Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness
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Excerpted by permission from Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness, by Lisa Hamilton © 2009. Published by Counterpoint. Available at bookstores everywhere.
Editor's Note: Hamilton's book explores the lives of several farmers across the U.S. who are bucking the industrial ag trend. Below is a look at the contributions of one rancher in Abiquiu, N.M.
It's the first Saturday in November, and Ghost Ranch is waking up from its summer sleep. That is, the rangeland at Ghost Ranch. The visitor center's busy season is June through August, but the tens of thousands of acres of open land have been vacant since May. Today, the cattle return.
In 1967, Ghost Ranch started a program that allowed local stockmen to graze their cattle on the llano for the winter at subsidized rates. The program was a boon for small producers in the region. Nearly everyone grazes their cows on Forest Service land during summer, but those who don't own irrigated land had always had to search for a place for their cattle between October and May. Ghost Ranch quickly became an integral part of their survival as cattlemen.
The program has had up to 55 ranchers at a time, but there are fewer people in the business now, especially since the drought. In the worst years, 2002 and 2003, the Forest Service mandated that they take their animals off the summer grazing allotments up to a month earlier than usual, the first in a chain of drought-related events that made it so nearly everyone in the area had to sell off animals. Some ranchers went out of business completely.
This winter there will be about 40 stockmen in the program, mostly with fewer than 15 animals. For the season, all of their cattle live as one herd of 600.
As rangeland manager at Ghost Ranch, Virgil runs the program. When he took the full-time job at Ghost Ranch, he agreed to a wage that was less than he would have liked, on the condition that they support his education about rangeland management. He wanted to administer the grazing program as best he could, as well as care for and even improve the rangeland.
Through seminars and workshops, he studied holistic resource management, a decision-making method that, when applied to ranching, refocuses attention on the entire system -- land, water, grass -- rather than just the cattle. One of the first steps is to see the ranching system as based on solar energy: the sun's energy grows plants, then cows harvest that energy and transform it into protein that is edible for humans. HRM ranchers still make their money by harvesting the cattle, but their strategy for success is to take care of the land that grows the plants.
The most basic application of HRM is a system of rotational grazing. It is meant to make cows replicate herds of heavy ruminants such as bison, whose symbiotic relationship with the flora was an integral part of grasslands ecosystems for millennia. The herds would concentrate in one area, eat its plants down to the ground, then move on and not return until the forage was sufficiently regrown. Had they returned sooner, they would have compromised the plants that they depended on for survival.
Cattle, on the other hand, if left in one big open space, eat only the best plants, trimming them repeatedly without regard for their recovery. To counter this, the HRM rancher divides the open range into fenced pastures and moves the animals through at intervals of a few days or weeks. With this orchestrated migration, a smaller area is grazed hard for a short period of time, then left to rest until the plants have grown back -- just like with the bison. HRM practitioners swear (and some research confirms) that the range ecosystem profits substantially, in some cases becoming healthier than if there were no cattle at all.