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.