What does it mean to be a farmer in the twenty-first century? Maybe we all settle on a particular scale of interest. Some farmers among us begin with the double-dug square foot garden and from there dig deeper yet, plumbing the nearly atomic levels of plant genetics and soil microbiota—little things, but with big implications. I revere their attention to detail, and the rich symphonies of food-producing-art that are their farms and gardens. For others, only the broad sweep of rangeland will satisfy.
I started farming at sixteen, and worked on diversified vegetable farms all through college. But in time, my gaze shifted from garden to grassland. I took up grazing for the same reasons some folks take up dance or music or sculpture: I was desperate to participate, viscerally, and hopefully beneficially, with nature.
More than a decade has passed since I started farming, and these days I identify as a holistic grazier: one who grazes animals with the aim of not only producing food but also rehabilitating landscapes, an agrarian who seeks to re-member ecology in agriculture.
At times, the interests that drew me to ranching pull me right out the other side. My love for wildlife, for trophic complexity, and for chaos sometimes leaves me feeling at odds with the command-and-control factions of ranching that haven’t found a way to make peace with wild things. I’m startled by the things we don’t question and the details we don’t discuss, like how the kind of fencing we use makes a big difference for the passage of wildlife or what happens to cows when their social bonds are regularly broken. There’s a lot about farming and ranching that can break the bonds between people, too.
The moral calculus can be exhausting. The heart is bad at math. But I stay in this work because I’ve seen that I can accomplish more through participation than protest—and there really is so much more to be done.
We graziers act within ecosystems—we throw our animal weight around—while also being acted upon. This second part of the contract is critical; to manage an ecosystem is also to be managed by it. Ranching requires decision-making when all one has to go on is a question and no answers. It requires holding hopeful vigil as we watch nature alchemize those choices into something unforeseen, wondering all the while if we really belong in the place we’re occupying.
In its various gestures, agriculture has made a mess of otherwise intact ecosystems. Within the last century, the marvel of synthetic nitrogen catapulted the planet into a boom that relieved us of some problems while creating many others. That boom is beginning to bust, and the fallout is everywhere. We’re long overdue for agriculture that internalizes the costs long billed to others, and this means a practice of accounting thus far unforeseen.
The work of those of us calling ourselves holistic graziers, or some version of the same, must encompass more than the given ranches we’re grazing. We must be mindful of every dimension long discarded from the work of agriculture: the politics of the pasture, the costs of doing business, and the lives on the line. If twentieth-century agriculture pushed us to divorce, ranching in this era must be an act of reconciliation.
For my part, I’m a woman of European heritage working in a stripe of pastoralism that has been at times used to subdue land and people. The debts I owe precede my birth. But with careful alliances made with the life-giving power of cow dung and perennial grass roots, I hope to be making deposits long after I’m dead. Depending on one’s intent, grazing domestic cattle can help land to be wild again, and despite how the tool of livestock agriculture has at times been used, it can also liberate land and people. For my part, I’ll pursue a pastoralism that unsettles and a wildness whose trophic web has threads stretched across prairies by people.
As we rocket along into this century, the politics of the prairie are changing as rapidly as the weather. Virgin grassland is still falling to pavement and plow, but the fuzzy lines between rancher and cowboy, lord and peasant, are being scattered and redrawn. Today, many who can afford to buy land come from industries that don’t necessarily lend themselves to the management of the complex and convergent systems of soil, water, animals, and people. Can someone effectively manage a system if they’ve never been managed by it?
A lot of ranching in this era looks like it did a hundred years prior, with the humble earthen hues of horses, dogs, leather, and soil. There are some newer tools too, like solar pumps and electric fencing. But this era poses novel challenges. Some experts feel that most rangeland in the United States is degraded, with declines in soil carbon, organic matter, biodiversity, and ground cover. The kinds of grazing that may have been just fine in a more stable climate may be insufficient in a changing one. If nature is always active, we must be proactive.
Good grazing can contribute to deep-rooted perennials, ground cover, and a litter layer—all features of a landscape able to hold on to soil come drought or deluge. Graziers may be the best people to tend land at a scale wide enough to match the depth of our perils as we face a changing climate, and we have to step up our game.
But even the most soil-centric practices can lack something fundamental. There is a lot of talk these days about new and better ways to farm and graze. There is hope that by better tending plants and animals, we can reverse the trends of degradation on rangeland for the benefit of all life.
But I’m concerned that the growing excitement over regenerative agriculture, and the increasing public valuation of prairies and grasslands, may be ignoring something more fundamental—the human systems at work. From what I’ve seen, many outwardly progressive-seeming farms and ranches across the country are plagued with internal strife between employees and family members. Resentments build, stress grows, and systems break down. It’s as if the living ecosystem is beholden to the ecology of our relationships. Intergenerational trauma, unspoken resentment, and a simple and woeful lack of shared skills in resolving conflict will hamper the very progress we so desperately need.
Maybe it’s this piece that agriculture has most neglected and is in most need of restoration—the complexity of the human spirit. Much of agriculture scales because there is more physical work to do, yet along with those bodies come hearts and minds. Only when agriculture addresses not only the integrity of its soil but also its social systems can it be truly regenerative.
The visible ecology is beholden to the ecology of our relationships. Whether families, agencies, companies, or nonprofits, the internal fractures of land-managing organizations are writ large across the landscape. Overgrazed land, eroded gullies, forgotten equipment—these are all symptoms of how decisions are made, and how well people are working together.
If twentieth-century agriculture was complicated but reductive, a regenerative agriculture of the twenty-first century requires us to be complex and inclusive. We have to restore to the conversation what has been excluded. New technologies that help us harvest grass and track our animals all have a part to play, but the most important technology will be relational. We have to re-learn how to handle conflict, how to make agreements and requests, how to negotiate time to rest and recover.
For me, being an agrarian in this era means improving my stock handling and grazing planning, so I can better tend land on the brink. But it also means I have to double down on the “soft skills” that are the hardest to practice—sharing my feelings with others, negotiating for the needs of people on my team, creating equitable contracts, resolving conflict, and being accountable for my mistakes. Without these skills, my work on the land won’t last long or go far.
Those of us who make our living on land have the most to lose and also the most to contribute during a period of climatic instability. When harmony is found within the families and teams that are making decisions on land, we can begin to see landscapes on a plane of continued recovery—sequestering carbon, hosting wildlife, storing water, and feeding people. Only when agriculture addresses not only the integrity of its soil but also its social systems can it be truly regenerative. This matters now more than ever.
Published on 17 December 2018