Dessa's mom, Sylvia Toftness, shows us around her Wisconsin cattle farm

Categories: Road Trip
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Emily Eveland
Sylvia Burgos Toftness was raised in the third-story walk-up of a brick tenement building in the South Bronx. In the early 1970s, she moved to Duluth, Minnesota, where she worked as a television reporter for three years. She then transitioned to public relations, where she remained 40 years, 20 of which were spent in the Twin Cities. In 1981, Toftness gave birth to Margret Wander, better known as Doomtree rapper Dessa Darling.

For the last five years, though, Toftness has lived on Bull Brook Keep, a farm in central Wisconsin where she and her husband, Dave Toftness, raise and harvest cattle for beef. In her spare time, Toftness runs a radio show called Deep Roots Radio that's broadcast on WPCA Radio on Saturday mornings and offers public relations services to farmers.

"It is a big change [but] it's just what I wanted. Having grown up in NYC, I really wanted to be in the Midwest," she says. "I guess I've been on this track for a long time, getting smaller places, more country, but did I see myself owning a herd of cattle? Not really. Does it shock me? No. It feels like a progression."

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Sylvia and Dave Toftness raise their organic, free-range cattle using a rotational grazing system, meaning the animals are repeatedly moved from one portion of pasture (otherwise known as a paddock) to another. The system allows for vegetation to replenish itself in areas where the animals have grazed while they rely on the vegetation in untouched areas. In this way, the cattle are fed solely off the land, rather than conventional animal feed.

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"Because of the way that we raise it, [our beef] has a different nutrient profile than conventional beef. It's much higher in Omega 3s, there are no growth hormones, there are no sub-therapeutic antibiotics. The cows are not stressed because they're allowed to live like cows, which means grazing, resting -- it means being able to move. My cows are outside 365 days a year," Toftness says.

When customers drive from the Twin Cities to visit and purchase beef (which is portioned from 25 pounds up to a whole steer), Toftness often has them walk the pastures and move the cattle with her. On Hot Dish's visit, she had us do just that.

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To prepare for cow moving, Toftness stepped into muddy boots, wore long sleeves and pants, and placed a floppy hat on her head. Our tour started at the fruit and vegetable garden along the driveway -- a massive plot of land lined with pristine rows of produce. Earlier that week, Dave Toftness planted a number of wine grape vines to experiment with the craft of wine-making.

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The Toftness philosophy largely revolves around this kind of self-suffiency.

"That interest in self-reliance has been a big motivator for me. I think if you talk to Dessa, she'll have some stories about the things we used to do when she was little, like making candles, dyeing fabrics, learning some basic skills that I thought we [might need] someday," she says.

Even the Toftness home is an exercise in self-sufficiency. Dave Toftness came up with a "passive solar" design that keeps the house cool in the summer and warm in the winter without the use of air conditioning or a straight-forward heating system.

"Because of the way this house was built -- south-facing -- this place is filled with sunlight in the winter. It's bright now, but there's no direct sunshine all summer long, so it stays cool," Sylvia Toftness says. "The house is built into a hill in order to take advantage of the steady, cool temp of soil all summer long and of course that same steady temp helps us stay warm in the wintertime."

Our next stop was the paddock where Toftness's 30-cow herd lounged in the grass, chewing cud. Electric fences that look deceivingly like long ropes surround each paddock. To move the cows, Toftness had Hot Dish hold the plastic end of one of the electric fences and move to the opposite side, creating a big enough space for the cows to run through.

Once the fence was open, Toftness called for the cows in a distinctive cow-calling voice, much different from her conversational tone. It took some time, but once the first cow started over, the others hastily followed. Before we knew it, we were surrounded by cud-chewing cattle on all sides.

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Toftness generally keeps the animals at Bull Brook Keep for 30 months before they go to harvest, or slaughter. Because the beef is sold to the public, Toftness can't slaughter the animals on the farm and instead has them transported 30 miles away to Olsen's Farm, a USDA-approved processing plant where the animals are shot with rifles by experienced employees.

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"They are amazingly accurate," she says. They can do it from across a field... They will shoot the animal and immediately process it. The truck hoists the deceased animal in the air and it's usually a two-man team that immediately skins it and disembowels it. Then they cut it into halves and haul it to the butcher."

Compared to conventional slaughterhouse practices, the method is far less stressful for the animals. Toftness says she doesn't mind the idea of harvesting because, though she cares about them and considers them individuals, she sees the cattle as food from the onset.

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"[The question is] how do we best serve our customers? How do we live in thanksgiving for what we have? How do we best husband these animals so there's a good cycle that happens?" she says. "We really focus on is helping people make the connection between what they eat and how it's grown so that people can choose the food they want, so that farmers can choose the practice they want and live the lives they want to lead. It's about making things known and accessible."

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5 comments
Diana Lambiase Cocchiaro
Diana Lambiase Cocchiaro

This is my childhood friend Sylvia from the Bronx, read about her journey, Bronx girl to cow girl.

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