Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness

A 10th-generation rancher in New Mexico shows how to restore the environment, agriculture and ranching communities.

Excerpted by permission fromDeeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness, by Lisa Hamilton © 2009. Published byCounterpoint. 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.

Virgil's predecessor at Ghost Ranch instituted an HRM approach in 1986, and when Virgil took over, he continued the process. Under his direction the llano has been divided into permanently fenced pastures of 400 to 3,500 acres, each grazed for two weeks at a time. The benefits are huge, Virgil says, particularly the reduction of labor. Traditional ranchers use the "Columbus method," which means turning the cows out in fall and then riding out to the far corners of the range in spring to "discover" them again. Should they want to check on the herd or give them supplemental feed in hard weather, the search can be arduous. At Ghost Ranch, ranchers know where their cattle are every day.

That is not to say the program was a hit from the start. "We had our socks laughed off when we put up the first electric fences," Virgil told me.

"Who laughed at you?"

"Pretty much everybody. They were just used to seeing the cattle all over the place, because that's the way it's always been."

"Have they changed their tune?"

"Oh yeah, of course. Big time. Now, in two hours they see all their cows rather than spending the whole day looking for them. In a way it's actually a mixed blessing, because I really want guys to spend more time out there. But what do you do after two hours? You're just sitting there watching them graze."

In a way, Virgil applies HRM to the ranchers as well. Under his direction, the grazing program will not simply board people's cattle; anyone who has his cattle there is required to be an active part of the system. Every two weeks throughout the season, everyone must make the drive to Ghost Ranch, get on their horses, ride out on the range and help move the cattle to new ground, even in the bitter cold.

Once the group of 40 riders is out there, the process takes 20 minutes tops. The truth is that one person could do it alone with a truck and some hay, just honk and the cows would come running into the new pasture for the feed.

"Sometimes I feel guilty," Virgil says, "like I'm wasting their time, gas, energy. But if I do it for them, they'll never show up again. That's the thing I worry about. They'll become less and less in tune with what's happening out there."

He says he also fears that the next generation is not out on the land and therefore not learning how to do all this -- or learning to want to do it in the first place. To him it's tragic that kids don't have grandparents showing them the way forward as his did. So he has put in place programs at Ghost Ranch that mandate it. There have been times that if a stockman wanted to increase the number of cattle he grazed there, for every new cow he had to also provide one for his child.

Skeptics could write off Virgil's enthusiasm for getting people of all ages involved as self-serving: the stronger the overall ranching community, the more there will be businesses to serve it and buyers drawn in to patronize it, and the more he will succeed. Probably there is an element of self-interest at play, but it's undeniable that Virgil is also serving something larger. You can hear it in his voice.

Virgil gets worked up telling the story of one boy who would excitedly make lunch the night before the biweekly ride at Ghost Ranch then wake his groaning father at 5 o'clock in the morning to be sure they arrived with their horses by 8.

"It's just one or two kids like that, but that's exactly what I wanted," he told me. "Who knows? It may be one of them who ends up taking my job when I decide to move on."

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Lisa M. Hamilton is the author of two books: Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness, and Farming to Create Heaven on Earth. Her work has also been published in The Nation, Harper's, National Geographic Traveler, Orion and Gastronomica. Visit her Web site here.