The grim reaper of Taos County is a quiet, soft-spoken man who arrives to ranches in a giant, white semi-truck emblazoned with colorful logos. Gilbert Sauzo Jr. drives the truck. He uses a bolt stunner or rifle to slay cattle, elk, bison, or pigs. But none of it is grim. Gilbert and a small staff slaughter livestock on ranches within 100 miles of Taos. They clean the animal, butcher the meat, and store it for distribution directly to consumers or to specific markets in northern New Mexico. It’s the most humane, responsible meat harvesting in the state, if not the country, and it’s part of a decades-old effort to incubate, support, and empower health-food producers and small businesses in Taos County.
The mobile slaughterhouse is called “Matanza,” a Spanish word for the harvest celebration. The $200,000 truck parks alongside one of the numerous stucco buildings in the small complex that Taos County Economic Development Council (TCEDC) developed on the outskirts of Taos in 1987. The idea was to rent out some of the buildings for local, sustainably minded businesses, with lease funds funneled toward supporting the TCEDC programs, first and foremost the community kitchen.
Pati Martinson and Terrie Bad Hand, Founders and Directors, have been working on the regeneration of the local food system, building a foundation for local economies, for almost three decades. They know the value of patience when it comes to developing grassroots change. The two women share an office inside the TCEDC headquarters. A long, plastic folding table holds years of information in manila folders. A photo of Terrie and Pati with former President Bill Clinton hangs from a wall, a reminder of the All American Cities Award they received for their work in the ‘90s. The two women, Pati a mix of Lakota-Sioux and French, and Terrie of Italian and eastern Cherokee, make a dynamic duo. Pati grew up in rural South Dakota, while Terrie hails from urban Boston.
They arrived in Taos to start a community development corporation within Taos Pueblo. Terrie and Pati had launched the Denver Indian Center Development Corporation where they developed a former school into a community center, forty units of senior housing, and a handful of commercial projects. However, when they arrived to Taos Pueblo, government priorities had shifted. At the same time the Molycorp Mine, a molybdenum mine in nearby Questa, shut down. So the county hired Terrie and Pati to be part of a business council. They quickly changed that structure to become a 501c3 Community Development Corporation, something foreign to the area up to that time. The visionaries had an idea of how to improve Taos County through the nonprofit sector.
Taos sits at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, in an arid, high-altitude climate. The landscape is a patchwork of pueblo communities, Forest Service and BLM public lands, and private ranches. A long history of farming and ranching knowledge has not been too disrupted by sprawling developments or large industrial agriculture. The know-how to raise cattle, pigs, sheep, and bison on the sage and juniper covered lands remains in testament to the peoples of the region.
So Pati and Terri and TCEDC have been tapping into that collective knowledge and the still-healthy land and water to foster a local food system and economy for the isolated community of Taos. Before they bought and began operating the Matanza mobile slaughterhouse in 2007, they built a 25,000 square-foot facility on a six-acre campus including a 5,000 square-foot commercial kitchen, the Taos Food Center. TCEDC then developed and implemented specific educational curriculum called the “Food Sector Opportunity Program,” an efficient training program that brings regulators together with potential food producers in an intense week of information and hands-on workshops.
The program was a success, allowing small producers to be certified quickly and affordably. The Taos Food Center is open 24/7 and since its inception has been home to over 100 small food producers.
Eventually, the meat producers approached TCEDC for help. Many ranchers outside Taos had been raising their animals in humane, sustainable ways for years, but without a processing facility in Taos, they were forced to sell their stock at auction or to feed lots. The good meat was getting thrown into the same mix as the bad meat, and the ranchers weren’t seeing an economic benefit for healthy ranching practices.
So the TCEDC contacted the country’s mobile slaughterhouse guru, Bruce Dunlop, a man from Lopez Island, WA who developed the first mobile unit for isolated San Juan Island ranchers. Bruce visited Taos, and Pati and Terrie trekked to Lopez to learn the art and business of a mobile slaughterhouse. There was a demand in Taos and Santa Fe-Albuquerque for good, local, grass-fed, humanely treated meat, and there were ranchers who wanted a better way to harvest their stock.
As with everything in the slow-moving, organically evolving grassroots food world, creating a fully comprehensive local meat distribution system in Taos takes time. For now, much of the meat goes directly to consumers who order cuts of a quarter, half, or whole animal.
But Pati and Terrie and crew intend to address that in the coming year. They’ve created a farmstand for meat and produce sales direct to the public at the TCEDC campus. They now have two greenhouses on the property so they can sell produce year-round and at accessible prices. Traditional methods around food might never have imagined a slaughterhouse on wheels or buying fresh produce from a small campus on the edge of town, but the marriage of old and new is the engine driving the slow, steady growth of a local food system in Taos.