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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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.