The veterinarian and I stood out in the slush, faces toward a sun beaming with the type of warmth this pale Midwest skin hadn’t felt since November. I was doing what I always do in the presence of a bona-fide expert: ensuring I got every last dime’s worth of my money, pumping question after question into the moist air, weaving through the literally dozens of cow, goat, sheep, and pig inquiries accrued since last year’s visit. Dr. Sue answered them all, patient and congenial in her rubber boots, insulated camouflage coveralls, and maroon knit cap. Between my questions she told me about the time when, in twenty below wind chills, she contracted frost bite while putting a stomach tube through a horse’s nostril and into its gullet to remove a blockage. Her persona was not unlike that of a decorated war veteran, yet she seemed amused by my earnestness. She was the commander of a Sherman tank brigade and I was asking mere minivan questions.
When my interrogation mercifully came to an end it was time to settle up. Out here there is very little business arranged by invoice. Offering up a credit card is a laughable offense. No one has even heard of bitcoin. In these parts cash is king.
But occasionally there are other, more creative ways to pay. A facecord of firewood is a valued commodity and a sometimes-used form of currency. However, like good bales of second cutting hay, firewood suffers from being enormously cumbersome. Ideally you have something high in utility and low in bulk to use as an alternative.
“I can pay you in cash,” I said to Sue, “or, if you’re interested, we have beef.”
I thought she might go for it. After all, she is as red-blooded Midwesterner as they come. Her primary source of protein is the venison she shoots on her own property. She is both terrific with animals and appreciative of where her food comes from.
There was no hesitation. “I’ll take beef.”
We recently put more than a half ton of it into the newly-purchased twenty-five cubic foot Frigidaire, all from the inaugural batch of Angus heifers we raised. We’ve already eaten our way through far too many of the steaks and roasts and have used a fair bit of the rest as exchange for such various needs as basic healthcare, puppy training, general labor, and neighborly goodwill. Even our midwife agreed to swap some of her fee for several sacks of ribs, burger, and top sirloin. “Beef for Birth” we enthusiastically called it.
Paying someone in meat that you have raised on your own property is an immensely satisfying thing. The fundamental, primeval appeal is obvious. Over the years I have known a fair number of Wall Street traders, all of them shrewd and sharp and entirely willing to bankrupt an ancestral village for the sake of a better position. But this is an altogether different sort of trading. It is the benevolent strain that connects us back to our great, great granddaddies who did the same so many years ago back in native lands.
As our string of recent deals illustrates, beef is a powerful currency whose value remains remarkably constant. I have discovered firsthand that a 20 oz. porterhouse feeds the exact same number of hungry farmers today as it did in 1814 or as it will in 2214: one. Trade deficits, skirmishes in the Crimea, squabbling politicians, fiscal cliffs, and the tapering of quantitative easing may come and go with the seasons, but the intrinsic value of a slab of beef never changes. Try saying the same for a dollar bill.
Since last November, bitcoin, the newfangled digital currency, has lost more than half of its market value. Hackers broke into one of the largest exchanges and siphoned off nearly a half billion dollars worth of the stuff. Officials blamed a “bug in the bitcoin software algorithm” for the disappearance. Meanwhile, as much as the barn cats secretly scheme just such a heist, no one has successfully hacked into our freezer. There are no bugs at a constant temperature of five below. The only real threat to our “beefcoin” is our family’s enormous appetite for steak and salad.
Unlike bitcoin, beef doesn’t just appear out of thin air. Nor is it created out of slush funds, government-funded boondoggles, insider trading rings, or questionable tax credits. The way I see it, beef as a medium of exchange is backed by the Almighty and regulated by Mother Nature Herself. Their algorithm has never changed: calf + grass + water + minerals + time = beef.
Did I mention that fresh beef is tasty? Try broiling a stack of euros, stock options, or Krugerrands.
Sue and I sloshed through fresh evidence of pending spring and on over to the workshop. While she admired the old John Deere 2030, I opened the freezer and shoveled in brick-sized units of frozen grass-fed beef into a brown paper grocery bag.
No weighing, no fussing, no invoices. Just a full bag, a firm handshake, and a mutual appreciation for the ways things ought to be. We parted ways, and the boots and coveralls marched off toward the next battlefield.
As she pulled away in her antique Dodge Caravan I peered back into our little piggybank of reserves.
We are making an investment in this place and in this life. Work. Sacrifice. Infrastructure. Skills. Tools. We are slowly reallocating the portfolio away from the dictates of modern investment theory and into an entirely different set of assets.
I plucked a 20 oz. hunk of porterhouse out of the case. Somewhere inside my big head the ancient reflexes sprung to life. Salivary glands pumped and digestive muscles contracted. You could have heard my growling stomach from over at Hank’s place.
Both body and mind knew that in my hand I held the safest investment the world has ever known.