Redefining Local

What does “local” mean when you live on a remote farm or ranch?

It’s an important question because going “local” has significant benefits: it gives us access to fresh, healthy food; it reduces our carbon footprint and lessens our dependence on fossil fuels; it keeps money circulating in the local economy where its multiplier effect can be large; it builds a sense of community among all participants; and it pokes globalization in the eye.

Good stuff, but when we talk about “local” we almost always mean from the perspective of a city resident, i.e., those products grown or made closest to a customer. Farmer’s markets are a good example. “Local” in their case means a radius around a point (the market) located in a city or suburb. This means participation is limited to those farms and ranches who can afford the time and money to drive into town every weekend. In other words, from the perspective of a city resident, anybody selling produce at a farmer’s market is “local.”

However, if you live on a remote farm or ranch, especially out West where the distances to potential markets can be staggering, “local” looks very different – especially with the high price of diesel. Without a Santa Fe or Denver or Portland nearby, how can an organic farmer or grassfed beef rancher participate in the burgeoning local food movement and reap its benefits?

Fortunately, the Oklahoma Food Cooperative has come up with an ingenious solution: redefine “local” to include the entire state – with significant help from the Internet. They do this in two ways: first, it is a producer and consumer cooperative, i.e., rural farmers and ranchers and urban consumers gathered under one umbrella. Second, the buying and selling between the two groups takes place in a virtual marketplace, which is where the Internet comes in.

Here’s how it works:

  • You pay a one-time fee of $51.75 to become a member of the Cooperative.
  • On the first day of every month, members can go on the Cooperative’s web site and purchase any food or craft product listed there.
  • On the second Thursday, this electronic ordering ‘window’ closes. The orders are then sent to the participating farms and ranches so they can be filled.
  • On the third Thursday of the month, designated drivers visit all the participating farms and ranches to pick up the orders.
  • All drivers then converge at a warehouse in Oklahoma City where the products are separated into piles and then rebundled according to the customer’s orders.
  • The drivers travel back home, dropping off the individual orders at one of 50 designated locations across the state, where the customers pick them up.

Presto! Local redefined. Here are more details:

  • All products provided by the Cooperative are made within the state of Oklahoma.
  • Each farm and ranch controls their own inventory, sets their own price for their products and each designs its own label and controls the advertising.
  • Customers can buy as much or as little as they want each month and they can earn credits toward a purchase by volunteering.
  • There are nearly 4000 items on the Cooperative’s web site, many of which are organic, natural or grassfed (there are many non-food items for sale as well).
  • Quality is guaranteed – or your money back.
  • All participating farmers and ranchers get roughly 90 cents of every dollar spent on their products.

This last point is huge. In the industrial agricultural model, producers typically get 20 cents of every food dollar. The rest goes to ‘middle men,’ including packers, truckers, grocery stores, and other corporate interests. In the Oklahoma Food Cooperative model there are no middle men, other than the Cooperative itself. Producers come out ahead because they are now ‘price givers’ instead of ‘price-takers.’ This is something new under the sun, and one of the reasons I made a long drive a few years ago to Fairview, located in northwestern Oklahoma, to see for myself.

I joined a tour of a certified organic wheat and grassfed beef farm owned by John and Kris Gosney called Cattle Tracks. Not long ago, John Gosney was a conventional wheat farmer, soaking his fields with pesticides, harvesting the wheat with a ton of fossil fuel, and watching his spirit decline along with the land’s health. He became depressed, he told the group, often finding himself sitting on a bale of hay wondering where his life heading. John said that he never gave organic agriculture a thought until a neighbor asked him to take over his farm, as he was about to retire and didn’t want to let his hard work developing an organic wheat operation to come to naught. John said ‘yes.’

John told us he was immediately struck by the profitability of his neighbor’s farm and decided to certify his own farm as organic as a consequence. Initially, he saw a drop in yield, but he also saw a drop in expenses, especially since he stopped using conventional fertilizers and pesticides. Eventually, as the yield came up, so did his profits. However, the main benefit of the switch, he said, was non-economic: he began to have fun again. Going organic cured him of his depression. He liked the challenge of organic as well as the hard work it requires.

Today, the Gosneys grow cattle to 800 pounds on their wheat fields and finish them on native grass (an all-wheat diet affects the taste of the meat, he said). He proudly pointed to an analysis by Oklahoma State University of the CLA (conjugated linoleic acid – a cancer-fighter) content of Cattle Tracks beef. According to the analysis it fell “in the highest range of CLA content reported in the literature for beef.”

The Oklahoma Food Cooperative, he told us, was the key to it all.

One downside to the Cooperative’s model is less face-to-face interaction between producers and customers. In both the CSA and Farmer’s Market models, the meet-and-greet relationship between grower and eater is an important part of doing business. By contrast, by working through the Internet, people don’t get much face time.

For remote farmers and ranchers, however, this downside is offset by a big upside: they get to participate in a “local” food economy. By offering products for sale via the Internet at a one-stop shop provided by the Cooperative, as the Gosneys discovered, “local” is extended to the state line. Suddenly, “remote” doesn’t seem so remote anymore!

Here’s a photo of John Gosney talking to visitors:Copy of IMG_1715

Cooperative Behavior

“Food for People not for Profit.”

As with many coops begun in the late 60s and early 70s, this was the original slogan of La Montañita Food Cooperative, which was founded in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 1976 with three hundred families as members. According to Robin Seydel, a coop staff person since 1985, it was very much a ‘hippie’ establishment in the beginning, dedicated to gaining access to “off-limit” food at the time, including organics, whole grains, and macrobiotics. The coop also threw early jabs at the industrial food system by offering workshops on the links between pesticides and cancer, food irradiation and GMOs. Its counterculture spirit even extended to its organizational structure. By being member-owned, it deliberately set itself as an alternative to the corporate model of soulless profit-making.

Fast forward nearly forty years and what was once counterculture is now mainstream, which is good news for all of us!

Today, La Montañita has over 16,000 member households, employs nearly 300 people, manages six stores in three cities, operates a regional food distribution hub, and has returned over $4.5 million to its members in patronage dividends since 1989. It is an active member of the National Cooperative Grocers Association, which encompasses over 140 food coops representing combined annual sales of over $1.5 billion and over one million consumer-owners. And as we all know, healthy, nutritious, organic, and sustainably-produced food that was once considered ‘off-limits’ is now widely available across the nation and has become a part of everyday eating habits.

This good news begs a question: could other kinds of regenerative activities considered “off-limits” economically today, such as building soil carbon or restoring damaged ecosystems or feeding large numbers of people sustainably follow a similar trajectory? Perhaps cooperatives are the ticket to getting this important work accomplished as well. What about a Restoration Cooperative!

It’s not a pipe dream. Cooperatives are all around us, including worker-owned manufacturing coops, depositor-owned credit unions and agricultural marketing coops. Overall, there are nearly 30,000 cooperatives in the United States, accounting for two million jobs and $500 billion in annual revenues.

IRS-recognized types include: (1) Consumer cooperatives, which are owned by the people who buy their products or use their services – REI is the nation’s largest example; (2) Producer cooperatives, where farmers and others group together to sell their products under one label – Organic Valley, for instance; (3) Purchasing cooperatives, where businesses work together in order to be competitive with national chains – just as the National Cooperative Grocers Association does; and (4) Worker cooperatives, which are owned and run by employees – a good example is the Mondragon Corporation in the Basque region of Spain, one the biggest cooperatives in the world.

Consumer cooperatives are by far the largest type of coop in the United States and the movement as a whole is gaining momentum. Recent research suggests why: the broad and diverse benefits created by coops make them resilient in a crisis. Credit unions, for example, survived the Great Recession of 2008 relatively unscathed because they viewed rampant mortgage speculation as contrary to the interests of their members.

Another reason cooperatives are resilient is that they often focus on the essentials necessary to a healthy society: food, water, electricity, insurance, finance. Their primary mission is to provide a public service, not act as engines for wealth accumulation. That’s why it is not such a big leap to extend the cooperative model to ecological restoration and carbon sequestration.

Although its ‘hippie’ roots have faded, there is an important element to the cooperative model that remains firmly countercultural: its communal ownership structure. Like nonprofits, cooperatives are a legally-sanctioned form of private ownership in service of the public good. While they are profit-making, they are not profit-maximizing. This sets cooperatives squarely against the corporate model of doing business, whose overriding goal is to turn a small pile of money into a larger pile of money (to paraphrase Wendell Berry).

In contrast, cooperatives see money as a means to an end: creating an economy that supports, rather than diminishes, the greater public good. It’s not just about economics, however. For organizations like La Montañita, the philosophy that motivates their work is the belief that cooperative behavior is the key to healthy communities and thus a brighter future for all.

This shouldn’t be news – humans have profitably engaged in cooperative behavior since, well, we became human.

“The cooperative economy is helping to reawaken an ancient wisdom about living together in community, something largely lost in the spread of capitalism,” writes Marjorie Kelly, an author and advocate for cooperatives. Cooperatives represent a need that “arises from an unexpected place – not from government action, or protests in the streets, but from within the structure of our economy itself. Not from the leadership of a charismatic individual, but from the longing in many hearts, the genius of many minds, the effort of many hands to build what we know, instinctively, we need.”

The first successful cooperative was organized in 1844 in Rochdale, England, when a group of weavers and other craftsmen pushed back against the tide of Industrialism sweeping the nation by opening a store to collectively sell their products. They called themselves the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers and they authored a set of Principles that have recently been updated by the International Coop Alliance. They include: (1) open and voluntary membership; (2) democratic control; (3) economic participation by members; (4) autonomy and independence; (5) education, information and training; (6) cooperation among cooperatives; and (7) concern for community.

Counterculture indeed!

Robin Seydel describes the difference between the cooperative and corporate models this way: the size of financial dividends paid to members by cooperatives is based on patronage (how much goods and services you purchase) not the level of investment made by someone with extra funds “after they put a roof over their head, food on the table and shoes on the baby.”

There are many other reasons to support the cooperative model: La Montañita pays a living wage – and did so before living wages became popular –and it provides an excellent benefit package. Its food hub, the Coop Distribution Center, serves several hundred local producers in a 300 mile radius around Albuquerque. It is farmer and rancher-friendly, sending them the important message that they can count on the Coop to be there. Which explains the unofficial motto of the cooperative movement: “We were local before local was cool.”

Cooperatives are cool. And important to our future!

Here’s a photo of Robin Seydel in the Coop’s produce section:la montanita 1.widea

For more info see:

Marjorie Kelly’s quote:

Weeds and Black Gold

In 2004, Kathy Voth had an out-of-the-box idea: teach cows to eat weeds. As in, way out of the box.

According to conventional thinking at the time, cows were grazers, goats were browsers, and sheep were something in between. If you wanted to tackle a weed infestation on your farm or rangeland with livestock, you employed a herd of goats. Right? Goats eat weeds. Cows eat grass. (And coyotes eat sheep.) If you didn’t want to use a biological remedy, however, then you could return to the standard solution: costly chemical herbicides. In large quantities. After all, what other practical alternative was there? Not cows.

Yes, cows. Over the past decade, Voth has developed a simple yet effective process for training cows to eat weeds, including almost any type of cow and almost any type of weed. There’s no gimmick involved. Her process is based squarely on recent scientific research into how livestock choose what to eat and on well-established principles of animal behavior. Voth’s process takes only ten hours of training spread over ten days to teach a group of cattle to learn to eat weeds. It works for a simple reason: the cows never realized weeds tasted so good!

However, convincing ranchers, farmers, agency employees and academics to give cows a chance is a much more difficult job, she’s discovered.

Let’s back up for a second. Why worry about invasive weeds?

Over 90 different foreign plants are recognized as Federal Noxious Weeds. Collectively, they infest over 100 million acres across the nation, including 20 percent of our public lands, and they are expanding at a rate of 8 to 12 percent—an area the size of Delaware—every year. Weeds crowd out native plants, damage crops and forage and contribute to soil erosion. Some can poison wildlife and livestock. Taken together, they are a huge threat, not only to food production but to biodiversity and watershed health, as well.

Weeds can also put human lives at risk. Voth was a public information officer in Colorado in 1994, when a forest fire killed 14 firefighters. The tragedy set her to thinking about the danger we put people in when we fight fires and whether or not goats could help. Goats eat just about everything, Voth knew, so she and a friend started a research project to see if goats could reduce woody fuel buildup. When she discovered that they also ate a wide variety of troublesome weed species, she went to ranchers and told them to add five goats for every cow in order to improve their pastures.

“They just looked at me like I was insane,” she said in an interview. “Most ranchers don’t want to have goats because they require a completely different kind of fencing and the market is much more difficult to access than the beef market. These were very good reasons and they made sense to me. But I’m not the kind of person you can just say no to.”

So she turned her attention to cows instead.

She also turned to Fred Provenza and other animal scientists at Utah State University, who discovered that a food’s palatability is heavily conditioned by experience. When an animal finds a food that meets its nutritional needs it will choose this food over and over. That’s because foods that “taste good” generally have more nutrients, which our bodies need. Nutrients send positive signals to the brain. Toxins send negative signals, such as nausea, causing us to avoid foods that “taste bad.” Flavor, in other words, is the brain’s way of screening nutrients from toxins.

According to Voth, this makes weeds ideal forage for cows because most are high in nutrients and low in toxins. In fact, most weeds are at least as nutritious as grass and often higher in protein. “That means if we can get a cow to try a weed, she’ll continue eating it year after year,” Voth wrote in an essay. “As a bonus, she’ll gain weight at rates expected for an animal eating a higher protein diet. Thus, not only do we eliminate the cost of herbicides, we increase profits due to increased weight gain.”

But how do you get a cow to “like” a food it has never eaten before?

Since inexperienced animals are more likely to try new things, Voth focuses on young cows and gives them a lot of positive experience. Here’s how it works. For the first four days of the training period Voth feeds the animals unfamiliar but tasty (nutritious) food in tubs twice a day, including beet pellets, wheat bran and hay cubes. Soon the animals associate her arrival in the pasture with a tasty meal. Combined with the natural competiveness of animals at feeding time, this meaning cows will try almost anything.

On the fifth day, Voth serves weeds with some of the feeds the trainees have already tried. She repeats this for three more days, increasing the amount of weeds and reducing the other foodstuffs until the mix is 100 percent weeds by the sixth day. If the weeds are present in the pasture, the cows will start eating them once they’ve been recognized. Soon the trainees are training other animals. Voth has seen 12 cows train 120 more!

As a bonus, educated cows are open minded to trying other weeds in a pasture, even if they haven’t been trained to them.

Here’s a sample of what cows will eat: Russian, Canadian, Italian, Scotch and musk thistle; diffuse, spotted and Russian knapweed, yellow and Dalmatian toadflax, white top/hoary cress, leafy spurge, goldenrod, fringed sage, field bindweed, yellow and purple starthistle, horehound, common mullein, rabbitbrush and many others. Voth has even trained cows to chow down on brush, including wild rose, willow, even mesquite.

Weed thorns and spines don’t bother cattle. Voth has seen them eat cactus. As for toxins, her advice is to make sure the weed is safe before you start (she keeps an updated and comprehensive list on her website). Watch out for dormancy too. Her rule of thumb: if it’s green and growing, it’s nutritious!

Then there are the economic benefits. “Say you’re a typical Western rancher and you have 400-500 cows,” she wrote. “You train 50 of them and within a year they’ll have trained all the rest. The cost of training those fifty cows is about $250 and you’ll never have to do it again. On average, a gallon of herbicide costs $250 and it will treat not nearly as many acres as the cows will. It just makes sense to me.”

Me too.  A “hip-hip-hooray” for out-of-the-box thinking! Better yet, a haiku:

The War on Weeds ends
When cows begin to eat them.
Foe becomes forage
- The Tao of Cow (Kathy Voth)Copy of colorado

Black Gold

Biochar has a great press agent.

The subject of numerous books, articles, research papers, conference presentations and various top-ten-ideas-that-will-change-the-world lists, biochar enjoys a reputation that has, so far, exceeded its actual accomplishments.

I bet that’s about to change.

Biochar’s attraction is threefold. first, as a supercharged form of charcoal, it has the ability to affect many Twenty-first Century challenges simultaneously, including greenhouse gas emissions, food insecurity, waste management and renewable energy production. Second, it’s a technology, albeit a sooty one, which means it’s attractive to the scientific, entrepreneurial and techno-geek aspects of our society—which partly explains its media charm. It also appeals to the “backyard innovator” in our human nature. Third, it’s an ancient agricultural practice, which tempts the farmer in us. As the prehistoric tribes of the Amazon Basin knew, biochar can elevate soil fertility tremendously.

In fact, all of these positive attributes create a kind of identity crisis for biochar: is it a “lite” form of geoengineering, a repurposing of indigenous knowledge or a commercial opportunity for savvy businesses?

It’s all of the above—but let’s back up. What is this black gold exactly?

Biochar is produced when organic material, generally plant matter or manure, is heated to very high temperatures in a zero or near-zero oxygen environment, which bakes the carbon into a light but solid structure riddled with millions of tiny holes. The process is called pyrolysis. In nature, it occurs when trees are carbonized by intensely hot forest fires or when wood is engulfed by volcanic lava.

In human hands, it usually takes place in a specially constructed oven where temperatures can reach 500 degrees Celsius or higher. In this tightly controlled environment, between 30 and 50 percent of the original carbon is transformed into highly stable biochar. The rest becomes bio-oil and syngas, both of which are exciting to renewable energy experts as potential substitutes for petroleum.

Biochar’s appeal as a way to mitigate climate change is straightforward: by baking carbon into a substance that can last thousands of years, we interrupt the natural cycle of decomposition and respiration in which microbes digest organic material and then “burp” carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This process is a considerable source of this important greenhouse gas, and so if we can “lock up” large amounts of carbon as biochar rather than let it decompose, then we can (potentially) make a big dent in the blanket of greenhouse gases surrounding our planet.

Johannes Lehmann, a professor at Cornell University, recently calculated that if biochar were added to the soil of only 10 percent of the world’s farms, nearly 30 billion tons of CO2 would be sequestered—approximately the total amount of humanity’s annual greenhouse gas emissions.

The waste management appeal is also straightforward: biochar can be made from a wide variety of biological or “green” waste, including lawn clippings, hedge and tree trimmings and leftover food that would otherwise end up in landfills. Ditto with dairy and horse manure. This is important because landfills and manure lagoons are major sources of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. As a bonus, diverting these sources into biochar will reduce vexing waste disposal challenges.

Of course, composting is another way to put green waste to work regeneratively, but unlike biochar, which is inert, compost is biologically active. Its microbes are busy “burping” CO2 into the atmosphere. One intriguing solution is to mix biochar into compost piles. Biochar provides structural stability and compost provides biology. Another win-win!

Biochar’s agricultural appeal is based on its almost magical ability to improve soil fertility. Since biochar can take the shape of sticks, pellets or dust, it can be easily mixed into soil. Once there, it creates a variety of important benefits.

  1. The millions of tiny holes in a piece of biochar provide “condominium” housing for micro-critters, which move in quickly and begin doing their soil-building thing.
  2. These holes also wick water from the soil into the biochar (up to six times its weight) and release it slowly, supplying the microbes and retarding evapotranspiration, both of which are very useful in a drought.
  3. Biochar’s stability and resistance to decay enables the soil to withstand flooding and other forms of erosion.
  4. Bochar is alkaline by nature which can help achieve ph balance in acidic soils.
  5. Biochar can help restore degraded land because it works best when applied to depleted soils.
  6. And biochar can help to remediate polluted air and soil.

Taken together, it’s little wonder that prehistoric peoples in South America spent 8,000 years stuffing the thin, acidic, nutrient-poor soils of the Amazon Basin with a type of biochar called terra preta. It was their homemade version of black gold!

So, given all of these impressive benefits and opportunities, why isn’t biochar in widespread use yet? One answer: biochar is more complicated than it first appears.

For starters, there are a bewildering variety of biochar types to choose from (225 and counting). There is also a confusing selection of ovens to bake them in and many (competing) schools of thought about how to produce biochar properly. Then there are technical issues involving thermal physics, feedstocks and disposal of the bio-oil and syngas produced as byproducts.

There are also practical issues involving transportation and appropriate farming practices and philosophical issues involving competition with compost projects, how to work at scale and even proper baking temperatures (higher temps produce more stable carbon storage but also use more energy and produce more waste). Finally, there are ethical issues, including the specter of ecologically destructive, industrial-scale biochar plantations.

And then there are the economic hurdles.

Biochar has not yet been produced commercially at a price that makes it competitive with conventional fertilizers or other soil amendments ($1,000 per metric ton was one price I saw). This could change with the creation of a viable carbon marketplace, where biochar could become a way for polluters to earn “credits” to offset their production of greenhouse gases. Until then, however, biochar remains mostly in a research and development phase.

It won’t last long. Biochar has too many important benefits to continue to be underutilized, especially as Twenty-first Century challenges mount. In fact, it has already come a long way in a short time—the word “biochar” didn’t even exist before 2008. Today it already has a great press agent!biocharwheel_sjp

For more on Kathy Voth see:

For a research perspective:

For more on biochar see: the U.S. Biochar Initiative

My book will be out soon! See:



Thinking Like a Creek

When it comes to land, building resilience in an ecosystem so it can withstand an intense shock often means rebuilding resilience. That’s because so much land exists in a degraded condition today, a consequence of a century of hard use and mismanagement, that its ability to absorb the effects of a prolonged drought or hot fire, say, without further degrading its ecological integrity is a tall order. That’s why restoring land to health has to be one of our top priorities.

Fortunately, the restoration toolbox has been well developed over the past three decades, including innovative strategies for healing damaged riparian areas. I describe two such strategies below. One focuses on a pioneering methodology for re-meandering creeks developed by Bill Zeedyk and the second features an artistic approach to creek restoration developed by Craig Sponholtz. Both strategies are effective, attractive, and necessary to rebuilding resilience in the 21st century. 


During my travels, I heard a story about a man who had put short fences across a cattle trail in the sandy bottom of a canyon in Navajo country so that cattle were forced to meander in an S-pattern as they walked, encouraging the water to meander too and thus slow erosion. I thought this idea was wonderfully heretical. That’s because the standard solution for degraded creeks is spend a bunch of money on cement, riprap, and diesel-driven machines. Putting fences in the way of cattle and letting them do the work? How cool.

The man was Bill Zeedyk, a retired biologist with the U.S. Forest Service reincarnated as a riparian restoration specialist. Was the story true, I asked him? It was, he assured me. Recognizing that water running down a straight trail will cut a deeper and deeper incision in soft soil with each storm, Bill talked the local Navajo ranchers into placing fences at intervals along the trail so that the cows would be forced to create a meander pattern in the soil precisely where Bill thought nature would do so in their absence. Water likes to meander – it’s nature’s way of dissipating energy – and it will gravitate toward doing so do even if it’s temporarily trapped in a cattle-caused rut (or human-caused hiking trail). His fence idea was a way to move the process along.

What happened after the fences were put it in? The water table came up as vegetation grew back, Bill replied, because the water was now traveling more slowly as a result and had a chance to percolate into the ground, rather than run off like before. Eroded banks began to revegetate as the water table rose and more water appeared in the bottom of the canyon, which encouraged riparian plant growth.

“Nature did all the heavy lifting,” he said, before adding a warm, knowing smile. “It worked too, until someone stole the fences.”

Over the years, Bill has developed a very effective set of low-cost techniques that reduce erosion, return riparian areas to a healthier functioning condition, and restore wet meadows. This is important because a big part of the West exists in an eroded condition, generally the result of historically poor land management. This point was brought home to me in force one day when I walked under a barbed wire fence that stretched across a gully on a New Mexico ranch. The fence was five feet above my head. The rancher told me that the fence was built in 1937 and the fence posts originally rested on the ground!

To heal this type of damage, Bill has put together a toolbox designed to “heal nature with nature” that includes:

• one-rock dams/weirs – grade-control structures composed of wooden pickets or rocks that are literally one-rock high and simulate a ‘riffle’ effect in creeks.

• baffles/deflectors – wedge-shaped structures that steer water flow.

• vanes – a row of posts that project upstream to deflect water away from eroding banks.

• headcut control structures/rock bowls – to slow or stop the relentless march of erosion up a creek and trap water so vegetation can grow.

• worm ditches – to redirect water away from headcuts in wet meadows.

The goal of these structures is to stop downcutting in creeks, often by ‘inducing’ an incised stream to return to a “dynamically stable” channel through the power of small flood events. Bill calls it Induced Meandering. When a creek loses its riparian vegetation – grasses, sedges, rushes, willows and other water-loving plants, it tends to straighten out and cut downward because the speed of water is now greater, causing the scouring power of sediment to increase. Over time, this downcutting results in the creek becoming entrenched below its original floodplain, which causes all sorts of ecological havoc, including a drop in the water table. Eventually, the creek will create a new floodplain at this lower level by remeandering itself, but that’s a process that often takes decades. Bill’s idea is to goose the process along by forcing the creek to remeander itself his vanes, baffles, and riffle weirs carefully calculated and emplaced. And once water begins to slow down, guess what begins to grow? Willows, sedges, and rushes!

“My aim is to armor eroded streambanks the old fashioned way,” said Bill, “with green, growing plants, not with cement and rock gabions.”

The employment of one-rock dams typifies Bill’s naturalistic approach. The conventional response of landowners to eroded, downcut streams and arroyos has been to build check dams in the middle of the water course. The old idea was to trap sediment behind a dam, which would give vegetation a place to take root as moisture is captured and stored. The trouble is check dams work against nature’s long-term plans.

“All check dams, big or small, are doomed to fail,” said Bill. “That’s because nature has a lot more time than we do. As water does its work, especially during floods, the dam will undercut and eventually collapse, sending all that sediment downstream and making things worse than if you did nothing at all.”

“The trick is to think like a creek,” he continued. “As someone once told me long ago, creeks don’t like to be lakes, even tiny ones. Over time, they’ll be creeks again.”

One-rock dams, by contrast, don’t collapse – because they are only one-rock high. Instead, they slow water down, capture sediment, store a bit of moisture and give vegetation a place to take root. It just takes more time to see the effect.

“As a species, we humans want immediate results. But nature often has the last word,” said Bill. “It took 150 years to get the land into this condition; it’s going to take at least as long to get it repaired.” The key is to learn how to read the landscape – to become literate in the language of ecological health.

“All ecological change is a matter of process. I try to learn the process and let nature do the work,” said Bill, “but you’ve got to understand the process, because if you don’t, you can’t fix the problem.”

Over fifteen years and across a dozen states, Bill has implemented hundreds of restoration projects, healing miles of riparian areas – all by thinking like a creek!

Here is a photo of two vanes under construction:  IMG_4186

Form + Function

One of my heroes is the conservationist Aldo Leopold, widely honored for his pioneering work in many fields of endeavor, including wilderness protection, wildlife management, environmental education, and even sustainable agriculture. While he is best known for his articulation of a land ethic, which is essentially a plea for harmony between land and people, as well as the concept of land health, which encompassed the regenerative processes that perpetuate life, there is another aspect of his deep thinking that has been largely overlooked: beauty is also an important component of conservation. In Leopold’s own words:

“There is only one soil, one flora, one fauna, and one people, and hence only one conservation problem…economic and esthetic land uses can and must be integrated, usually on the same acre.” [Land Pathology, 1935]

“Bread and beauty grow best together. Their harmonious integration can make farming not only a business but an art; the land not only a food-factory but an instrument for self-expression, on which each can play music of his own choosing.” [The Conservation Ethic, 1933]

Art, harmony, beauty and aesthetics are all signs of health in nature and ourselves. This was one of the reasons I took a shine to Bill Zeedyk’s ideas about creek restoration. Bill’s methods harmonized with the land and its ecological processes. Not coincidently, his structures were also attractive to look at. Made of rocks and wooden posts, they had a sculptural feel that verged on the artistic. It was work that integrated form and function on one acre – just as Leopold had hoped.

One of Bill Zeedyk’s students, Craig Sponholtz, has taken this idea to the next level, transforming stream restoration into an art form.

For example, Craig recently debuted a log-and-rock structure he calls a “step-down” in Grassy Creek, high the Valle Vidal unit of the Carson National Forest of northern New Mexico, that was not only impressively constructed but lovely to look at. Craig had arranged zigzagged spruce logs in the creek to make it look like the trees had simply toppled over from the nearby forest instead of having been carefully placed by a machine (an excavator in this case). Locally-sourced rocks had also been fitted around the logs in a way that was pleasing to the eye. Add in the tufts of sod inserted between the rocks and logs and the sound of cascading water, and you had the recipe for a Zen-like work of art.

Of course, the step-down structure had a job to do, first and foremost. Its assignment was to save a wet meadow above it by easing water down a steep stretch of creek that had developed a big headcut without incurring any additional erosion. Accomplishing this goal requires knowledge of soils, hydrology, geomorphology, mechanical engineering and math on the part of the designer, as well a great deal of field experience (and a soft touch with an excavator) or the structure will fail in its duty. But this is where Leopold came in. What Craig had done on Grassy was take something functional and human-constructed and make it look like a natural feature on the land, in this case an attractive log-filled cascade of merry water.

It was a wholly practical restoration structure and a piece of sculpture. It demonstrated that the principles that made a practice regenerative were the same ones that made it beautiful.

Leopold is an inspiration to Craig as well. His favorite quote is this one: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” That’s exactly what the log-and-rock step-down is doing – restoring the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community known as Grassy Creek.

“If you’re going to spend time and money trying to heal a meadow like this, which is critically important to the ecosystem,” Craig told me, “then I think it’s best to follow nature’s blueprints, which involves an intricate web of interactions that life depends on. Beauty is part of that web, as are water, soil and plants. You can’t have one without the other.”

Of Craig’s work, especially lovely is the water-spreading, crescent-shaped structure called a media luna (half moon) which he has perfected into sculpture. Another specialty is an in-stream grade-control structure called a cross vane, which is composed of large rocks carefully arranged in the creek in order to slow down the water’s momentum by creating a natural plunge pool.

After taking care to read the landscape of the project site diligently, Craig creates a design that involves as few people and materials and as little dirt-moving as possible, while striving for a strong and long-lasting effect. This minimalism is partly about self-expression, but it also about physical objectives – to heal the creek as simply and effectively as possible. It also makes sense economically, especially to the landowner or agency funding the work. Beauty is woven into the minimalism too, which accounts for naturalistic feel of his structures.

Craig calls what he does “regenerative earth art.” Not only is his goal to heal damaged land for anyone who lives in a watershed (all of us, in other words), he creates structures that become part of the ecological processes that they reignite. By serving as footholds for grass and riparian plants that take over, his structures eventually are absorbed into the land itself and disappear. Best of all, this integration of the ecological and the aesthetic can happen anywhere, even in cities.

 “The main misconception that people have about watershed restoration,” Craig said, “is that it’s something that happens far away in parks and public lands and not something that can be part of everyday life. But everyone lives in a watershed and I work hard to make the restoration of our home watersheds something that is built into the ways we live and work.”

 Here is a photo of the step-down structure shortly after completion:Copy of Grassy stepdown2

For more on Bill Zeedyk’s Induced Meandering methodology see the manual: Let the Water Do the Work, available from Chelsea Green Press in June, 2014.

Craig Sponholtz’s web site:


Edible Ecosystems

Here are condensed versions of two profiles in my upcoming book Grass, Soil, Hope that feature the regenerative practices at the nexus between food and nature. Both build soil carbon while growing healthy food in abundant amounts, demonstrating that we can have our organic, pesticide-free, mineral-rich cake and eat it too. For more on the book see:

Edible Backyard Forests

This is a story about two plant geeks, an urban sweet spot and edible forests.

The two self-described plant geeks are Eric Toensmeier and Jonathan Bates and the edible forest garden they planted in 2004 resides on one-tenth of an acre behind a duplex home they bought in the Rust Belt city of Holyoke, Massachusetts. Although tiny, the property had big problems: the backyard was lifeless, the soil full of brick and concrete bits, the narrow alleyways in deep shade, the steep, short front yard covered in asphalt and the legal terrain hostile to composting, water harvesting and livestock, chickens especially.

It was perfect, in other words.

That’s because Toensmeier and Bates wanted to see if they could bring a tiny spot of badly damaged land back to health by creating an edible ecosystem on it. That meant a forest garden, which is defined as an ecologically-designed community of mutually beneficial perennial plants intended for human food production. Think fruits, nuts, berries and certain veggies. Could they bring lifeless land back to life by gardening every square inch, they asked, creating a diverse and edible landscape? Could they grow banana plants in wintry western Massachusetts? If so, what else could they grow, and how could it serve as a role model for ecological restoration in cities using native perennial plants?  Could their one-tenth acre sweet spot, in other words, yield big results?

The plant geeks set out to find out.

The two friends knew from experience that one advantage to perennial plants, besides providing tasty food, was their ability to build soil, control erosion, improve rainfall capture and sequester carbon. These could be very useful qualities in a blighted urban context, they thought. There was another advantage to perennials – minimal maintenance, which Toensmeier calls the “holy grail” of permaculture design.

“Having worked on annual vegetable operations and experienced the hard labor of planting and caring for annuals,” he writes in his book Paradise Lot, “I considered low-maintenance edible perennial vegetables an appealing alternative.”

The key to creating an edible ecosystem is a design that is as multifunctional as possible. To do this, Toensmeier and Bates spent an entire year observing and analyzing their one-tenth acre after they moved into the duplex in January, 2004, contemplating their design. What part of the property received the most sunlight year-round (for the greenhouse)? Where was the best place for the pond, what guilds of plants would work best together in which part of the backyard?

Looking around the neighborhood for an ecological role model, they were delighted to discover a “feral landscape” behind a twenty-year old Kmart shopping center. It was ten acres of shrubs and wildflower meadows – perfect for their purposes. That’s because nature was well on its way to healing the two decades-old scar created by the development and by studying the plants, they gained valuable clues to what nature likes to grow in a disturbed urban ecosystem.

“Most gardeners would not be excited about the species that were growing in the abandoned area behind the shopping center,” Toensmeier wrote, “But to me, any plant community that can grow in such terrible conditions is a welcome one.”

In 2005, after sheet mulching the bare ground behind the duplex (layers of straw, compost, organic fertilizers and cardboard) they planted native persimmon, pawpaw, beach plum, clove currant, blueberries, juneberries, chinquapins (bush chestnuts), hog peanuts, grapes, pears, and the nonnative kiwifruit (but so are carrots and apples, Toensmeier notes). In the front yard they planted banana trees.

By 2007, the garden was coming to life, a consequence of improving soils and the attractive habitat they had created for beneficial insects. The shrubs, perennials and young trees were doing well, Toensmeier wrote, and the front yard already looked like a mini-tropical paradise. The banana trees, sheltered from westerly winds, collecting heat from the asphalt driveway, their roots protected from winter snows, became show stoppers in the area. Drivers stopped in the middle of the street to gawk. Neighbors asked permission to harvest leaves for tamales.

By 2009, their backyard ecosystem was showing “emergent properties,” as they described it, meaning things were happening that were more than the sum of their parts. For example, they discovered a blue salamander under a twenty-foot persimmon tree in the garden, which meant their edible ecosystem was attracting forest animals to patrol its understory – a creature that would never have survived in the yard in 2004.

In 2010, Bates kept a log of the amount and types of food coming into the kitchen from the garden. He estimated that over six months, they harvested 400 pounds of fruits and vegetables from the one-tenth acre, a total that was bound rise in subsequent years as the edible ecosystem reached its full capacity. Best of all, the incredible yields were being produced with virtually no labor. It was a testament not only to success of their design, but to the regenerative power of nature to produce life.

 “The abundance in our garden comes to us in a self-renewing way,” Bates wrote in Paradise Lot. “Our fruit trees are surrounded not by grass and asphalt, but by other useful and edible easy to care for plants. After eight years, with very little care from us, all the plants are providing food, medicine, mulch, fodder, beauty, habitat, knowledge, seeds, and baby plants.”

“How is it that the abundance that I am now seeing in the garden,” he exclaimed, “and in life, was hidden from me all this time?”

For Toensmeier, their little sweet spot demonstrated that cold-climate forest gardening can work. They created a multistoried forest garden in Massachusetts that can produce food from trees, shrubs, herbs and fungi, even in the shade. They showed that ponds can grow food, asphalt can be a boon to tropical plants, and a good time can be had by all. There were challenges and setbacks (detailed in the Paradise Lot) of course, but after eight years they had accomplished everything on their original To Do list, and more.

 “While sustainability is focused on maintaining things as they are, regenerative land use actively improves and heals a site and its ecosystems,” Toensmeier wrote in Paradise Lot. “Regenerative agriculture…achieves these goals while also meeting human needs. It’s kind of an important topic for humanity this century.”

Buy their book:

 Before and After images of their lot:before_after_eric_toensmeier_2004


Cover Crops

Sometimes the most effective and regenerative practices are ones that don’t earn splashy headlines. For example, one quiet way to build up soil carbon on farms damaged by industrial agriculture is with cover crops – plants that cover the land with something green and growing for as much of the year as possible.

It’s not sexy, but it works wonders.

I learned the details at a workshop in Kansas led by Dr. Jill Clapperton, a soil scientist, who told the audience that the key to rebuilding soil health is to start a “conversation among plants.” Cool-season grasses, such as barley, wheat and oats and cool-season broadleaf plants, such as canola, pea, turnip, lentils and mustard, she said, need to dialogue constructively with warm-season grasses, including millet, corn, and sorghum, and warm broadleafs, such as buckwheat, sunflower and sugar beets. Who gets along with whom?

If you can get these plants engaged in a robust conversation in one field, she said, you’ll be creating “a feast for the soil.” That’s because increased plant diversity as well as year-round biological activity absorbs more CO2, which in turn increases the amount of carbon available to roots, which feeds the microbes, which builds soil, round and round.

This is exactly what happened on Gail Fuller’s farm, which we visited. When Fuller took over the operation from his father they were growing just three cash crops: corn, wheat and soybeans. Now, Fuller plants as many fifty-three different kinds of plants on the farm, mostly as cover crops, creating what Dr. Clapperton called a “cocktail” of legumes, grasses and broadleaf plants. Fuller doesn’t apply any herbicides, pesticides, or fertilizers either, despite the recommendations of his no-till neighbors and the chemical manufacturers who advise them. That’s because Fuller considers weeds to be a part of the dynamic conversation as well.

As a result of this robust conversation, Dr. Clapperton said, the carbon content of the soil on the Fuller Farm has doubled from 2 percent in 1993 (when they switched to no-till) to 4 percent today. That’s huge.

There’s more: the mineral content of Fuller’s crops has risen dramatically as well, she said. This is important because all living creatures, humans included, need vitamins and minerals to stay strong and healthy. Iron, for example, is required for a host of processes vital to human health, including the production of red blood cells, the transportation of oxygen through our bodies, and the efficient functioning of our muscles. Copper is essential for the maintenance of our organs, for a healthy immune system, and to neutralize damaging “free radicals” in our blood. Calcium is essential for bone health. And every cell in our body requires magnesium to function properly. Vitamins are organic compounds composed of various chemicals and minerals, including carbon.

A deficiency or imbalance of these “trace” minerals (so-called because they are only needed in tiny amounts) can cause serious damage to our health, as most people understand. That’s why taking vitamin pills has become such a big deal today – and big business – especially where young children are concerned. But few people stop to think about why we need vitamin pills in the first place. It’s not simply because we don’t eat our veggies or because we drink too much soda, but because the veggies themselves don’t have the amount of essential nutrients that they once did. In some cases, the drop has been dramatic.

How did this happen? Well, industrial agriculture happened. The hybridization of crops over the decades for production values – yield, appearance, taste, and ease of transport – has drained fruits and vegetables of nutrients. But the main culprit is what we’ve done to the soil. As a consequence of repeated plowing, fertilizing, and spraying, the top few feet of farmland soil has been (1) leached of their original minerals; and (2) stripped of the biological life that facilitates nutrient uptake in plants. Some farms, especially organic ones, resupply their soils with mineral additives, but many farms do not, preferring to rely on the Big Three – Nitrogen, Potassium, and Phosphorus (NPK) – to keep the plants growing. According to the industrial mindset, as long as crops are harvestable, presentable, digestible, and profitable, it doesn’t matter if their nutrition is up to par. If there’s a deficiency, well, that’s what the vitamin pills are for!

Gail Fuller reversed this trend in two ways: first, his employment of no-pesticide no-till practices means the microbial universe in his farm’s soil remains intact and alive, and if the soil dwellers have enough carbon (as an energy source) they will facilitate the cycling of minerals in the soil, especially earthworms, who are nature’s great composters. Second, a vigorous and diverse cover of crops will put down deeper roots, enabling plants to access fresh minerals, which then become available to everything up the food chain, including us.

Furthermore, by covering the soil surface with green plants, or litter from the dead parts, Clapperton said, a farmer like Gail Fuller traps moisture underground where it becomes available for plants and animals (of the micro variety), enabling roots to tap resources, growing abundant life.

“Above-ground diversity is reflected in below-ground diversity,” she said. “However, soil organisms are competitive with plants roots for carbon, so there must be enough for everybody.”

So exactly how do minerals get into plants? There are two principal paths: First, minerals can dissolve in water and when the water is pulled into the plant through its roots, the minerals are absorbed into the cells of plant tissue. Whichever minerals the plant doesn’t need (or doesn’t want) will remain stored in the cells.

Second, mineral nutrients can enter a plant directly by being absorbed through the cell walls of root hairs. Some minerals, such as phosphorus, can also “hitch a ride” with mycorrhizal fungi, which then “barter” them for carbon molecules from the plant roots. Of course, if there aren’t any minerals in the vicinity, no uptake into plants is possible.

It all begins with a dynamic conversation at a cocktail party for plants – where everyone is gossiping about carbon!

They may not be headline-makers, but cover crops can quietly make a huge difference.

Images of cover crops in action:Clover in wheat


Dr. Clapperton speaking about cover crops at a Quivira Coalition conference:

An Anguished Question

Novelist Wallace Stegner once said that all books should try to answer an “anguished question.” I believe the same is true for ideas, movements and emergency efforts. In the case of climate change, one anguished question is this: what can we do right now to help reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide from its current level back to 350 ppm?

Today, the only possibility of large-scale removal of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere is through plant photosynthesis and related land-based carbon sequestration activities. Strategies include: enriching soil carbon, no-till farming with perennials, employing climate-friendly livestock practices, conserving natural habitat, restoring degraded watersheds, forests and rangelands, increasing biodiversity, lowering agricultural emissions, and producing local food.

Over the past decade, these strategies have been demonstrated individually to be both practical and profitable. The key is to bundle them into an economic and ecological whole with the aim of reducing the atmospheric content of CO2 while producing substantial co-benefits for all living things.

The climate challenge now confronting all societies on the planet is as daunting as it is straightforward: under a Business-As-Usual scenario, the rising content of heat-trapping trace gases in the atmosphere, principally carbon dioxide, pose a dramatic and potentially catastrophic threat to life on Earth.

The science of climate change and its correlation with industrial activity is clear. The challenge – and the opportunity – we face can be summed up in two pertinent graphs from the Scripps Institute at UC San Diego ( which chart the rise of the atmospheric content of CO2, a heat-trapping gas that has significantly contributed to the rise in the Earth’s temperature since 1750.

Graph One: A comparison of current CO2 ppm to the historical recordco2_420_thousand_years

The dips correspond with planetary cooling periods (“ice ages”) and the subsequent rises correlate with warming trends. Note that past CO2 maximums barely exceeded 300 ppm. Today, it is nearly 400ppm – the highest level in at least 4 million years.

Graph Two: A scientific projection of CO2 under current emission trends with_future_1800_peak

Under a Business-as-Usual model, CO2 will rise to 1500 ppm, or thereabouts, and not return to pre-industrial levels even tens of thousands of years into the future.

What does this mean? Human civilization is synonymous with the Holocene epoch, whose remarkably stable climate over the past 10,000 years gave rise to the agricultural revolution, among many other developments. However, a rising level of CO2 in the atmosphere jeopardizes this stability, perhaps permanently (on human time-scales).

Dr. James Hansen, the former Director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and the nation’s top climate scientist, put it this way: “Business-as-usual greenhouse gas emissions, without any doubt, will commit the planet to global warming of a magnitude that will lead eventually to an ice-free planet.”

Since 2008, many climate activists and researchers have embraced a target of 350 ppm. For example, journalist Bill McKibben, who raised the first popular alarm about global warming back in 1989 with his book The End of Nature, co-founded the nonprofit, with the mission to get atmospheric CO2 back down to that level.

How do we get there?

In a 2009 editorial, Dr. Hansen proposed an answer: “cut off the largest source of these emissions – coal – and allow CO2 to drop back down to 350 ppm through agricultural and forestry practices that increase carbon storage in trees and soil.” In a research paper, Hansen specifically says that a 50 ppm drawdown via forestry and agricultural practices is quite plausible.

I consider these words to be a sort of ‘Operating Instructions’ for the 21st century. Personally, I’m not sure what to do about the coal side of his equation, which requires governmental action, but I have an idea about how to increase carbon storage in soils.


“Carbon is the basic building block for life. Over millennia a highly effective carbon cycle has evolved to capture, store, transfer, release and recapture biochemical energy in the form of carbon compounds. The health of the soil, and therefore the vitality of plants, animals and people, depends on the effective functioning of this cycle.” – Dr. Christine Jones, soil scientist (

The process by which atmospheric CO2 gets converted into soil carbon is neither new nor mysterious. It has been going on for tens of millions of years and all it requires is sunlight, green plants, water, nutrients, and soil microbes. According to Dr. Christine Jones, there are four basic steps to the CO2 / soil carbon process:

  • Photosynthesis
  • Resynthesis
  • Exudation
  • Humification

Photosynthesis: This is the process by which energy in sunlight is transformed into biochemical energy, in the form of a simple sugar called glucose, via green plants – which use CO2 from the air and water from the soil, releasing oxygen as a by-product.

Resynthesis: Through a complex sequence of chemical reactions, glucose is resynthesized into a wide variety of carbon compounds, including carbohydrates (such as cellulose and starch), proteins, organic acids, waxes, and oils (including hydrocarbons) – all of which serve as “fuel” for life on Earth.

Exudation: Around 30-40% of the carbon created by photosynthesis can be exuded directly into soil to nurture the microbes that grow plants and build healthy soil. This process is essential to the creation of topsoil from the lifeless mineral soil produced by the weathering of rocks over time. More active green leaves mean more roots, which mean more carbon exuded.

Humification: or the creation of humus – a chemically stable type of organic matter composed of large, complex molecules made up of carbon, nitrogen, minerals, and soil particles. Visually, humus is the dark, rich layer of topsoil that people generally associate with stable wetlands, healthy rangelands, and productive farmland. Once carbon is sequestered as humus it has a high resistance to decomposition, and therefore can remain intact and stable for hundreds of years.

Additionally, high humus content in soil improves water infiltration and storage, due to its sponge-like quality and high water-retaining capacity. Recent research demonstrates that one part humus can retain as much as four parts water. This has important positive consequences for the recharge of aquifers and base flows to rivers and streams.

The natural process of converting sunlight into humus is an organic way to pull CO2 out of the atmosphere and sequester it in soil for long periods of time. If the land is bare, degraded, or unstable due to erosion and if it can be restored to a healthy condition, with properly functioning carbon, water, mineral, and nutrient cycles, and covered with green plants with deep roots, then the quantity of CO2 that can be sequestered is potentially high. Conversely, when healthy, stable land becomes degraded or loses green plants, the carbon cycle can become disrupted and will release stored CO2 back into the atmosphere.

In other words, healthy soil = healthy carbon cycle = storage of atmospheric CO2. Any land management activity that encourages this equation, especially if it results in the additional storage of CO2, can help fight climate change.

Or as Dr. Christine Jones puts it: “Any…practice that improves soil structure is building soil carbon.”

This is good news for a simple reason: two-thirds of the Earth’s terrestrial surface is grassland – and home to two billion people who depend on livestock at least partially for their livelihood. This means that managing the land for CO2 sequestration, even on a small scale, could have a big impact on people and the planet. Livestock is key because it is an important source of food and wealth (and culture) to much of the Earth’s human population and thus could be mobilized for carbon action.

“Healthy grasslands, livestock and associated livelihoods constitute a win-win option for addressing climate change in fragile dryland areas where pastoralism remains the most rational strategy for the wellbeing of communities,” wrote the authors of a United Nations report in 2010. “It is a win-win scenario for sequestering carbon, reversing environmental degradation and improving the health, well-being and long term sustainability of livestock based livelihoods.” (for citations see

The effort to sequester carbon in soil also produces a list of co-benefits that make the whole enterprise even more vital. They include:

  • Local grassfed and organic food. By managing land for a healthy grass cover, a carbon ranch is the natural setting for raising grass-fed livestock, whose environmental and human-health benefits are well-documented.
  • Improved ecosystem services. These services include the provision of food, fresh water, wood, fiber, fuel, and biodiversity; flood, pest and disease regulation; nutrient cycling, soil stability, biotic integrity, watershed function, and photosynthesis; and spiritual, educational, recreational, and aesthetic experiences.
  • Rural economic development. Producing local food, restoring creeks and rangelands, marketing ‘climate-friendly’ enterprises, and developing local energy will require a great deal of work, and therefore could create, potentially, a great deal of paychecks for rural residents.
  • Maintenance of culture and diversity. This work can strengthen and support local and regional land-based cultures. It will require a mixing of innovation with tradition, but this can be a healthy way of rejuvenating a sense of community and cultural continuity.
  • Bridging the Urban-Rural Divide. Most carbon sequestration work will take place in the countryside, which means it has a huge potential to bridge the long-standing and expanding gulf that separates urban and rural residents.
  • Opportunities for the next generation. This work will be attractive to young people who want to get into (or back to) farming, ranching, restoration or otherwise pitch in with the effort to fight climate change.

None of this will be easy. In fact, the obstacles standing in the way of this work and sharing its many co-benefits are large and diverse. Some see salvation in high technology, including the ‘capture’ of CO2 at its source to be stored underground. Unfortunately, these technologies, even if practical, are years away from deployment. And the climate crisis is happening now.

We don’t need high technology – we have the miracle of photosynthesis already, the original low technology. It won’t save the planet by itself, of course, but it is essential to the quality of life on Earth no matter how much CO2 exists in the atmosphere. Too often, however, our eyes seem fixed on the stars and our minds dazzled by distant horizons, blinding us to possibilities closer to home. Perhaps we should be looking down, not up.

An answer to our anguished question lies at our feet, among the grass and the roots.

A Texas test: which side of the fence is likely sequestering more carbon? Which is actively grazed? IMG_1756(answer: the left side)

Grass, Soil, Hope

I am very pleased to announce that my book Grass, Soil, Hope: a Journey through Carbon Country will be published by Chelsea Green Press in early June. I am equally pleased to announce that Michael Pollan has generously written a Foreword for my book. Here’s a quote: “Hope in a book about the environmental challenges we face in the 21st century is an audacious thing to promise, so I’m pleased to report that Courtney White delivers on it.”

It’s not in my nature to be self-promotional, but I want to get the word out. I’ll being doing more over the next four months, so you’ve been warned! In the meantime, I’ll try to explain what the book is about, though if you have been reading this column for a while then you probably have a good idea.

Grass, Soil, Hope tackles an increasingly anguished question: what can we do about the seemingly intractable challenges confronting us today, including climate change, global hunger, water scarcity, environmental stress, and economic instability?

The quick answers are: Build topsoil. Fix creeks. Eat organic.

Crazy? I thought so until I read a statement from Dr. Rattan Lal, an esteemed soil scientist, who said a mere 2% increase in the carbon content of the planet’s soils could offset 100% of all greenhouse gas emissions going into the atmosphere. Wow! But what did he mean? How could it be accomplished? What would it cost? Was it even possible?

Yes, it is possible, as I discovered. Essential, in fact.

Right now, the only possibility of large-scale removal of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere is through plant photosynthesis and related land-based carbon sequestration activities. They include: enriching soil carbon, no-till farming, climate-friendly livestock practices, conserving natural habitat, restoring degraded watersheds and rangelands, increasing biodiversity, and producing local food.

As I know from personal experience, these strategies have been demonstrated individually to be both practical and profitable.

In Grass, Soil, Hope, I bundle them into an economic and ecological whole with the aim of reducing atmospheric CO2 while producing substantial co-benefits for all living things. Soil is a huge natural sink for carbon dioxide. If we can draw increasing amounts carbon out of the atmosphere and store it safely in the soil as life-giving and food- producing humus (the rich soil of a garden), then we can significantly address all the multiple challenges in my anguished question.

The key is carbon. That’s because it is everywhere – it’s the soil beneath our feet, the plants that grow, the land we walk, the wildlife we watch, the livestock we raise, the food we eat, the energy we use, and the air we breathe. Carbon is the essential element of life. Without it we die; with the just right amounts we thrive; with too much we suffer. For eons, carbon has been a source of life and joy to the planet. A highly efficient carbon cycle captures, stores, releases and recaptures biochemical energy, making everything go and grow from the soil up, including plants, animals and people.

In the last century or so, however, the carbon cycle has broken down at critical points, most importantly among our soils which have had their fertility eroded, depleted, and baked out of them by poor stewardship. Worse, carbon has become a source of woe to the planet and its inhabitants as excess amounts of it accumulate in the atmosphere and oceans. It’s all carbon. Climate change is carbon, hunger is carbon, money is carbon, politics is carbon, land is carbon, we are carbon. Which brings me to the hope:

We don’t have to invent anything. Over the past thirty years, all manner of new ideas and methods that put carbon back into the soil and reduce carbon footprints have been field-tested and proven to be practical and profitable. We already know how to graze livestock sustainably, grow organic food, create a local food system, fix creeks, produce local renewable energy, improve water cycles, grow grass on bare soil, coexist with wildlife, and generally build resilience on the land and in our lives.

It’s mostly low-tech. It’s sunlight, green plants, animals, rocks, mud, shovels, hiking shoes, windmills, trees, compost, and creeks. Some of the work requires specialized knowledge, such as herding livestock or designing an erosion-control structure in a creek, and some of it has high-tech components, such as solar panels or wind turbines, but most of Soil, Grass, Hope can be easily navigated by anyone.

One morning, I sat down at my dining room table and drew a map of every joyous, sustainable, resilient, regenerative, land-healing, carbon-building, climate-mitigating activity I could pull from my decades-long experience in conservation and sustainable agriculture, putting them into a single landscape. I intentionally left out boundaries, including property lines, political divisions, and geographical separations. There was no distinction on my map between public and private land, or between wild country and non-wild. It was all one map, all carbon – all one vision in which wolves, cattle, bats, organic farmers, biologists, artists, foxes, fish, cities, and ranchers all worked together.

You’re on the map. Everyone is, whether you live in a city, go to school, graze cattle, enjoy wildlife, grow vegetables, hike, fish, count grasses, draw, make music, fix creeks, or eat food – you’re on the map. You live in Grass, Soil, Hope. We all do. It’s not a mythical land, it exists – I’ve been there. I can be your guide.


I came up with the idea of the map and a carbon ranch during the summer of 2009, inspired by a WorldWatch publication by Sarah Scherr and Sajal Sthapit titled Mitigating Climate Change through Food and Land Use. In an essay published in 2011, I spelled out six strategies to increase or maintain soil health and thus the carbon content of grass or shrub-dominated ecosystems of the American West. My subsequent travel and research for the book largely bore out my hunches. The six strategies were:

(1) Planned grazing systems. The carbon content of soil can be increased by three principal methods: the establishment of green plants on previously bare ground; deepening the roots of existing healthy plants; and the general improvement of nutrient, mineral, and water cycles in a given area. Planned grazing is key to all three. By controlling the timing, intensity, and frequency of animal impact on the land, the carbon rancher can improve plant density, diversity, and vigor. Specific actions include: the soil cap-breaking action of herbivore hooves, which promotes seed-to-soil contact and water infiltration; the ‘herd’ effect of concentrated animals, which can provide a positive form of perturbation to a landscape by turning plant litter back into the soil (an intensive version of this effect is sometimes called a ‘poop-and-stomp’); the stimulative effect of grazing on plants, followed by a long interval of rest (often a year), which causes roots to expand while removing old, oxidized forage; targeted grazing of noxious or invasive plants which promotes native species diversity and vigor; and the targeted application of animal waste, which provides important nutrients to plants and soil microbes.

 (2) Active restoration of riparian, riverine, and wetland areas. Many arroyos, creeks, rivers, and wetlands exist in a degraded condition, the result of historical overuse by humans, livestock and industry. The consequence has been widespread soil erosion, loss of riparian vegetation, disruption of hydrological cycles, decline of water storage capacity in stream banks, loss of wetlands and many other examples of land ‘sickness.’ The restoration of these areas to health, especially efforts that contribute to soil retention and formation, such as the reestablishment of humus-rich wetlands, will result in additional storage of atmospheric CO2 in soils. The ‘toolbox’ for the restoration of these areas is now well-developed, practical and could be implemented at scale if desired. There are many co-benefits of restoring riparian areas and wetlands to health, including improved habitat for wildlife, increased forage for herbivores, improved water quality and quantity for downstream users, and a reduction in erosion and sediment transport.

(3) Removal of woody vegetation. Many meadows, valleys, and rangelands have witnessed a dramatic invasion of woody species, such as pinon and juniper trees, over the past century, mostly as a consequence of the suppression of natural fire and overgrazing by livestock (which removes the grass needed to carry a fire). The elimination of over-abundant trees by agencies and landowners, via prescribed fire or other means, has been the focus of much restoration activity in the Southwest recently. The general goal of this work is to encourage grass species to grow in place of trees, thus improving the carbon-storing capacity of the soil. Not only can soils store more CO2 than trees, they also have the advantage of relative permanence. Trees can burn up, be cut down, die of disease or old age, all of which can ultimately release stored CO2 back into the atmosphere.

(4) The conservation of open space. The loss of forest, range, or agricultural land to subdivision or other types of development can dramatically reduce or eliminate the land’s ability to pull CO2 out of the atmosphere via green plants. Fortunately, there are multiple strategies that conserve open space today, including public parks, private purchase, conservation easements, tax incentives, zoning, and economic diversification that helps to keep a farm or ranch in operation. Perhaps most importantly, the protection of the planet’s forests and peatlands from destruction is crucial to an overall climate change mitigation effort. Not only are forests and peatlands important sinks for CO2, their destruction releases large amounts of stored carbon back into the atmosphere.

 (5) The implementation of no-till farming practices. Plowing exposes stored soil carbon to the elements, including the erosive power of wind and rain, which can quickly cause it dissipate back into the atmosphere as CO2. No-till farming practices, especially organic ones (no pesticides or herbicides), not only protect soil carbon and reduce erosion, they often improve soil structure by promoting the creation of humus. Additionally, farming practices that leave plants in the ground year-round both protect stored soil carbon and promote increased storage via photosynthesis. An important co-benefit of organic no-till practices is the production of healthy food.

(6) Building long-term resilience. Managing land for long-term carbon sequestration in vegetation and soils requires building resilience, which refers to the capacity of land, or people, to ‘bend’ with significant or unexpected changes without ‘breaking.’ The idea includes the economic resilience of the landowners, managers, and community members. For example, cooperation among disparate individuals or groups, such as biologists, conservationists, ranchers, and policy-makers, with the goal of improving land health, can help to build ecological and economic resilience within a watershed. This can have two important effects: direct storage of CO2 in the soil, as humus is created, and the strengthening of relationships required for the maintenance of healthy soil over time.

It all went into the map. Here’s what we produced:



The Radical Center

Recent events in Washington, D.C., reminded me of an anguished question that I’ve had on my mind since 1997: if ranchers and environmentalists can get along, why can’t Democrats and Republicans?

That was the year I co-founded the Quivira Coalition, a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating a common ground where ranchers, conservationists, scientists and others could meet to explore their shared interests rather than argue their differences. By doing so, we became part of the “the radical center,” a term coined by rancher Bill McDonald in southern Arizona to describe an emerging consensus-based approach to land management challenges in the West.

At the time, the conflict between ranchers and environmentalists had reached a fever pitch, with federal agencies and others caught in crossfire. It was an example of how the West had balkanized into ideological fiefdoms by the mid-1990s. One important consequence of the trench warfare was gridlock where it hurt the most – on the ground. Very little progress was being made on necessary projects, such as lighting prescribed fires, improving the chances of endangered species on private land, or helping ranchers fend off the predatory interests of real estate developers. Instead, it became a war of attrition, with the only real winners being those who had no interest in the long-term environmental or social health of the region.

The radical center was a deliberate push-back against this destructive process of balkanization. It was “radical” (whose dictionary definition means “root”) because it challenged various orthodoxies at work at the time, including the conventional belief that conservation and ranching were part of a ‘zero sum’ game where one could only advance as far as the other retreated. There were plenty of examples to the contrary, as Bill McDonald and the collaborative group he helped to co-found, the Malpai Borderlands Group, demonstrated. Success, however, also meant working in the “center” – which refers to the pragmatic, middle-ground between extremes. It meant partnerships, respect, and trust. But most of all, the “center” meant action – a plan signed, a prescribed fire lit, a workshop held, a hand shook. Words were nice, but working in the radical center meant walking the talk.

In 1997, two Sierra Club activists – myself and Barbara Johnson – and rancher Jim Winder decided to put the radical center to a test in New Mexico. Jim had an idea: start a nonprofit organization that would step outside the continuum of brawling between ranchers and environmentalists and create a ‘third way’ that emphasized progressive cattle and land management practices. We called it the ‘New Ranch’ and invited any rancher, conservationist, agency person, scientist or member of the public who was interested in “sharing common-sense solutions to the rangeland conflict” to join us. We took a public vow of no legislation and no litigation. We promised ourselves to not waste any energy trying to pry open closed minds. We focused instead on those who literally wanted to start over at the grass and the roots.

Quivira was different from other radical centrist groups at the time principally because we weren’t confined to a watershed or a bounded region. We went wherever we could find ‘eager learners’ willing to try new ideas, embarking on a lengthy series of workshops, tours, outdoor classrooms, conferences, clinics, and public speaking engagements around the Southwest.

In the process, we helped to define what the radical center in the so-called ‘grazing debate’ actually meant, culminating in an “Invitation to Join the Radical Center” signed by ranchers, conservationists, and others in 2003 that we hoped would signal the end of conflict and the beginning of a era of peace.

Here’s an excerpt and a list of its radical centrist conditions:

“We therefore reject the acrimony of past decades that has dominated debate over livestock grazing on public lands, for it has yielded little but hard feelings among people who are united by their common love of land and who should be natural allies. We pledge our efforts to form the `Radical Center’ where:

  • “The ranching community accepts and aspires to a progressively higher standard of environmental performance;
  • “The environmental community resolves to work constructively with the people who occupy and use the lands it would protect;
  • “The personnel of federal and state land management agencies focus not on the defense of procedure but on the production of tangible results;
  • “The research community strives to make their work more relevant to broader constituencies;
  • “The land grant colleges return to their original charters, conducting and disseminating information in ways that benefit local landscapes and the communities that depend on them;
  • “The consumer buys food that strengthens the bond between their own health and the health of the land;
  • “The public recognizes and rewards those who maintain and improve the health of all land; and
  • “All participants learn better how to share both authority and responsibility.”

Here’s a photo of an early radical center workshop we hosted:File0006

Fast forward to today. Were we successful? Did the radical center hold? Yes, mostly. Indisputably, attitudes toward ranchers and livestock production among a cross-section of the American public, including lawmakers, opinion leaders, newspaper letter-writers and many conservationists, have shifted substantially toward the positive. As a result, the so-called ‘grazing wars’ have largely faded from view, though there is still some shouting going on in places. More importantly, portions of the radical center list above have been successfully enacted to one degree or another. Especially encouraging has been the explosion of watershed-based collaboratives across the West. Collaborative conservation, once an outlier itself, has now become mainstream – to the point of institutionalization by universities, national NGOs, and agencies.

There are other examples of the radical center in action, even in the policy arena, as groups continue their quest for common ground. While the region’s former tribalism has not faded away, it is clear that ranchers and environmentalists can get along when they have larger, common goals in sight. So why can’t Democrats and Republicans? Could there be a political equivalent of our grassroots-focused radical center idea? Could there be progress in statehouses and in Washington, D.C, in the way there’s been productive collaboration in watersheds across the West?

It’s a question I get asked a lot – and I wish I had a good answer. In my experience, the radical center works because it is studiously non-political. We focus on soil, grass and water, literally the common ground below our feet. In the case of the Quivira Coalition, we took a vow to do no litigation or legislation. We also avoided “nuclear” social and natural resource management issues, such as the Mexican wolf and oil-and-gas development. This allowed us to stay neutral politically which we saw as critical to our success as a collaborative conservation organization, as well to the radical center idea in general. Trust needed to be restored after decades of bad blood between ranchers and environmentalists and the quickest way to do that was to focus on soil, grass, and water – the grassroots beneath our feet.

Democrats and Republicans, of course, can’t avoid politics, legislation or litigation. Picking fights and aiming to win elections by defeating the other party are essential elements to any political system and it’s foolish to think they can be minimized to any significant degree. Does that mean there can’t be collaboration, however? Could there be some political equivalent to soil, grass and water in which Democrats and Republicans could come together and agree? In theory, yes. Out West, land restoration and wildlife management are two arenas involving politics and policy where a great deal of common ground has been created in recent years. Locally-sourced food has been another positive contact point, especially between urban and rural residents.

What about guns, however, or abortion or taxes or poverty programs or national defense? Is there a radical center here? Yes, I think. Gay marriage was once a hugely divisive issue in this nation, with little hope of common ground – and now look the progress that has been made! A type of radical center seems to have prevailed with this formerly contentious topic. Could it happen with other topics? I think so – but I’m out of my field of expertise on this. All I can say is that some sort of radical center needs to happen politically in this great nation, and soon, if we’re going to solve any of the mounting, pressing problems we face. The cynic in me thinks it’s impossible given the rivers of bad blood that now exist between Democrats and Republicans, but the optimist in me recalls how bad things looked in the mid-1990s for any kind of détente between ranchers and environmentalists.

So, I’ll keep my fingers crossed.

Here’s a start, I hope:


Why Grassfed Is Best

I was surprised and somewhat disappointed to learn that Al Gore has gone vegan. I don’t begrudge his right to do so, of course, and I don’t know his specific reason for the switch, though the article I read suggested it was a variation on the “red meat is bad for the planet” argument that ones hears all the time. This was disappointing because there is an alternate take on the meat question that too often gets lost in the news. It’s called grassfed beef. Here’s a profile I wrote recently as part of my 2% Solutions series:

“Eat less red meat” is the most frequent response I hear at conferences when a distraught member of the audience asks a presenter “What’s the one thing I can do for the planet?” What the presenter should have said is “Eat less feedlot meat.” A lot less, in fact.

Actually, the correct answer is “Eat grassfed meat.” It’s the only type of meat to eat – for our health, for the welfare of livestock and for the well-being of the planet.

That’s what Joe Morris has been doing since 1991, when he became one of the first ranchers in California to offer grassfed beef to customers, predating the recent boom in grassfed production by a dozen years. Born and raised in San Francisco, Joe was inspired to give ranching a go by his grandfather, who owned and ran a ranch near San Juan Bautista, south of San Jose. Equally inspired by the writings of Wendell Berry, Joe decided to reject the industrial model of livestock production for a type of agriculture that worked with nature’s principles. When he discovered the holistic grazing practices pioneered by Allan Savory, everything fell into place.

Producing grassfed beef was an easy choice for Joe because it squared with his values. By definition, grassfed means an animal has spent its entire life on grass or other green plants, from birth to death. This contrasts with the feedlot model in which an animal finishes its life in confinement, fattened on grain and assorted agricultural byproducts and pumped full of medication and other chemicals.

For Joe, grassfed was best initially because he knew that (1) cattle were designed by nature to eat grass, not grain, and had merely been doing so for millions of years, and (2) humans were designed by nature to eat grassfed meat, not grain-fed animals, and had merely been doing so millions of years. If nature knew best, then why raise livestock unnaturally?

However, when Joe and his wife Julie founded Morris Grassfed Beef in 1991, a big question on their minds was this: would they have any customers? The answer, as it turned out, was “Yes” – because people wanted a local source of humanely raised beef produced by a good steward of the land. Grassfed fit the bill.

Then came the science. Thanks to a lot of digging in the scientific literature by Jo Robinson, an independent researcher, the health benefits of grassfed over feedlot meat became widely known. They include:

  • More omega-3 fatty acids (“good” fats) and fewer omega-6 (“bad” fats).
  • Lower in the saturated fats linked with heart disease.
  • Much higher in conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a cancer fighter.
  • Much more Vitamin A.
  • Much more vitamin E.
  • Higher in beta-carotene.
  • Higher in the B-vitamins thiamin and riboflavin.
  • Higher in calcium, magnesium and potassium.
  • Enhanced immunity, increased bone density, and suppression of cancer cells.
  • Does not contain traces of added hormones, antibiotics or other drugs.

As Jo Robinson likes to say “If it’s in their feed, it’s in our food” – which means it’s in us. This is an important reason why grassfed is best. As for eating less meat, Jo said recently, “I’m not one of those who think that eating less meat is good. I think eating less of the wrong kind of meat is very good and very important. I think we can have up to 40% of our calories from meat, and that’s fine as long as it’s healthy meat.”

For more Jo, visit her web site:

In 2002, the case for grassfed expanded again when The New York Times Magazine published Michael Pollan’s expose on the sins of our industrial food system in an article titled “Power Steer.” By following a steer (“#534”) from a ranch to the feedlot to slaughter, Pollan discovered a disturbing list of industrial troubles, including:

  • Animal confinement, stress and abuse.
  • Air, land and water pollution.
  • The deleterious use of hormones, antibiotics and other drugs.
  • Low-paid, stressful feedlot work.
  • Food with less nutritional value.
  • The invisible costs – antibiotic resistance, environmental degradation, heart disease, E. coli poisoning, corn subsidies, imported oil and so on.

The only big advantage of feedlot beef, said Pollan, is that it’s “remarkably cheap.” While that makes economic sense – sort of – it makes no ecological sense. Pollan voted for grassfed beef. He concluded “Eating a steak at the end of a short, primordial food chain comprising nothing more than ruminants and grass and light is something I’m happy to do and defend.”

In the past few years, another important advantage of grassfed has emerged: it has a smaller carbon footprint. By some estimates, meat from grassfed animals requires only one calorie of fossil fuel to produce two calories of food. In contrast, feedlot beef requires five to ten calories of fossil fuel for every calorie of food produced. The big differences include the fertilizer used to grow the corn feed and the amount of transportation involved in placing feedlot beef in supermarkets across the nation.

The carbon footprint advantage has been challenged by some experts, however, who claim that methane emissions are higher with grassfed livestock, and the overall impacts on land health and water quality (due to overgrazing) are fewer with feedlots.

Disagreeing with these experts, a report by The Union for Concerned Scientists (UCS) claimed that the overall greenhouse gas impact of grassfed is positive. Well-maintained pastures and careful management of grazing animals can draw greenhouse gasses out of the air and store them in the soil, where they fuel plant growth. Feedlots have no living plants, the UCS noted, just bare dirt and manure. Instead of absorbing greenhouse gasses, as healthy grasslands do, they emit them.

It’s a point that Joe Morris has been making lately with his customers. He also points out that conscientious stewardship has additional benefits:

  • Well-managed pasture absorbs far more rain water than most other land uses.
  • Well-managed grazing lands provide much needed habit for wildlife and more abundant water for wildlife.
  • Grazing lands are among our most picturesque landscapes.
  • Holistic management encourages deep-rooted perennial plants which improves nutrient and carbon cycling.

For those who ask “What’s the one thing I can do for the planet?” the answer is clear: if you eat meat, grassfed is best.

For more about Morris Grassfed Beef see:

Here is a picture of grassfed cattle (compare to below):Buelingos-grazing

One of the main criticisms of eating meat is that all cattle, grassfed or not, produce methane, a potent greenhouse gas, as part of their digestive process (called eutrophic emissions), mostly by belching. Lots of cattle, say critics, equal a lot of methane. Reduce the number of livestock, they continue and the global warming situation improves. They’re not necessarily wrong, but here are some important points to keep in mind when singling out cattle as a significant “cause” of global warming:

  • When we dig up fossil fuels, including methane (as natural gas), and burn them we are adding carbon pollution to the atmosphere that hasn’t been there for 300 million years. It’s like turning on an extra tap when filling your bathtub. When we exhale carbon dioxide or belch methane or eat grassfed beef we are in essence recycling carbon that already exists in the system. It is the additional carbon created by fossil fuels that is the main problem today, not cow belches.
  • The largest single source of methane worldwide is wetlands (22%), followed by coal, oil and natural gas production (19%), livestock (16%), rice cultivation (12%), with burning, landfill, sewage, manure and releases from the ocean making up the remaining 31%. We’re not going to backfill wetlands, of course, to stop them from producing methane, but is anyone seriously suggesting that we halt rice production? Should we try to bully the Chinese into eating less rice?
  • Methane is also produced by rainforests, whales, termites, bison, reindeer, camels, giraffes and many other animals, and has most of it has been in circulation in the atmosphere for millions of years.
  • The methane we should really be worried about is the type found in frozen beds of methane hydrates, located below permafrost layers and shallow seabeds, which when melted will release very significant amounts of the potent greenhouse gas into the atmosphere.
  • The main problem with industrial agriculture is that it is drenched in fossil fuels.

Author Michael Pollan put this last point this way: “We transformed a system that in 1940 produced 2.3 calories of food energy for every calorie of fossil-fuel energy it used into one that now takes 10 calories of fossil-fuel energy to produce a single calorie of modern supermarket food. Put another way, when we eat from the industrial food system, we are eating oil and spewing greenhouse gases.”

The answer, Pollan says, is to “resolarize” the American economy – which means weaning Americans off their heavy 20th-century diet of fossil fuel and put them back on a diet of contemporary sunshine. “If any part of the modern economy can be freed from its dependence on oil and successfully resolarized,” Pollan writes, “surely it is food.”

It’s another reason why grassfed is best. Here’s one more:


Feeding The World

Regenerative practices can feed the world, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Here are two examples of food production intensified sustainably – and intensification will be the key to feeding a growing global population.

The first example is a rancher named Sam Montoya who ran 220 head of cattle on 93 acres of land profitably and sustainably for years.

When I first visited Sam on his tiny farm, located on Sandia Pueblo, a Native American reservation located a few miles north of Albuquerque, New Mexico, I was astonished – 220 cattle on only 93 acres of land?! In the arid Southwest, that many cattle typically need 10,000 acres or more to be managed properly. The difference is water – Sam’s little farm was irrigated, but that only makes his story even more intriguing.

Most irrigated land in the West produces hay or alfalfa for animals, not food for people, and those farms that run cattle instead do so at a stocking rate of about one cow per acre. Sam’s stocking rate was more than twice that, which means Sam produced twice as much food per acre on irrigated ground than could accomplished by conventional management. And his method often resulted in more grass on his little farm than his cows could eat!

This is important because the human population of the planet is on course to grow from 7 billion to 9 billion by 2050, raising a critical question: how are we going to feed an extra two billion people without destroying what’s left of the natural world, especially under the stress of climate change?

It’s not about poor people either. The food well-fed Americans eat comes from a global production system that is already struggling to find enough arable land, adequate supplies of water and drought-tolerant plants and animals to feed seven billion people today. Add two billion more and you have a recipe for a devastating raid on the natural world. Where is all this extra food and water going to come from, especially if the climate gets hotter and drier in many places as predicted?

Industry has an answer: more of the same. More chemicals, fertilizers, GMOs, monocropping and heavy fossil fuel use. A second ‘Green Revolution’ is required, they say, even though the consequences of the first one are now haunting us.

Sam Montoya’s little farm provided a completely different answer: regeneratively intensify food production on the same amount of acreage.

How did Sam double the stocking rate while growing more grass? Here’s how: After retiring from a career with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Sam decided that he wanted to return to his agricultural roots. Upon receiving permission from the tribe to rehabilitate 93 depleted acres of a former sod farm, located a short distance from the Rio Grande, Sam laser-leveled the land, built a central watering source, planted a variety of grasses, and then divided the ground into 33 paddocks – three acres each – with electric fencing. When the last dairy in the area shut down, due to subdivision pressures, Sam scored an economical supply of manure for fertilizer. Then he turned the water on. When the grass grew lush, he turned the cattle out.

The animals grazed as a single herd in one paddock for only one day. When the 24-hour period was up, Sam walked over from his house in the nearby pueblo, lowered a gate in the electric fence, watched the cattle walk into the adjacent paddock, secured the fence when the move was complete, and went home. The entire process took less than half-an-hour, meeting Sam’s requirement that he “not work too hard” in his retirement, as he explained to me.

The rotation of the herd through the entire sequence of paddocks took a little more than a month. By carefully managing the irrigation water, Sam assured that the grass was ready for another harvesting by the time the herd came back to a particular paddock. And he repeated this cycle all year round, even through the winter.

“I’m trying to mimic what the bison did,” Sam told me. “They kept moving all the time. You, me, the land – everything needs a break. But you shouldn’t sit on the sofa all week. Too much rest is as bad as too much work. It’s all about balance.”

Pursuing that balance, Sam didn’t use pesticides, herbicides or other chemicals. Eventually he stopped adding manure as well. He recycled everything and wasted nothing. Better yet, other than the delivering and hauling away of the cattle, Sam’s operation required NO fossil-fuel dependent machinery either – a fact that pleased the economically-minder farmer.

“I don’t want anything that rusts, rots or depreciates,” said Sam, grinning. “Plus, I feel good that I’m not polluting the air.”

That included not emitting greenhouse gases (other than cow belches). He was also sequestrating CO2 in the soil as well – by building new soil on farm land that had been stripped of it. It all meshed together because his operation worked on the original solar power: photosynthesis. In fact, Sam called himself a “grass farmer” – which meant he considered grass to be his principle product, not beef. The cattle were his “lawn mowers,” as he put it.

Perhaps as importantly, Sam made money. Profits from the sale of cattle – Sam was a studious observer of business cycles in the livestock industry – allowed him to quickly pay back the loan he took out to get the farm started. In only a few years, he operated in the black, due to his very low costs. Eventually, he switched from running his own cattle to custom-grazing cattle from other pueblos for a fee.

The only serious challenge he had was staying ahead of all the grass he grew – not that the large flock of Canadian geese I saw in his field were complaining! In fact, he grew so much grass that at one point Sam considered adding more cattle to his herd, which would have raised his stocking rate even higher.

“It works pretty well,” Sam said the last time I visited. “It’s been pretty good to me. And I know it’s been good for the land.”

And good for us.

Although Sam is retired now from his farm, what he accomplished on his 93 acres. With two billion more people to feed in only two more decades, Sam’s lesson is an option was certainly should heed.

Here’s a picture of Sam that I took:

Copy of IMG_2950

Another practice that can feed the world is pasture cropping, which I learned about while visiting Colin Seis on his farm in New South Wales, Australia, a few years ago. I quickly learned that pasture cropping has the potential to feed a lot of people regeneratively – meaning it can replete, rather than deplete, land and people.

Colin and his farm were living proof.

In 1979, after a wildfire burned the family sheep farm, Colin decided to rethink the way he had been practicing agriculture. His new goal was to rebuild the soil’s fertility after decades of practices had unwittingly depleted it. Colin decided first to take up holistic management, which is a way of managing animals on pasture that mimics the graze-and-go behavior of wild herbivores. But it is what Colin did next that really caught people’s attention.

After a discussion with a neighboring farmer, Colin decided to explore a radical idea: what if he no-till drilled an annual crop into his perennial grass pastures? Meaning, could he raise two products from one piece of land: a grain crop and an animal product? This was way, way out-of-the-box thinking. According to conventional agricultural practices, crops and grazing animals were supposed to be kept separate. But that’s because the traditional practice on cropland is plowing, which eliminates the grasses. But what if you no-till (no plow) drilled oat or wheat or corn seed directly into the pasture when the grasses were dormant? Would they grow?

Fast forward to the present and the answer is a resounding ‘yes!’ Pasture cropping works well and has spread across Australia to some 2000 farms. Today, Colin produces grain and wool – and, if he wanted, a harvest of native grass seed, which was an original food source for the Aboriginals of the area. It’s all carefully integrated and managed under Colin’s stewardship. Talk about win-win!

For a full description of pasture cropping:

Listening to Colin, I thought “What challenge could be bigger than feeding nine billion people?” Fortunately, pasture cropping is just one example of regenerative practices that build topsoil, increase yields, and conserve the natural environment. There are many others, involving soil, seeds, water, plants, livestock, trees, organics, and people as the stewards. Building topsoil, for instance, stores more water, grows healthier plants that can feed more people while sequestering carbon – which is good for nature too.

Is this all pie-in-the-sky stuff? Perhaps, but consider the alternative: more of what got us into trouble in the first place. With two billion more people to feed, clothe, house, warm, and slake thirsts, contemplating alternatives is crucial. Fortunately, answers exist – as Sam and Colin have demonstrated.

Here’s a picture of Colin in one of his pasture cropped field:

Copy of OZ 260

Farm Hack

Welcome to the virtual coffee shop for agrarians!

Pull up a laptop and join the conversation. Do you have a farming issue on your mind, or maybe a tool design that you’d like to share, a crop problem that needs to be solved, a beginner’s question that needs to be answered, or an intriguing idea that needs to be floated? If you do, Farm Hack is the place to go.

It’s not the Bellyache Café, however. Leave all complaints, rants and political opinions at the door.

This might be unusual for a web-based conversation site, to say the least, but there is a lot about Farm Hack that is unusual, as I found out last week when I  attended a Farm Hack ‘meet-up’ in Hotchkiss, on Colorado’s western slope. A small group of farmers, ranchers and conservationists met for a day to tackle the difficult topic of “Drought Resilience on a Small-scale Farm” against the backdrop of rising water scarcity in the West. If ever a subject needed a coffee-shop brainstorm, this was it.

The nonprofit Farm Hack ( bills itself as an “Open Source Community for a Resilient Agriculture.” It was born during a design workshop at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology involving engineers and young farmers and quickly evolved into an online platform to document, share and improve farm tools. If you are a young farmer in possession of an old tool, or a veteran farmer who seeks a new tool or someone who has invented a new practice or has a cool idea in mind, Farm Hack is the place to go. A quick peek at the web site, for example, reveals ‘how to’ information on the benefits of a small axial flow combine harvester (way cooler than it sounds), picking the right organic carrot seeds, implementing a web-connected irrigation system, trying a pedal-powered rootwasher, and using low-cost overhead balloon-mounted cameras for imaging a farm.

If that sounds more ‘tool shed’ than coffee shop, Farm Hack is also where young farmers – including the young-at-heart – can start a conversation with experienced agrarians, skirting the need to reinvent various wheels on the farm (unless your wheel is of an exotic design!). Case studies of successful operations will soon be available for farmers to peruse. In addition, the site serves as a platform to share the latest sustainable ag research and make connections with like-minded individuals and organizations.

And you don’t have to burn a gallon of diesel to get to this meeting place!

Farm Hack was incubated by the National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC), a nonprofit founded in upstate New York in 2010 by and for a new generation of farmers in the U.S. ( NYFC is composed of young farmers, established farmers, farm service providers, good food advocates, conservationists and conscious consumers. Its mission is to support 1) independent family farms; 2) sustainable farming practices; 3) affordable land for farmers; 4) fair labor practices; 5) farmer-to-farmer training; 6) farmers of every gender, race and sexual orientation; and 7) cooperation and friendship between all farmers (and ranchers).

Accomplishing this mission includes the open-source culture of the Internet – which is a big reason why Farm Hack is so unusual. The site is managed on the ‘wiki’ model, which means it can be freely edited by registered participants and a wide variety of content can be easily uploaded for all to see and share – all it takes to register is a user name and password! The site is dynamic, flexible and ever-evolving, much like the young farmer’s movement itself.

For new farmers, the site can be a godsend because of the pressure to quickly ‘get it right’ in the challenging times in which we live. Accumulating farming experience over twenty years, for example, might not cut it in a world rapidly changing economically and ecologically. “Building spreadsheets has become as important as picking the right crops or watching the weather,” is how one participant put it. Mentoring is one way to gain valuable knowledge, but so is access to the information and data on Farm Hack.

Two of the original founders of Farm Hack were Severine von Tscharner Fleming, a co-founder of NYFC, who coined the name, and Dorn Cox, a young farmer near Lee, New Hampshire. In a previous incarnation, Dorn worked in the high tech world where he became familiar with systems theory, managing complexity and open-source hardware and software.

The word “Hack” comes from the tech universe, Dorn told me, where it means “re-purposing” with the goal of taking control of one’s destiny. With “Farm Hack” the goal of the nearly one thousand registrants is to repurpose agriculture with farmer-to-farmer innovation sharing and problem-solving. It is also their goal to engage non-farmers in the conversation, including designers, engineers, policy advocates and anyone else interested in building a resilient food culture.

 “It’s a return to an earlier model when agricultural information was widely shared,” Dorn said, “rather than locked up in obscure journals or scientific articles as it is today. Just as the local coffee shop or diner serves as the hub for exchanging experiences, a virtual ‘coffee shop’ and field walk is needed to facilitate relevant experiences.”

Fortunately for us in Colorado, there was nothing virtual about the coffee!

Here’s a photo I took at a local farm near Hotchkiss:

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Just as crucial as the online community-building and information-sharing are their offline equivalents, called “meet-ups,” “hacks” or “hack-a-thons” (if longer than one day) which are face-to-face workshops. Farmers have always been “into” the latest gear, Dorn noted, including new-fangled plows, tractors and harvesters. This means laptops and smart phones are just the latest in a long line new technologies embraced by agrarians.

“We are focused on attracting into our community not only farmers but those with other relevant skill-sets,” Dorn said, “including engineers, roboticists, architects, fabricators, programmers, hackers. It is those that live to build and make things work that are the key allies to turn ideas into tools and then into finished products.”

There have been a dozen hacks around the country to date, including events in Vermont, Detroit, Minnesota, and New York City, on topics as diverse as how to grow small grains, utilize draft horses, fix a tool, and start a farming operation. Our job in Hotchkiss was to ponder the future of sustainable agriculture in face of hotter and drier conditions promised by climate change.

One controversial idea discussed involved “water banking” in which owners of senior water rights, many of whom are farmers, would forgo their water (but not their rights) temporarily to cities on the Front Range in exchange for financial compensation. There was also a great deal of technical talk about irrigated agriculture, fulfilling the ‘tool shed’ function of the hack.

It was a sobering discussion. Water scarcity is a daunting challenge in the already arid West, especially if urban centers get aggressive politically or economically. Nearly 80% of Colorado’s fresh water is consumed by agriculture today, much of it for water-intensive crops such as hay or alfalfa. The state’s agriculture sector may enjoy senior water rights now, but for how much longer? As the saying goes, water flows uphill toward money – and everyone knows where the money is.

Hint: it’s not in Hotchkiss!

Farm Hack can help by not only stimulating discussion but by also providing a platform for sharing innovative solutions. There’s certainly plenty to ponder whether in a virtual coffee shop or the real thing.

Here’s a photo of a cherry tree taken at the end of the workshop:

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