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