Tomorrow's Grass, Today: Temporal Discounting on the Landscape

In my grazing practice, I'm a student and observer of Holistic Management, an approach to ranching and land management that helps producers orient their daily decisions to support their long-term social, ecological, and economic aims. 

These aims are referred to as one's "holistic context," and there's a guided discovery process that holistic managers use to identify what kind of business, environment, or lifestyle they want. But regardless of all the subjective variations, at the crux of one's context is the health of the ecosystem, because no human endeavor can be sustained for long if its very environment is compromised.

Ranchers practicing holistic management are as varied as the day is long--they may be traditional pastoral herders in Zambia, conservative Christians in Alberta, California coastal queers, or fifth generation Arizonans, but central to all of their contexts, by design, is to manage for an ecosystem with an increasing plane of balanced productivity and ecological health (as measured in things like soil carbon, species biodiversity, wildlife habitat, etc).

Core to the holistic management of livestock is the grazing planning chart, which was developed by Allan Savory after years spent not only managing large wildlife reserves but also serving in the Rhodesian military. It was the latter experience that helped him see that the complexity of managing land, animals, and people, with the added variables of extreme weather and market volatility, is not unlike a military operation, and no operation would ever be conducted without a detailed plan. I know very little about the military (any military!) but I do know that there's often a days- or weeks-long set of actions that must happen in a particular sequence in order to achieve the desired end result of a specific operation or campaign.

Savory adapted the planning process he successfully employed during his military career to the work of land management when he observed that ranches, game parks, and wildlife reserves may have a specific set of desired outcomes, but without a clear plan that informed their day-to-day, the abstract and distant goals ("more wildlife," or "healthier streams") were almost unnoticeably compromised due to daily decisions that incrementally chipped away at the health of the environments.

Plant recovery periods are not only a great example of how this works, they're also the foundation of an environment on an increasing plane of health. Without an articulated plan to not put livestock back on an area of ground until a certain amount of time has passed (with time correlating with stage of plant development) it's very easy to begin moving livestock willy-nilly, making decisions for the sake of convenience over and above the health of those little grass plants. 

Someone can do this for a few years and barely notice a change unless they are looking closely, but repeat this often enough and soon all of the plants who form the foundation of a healthy grassland are shrinking in size and failing to reproduce. From there, the environment begins to slip at a more noticeable rate. 



All of this underscores the elegance of holistically planned grazing: it overcomes a really common psychological bias sometimes called "temporal discounting." Temporal discounting is the human tendency to weigh near-term gains well above long-term gains, to the extent that "less, now" is valued more highly than "more, later." That which can be experienced now is more tangible and easily acted-upon than future gains, which seem too abstract to appreciate if not framed concretely.

Temporal discounting has to do with why it's easy to spend one's money fast shortly after pay-day, decreasing steeply as funds run low, or why we may have a stated aim of losing weight but drinking a beer every night persists as a habit.

Here in California, the value of the grazing plan becomes especially clear in about mid-June. That's right on the heels of when the bulk of the vegetative growth for the year (in weight) has just occurred within a 2 month period, and forage begins to shift dramatically from being very high in protein to much higher in carbohydrates - and just taller and denser, period. As a result, cows go from having to eat quite a bit of watery, thin feed to meet their daily nutritional needs to significantly less (by volume). The "burn rate" thru pastures for a given herd size slows up, and all of the ranch's feed is in front of us. 

During those times, it's really tempting to look at the oceans of grass and think one will never get through it all. One feels the urge to add units and stock up. And indeed, too much growth can be a double-edged sword, if the vegetation is so thick that cows walk on far more than they eat, both wasting its feed potential and laying it down as thick thatch rather than smaller bits of litter. 

But spend a little time on the grazing plan, and one quickly begins to realize that they might need every bit of that feed in the months to come--that in fact, only very deliberate grazing every day will result in there being enough feed many months down the line when one needs it. Careless grazing of that feed too soon in the season will result in greater difficulty in utilizing that feed in the months to come. And a pasture that is grazed sloppily may see all of its perennials eaten up, with plenty of standing annual grass that's nonetheless off-limits to cows because grazing them on it might mean they are over-grazing the perennials that are just starting to recover. 

All of this is to say, the holistic grazing plan helps us budget. It makes the needs of the distant future (recovery days needed for plants, metabolic needs for lactating cows, etc.) inform the actions of today. 

Ranches that don't practice this can luck out or hobble along for a while, but eventually the lack of comprehensive planning will come home to roost. The good grass gets eaten up too soon and cows need expensive supplements. Water isn't in place when it's needed, and a hastily put together plumbing work-around breaks and drains the tanks. Owners begin to feel financial strains, and employees feel overworked and under-appreciated.

This kind of contraction puts so much psychic pressure on decision-makers that the moments when they most need clear-headed reasoning (to bail out the sinking ship) coincide with the times when their cortisol levels handicap sound thinking.

Hence, good grazing planning is not just about improving on ecosystem health and a ranch's productivity, but also aids in maintaining intact psyches amidst an agricultural economy that is historically extractive by design. 

Addition by Subtraction

I migrated from farming into livestock grazing in large part because of my deep love for land and wildlife, and my desire to address global issues on a practicable scale. Yet a common misconception I often face in my work is the idea that the cows are in the way of wildlife, both directly and by taking their food. If this were true, my work would be highly contradictory and misguided. Note that I work primarily with cattle but much of this applies to other ruminants... and wild species as well. 

Livestock eat grass, but you can bet that because we're talking about relationships within a complex trophic web, this is not a zero-sum activity. Most grasses exhibit a response to grazing and animal disturbance that is often overlooked by those who aren't. We talk a bit about how grass benefits from having old, dead material cleared off to allow light to reach new growth points. And we talk about the nutrient-cycling benefits of grazing animals (wild and domestic): animals yield that dead material to the soil, where it can break down biologically in the soil instead of oxidize chemically into the air, and grazing animal disperse fertility across fields and add their own fertilizing urine and biologically active manure to the mix. 

But it's critical to also acknowledge that when plants are grazed appropriately during the active growing season (which in coast range California is approximately mid-March thru May, depending on seasonal variation in precipitation and temperature), the plants will not only recover quickly but will actually be stimulated to put on more growth than they otherwise would. Provided they aren't grazed too soon in their development, or grazed down to a nub, even with a significant removal of vegetation the plants will regrow bigger and better than they would with no grazing at all. 

What's more, the plants continue photosynthesizing longer than they otherwise would. Below is a photo where I installed a temporary fence in the same place twice this year - in late January and again in late March (a 60 day recovery). The green side was grazed twice during the growing season, and the brown side not at all because there were certain species we wanted to express without animal impact this year. On the left, the grasses have already senesced (set seed and died), whereas the grasses on the right are just beginning to flower. 

At left, no grazing from mid-October. At right, two quick grazes with 60 day recovery period during the growing season. 

At left, no grazing from mid-October. At right, two quick grazes with 60 day recovery period during the growing season. 

The difference is pretty stark. I should note that the fenceline also approximates a slow change in soil depth, because the flowers we were protecting grow in thinner, rockier soils. But the abrupt change has at least as much to with grazing, and the sharp line in the grass is exactly where I built my fence.

When viewed from above, the grasses grew back denser and more lush on the right side than on the left. And most importantly, they continued to grow for at least a week longer than the ungrazed grasses. This means more energy was created through photosynthesis, and more calories made available to surrounding biota. That green grass is edible sunlight.

The longer a pasture can photosynthesize, the more it's yielding to its environment. With the help of big animals, we can keep grass plants photosynthesizing for longer, literally making more life for all entities above and below ground.

Land Marks

I don't understand everything I'm involved in.

- Wendell Berry

Photo by Patrick Baz

Photo by Patrick Baz

Why do we destroy what we love? 

I grew up in a ratty, rural stretch of North Carolina surrounded by farm land, and I did a lot of rambling. One day I set off on a familiar shortcut through the woods but soon discovered my pathway blocked by mounds and mounds of ... trash. Old microwaves and TVs, sofas and mops, bottles of Windex, and the shapeless and neon plastic miscellany that accumulate over a modern lifetime.

As it turns out, our neighbor's old mother had died, and rather than pay the dump fee at the county landfill he emptied the contents of her house into the woods--his woods. 

I've cited this experience in intelligent circles, thinking it underscored a clever point: that people can live close to the land and still destroy it. Trash it, mine it, graze it into dusty and compacted oblivion.

The stereotypes are readily at hand--the "white trash" tendencies of shabby rural abodes to accumulate junk comes to mind. I thought it meant that those people just weren't thinking correctly. Maybe they didn't read enough Wendell Berry.

But maybe I had it wrong. There is an an implicit ethic in rural areas of dealing in tangible materials. Could there be an intimacy to scattering one's belongings across generational land, to be slowly subsumed in the humid forest for generations yet to come? Maybe there's something dear about mining my mountains--about yielding a lifetime of possessions into my forest. 

Recently I've been reckoning with my own rural roots, and have realized the degree to which I've strangely identified as a middle-class suburbanite, despite growing up with marked financial deficits and never living in the suburbs. I grew up relatively isolated, not attending school until college, so I never claimed "country folk" as my people, and subsequent friendships with more urban and well-off peers have no doubt shifted my cultural locus geographically and economically far off its real center of gravity.

Reviewing my upbringing with a native eye, I find I understand a lot more of it than I thought possible. There is a grounded sensibility within rural mindsets that is difficult to describe. 

In contrast to it, the consumer hypocrisy of progressive, educated, urbanites has been fodder for many a hot take. It's not my intention to recapitulate that in full, but there are a few things I've got to say, hopefully without trafficking much in tropes.

The first is that the urbanist mindset--by which I mean the mental state that allows us to navigate urban life without suffering too much cognitive dissonance--is one of NIMBYism-by-design. Generally speaking, cities are hubs of extraordinary abstraction, where the material implications of the ideas and products exchanged in the urban market are not readily apprehended. It's simply not the job of cities to respect natural boundaries, because cities were built by and for the surplus of natural boundaries transgressed.

Dealing with resources in rural areas means we confront our consumption more directly. But much of American society is both obsessed with and made uneasy by consumption. With our national DNA rooted in Englightment thought, it's no surprise that we are uncomfortable with the more atomic and base nature of our being.

We're fabulous consumers of packaged and assembled market goods, yet we're not very accountable to our primary resources--of the blood, the flesh, the oil, the bile, the semen, and the water we depend on to survive. We talk a good game about clean energy while making relatively few personal efforts to achieve such, and view coal companies and their employees with smug disdain. We say we don't want to kill animals to eat them, so we source our protein from remote places whose histories we cannot know, whose extirpated animals we cannot recall, and whose land injustices we remain oblivious to. We all use wood and paper and we rage when our national parks are opened to logging companies.

The hypocrisy is real--so real as to be banal and commonplace--and we all know it. It may not be by design, but it's a byproduct of design: what could be better for a capitalist economy than for people to be able profess their precious moral code publicly, while privately contradicting it without consequence? We can easily achieve secure the cache of being progressive and informed, but without demanding the systems of production to actually change. 

Where can we go, if we maintain that we have already arrived?

This is something that folks living far removed from nature may have trouble reconciling: the sense of accountability that causes us to brazenly spoil the land near to us. Progressive city folk celebrate local food, while some of their poorer and more rural counterparts re-localize their trash.

Yet consider how we get piercings and tattoos on our own volition, but would reject and feel violated by anyone else having such designs upon our flesh. There's a transpersonal identification that happens when you feel you belong to a place. It's hard to explain, and impossible to justify the ugly ways in which it's expressed. But it's there.

I'm not justifying our abuses of land. There's plenty wrong--plenty that is simply dysfunctional. Notions of ownership is a double-edged sword. Yet maybe it's my own feral and rural-raised brain talking, but desecration of a landscape through scattered trash, and anointing it with consecrating objects, seem like two points on a circle.  

The Intervention Interval

A few weeks back I was talking to my friend Jason at a biological monitoring workshop. Jason is a rare breed: a SoCal surfer turned first-gen rancher, and a seemingly pretty successful one at that. In any given year, he's is buying, grazing, and selling thousands of head. He's found his niche, and is expanding it. But after learning what a lean operation he runs, I assumed he was chasing his own tail to keep up with everything. 

"So you must be stretched pretty thin, huh? How much do you work?"

"Nah - I take time off." Jason went on to explain that when emergencies arise, and it seems like he needs to be in a dozen places at once (those of you who have run stockers know how fast shit can hit the fan), he just turns off his phone for a couple of hours, hangs out with his wife, and tunes back in to find that a lot of the time, most of the problems have solved themselves. That which remains a real problem will persist, and he can address it free and clear.

Jason has learned to be a good judge of the intervention interval. Involving himself in a situation too soon and creates a dependency on his involvement that's tough to break: staff will look to him for answers instead of hashing through problems on their own. Animals that would have found their way back to the herd after an afternoon of adventuring are apprehended while they're still in hungry wander-mode. 

There is an arc to problems: often, what goes up must come down. I'll never forget a moment a few years back when I accidentally chased a calf into a canyon, stranding it irretrievably as I moved the rest of the herd far away. Had I slowed my tempo, moved less and observed more, perhaps I would have noticed the physics of the situation: the calf would have dawdled towards mom eventually, and she too would have gone looking for her offspring after filling her belly of fresh grass. Instead, I assigned that calf to be coyote or mountain lion dinner, at best. A rookie mistake--and one that comes, again, from having no sense of the right intervention interval.

The longer I work in touchable living systems, the more I understand that good judgement about when to intervene comes is rooted in physically representing the world beyond view within my own body. I just get a sense when something is wrong.

I think this is because my line of work is relatively similar to how humans evolved: in close relationship with herds of prey, whose behaviors are subject to many of the same factors we can physically experience--variations in temperature, wind, rain; the changing of the seasons set a mood in us, and so too with our animals.

Eat More Meat, revisited

Note: This piece has been picked up by Civil Eats. For an edited (and more civil) version, check it out

Given the concerns over resource-intensive industrial meat production, you'd think the resounding message would be, "don't buy cheap meat, buy good meat."

(I've written about this before; it's an issue I reckon with often and I will probably be gnawing on its sinews for ages to come.)

Instead, a rule of thumb in environmentalists circles is to say "eat less meat," which simply frames meat as an indulgence rather than 1) the end result of an essential and timeless ecological process (the biological breakdown of vegetation so that new vegetation can grow) and 2) a fulcrum in the way land across the world is managed or mismanaged.

The consequence of this message is felt very strongly by myself and others who have committed our lives to restoring the health of environments directly, thru the exquisitely sensitive grazing, and who depend on the support of our communities to do this work.

It goes like this: We memorize every nook and cranny of a piece of land like a lover's body. We study how water flows across it and what grasses grow where. We plant trees where we've seen that trees once were and should be again. We spend unpaid hours moving animals exactly where they need to go to knock down encroaching brush on long-neglected land. We fence out bird nests. We leave areas ungrazed for a season, and can calculate the cost to the tune of hundreds of dollars, because we know in our throats, our chests, our bellies, and our bones (that's where we feel it) that it needs another season before grazing would be helpful. We get knocked down, kicked, cut up and cut open; we don't just risk injury but accept it. We memorize the names of species that used to grow or live here but are now extinct. We love land and its inhabitants enough to be poor for it.

But martyrdom isn't very becoming, and you can't milk a dry cow; so like everyone else, graziers have to make money. Until environmentalists actually REALLY put their money where their mouth is and pay myself and others to graze land according to what will benefit it, meat be damned, we have to sell the surplus from our herds (the flesh of some of the animals) to people off the landbase in order to foot the expense of being a human on the planet.

Believe me, I wish I were a photosynthesizing autotroph.

"Eat less meat" is about mitigating damage, and wastes the opportunity to tell people that there is a way to actually benefit their planet. Perpetuating the myth that meat is necessarily bad for the environment means the meat that is good for the environment never gets sufficient foothold. By telling only half the story, we're perpetuating the problem because we never bother to mention the solution. 

As an aside, until environmentalists who are opposed to grazing animals and eating their flesh have demonstrated to me the degree of embodied affection, personal risk, and deep practice as the graziers in my life, and shown the same degree of knowledge of grassland dynamics, plant succession, and wildlife movement, I will require more curiosity and humility towards active land managers and ranchers than I've so far seen in the broader movement of climate-conscious environmentalists. I've had the pleasure of meeting many vegetarians or concerned carnivores in the field and have invested time into their understanding. Unfortunately, many others are keen to believe that sitting at home reading articles or watching videos of cute animals is a sufficient education.

When we say "eat less meat" and end it there, we miss an opportunity to equip eaters with the means of sourcing protein that will not only nourish them but restore their home ecosystems. And behind few hundred acres of land that goes poorly managed due to consumer miseducation is a land steward who can't do their work.

"Eat less meat." What may be spoken as a well-intended caveat amongst woke environmentalists (a group who is, after all, my cohort) thus becomes a primary barrier to myself and others like me doing our work. And it's hard to not take that personally. Because what could be more personal than the health of my watershed and the kingdoms that inhabit it? If these things aren't personal to you, we have a bigger problem.

Don't "eat less meat." Eat meat from people whose hands you can shake and ranches you can visit. Eat as much of that as you can afford, because that stuff comes from extensive production systems that impact hundreds to thousands of acres. Sourcing your protein from places you can account for means you can verify that their pastures were also habitat for fox, badger, burrowing owl or bear. That you were keeping land wild and free. Beef raised in its environs beats a bean field any day as an ecologically just source of protein.

We have to pay for the world we want to live in. This means the consumption of the flesh of other sentient animals damn well be a line item on our budgets just like "eating out" and "entertainment" get their own slots. Maybe it's time we socialized ourselves and others to budget for environmental activism, and use that money to buy meat produced by the soil-building, grassland-loving graziers in our communities. 



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Why I'm Doing What I'm Doing

It's been a little over three years since I pursued grazing in earnest (and boy, did I pursue it earnestly). And right now marks a unique period of my life where I'm spending deliberate time with people who aren't in my small and treasured circle of agrarian activists. (They call it dating. I'm sure it's just a phase that will pass). 

To my surprise, my choice of vocation at times feels like a novelty or party trick--like an interesting anecdote offered up in conversation, except that it's my life! After all, while I'm tucked away in rural Northern California countryside, and spend almost every waking hour with cows, thinking about grazing, or spending time with others engaged in similar pursuits, I am still a young woman in the San Francisco Bay Area. Here, weirdness reigns and obscurity is currency.

Anyhow, the looks of puzzled interest and my approximate grazing anniversary have prompted me to reflect on why I graze. Forsooth, there's lots of reasons why I do what I do. For starters, I'm a tall woman, so I like working with big animals. I grew up unsupervised, often outdoors, so spending time mostly alone and calling the shots more or less as I see fit is second nature. But I'm still social and comfortable with taking charge, so the bits where I can assemble a team and work with them towards a shared goal (think tagging and castration days) is very satisfying. That's a particular skill I'm keen to develop.

So is my ability to read land and graze it well. To anticipate how cattle will behave and, whether thru fencing or direct herding, hold them or move them across according to sensitively crafted and outcome-accountable goals for the land. To smash this, to skim that. To move a hundred thousand pounds of animal across so gently no one would know they were there, or to make such a deliberate mess one would think a gang of mammoths had blazed through. To be a facilitative witness. To be humble and decisive. I aspire to these skills and more.

But this? Why graze?

For sure, there are inherent pleasures in the work. But if I could point to a resounding motivation, it's that ultimately, grasslands matter. I'll spare you the bulleted list for now, and keep it slim enough to say, they're one of the most endangered ecosystems on the planet, tremendous carbon sinks, and they're the bioregional birthplace of our species.

If grasslands matter, ruminants matter, because in most of the world's grasslands it's animals with rumens that keep dead grass cycling into soil and spread fertility. They keep the biological cycle robust, so that decomposition doesn't slip into chemical decay. So that we can actually get ahead of the anthropocene's trending losses. So that we can photosynthesize more, and do better by the sunshine we're gifted and take for granted and do not deserve.

People matter too, I suppose. There's nothing quite as destructive as a poorly adjusted human, or as brilliant as one whose needs are met and mind is free. So, I'm into more of that. I'm into producing food for people to eat--food that I can account for. Not food from far off whose face I never saw. Food that I know had a positive impact on its environment because I raised it. I, along with my team, and a millions of species of plants, animals, fungi, and bacteria. The best things are done together.

But when I peer around the corner, and gaze into what I suppose to be our future, I see increasingly stochastic weather patterns. Unpredictability writ large across the sky and sea: some years will seem as though whole oceans gathered themselves in the clouds and broke water above our heads, birthing chaos like we have been warned about but never dared to believe. We've already seen it here in California: fencelines and rural roads and major highways swallowed up by bloated hillsides.

And on the other side, drought. Fire. And then floods, and mudslides. Phytophthora killing our oaks. Salmonids swishing towards extinction. I could continue with the doom and gloom, but you get the picture.

We're in the sixth mass extinction, and the only way I know how to avoid paralysis at the foot of the fact is to graze towards a more vegetated, richly biodiverse, and abundant environs right outside my doorstep.

So incomplete and haphazard, that's one account of why I graze. It's my medium for change.


But why ranch? Well, ranching has the tools. It has the cattle, the trucks, the trailer--the capital to deploy. But it doesn't inherently have the intention. It's not been the job of ranching to improve upon its environment, but now it must be.

There's a lot about ranching I don't like. I don't like castrating animals, or tagging ears, or separating cow friend from cow friend. I don't like weaning and avoid it at all costs. I don't like that we treat cows like numbers, and give them numbers, even though lions treat wildebeests more or less that way. One more, one more.

Ultimately, I'd like the kind of ranching I do in my lifetime to look a lot more like pastoralism as it's been practiced and still is practiced globally. More time on foot moving animals and less time building and mending fence. A more embodied relationship with the members of the herd. Time in the field afoot with my closest friends. And when my shift is up, time away. Time really, really away--only to circle back again.

In time, landholding agencies and organizations will begin to understand the resilience of well-grazed land. And when they do, I'll be ready with the skills needed to perform. With the right support, my cohort of skilled-up graziers and I will continue to produce meat, but also yield a host of ecological benefits not currently paid for by the going grassfed beef prices (even in the Bay Area). We'll take to the most vulnerable, degraded, and fire-prone hills and set to work keeping our animals on the move, breathing life back into ossifying landscapes.

Ranching in pursuit of monetary profit alone has set us back decades from where we should be. And restoring those damaged lands to vitality is not currently supported by beef sales alone. Fortunately this is work worth being poor for; but in the not so distant future, we'll be paid for the value we lend -- for keeping land alive. 

Animals at Freestone Ranch, for whom I proudly graze.

Animals at Freestone Ranch, for whom I proudly graze.

A Catalogue of Conflict, 1 through 9

Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life* and you will call it fate.

- C.G. Jung

*alternately: your farm

After a decade in agriculture (spanning my teens and now, into my late 20's), I've witnessed my fair share of working relationships in agriculture gone awry. It's a common and painful pattern: seemingly likeminded folks with vague professions of pro-social values find themselves heartbroken and at odds after a few months or years of working together. 

I believe our social dynamics and ways of working together within agriculture is the biggest bottleneck to a future of farming that is truly regenerative. We need to develop vocabulary around the problems that emerge; we need to empower ourselves and all others within agriculture to name these interpersonal patterns and begin the work of mending the divide. This is my attempt at doing this. Below are phenomenons one thru nine; many more are in draft form and will be published at a later date.

1.    Lack of honesty about individual motivations for involvement.

Example: Sometimes folks think they want to be an investor, but really they want to drive tractors. Sometimes folks think they want to drive tractors, but they actually are more interested in high-level decision making but little on-the-ground involvement.

Simply encouraging all involved to re-examine their motivations is sometimes sufficient to get on the same page. “Why are you here, and when you do not censor yourself, what do you see as your roll? Literally, what do you visualize?” Sometimes the picture we paint in our heads for fleeting moments is closest to our truest desires. Prompting and inviting those visions is a first step towards articulating it. 

2.    Lack of clarity about project's goals.

Example: When each party is asked what the purpose of the project is, they will give a different response. One person might say “ecological restoration,” and another might say “demonstration site.”

Those involved can have different motivations and appetites. But the goal of the shared project must be clearly articulated, written down, and brought up frequently as a north star.

3.    Unclear delineation of roles.

Example: Learning about the features and drawbacks of a given property appears to be in the wheelhouse of one person, but it is never clearly assigned. They appear to be “on it,” when in fact they are only acting out of surplus time and interest; the due diligence required (well reports, county permitting, access roads, easements, septic systems, etc) is never fully performed, yet there is the appearance of it being handled.

Creating a living document even at the early stages that articulates categorical roles and stages of completion avoids this. Before this can be done, it’s important to assess the appetites and desired involvement of all parties (see #1), as well as their scope of involvement.

4.    Lack of affirmation and recognition

Example: Someone performs a role that is unassigned and unrequested but nonetheless essential. They were the only one qualified to recognize that this role was necessary, thus no one is able to acknowledge them for it, and they themselves do not tell others of its value.

Example 2: Someone who seems overly confident does something easily recognizable as valuable, such as voluntarily giving a talk that conveys the purpose of the project to key members of the public. But their overconfidence leaves others disinclined to offer them praise or affirmation; support is withheld, often unconsciously, as a leveling device.

Many personalities are disinclined to share the ways in which they have helped. Some are overly inclined to do share. Instituting a period of regular meetings where everyone is expected to share ways they have contributed that weren’t action items from the past meeting can help in bringing this to light.

5.    The feeling of being owed... without that feeling being communicated

Example: Acting out of surplus or generosity, somebody performs a task that should be done by someone else but is neglected, and this is never communicated to the person whose responsibility it is to do the task. A precedent is set, and resentment grows. Eventually, the party who does the task feels that the other owes them a debt, and they begin to take liberties with aspects of the project in order to reconcile that debt. Implicit and unconscious sabotaging of the project begins, as the individual begins to identify more with their own brand than that of the project.

Budgeting times in meetings for sharing oversights and recognizing the party that handled a situation on behalf of someone else both allows due recognition to be given and communicates the problem before it can a become a pattern.

6.    Lack of accounting for the actual time invested.

Example: Someone says at the outset that they can only work on a project part time. Their actual involvement proves to be slightly more – about 30 hours a week. This is never accounted for.

Whether it’s in initial projections of individuals’ availability, or tracking the actual time invested, a deeply honest reckoning of time invested is essential for honest accounting, good tidings, and efficient work.

7.    Lack of involvement of experienced managers.

Example: Someone with good ideas and a modicum of exposure to agricultural production are put in a role that is beyond their expertise, and they end up costing more in inefficiency, mistakes, or real damages and injury than seasoned operators and managers.

Given the low value our society places on food and ecological health, a manager with six times the experience of a novice may only cost 30% more. Further, operators and managers are the worst place to cut corners.

8.    Those with capital micromanage those with knowledge and experience.

Example: A financially unsuccessful but operationally brilliant manager is hired to develop agroforestry production. His lack of financial success is assumed to correlate with limited knowledge. After hiring, he’s treated as an employee rather than a partner or teammate, and tasks are handed down to him but there is no conduit for him to educate those who pay him on their priorities.

Practitioners of a trade are historically have a tenuous relationship with their patrons, and some of this comes from the reality that some of their time will require “grunt work” easily mistaken for unskilled labor, which colors the remaining hours invested in high-level planning. Setting a precedent of mutual respect and articulating areas of deference early on helps to mitigate this tendency.

9.    Over-involvement of those with time and enthusiasm and under-involvement of those with expertise. 

I’ve seen this many times, and it’s a conundrum. The most sustained idealists in agriculture are those not currently practicing it. It’s good for people who have a surplus of time and enthusiasm to give of themselves; however, louder personalities can create momentum around their own ideas at the cost of the softer but more seasoned voices. But these people make great PR reps, cheerleaders, and networkers—jobs that those in the field often have little time or energy for. Create ways for amateur enthusiasm to satisfy itself and lend energy to a project, without it getting in the way of what is actually tenable.

The Macro View

In the northern SF Bay Area, foodie culture would have us believe that sinking one's teeth into an heirloom tomato or sipping biodynamic wine can be lifechanging. I don't really dispute the possibility for some, but I do contend that for all of the "connection to nature" rhetoric we small-scale food producers and groupies espouse, luscious leafy greens only go so far to move the needle towards a more conscientious culture.

Don't get me wrong - I'm definitely not knocking fruits and veggies. Besides grazing cattle, I'm a fruit grower and a former veggie farmer. It goes without saying that nutrition is essential and, long term, full bellies are not enough. We must be truly nourished. 

But veggies shouldn't be doing all of the heavy lifting when it comes to calibrating our connection to ecosystems that support us. Worse, emphasizing the value of veggies over and above the sources of macronutrients creates an illusion of purity that subsequently allows mechanized and monocultured ag to run amock. 

For me, this is as much a social issue as ecological one. For one, I think this kind of rhetoric creates a lot of shame surrounding animal fat, animal protein, and calories from annual crops. We lambast "industrial agriculture" for its grain monocultures, yet we still depend on those products to keep us alive. We literally ARE the corn fields in Iowa and the wheat fields in Kansas. The soil and atmosphere of distant lands have been woven into our physical fabric. 

And I'm no different. My fridge may be full of tomato and zucchini, and my freezer is practically overflowing with grassfed beef. But open the cupboard and you'll see bags and bins of rice and beans. That righteous BLT I had today was held together with bread. It my be organic, and that's the best I can do for now. Yet the best I (or we) can do is far from the direction US agriculture must be marching. And if we're not honest about that, we're not going anywhere. 

Well-grown veggies can nourish and inspire. But where we get fat, carbohydrates, and protein has the most to say about whether we can be sustained by our climate and our ecosystems. Besides... it's really hard to change one's mind on an empty stomach. 

Flush Already

It appears to be a favorite pastime of small-minded people to spend their time circumnavigating the political toilet bowls by clinging to a life raft of tu quoque illogic. 

The general trend is an attempt to highlight the "other side's" bias by citing instances when a politician on their team (such as a prior president) committed acts they would decry in if committed by those of an opposing political party (like exporting millions of undocumented residents, or bombing Middle-Eastern communities). 

Let's flush that shit once and for all, and consider these theoretically novel times as an opportunity to refresh our moral waters: Rather than compare Trump to the actions of past presidents, forsooth a spoiled sample to begin with, why not compare him to your intellect and your conscience?

In a world that desperately wants to quell your instincts, steady on.

Eat more meat*

Conservation organizations are beginning to allow that some animal agriculture can be benign if not beneficial for the environment. Still, many continue to advise the public to avoid eating much meat, citing the common concerns surrounding industrial meat production--inefficient land use to graze animals or grow their feed, methane production from ruminants, destruction of rainforests for grazing land, inhumane practices in the industry, and so on. 

The idea is that if one is to offer a directive to wide swaths of the human population, an overly nuanced one runs the risk of over-complicating things for the inconsiderate public. Better to have them eat less of it than to think that meat is OK. 

I contend this is deeply misguided and may produce the opposite results of what is intended. Worse, it misses an opportunity to create ecological change at a meaningful scale. 

Don't get me wrong, I am sympathetic to the cause. I want nothing more than to discourage people from eating meat borne of bad practices. But I don't think encouraging people to eat less meat actually achieves net ecological health. 

What's taken for granted is that it's somehow appropriate or useful for a large organization to offer simple dietary guidelines to people living in vastly different and unique agroecosystems. The problems with this are manifold.

For one, it's absurd to tell people in (for example) the mid-Atlantic region of the United States, with its mild winters, abundant summers, and year-round precipitation that they should eat less meat because of what the beef industry does with itself. Industrial agricultural economy involves millions of acres and often international trade agreements and more often than not are irrelevant to the question of any given person's dinner plate. Systems that can easily support multispecies grazing, leader-follow systems, silvopasture, etc. can produce meat in almost completely closed loop systems that bear no resemblance to chicken, pork, and beef raised within the commodities sector. By responding solely to the offenses of industrial agriculture rather than the rancher down the road we usher in the very agrodystopia we seek to avoid. 

Secondly, telling the public to consume less of anything frames that item as a guilty pleasure, and thereby exempts it from the standards to which we hold our staple foods.

For example, I consider beer an indulgence--always an afterthought, more akin in my mind to a treat or dessert. So I don't give it as much consideration as I give the foodstuffs I rely on to form the bulk my nutrition. While I insist on organic eggs raised in complex agroecosystems, I rarely buy organic beer. (If I honestly reckoned with how often I "wound up" drinking beer every week, perhaps I would make better choices).

Animal agriculture is land and resource intensive, in the sense that it's impactful. A single 1,000 lb cow will consume 2 - 3% of his or her body weight per day (in dry matter, so many more lbs of wet grass than this). That adds up to a lot of land. They drink on average 10 to 20 gallons of water a day, depending on bodyweight and weather.

Where people often get this wrong is that what goes in must come out; the forage eaten and water consumed is not necessarily wasted. The inputs into an animal's digestive track can become the source of renewal for the very land it came from, or not, depending on management. So even a few ounces a week of animal flesh has tremendous capacity to improve upon its resources or to degrade them depending on the animals' relationship with those resources, and thusly, on our relationship with that animal. How much land it takes to raise an animal, then, is not a meaningful metric until management is considered. Eat less meat ignores management.

Hence, eat less meat comes at tremendous opportunity cost, and I believe it's time we held this suggestion accountable for this. Because suggesting to the omnivorous public that they should eat less of something means fewer farms working with animals to improve ecosystems. I say this as someone whose sole compensation for grazing animals in an ecologically restorative context is beef sales. 

Despite its good intentions, eat less meat means greater dependence on synthetic or imported fertility for their vegetables, less carbon stored in their soil, less effective cycling of water, less efficient use of sunlight to create calories. It means broad acres of pasture land is valued not for the habitat it offers to wildlife above and below ground, but as real estate for development. It means people eager to work with plants and animals are without the economic opportunity to do so. It means abundance unrealized. It means bellies unfed. 

Because ultimately, there is no "too much" when meat comes from a dynamic and responsible production system. If we want people to consume meat raised within its environs, the carrying capacity issue will by definition sort itself out. But this all the more requires that we sanction eating meat for ecological reasons, rather than shaming it, sending our meat-eating habits into the shady corners where our higher-minded selves don't visit. 

The thing about regenerative agriculture is that somebody has to do it. And for us to do it, somebody has to pay for it. And for it to be paid for, it must be valued. Not as a guilty pleasure, but as a dietary and ecological staple.

There's one more problem with eat less meat, and it's this: it uses the same over-simplified logic to try to improve our planet that has wrought so much damage to begin with. The modus operandi of agriculture since its inception has been to codify, commodify, command and control. Agriculture has been a tool for warfare, and the justification and fruit of it t'boot. To rely on reductive rules-of-thumb to try to restore a vitality and health to agroecosystems worldwide, we simply cannot use the same thinking that created the problem to begin with. 

So what do we tell people instead? Short of a heady articulation of the role of the human eater in the global food web, or a romanticized appeal to the role of stewards in a bioregional biology, how can we compel people to turn their attention away from dubious meat and direct their attention instead to the animal agriculture that improves their land and watersheds nearby, without turning meat into something considered an occasional treat or guilty pleasure?

I don't know. What do you think? Leave a comment.

What's Still Difficult When Everything Seems Easy

these days I take a moment to snap a photo mid-catastrophe. in this photo I'm moving a portion of the herd back where they belong. 

these days I take a moment to snap a photo mid-catastrophe. in this photo I'm moving a portion of the herd back where they belong. 

Most of my discussion surrounding my role as a grazier in a conservation context takes place on the Land Log, which is the other half of this blog (top right). But I chose to include this post here because it's a bit more expansive.

Our grazing system is simple in its parts, and complex in its arrangement. So while many of our components are discrete, modular, and derived from a petroleum economy, the relationship between them is more akin to the biology we're beholden to--complex, variable... emergent.

There are some days when I pack my standard provisions (lately: food, tea, rain gear, axe, extra phone battery, hammer, drive cap, and so on) and find myself overprepared. Things go as planned, tasks prove to require the expected degree of exertion or ease, and the critical reflective scanning of grass, soil, and herd condition is easy to fit in. On these days the system sings.

Other days, I naively head out (sometimes miles deep in the Preserve) expecting to just move the herd or perhaps invest an hour or two in picking up fence or planning ahead... and find catastrophe. Perhaps midnight winds meant spindly oak branches gobbled up a fence line, releasing the whole herd into distant unfenced areas. Perhaps there is a health issue suggestive of missed indicators earlier on. And perhaps, due to schedules and weather and all of the things that life presents, the shit hits the fan at the worst possible time. It's then that the system--even if only in that moment of shortsighted panic--seems fragile.

But the longer you work with big animals in broad acreages, the higher your threshold for crisis. I remember the first time the herd escaped into steep and uncharted territory not accessible by the ATV. I thought all was lost. There goes hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of cow.

Now when that happens--which isn't often, but it's part of the deal--I pack my lunch in my backpack, take a long draw of water, stretch my muscles, and strategically set to work slinking past the nearest animals to block the path of the furthest rascals like a Siskyou wolf laying claim.

I've developed a method of retrieving over 100 animals singlehandedly, on absurdly steep terrain, and on foot, that you won't see in YouTube videos or workshops but it works for the relationship system that's emerged between myself, the cows, and the land. And there is a certain animalistic glory involved in looking back over perhaps a hundred acre stretch at dusk knowing I managed to corral my resources, animals, and psyche to skirt disaster.

So even these crises phase me less than they used to. Yet this work is still not for the faint of heart. It still seems hard. I'm asking myself, why?

Maybe it's that every day we stride into the unknown, knowing only how little we know, and having to walk that path regardless. This work of sensitively grazing broad acreages requires us to voluntarily immerse ourselves in complexity beyond our scope of comprehension. It requires us to do so consciously, intentionally, and confidently.

And yet, to at least the same degree, we must second guess our actions without slowing our pace. We have to prove ourselves right, rather than prove our actions wrong, which is the mind's preferred orientation. So, applying such a significant management tool as animal impact, and working with those animals themselves, requires absolute confidence and absolute humility at the same time. Confidence without humility is arrogance, and invites disaster. Humility without confidence is inept, and often fear-based. We're bound to nature--there is no time or room for attachment to one direction that prevents us from pivoting on our heels to walk just as intently in the complete opposite way.

Aaron, the founder of our cattle company who did this for years before I came on the scene, has been struggling to impart this to me since I started grazing about a year ago, and I'd say it's only beginning to sink in.

Maintaining this posture, this mix of nimbleness and decisiveness, every day, across multiple scales of consideration, is challenging. And add to this that we are working in a scene (ranching) with a fairly rigid historical schema attached to it, and doing so in a fairly academic conservation context, and matters get more complex. I'd say it's the social sphere that surrounds this work that most requires that tandem confidence and humility, and most tests it. This is another reason why it's still hard even when the fieldwork is easy.

Amongst some ranchers, we are the odd balls creating a no-hay system who use terms like "rewilding" with sincerity, and go hours out of our way to manage drainages and waterways with care. And in the conservation scene we've inevitably inherited a tinge of the profiteering and recklessness associated with a lazy ranching legacy that degraded the very soils and grasslands we're now working to fix from the bottom up. There will always be those days when we're beat up in the field by loose cows or harsh weather and then must fend off the projections of those who don't know what to make of a cattle company whose aim is complex, not singular.

I like to call our work light in infrastructure and heavy in relationships. It feels true. Our tools are simple and modular, we run one herd, we harvest the excess when it's ready. It's the psychological underpinnings that make or break it. It's the lead cow that follows me and pulls the herd along seamlessly into a new cell. It's the ranching friends who advise and lend a hand when we need it.

It's the landbase we graze that is willing to show leadership in land management by leaning into possibilities when others would have them lean only on what is proved. It's the late night beef and risotto with foraged mushrooms eaten while staring at a Google Earth map, the caffeine-fueled arguments, and the wine-fueled apologies. It's the moments when everything goes wrong, when nature seems to be spitting in your face, and you have you rub your own chest for courage and carry on because it's literally do or die out there sometimes. At every level, there is a relationship to work within. So even when it's hard, it's a hardship we humans are adapted for, and that's more than enough to keep me (and the herd) forever on the move. 

Thanks, Jane Jacobs

While reading James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State, I encountered the ideas of Jane Jacobs. A few moments of investigation reveal that it’s the anniversary of her death back in 2006. So unprepared and unworthy though I feel, I’ve cobbled together these thoughts as a little ode to her.

For context, I’m feeling pretty post-city these days. I realize such a wholly dismissive attitude betrays unsubstantial thinking—I can’t really defend this point of view; for now, it’s pure sensibility. But the basis of my distaste for urban life is how easily our natural reality is shoved aside make room for constructs, whether brick and mortar or social. 

It’s just hard to situate one’s self close to nature when one lives in a city. Drawing associations between one’s actions and one’s impact requires a cognitive stretch that exhausts the resources of even the more conscientious among us when buildings and HOAs get in the way. So the feedback loops that can be potentially quite short and obvious when one lives unsupervised in the countryside become sprawling and obscured in urban places. Outside of cities, ignoring our impact on nature requires cognitive dissonance. Within them, it’s just the path of least resistance.

But if I ever again live in a city I hope it’s one with a little of Jane Jacobs’ blood flowing through its proverbial veins. In an era still shaped by High Modernist thought, which prescribed upon cities a gridwork of legibility and planned utility, Jacobs advocated for a design ethic that caused people to collide in a bustle of informal activity and exchange. Concepts we take for granted today, like the value of urban density, social capital, and mixed-use—ideas at the heart of New Urbanism—owe Jacobs a debt of gratitude for being their champion.

Jacobs’ vision for city life is one of involvement and connectivity, a metaphorically mycelial dynamic wherein the otherwise fracturing effects of roadways and city blocks are overcome with sensible design--where the planning institutions facilitate humanity over legibility, and natural activity over controlled predictability.

This is why, in a foray of admitted geekery, I gave a shoutout to Jane Jacobs in a recent panel discussion at Raleigh City Farm. The beauty of that farm is that it’s situated at the nexus of otherwise distinct parts of the city. What used to be an unproductive empty lot is now a lively, multidimensional hub of economic and ecological activity. Perennial permaculture plantings flow in and out of highly productive annual row crops. Youngsters with a savvy hydroponics enterprise rub shoulders with old folks born and bred in Raleigh. When citizens buying a bike or a bottle of wine at the nearby shops (which arguably would never have found a footing had the Farm not moved in first), they encounter land, which as Henry George reminds us is the basis of all economy… and all life. And because the farm exists at a common corridor, they also meet neighbors of vastly different socioeconomic backgrounds whom they may otherwise never encounter.

When co-founder Josh Whiton and I sought the council of a stalwart of the organic farming milieu some years back, before a single spade was dug into the urban soil, we were asked if we couldn’t find a better place outside the city to grow food. Our advisor missed the point, yet we couldn’t exactly articulate why the value of visibility, of access, of farming at the edge made more sense than growing somewhere with a more reliable lease and more fertile soil.

But now we don’t have to—the farm speaks for itself. And I think we have Jane Jacobs to thank for the intuition that more interaction, more activity, is better. The farm is robust, yet interstitial, and serves to direct citizens’ attention to the rural land beyond city boundaries that provide the bulk of what we eat. Raleigh City Farm thus produces more than what it can grow on its 1.3 acres by serving as the lynchpin of an urban-rural connection that extends many miles beyond the heart of Raleigh.

What Jacobs contributed to the disciplines of architecture, urban planning, and city politics can hardly be overstated. Yet beyond her specific ideas, it’s the nature of Jacobs’ contribution that most stirs me. Jacobs didn’t “belong” to any one of the disciplines she reformed. She had no formal training in architecture or city planning. Her college education was postponed, her vocations were iterative, and the observations that formed the basis of her fresh perspective were garnered through gazing out the window of her home and office with eyes unclouded by cumulative lenses of sanctioned thought.

Critics questioned her authority (though she claimed none), and deemed her a wrecking ball, threatening the towering contributions of centuries of urban theory. But Jacobs made no apologies. She had the self-assuredness to acknowledge that she was witness to something others missed, and did not demure when others pulled rank. It was her very lack of enculturation of contemporary thought that allowed her to see what others could not.

I wonder about Jane Jacobs. What went into her making that enabled her to be so bold—to support her thoughts with confidence, promoting her ideas without necessarily promoting her self?

Jacobs also resounds in my mind as a resolution of the tension between the individual and the community. To Jacobs, this was not a zero-sum equation: her cultivation of her own observations contributed directly to the integrity of her community. She managed a complementary arrangement when so many of us feebly sacrifice our obligation to neighbors at the altar of our own self-promotion and success. Similarly, her ideas were borne of a specific place, yet relevant to cities well beyond. 

Jacob's ideas have made cities more habitable for us all. But maybe more importantly, she models a posture relative to institutional authority that leverages the individual mind to the benefit of the community. Thanks, Jane.

For more on Jane Jacobs, check out this NYT bio and of course, her Wikipedia entry.

Jane Jacobs, photographed by Christopher Wahl.

Re-humanizing ourselves through land work

My official title is Herdess for Holistic Ag. When people ask what I do, I usually say something like “I work with a herd of holistically managed cattle on a nature preserve, and various other agroecological pursuits on the side.” It’s a lot to take in—holistically managed? Cattle on a preserve? Agro-what? You?

One day I'll find a better way to convey what I'm doing to the uninitiated. But for now, leaving out any part of that feels like an injustice. We (Holistic Ag) are not exactly ranchers, and we’re not a herd-for-hire. We are motivated by ecological restoration and right livelihood, intentionally situated at the edge of food production and ecology--the ecotone, the edge where two unique environs meet.

Edges are funnily hard to define. Schematics and instruction manuals use edges to delineate between one item or object and another; we make lines to show where one discrete thing ends and another begins—but how can we show it when the edge is a world unto itself? This takes a more granular view, a zoomed-in perspective. That’s a lot to impart to a culture that views complexity with suspicion: complex things are resistant to commodification. In a world motivated by scarcity, this is frustrating.

One day, I want to be able to say my job is “herdess” and see the glint of understanding in the eye of those with whom I’m speaking (beyond my agrarian cohort). Herding, shepherding, is one of the world’s oldest professions, after all—when did we forget what it meant to spend one’s days working with animals? Unlike many more modern agricultural undertakings that involve the application of significant force to yield consumable goods at the cost of ecosystems, I help the cows lilt across the landscape, leaving boosted biomass and biodiversity in their wake. The beef is the byproduct.

I have been doing "farm stuff" since I was 16, before I knew sustainable agriculture was a thing, and was steeped in a rural context prior to that. The more of American culture that I encounter, the more disappointed I am to find that many people stigmatize, fetishize, or ignore land-based work. There are many forms of violence, and I posit that cultural violence—that which cleaves us from our historical selves and induces a tragic amnesia—may be the most insidious of all. It means landscapes go untended, people go unfed... and souls are sold to companies at market rate.

A common sight in today’s workforce is that of millions of smart minds situated atop ossifying spines slowly bending to the shape of office chairs. We sacrifice sunrises at the altar of a dehumanizing morning commute. We depend on stimulants (and depressants) to shake our weekend minds out of their workweek-induced stupors. And, “work/life balance” is characterized by the steel and foam of office gyms we hope will stave off the damages of using our minds at the expense of our bodies. We have been told that jobs with three weeks vacation are attractive, and assured that all of our other interests can surely be attended to on nights and weekends.

We pride ourselves on being employed full-time by our jobs. This makes us seem and feel very involved, very committed, to being a generative person; whereas “part time” conjures notions of retail jobs peddling goods at the mall. Yet so many of us report hating the very jobs we take pride in having, yet see no viable alternatives. “Who else would hire me?”

It makes you wonder, who designed this system, anyway? Are these norms serving us?

Office jobs are considered a higher leverage point than land work. And it’s hard to argue that someone pulling invisible strings from their position within their company, managing money or personnel (often to very good ends) is not exerting more force in the world than an alternative self trimming apple trees all day. But this is only true when the two activities are allowed to become mutually exclusive.

Every year I am hired by a handful of landowners to prune fruit trees on their property. For me, pruning is one of the most psychologically and physically enlivening activities I can do, so getting paid to do it is a real win. Every season I wonder when the landowners will catch on that they are paying me to do what is not a chore but an act of revival that would probably benefit their office-addled minds more than it would serve my wallet. Just as we partake in sleep even though it means hours away from work, engaging features of our landscape attends to physical and psychological needs that are inescapable because they are encoded in our DNA.

Building on this, when did working with land mean subjugating it instead of stimulating it? When did we allow our narrative about land-based work to be co-opted by suburban landscapers or exhausted Depression-era farmers?

We are so forgetful. There is a brilliant constellation of land-based work available to anyone who wants to take it on that sculpts the body, enlivens the mind, revives the ecology, and often pays for itself. Why do we look upon those activities as lowly, as unimpactful? We've gone crazy, friends.

I wonder if part of our viewing land work in an unfavorable light has to do with the difficulty of controlling or quantifying the results of dabbling in natural systems. You can observe and measure what a land manager has done, but it’s difficult to intelligently tell them what to do.

Here, I’m not alluding to some kind of inborn stubbornness inherent to farmers or land managers so much as noting that good decisions are highly context-dependent. Only those working on the very same land in a very similar capacity will have witnessed enough variables to be able to instruct another to sound ends. And, even then, a shift of temperature or precipitation changes the equation entirely. Land work is dealing in complexity and, as I said, complexity can be deeply inconvenient.

So, land managers are tough to control or predict. They are an x factor. In our attempts to wrap our heads around an increasingly oversized and unwieldy world, we tend to pay selective attention to that which can be controlled and measured. Land managers and the results of their decisions are thus often discarded as outliers.

To speak carefully:  I am not critical of the value of quantifiable data. On the contrary, I see my role as herdess as being a liaison between the researchers and the researched. That which is obvious to the eye of the human manager should be translated into terms the broader world can understand, because we only preserve and provide for that which we take into account.

But those of us dealing in, for example, grassland management and restoration with livestock are situated at a critical interstice—a temporal ecotone, if you will—between the relatively unstudied decisions made by ranchers on their own sites and prescriptive management plans that seek to govern land henceforth. How do we make our work available to the process of science to inform better land management without eradicating the essential role of the land manager?

We must re-value the minds of the sensitive, autonomous, and well-informed land manager. We must view their deep affection for their home ecologies as a vital asset. And more of us must consider the vocation for our own lives--even, and perhaps especially, if only for part of our lives.

I am a young person, so my specific interest is in seeing that my gig is as viable as possible not only for myself but for the myriad other youngsters like me. Because there have to be more ways to do agriculture than the owner-operator model. Being a land-based person must be sound across triple-bottom-line dimensions within one’s personal- and community-level economy. This is of particular relevance in the Bay Area, where land is expensive and increasingly put to absurd uses by hapless new landowners with more money than agroecological awareness. 

How can we show the rest of the world that land work complements high-leverage office work—that hours spent, say, pruning fruit trees fosters growth and refinement in one’s own thoughts as much as in the tree itself? How can we demonstrate that the hours we choose to invest in “mind work” would be more productive and wizened when buffered by the high-quality thinking that working with nature is proven to facilitate?

I’ll not try to convince anyone beholden to the nine-to-five to exchange part of their workweeks and paychecks for the unknown quantities of land work. I’ll certainly not pretend doing so would be an easy or obvious transition, especially for those with families. (It’s easy to herald existential benefits of land work when I’m not providing for the livelihoods of other humans—expansive thinking does not directly generate diapers or pay hospital bills).

Rather, the burden of proof is on people like me—people striving to live diversely, situated across several vocations and with relevance in more than one domain. My aim is to be a land-based person with as few dealings in value-compromising work as possible. My goal is to spend part of my time abstract endeavors—writing, consulting on projects within my wheelhouse, connecting people; and the rest in literal dealings: pruning, foraging and hunting for sustenance, herd work.

The idea is to span distinct but complementary substrates, following paths that lead from the tangible terrain of cows and trees into intangible landscapes of ideas and possibilities. I aim to live publicly, that I may be held accountable to this experiment in lifestyle design, and to steward a reunion of the land and the mind—a re-humanizing of ourselves as a species.


How to Protect Your Pigs From Terrors

A mountain lioness and her cubs found the pigs I was raising in the woods this summer. Ironically, the first attack happened a few hours after I began reading The Beast in the Garden. The first victim was a feeder pig that weighed about as much as me. And then I lost a few more, due in large part to a make-shift dog pen that proved woefully inadequate at containing them. It's not that the cat was getting in–it's that the pigs were busting out, and getting eaten.

Predators and pastured animals can co-exist relatively peacefully if you have a safe place to lock up your herd at night. Photo from .

Predators and pastured animals can co-exist relatively peacefully if you have a safe place to lock up your herd at night. Photo from

Pigs are strong. Most anyone who has kept has a story about their breaking out of impossible places. I once had a pig escape her farrowing shed just by plowing straight through the side of it, popping out the nails that held in the siding. Get a few of them together and you’ve got hundreds of pounds of mass bearing down on each square foot of infrastructure.

So I needed something tough. And besides the capacity to contain legion behemoths, other factors affecting my strategy were 1) I needed to be able to build it myself and in one day, because I didn’t have a lot of help at the time and I knew I'd lose another pig that night if not adequately protected; and 2) it needed to be modular, so that I could move it to the next pasture (also by myself). 

Some small livestock farmers are devising clever shelters built on skids that can be moved from pasture to pasture. This is great for rotational pasture systems; like a chicken tractor, towable shelters allow for easy distribution of manure, mitigate the broad dead zone of compacted soil that typically surround shelters at all sides, and ensure the animals have shelter no matter what paddock they're in. But this just wasn't practical for the hilly, forested terrain where my pigs spent part of the year.

My solution? Livestock panels! For all my enthusiasm about it, my hack is not that special: I made a pen out of livestock panels… and then I put a roof on it (because I was trying to keep out cougars, after all). This isn't too unique from a permanent pen, yet I hope to show you how it can be used in a rotational context. For those whose minds don’t yet immediately think of livestock panels as the solution for many a farming quandary, I’ve got you (exhaustively) covered.

Livestock panels are sometimes called feedlot panels. How ironic, because they can be the best friend of those aiming to use their animals for restorative ends. There are a few different types out there; 16’ long seems standard, but they range in height, spacing, and gauge. 

This is what I bought. I bought mine from a local farm supply store, so they cost a little bit extra, but it goes without saying that if you can swing the extra few bucks per panel it’s worth investing in a relationship with a local independent dealer.

Sheep & Goat Livestock Panel, measuring 16'x48" with  4"x4" openings. Photo from Tractor Supply Company.

The advantage to this panel is 1) the height – go as tall as you can, because you’re going to want to walk around inside on occasion; and 2) the gauge and spacing—this wire is thicker than cattle panels, and the 4” spacing means it’s practically unbendable and scary things can’t stick their whole arms inside and grab your goats and pigs by the leg. Equally as important: the small openings prevent goats from getting their heads.

It’s conceivable that you could go for the less expensive cattle panels, which have graduated spacing (the bottom two openings are 4” tall, followed by 6”) but these have half the vertical wire count as those designed for smaller livestock, meaning they aren’t as sturdy and therefore more prone to bending up and out at the nose of a few determined pigs. However, they are a lot lighter, and you’ll save some money by using these for the roof of the cage.

To make an 8’x16’ cage you’ll need the following:
- 5 livestock panels
- six 6’ tall T-posts, driver (+ earplugs), puller
- two 10’ long T-posts
- bolt cutters
- nylon baling twine or something similar.

I was transporting these panels in the bed of my Toyota pickup truck, so I had them cut in half (to 8’) at the feed store to fit. Even if you can get them to your farm in one piece, consider halving them to make them easier to maneuver. Ease of removal is pretty critical for pasture-based anything.

I picked a spot in the pasture with relatively flat ground and started by driving in two T-posts at 8’ apart. Make sure they aren’t too far apart or you’ll be trying to patch gaps with twine, and that won’t hold against pigs. That’s why it’s important to have a puller around while you’re setting up—it’s worth taking the time to withdraw a post that’s in wrong than to try to make it work, have pigs get loose, and lose a $500 investment to a predator.

Key here is to only drive the posts in about 6". The pigs will be bumping around at the base of the cage, so half a foot of depth is sufficient. If you drive them much deeper you'll find that they are a huge pain in the ass to withdraw later, especially once the soil is a bit compacted around them (though it should be less compacted than it would be around a permanent shelter).

With the two posts in, I went ahead and affixed the first 8’ panel, which would be my non-opening end of this rectangular cage. I made sure the bottom edge of the panel was as flush with the ground as possible, and tied it tight to the T-post beginning at the bottom such that pig noses couldn’t lift the panel up and burrow under.

I repeated this for the sides. Only instead of making the pen its longest possible 16’, I overlapped the two panels on each side a bit. This reduced the square footage but reinforced the sides, because they flexed into one another. In hindsight, this might not have been necessary—I think really tight lashing with twine would have been sufficient, but it means you can collapse the length of the pen if necessary, which can be helpful if you’re fitting it in between stands of trees.

Before I attached the end panel that would function as my door, I vaulted the roof pieces atop. These were supported by what I had around: two 10’ long T-posts, placed width-wise. Essentially, these were the rafters. But you could also use planks, conduit, pipes, branches, whatever. Just make sure any gaps are wrapped tight with twine!

The twine becomes pretty ratty after a while, but looping it through itself  lets you pull it tight at every increment but is easy to take apart and reuse.

The twine becomes pretty ratty after a while, but looping it through itself  lets you pull it tight at every increment but is easy to take apart and reuse.

For the opening “gate,” I only tied the top seam of the end panel about 1/3rd of the way so that it had a flex point. And on the side that I wanted to open for pigs to enter/exit, I tied a piece of twine at the base that I would lash as I did the others each night and tie off with a slip knot. Make it something that you can quickly tie and untie, though, because it’s tough to work under the pressure of bratty pigs. Keep a rock or a bungee around to keep the gate open as wide as possible during the day because pigs will scratch themselves against the sharp wire without even realizing it if they don’t have enough clearance. 

Pigs will destroy the soil integrity in their pen in a matter of days, but tossing in half a bale of straw will mitigate the damage and allow them to goof off and hunker down. Keep their water away from the door but accessible, so you can fill it up through the side. And if you ever have to enter the cage while the pigs are in there, take a stick.

For rainy weather, get yourself some tarps and toss some objects on top of the roof to promote drainage off the sides. Be mindful of how water accumulates in the pen for the sake of your animals’ comfort. Pigs will likely root up the soil around the perimeter, creating a rain-proof bank of sorts, but good tarp-fastening and a slightly sloped site will be sufficient for rain-ruers of the caprine variety. And I’d recommend lifting the overhang of the tarps atop the cage during the day, because pigs love playing tug of war with tarps and their teeth will swiftly ruin a good investment. 

One added advantage of tarps is that they obscure the presence of looming predators. Based on the cat tracks I observed I believe the mountain lions harassing my pigs totally gave up on them after a few days of their being out of reach, but it may be worth buffering your pigs from the psychological distress of a prowling predator in the mean time.

When it comes moving time, cut your twine and save it to re-use, stack your panels, pull your posts, and repeat at the next spot. Having a truck to move the material is only necessary if you’re traveling more than 100 yards. And if you have everything on hand, it shouldn’t take you more than 2 hours to set this up once you have the material in your next pasture—not a bad tradeoff of time for any pasture-based operation if it means safe livestock and portable, reusable materials.

O Bioneers!

A piedmont North Carolinian brand new to coastal California, I’m just getting my feet wet out here and sure didn’t know what to expect at this year’s Bioneers Summit Conference (this past October 17th - 19th). What I discovered has left me profoundly altered. As a Digital Media Ambassador for Bioneers this year, I thought it fitting that I share some reflections from my time, so here's an effusive yet painfully inadequate roundup of my experience, written from a place of resonant gratitude.

When I first scoped out the conference on the web, a name that caught my eye was Severine von Tscharner Fleming. She’s been as a spirit hovering over the surface of the proverbial waters (or soils, if you will) of the young farmer scene for years, so I couldn’t wait to hear what she had to say. In her unassumingly poetic fashion, Severine announced that 400 million acres of farmland will change hands over the next two decades in the United States. “Land is the baselayer of the new economy. We need to reclaim it.” As a farmer, this clarion call served as a major re-up for my sense of purpose.

Bioneers seemed deeply rooted in a land ethic of facilitative stewardship. But the conference also demonstrated that how we encounter each other is as important as our relationship to nature. Alisa Gravitz, CEO of Green America, reminded us that we need to stop wasting our energy telling others how to do their work. “No more arguing about if it’s more important to be on the streets or in the boardrooms,” she said. “We need both.” This was profound to me—a timely reminder that othering goes both ways, and we must extend a hand to the powers that be if we hope to leverage their momentum to achieve positive change. As someone who is regularly disappointed by some of the moral absolutism I encounter in activist circles, this was refreshing.

Speaking of relationships, the presence of indigenous people at Bioneers meant the whole experience was imbued with an essential full-circle vitality. Joanne Campbell of the Coast Miwok tribe—residents of Marin County for the past six thousand years—gave me goosebumps as she welcomed the conference to her ancestral grounds. And hailing from the distant Amazon, Kichwa leader Patricia Gualinga shared the devastating truth of how the developed world’s appetite for oil means the destruction of her lifeways. She asked for our help to #KeepTheOilinTheGround, that the socioecology of her home in the lungs of the earth might be left intact. I've been reading M. Kat Anderson's book Tending the Wild, which describes the stewardship practices of California's original inhabitants, so discussions surrounding the desecration (and revitalization) of tribal lands really stirs this the heart of this European American.

This spirit of purposeful resistance spanned the speakers at Bioneers. Terry Tempest Williams invited us to join her in fighting the exploitation of the tar sands in her beloved Utah, and Arielle Klagsburn demanded that white people must join the opposition to white supremacy that has contributed an epidemic of police brutality. At Bioneers, there was no shortage of indigenous wisdom, strong women, and causes in need of loving champions. I kept asking myself, how could anyone ever be bored?

One speaker who had a big presence at Bioneers was renowned mycologist Paul Stamets. Evoking a touch of Radagast the Brown with his earthy hat made of a giant Amadou mushroom, Stamets’ work using mycelium to heal bees, purify water, produce food, detoxify landscapes and inspire the mind seems nothing short of wizardry—and echoed so many themes of the Bioneers organization of a whole.

In his keynote address on Friday, Stamets unveiled the results of unprecedented research demonstrating how “mycohoney,” neutracuticals made from polypore mushrooms, can dramatically improve the immune systems of bees.

This is profound. It means bee populations given mushroom extract can survive the viral loads and subsequent parasitic attacks that have until now spelled doom not only for pollinator populations but for our own food security.  Without a doubt, this research produced by Stamets and his team will have exciting ripple effects across disciplines. What this means for our ability to sustain bee populations and feed ourselves cannot be overstated.

The host of high-quality presenters spanning the sciences, arts, and activism means I could write about what I learned and loved for hours on end. Yet as anyone who has ever attended a Bioneers Summit can attest, some of the best parts of the conference happen off-schedule. Whether cruising exhibitor tents, standing in line for food, or just basking in the pristine San Rafael sunlight, one was bound to encounter new faces with whom to dream up a better world, and share the load as we make that world so. Just as biodiversity is an indicator of ecosystem health, the myriad of minds and messages at Bioneers bodes well for a resilient, robust movement.

As the last talks wrapped up on Sunday evening and the fellowship began disbanding to after-parties and airports, I felt like I needed to be alone in nature. So I borrowed some gear from filmmaker Jonny Kloberdanz, and headed for the hills by the Bay. I found a quiet place to bed down for the night--embarrassingly, my first time camping on my own, let alone without a tent--and let the weight of the past few days settle into my bones as mists tumbled up through the starlight overhead and strange birds hollered in the nearby dark. I awoke to the first real rain in months, and each transformative drop ushered Terry Tempest Williams' earnest words to mind: "This is our alchemical moment."

Some new friends on a rainy morning after Bioneers.

Some new friends on a rainy morning after Bioneers.

Irony is alive

I remember when irony first dawned on my twelve-year-old horizon. I greeted it with open arms: it helped me to demarcate myself as a new teenager—that twisty-turny pathway of development during which one becomes particularly attuned to the arbitrary and nonsensical in life, and the requisite nihilism conjured by such nonsense.   

Irony and its gang (cynicism, sarcasm, eyerolls) became my friends. You could tell us apart by the t-shirts we wore featuring inside jokes from absurdist comedies or vaguely sexual vintage ads. (This was the early 2000's, after all). With irony at my side, I was equipped and emboldened to express how predictably unpredictable and seriously farcical I found life to be, and irony made me feel imbued with universal street-smarts. 

But that was a few years back. By now I’m cresting my mid-twenties, and I think I’ve outgrown irony. Sometimes it’s a real drag. I regularly find myself mired in the pits of irony in almost every public forum I encounter today. You know them well: Twitter battles, asinine comments sections on blogs and articles, mudslinging on Facebook. These sorts of conversations habitually implode into a black hole of irony, out of which it seems no trace of light or meaning can escape. I crave uplifting, sincere, give-and-take conversation, and instead I find the rhetorical equivalent of curb-stomping.

I am not alone in this sentiment. Amidst the fray, countless astute observers of pop culture have taken aim at irony. Some have claimed that irony is dead, and deemed ours the era of New Sincerity, like this piece in The Atlantic from a couple of years ago calling irony utterly passé. Yet two years later, writers in Salon made the case that irony was still at large (and it must be stopped). Both articles purport to have their finger on the proverbial pulse of culture, and they are but a slim sample of the myriad of pieces out there mulling over the prevalence and value of irony. So, which is it? What's irony really up to?

Irony sure seems rampant, but perhaps my sensitivity to it further exemplifies the very trend identified by those social critics. Perhaps what's changed isn't the prevalence of irony but my own distaste for it, and maybe that distaste just means I’m part of a larger trend.

At the same time, it seems that for every upwelling of responses to a perceived coloring of cultural attitude, one could assemble enough evidence to suggest the opposite. Barring a true measure of the aggregate moods, Big Data style, it’s one word against the other as we share competing impressions of our age. If everyone could say a different thing about a moment in time, are we actually saying anything at all?

This seeming disparity between various cultural perceptions makes a lot more sense if we regard irony as having a life-force of its own—a living entity within our collective unconscious. Irony would be easily tracked and measured were it a static, fixed thing, but it isn’t. Irony is alive! Distributed and decentralized throughout our Western minds, it has a very comfortable existence as resident critic, disparaging the other parts of our selves and our society that seek meaning and crave substance.

But irony is here to stay. It’s situated in our broader culture, but also within the micro-community of our own minds. It commands the evaluative attention of editorialists with a magnetism only a living thing can generate.

Regard irony as a living thing in a living community, and we begin to see that it behaves as any alive thing might: by jockeying for power and seeking significance within its social strata, just like we do. And more importantly, view it this way and we can see that the solution to an overly ironic culture isn't to vanquish irony any more than the appropriate to a crude dinner guest is to forcefully remove them from your table. Irony just can’t be done away with because it’s not a thing.

But if irony really is dead, we should mourn its passing. After all, irony is hugely valuable. For example, cloaked in irony, certain truths can be snuck into spaces where truth is otherwise not welcome. This is why, for example, one can offer social criticism within The Onion that could never be shared outright. Mockery, sarcasm, and satire are all really good tools for sussing out certain qualities from the aether that would otherwise go unnoticed. They repeat back to the world its most absurd features, pointing out the deficiencies of our time by outlining negative spaces. So it feels a little strange to be reading cultural critics’ condemnation of irony given that irony has become such a well-honed tool for social criticism. 

Yet at its best, irony describes. As good as it is at telling us where we are, irony is terrible at showing us where to go. In fact, irony looks at what is commonly regarded as inspirational or motivating and, with a roll of the eyes, dismisses it all as precious. It can’t help it—that's kind of its M.O., and it’s just not qualified to offer much more. Besides, irony has a vested interest in disparaging the sincere, because doing so means job security. When it comes generating meaning, irony is out of its depths.

The thing is, irony doesn’t have a problem—we do. We have mistaken the matter of irony gone unchecked with irony itself. If irony has some kind of persistent life-force of its own, as I like to think it does, then what is needed is for the other trammeled members of our singular and shared minds to show up and assert themselves in the form of some good-old social feedback.

Because some may say that a world full of irony is devoid of meaning and substance, but I suspect the opposite relationship—that sincerity and substance depose irony, unseating it from its authoritarian position and restoring it to its rightful place as social critic (but not king). Because irony offers commentary, but it’s sincerity that moves the world forward.

Happiness is what you know

The phrase “happiness is what you know” recently popped into my mind. As in dreams, where our understanding of the story is deeper than the semantic plotline, I understood the meaning of this phrase beyond the particular words that carried it--I reckon it meant that our sources of happiness needn’t necessarily be limited to our circumstance at any given time.

You know what I’m saying: the farmer may endure heartbreak and financial hardship amidst her physically taxing work, but she is made happy by the knowledge that her products sustain her customers and her land. Things like that.

(And there are probably other words for this than happiness. Satisfaction, for instance. Or maybe joy. But those weren’t the words that popped into my mind, so I’ll leave it be).
Sometimes when I want to be happier, I go for eating chocolate or taking a nap.  Delights such as these are characterized by experiencing stimuli instead of savoring our thoughts. Pretty available to anyone not living in abject poverty. Sometimes pleasures like these are just the ticket, but other times they lead us astray.

And sometimes things get really bad, and we find ourselves in such dire straights that we can’t contrive a single experience to make us feel happy. But we always have our brains with us; we always have our minds. Its storehouses are full of things we know. We can delight in those, too.

Nonviolent communication is a superpower

I've adopted a needs-based view of the world as of late. this is a tenant of nonviolent communication, which holds that people bump around in the world trying to meet their needs. In practice, it goes like this: in a potentially contentious interaction, I first ask myself (internally), "what am I feeling? what do I need?" and then I wonder about the other person, "what are their needs?"

The value in this is manifold. NVC doesn't require that you correctly guess what the other (or yourself) really needs. Sometimes that is unknowable. Rather, by developing the habit of asking what is required, you begin to deal in the essentials. You see that the other person, no matter how menacing, is actually needy. You realize that your own biases and offense are excessive and unhelpful (no time for fuss when dealing in essential matters only!). This renders the conversation far more fragile, and far more humane.

 By asking what is needed, your mind adopts a different posture to the world. One of humility (you're asking a question, after all), one of objective distance (by pausing to ask before acting), and one of receptivity (you're are availing yourself of the answer).

These three qualities add up to a compassion power-up. that's really helpful. And what's important to note is that NVC doesn't just train your mind to be more compassionate to others, but also to yourself. In fact, I think it's fair to say that not until you have asked (and to some extent, answered) "what do I need?" can you feel safe enough with yourself to inquire into the needs of others. 

What's especially cool is that with practice, I'd venture to say that NVC imparts near-psychic skills. While accuracy isn't the goal, it turns out that you can pretty accurately guess what another person needs in any given Interaction once you have arrived at a place of safety and understanding within yourself. You find this out by treating the person as if you've correctly guessed what their need is, and maybe even mentioning it. things just start to work out.

This shouldn't be a surprise. Our minds come equipped with a greater capacity for empathy than any other species alive today, but we block our superpowerful empathy-rays with our own musty, bottled up, undiscovered needs. What a waste of brainpower.

Buy into the idea that our minds--not just our brains--are made up of multiple entities and different parts, and you swiftly realize the value of inquiring into the needs of others and asking as much of ourselves are essentially one in the same. So if, like me, you can't help but cringe when you hear the increasingly prevalent self-love rhetoric, do consider that we must love ourselves because our selves are myriad and oftentimes as strange and alienated as are external strangers... and just as easy to misunderstand. So extend the same grace to yourself as you would another, because much of your mind is just that: an other. As you would invite another person into your company, smoothing the distinction between you and them, invite your mind into safe keeping.

I'm not yet very good at nonviolent communication. And there is a whole lot more to it than this little needs-based check-in. But it's a start. And once you begin, you might realize how much energy you might have been expending in trying to keep another person from saying what you don't want to hear. The dread of what they might say coupled with your attempts to thwart their saying it don't leave much energy for compassion, let alone empathy. (They are different).

This wouldn't be a problem except that unaddressed (note that I don't say unmet) needs far outlive any apparent resolution finagled out of a terse conversation. So by ignoring your own needs and those of the other you're only temporarily escaping the inevitable. and so much peace and progress lie on the other side of the inevitable. So get on with it, I say.

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