#10 The JX Ranch

Regeneration In Action

Welcome to Terra Firma by Courtney White. I’ve spent my life prospecting for innovative, practical, and collaborative answers to pressing problems involving land and people, sharing them with others. I’d like to share them with you!

Don’t miss the next issue, sign up here:

I’d like to take a moment and thank everyone for signing up for this newsletter. What began last November as a leap-of-faith (will anyone want to read this stuff?) with just a few subscribers has grown into a substantial project with many readers! That’s encouraging and I greatly appreciate your support.

News Item: Have you heard about the “farm-free food” movement? Its advocates say lab-made synthetic food must replace real food in order to fight climate change. Seriously! This crazy idea got a big boost recently from a prominent environmental columnist in England. Here’s a counter-argument by Twilight Greenaway this week in Civil Eats (see). It relates to my story below and I’ll be writing on this topic later.

In the two previous issues of Terra Firma, I discussed the concept of a carbon ranch, which can sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide in soils thanks to regenerative land management practices, as well as healthy soil legislative initiatives around the nation. Both are part of a hopeful regeneration movement taking place today centered on land, food, and people (see TF#1).

In this issue, I’d like to switch gears away from science, policy, and movements. I’d like to tell a story instead. In fact, I’ve come to believe that story-telling is the missing link in our collective efforts to meet rising challenges in the world. We have LOTS of data and best-management practices to work with (though we still need more) but what we lack are inspiring stories to communicate this information in effective ways.

In this issue, I’d like to share a story about ranchers Tom and Mimi Sidwell and their JX Ranch, who exemplify much of what I have been discussing in Terra Firma. It’s a tale I’ve told before, but I would like share it again here.

In 2004, cattle ranchers Tom and Mimi Sidwell bought the 7,000-acre JX Ranch, south of Tucumcari, New Mexico, and set about doing what they know best: earning a profit by restoring the land to health and stewarding it sustainably.

As with many ranches in the arid Southwest, the JX had been hard used over the decades. Poor land management had caused the grass cover to diminish in quantity and quality, exposing soil to the erosive effects of wind, rain, and sunlight which also eroded the carbon content of the soil significantly. Gullies had formed across the ranch, small at first, but growing larger with each thundershower, cutting down through the soft soil, biting into the land deeper, eating away at its vitality. Water tables fell correspondingly, starving plants and animals alike of precious nutrients, forage, and energy.

Profits fell too for the ranch’s previous owners. They had followed a time-honored business plan: stretch the land’s ecological capacity to the limit, add more cattle whenever possible, and pray for rain when dry times arrived, as they always did. The result was the same: a downward spiral as the ranch crossed ecological and economic thresholds. In the case of the JX, the water, nutrient, mineral, and energy cycles unraveled across the ranch causing the land to disassemble and eventually fall apart.

Enter the Sidwells. With thirty years of experience in progressive ranching, they saw the deteriorated condition of the JX not as a liability but as an opportunity. Tom began by dividing the entire ranch into sixteen pastures, up from the original five, using solar-powered electric fencing. After installing a water system to feed all sixteen pastures, he picked cattle that could do well in dry country, grouped them into one herd and set about rotating them through the pastures, never grazing a single pasture for more than 7-10 days in order to give the land plenty of recovery time.

Next, he began clearing out the juniper and mesquite trees on the ranch with a bulldozer, which allowed native grasses and forbs to come back. As grass returned, Tom lengthened the period of rest between pulses of cattle grazing in each pasture from 60 days to 105 days across the whole ranch. More rest meant more grass, which meant Tom could graze more cattle – to stimulate more grass production. In fact, Tom increased the overall livestock capacity of the JX by twenty-five percent in only six years, significantly improving the ranch’s bottom line.

Here’s a photo I took of Tom standing on the restored grasslands of the JX:

Another positive impact of their management was on the carbon cycle. By growing grass on previously bare soil, by extending plant roots deeper, and by increasing plant diversity and vitality – all as a result of good stewardship – the Sidwells sequestered more CO2 in the ranch’s soil than the previous owners had.

In other words, if bare, degraded, or unstable land can be restored to a healthy condition with properly functioning carbon, water, mineral, and nutrient cycles and covered in green plants with deep roots, then the quantity of CO2 that can be sequestered is potentially high.

There’s another benefit to carbon-rich soil: it improves water infiltration and storage due to its sponge-like quality. Research indicates that one part carbon-rich soil 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 which are the life-bloods of cities.

It’s also important to people who make their living off the land, as Tom and Mimi Sidwell can tell you. They were pleased to discover that a spring near their house had come back to life. For years, it had flowed at a miserly rate of ¼ gallon-per-minute, but after clearing out the juniper trees above the spring and managing the cattle for increased grass cover, the well began to pump 1.5 gallons a minute 24 hours a day!

In fact, the water cycle has improved all over the ranch, a consequence of water infiltrating down into the soil now because of the grass cover, rather than sheeting off erosively as it had before. This is good news for microbes, insects, grasses, shrubs, trees, birds, herbivores, carnivores, cattle, and people. Here’s Tom and Mimi:

In harmony with their land management goals, the Sidwells converted their beef business to an entirely grassfed, direct-marketed operation. Grassfed means the animals have spent their entire lives on grass – which is what nature intended for them. As an added-value food, grassfed meat can fetch a higher price than conventional meat – if customers are willing to pay for it, which in the Sidwells’ case they are. This extra profit has helped the Sidwells significantly.

What Tom and Mimi did on the JX is reassemble the carbon landscape. They reconnected soil, water, plants, sunlight, food and profit in a way that is both healing and sustainable. They did it by reviving the carbon cycle as a life-giving element on their ranch, and by returning to nature’s principles of herbivory, ecological disturbance, soil formation, microbial action, and good food. In the process, they improved the resilience of the land and their business for whatever shock or surprise the future may have in store.

Resources:

  • Here is an article by soil scientist Christine Jones (from the Quivira Journal) about soil, agriculture, and climate in Australia that is prescient given the tragic fires taking place on the continent right now: https://www.amazingcarbon.com/PDF/Jones-AdaptingFarming-Quivira%20(Feb10).pdf

  • Here’s a story about a carbon ranch in California: https://www.leonardodicaprio.org/farming-for-carbon-why-farmers-are-key-to-fighting-climate-change/

  • Here’s a newspaper story also from California: https://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/communities/north-county/sd-no-carbon-farming-20170512-story.html

Water-holding capacity of soils:

  • https://www.nrdc.org/experts/lara-bryant/organic-matter-can-improve-your-soils-water-holding-capacity

  • Here’s a brief discussion of soil carbon and its benefits from the USDA/NRCS: https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detailfull/soils/health/mgnt/?cid=nrcs142p2_053859

  • https://www.agriculture.com/crops/cover-crops/hold-water-in-the-soil

Video:

  • Tom Sidwell gave an hour-long presentation on his ranching practices, including how to survive a bad drought (as they did), at the 2013 Quivira Coalition conference (see).

  • Range scientist Richard Teague gave an hour presentation titled “A Scientific Perspective on Managing Grazing Ecosystems in a Warming World” at the 2015 Quivira conference (see).

  • Here is Allan Savory’s famous 22-minute TED talk on reversing desertification. If you haven’t seen it, definitely take a look (see).

  • A six-minute video by the NRCS on different grazing management practices and water infiltration rates in soil (see).

  • A 1-minute video of soil evangelist Ray Archuleta (formerly with the NRCS) of his famous slake test (see).

Web Sites:

  • JX Ranch: https://leannaturalbeef.com/

  • Savory Institute: https://www.savory.global/

  • Holistic Management International: https://holisticmanagement.org/

  • USDA / NRCS soil health site: https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/national/soils/health/

COURTNEY’S CORNER

~ The original story I wrote about the JX Ranch was published in Acres magazine (2011) and focused on the delivery of ecosystems services, described in detail: http://jcourtneywhite.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/Walking_the_Talk.pdf

~ Latest book: Fibershed: Growing a Movement of Farmers, Fashion Activists, and Makers for a New Textile Economy by Rebecca Burgess and yours truly, 2019, https://www.chelseagreen.com/product/fibershed/

~ Here’s my pick for the Terra Firma photo of the week - Herding in the French Alps (courtesy of Michel Meuret):

Thank you for reading this issue of my newsletter. It is published every Thursday morning – for free! Please consider sharing it with a friend or two or three:

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About me: For twenty years I worked to create a radical center among ranchers, conservationists, agencies and others focused on western working landscapes. Today, I am a full-time writer. My nonfiction books include Forewords by Wendell Berry and Michael Pollan. For more information or to contact me visit: www.jcourtneywhite.com

I am also the author of a MYSTERY novel called The Sun. It is a modern-day story set on a working cattle ranch in northern New Mexico (see). To purchase a copy go here. Here’s an endorsement from Anne Hillerman, New York Times best-selling author of the Leaphorn/Chee/Manuelito mysteries:

“In this far-ranging debut novel, Courtney White creates a story worthy of his deep and detailed knowledge of the American West today. Nicely done!”

Share Terra Firma by Courtney White

Terra Firma means ‘solid earth’ or ‘firm ground’ in contrast to air or water. Historically, it was first used by the Republic of Venice to describe its holdings on the Italian mainland.

#9 Soil Health Hits the Big Time

Putting Practice Into Policy

Welcome to Terra Firma by Courtney White. I’ve spent my life prospecting for innovative, practical, and collaborative answers to pressing problems involving land and people, sharing them with others. I’d like to share them with you!

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News Item: Here’s a December 31st article from Outside magazine about regenerative agriculture hitting the mainstream. A quote: “Whole Foods says it’s the number-one food trend of next year. Patagonia has made it a centerpiece of its activism and will be rolling out products made using the practice early next year. General Mills announced that it will employ regenerative agriculture on one million acres.” (see) Here is the link to Whole Foods’ predictions for 2020: (see)

In the previous issue of Terra Firma, I discussed an ‘out there’ idea I had in 2010 called a ‘carbon ranch’ which was inspired by the work of the Marin Carbon Project in California. It built on the idea that carbon is the essential element in our lives (TF#5) and when coupled with progressive land management practices, such as no-till farming (TF#2) it could have a huge impact on the world.

In this issue, I’d like to review legislation passed recently involving healthy soils – policy prospects that would have been impossible even six years ago. It’s another important sign that soil carbon and regeneration have shifted from the edge to the mainstream and became a movement. Hopeful news indeed!

It began at the pivotal UN climate summit in Paris in 2015 (COP21), which I had the honor of attending on the behalf of the Quivira Coalition and Regeneration International as an observer. As you will recall, in an effort to slow climate change delegates from 197 nations negotiated and then signed a landmark Agreement committing their governments to reductions in greenhouse gas emissions starting in 2020 (alas, recent events have undercut the Agreement’s prospects).

This was big news at the time, but there was another important development that did not make headlines. It occurred on December 1st when the French government launched a plan to improve food security and fight climate change with soil carbon called the ‘4 For 1000 Initiative’ – a number that refers to a targeted annual growth rate of soil carbon stocks. “Supported by solid scientific documentation, this initiative invites all partners to state or implement some practical actions on soil carbon storage and the type of practices to achieve this.” (see)

These practices include the use of cover crops, perennial plants, no-till farming, and livestock grazing patterns that mimic nature. If managed properly, these nature-based practices not only increase soil carbon levels they can dramatically reduce the amount of greenhouse gases produced by agriculture.

These practices can also increase ecological and economic resilience to climate change. In an op-ed published three days after the French announcement, author Michael Pollan and Deborah Barker, of the Center for Food Safety, wrote “Regenerative farming would also increase the fertility of the land, making it more productive and better able to absorb and hold water, a critical function especially in times of climate-related floods and droughts. Carbon-rich fields require less synthetic nitrogen fertilizer and generate more productive crops, cutting farmer expenses.” (see)

Best of all, regenerative agriculture was acknowledged as a shovel-ready solution to climate change. That’s a big reason why over one hundred nations, NGOs, and agricultural organizations signed onto the original ‘4 For 1000 Initiative’. “[It] has become a global initiative,” said French Agriculture Minister Stéphane Le Foll. “We need to mobilize even more stakeholders in a transition to achieve both food security and climate mitigation thanks to agriculture.”

The soil health movement was afoot! Here’s a photo I took of the Eiffel Tower hours after the climate Agreement was signed on December 12, 2015:

Since Paris, a number of legislative bills have been passed and signed into law around the nation giving momentum to the movement.

One of the first was California’s Senate Bill 859, signed into law by Governor Brown in 2016, which built on a greenhouse gas reduction law passed a decade earlier. It established a Healthy Soils Program within the Department of Food and Agriculture and defined health as “soils that enhance their continuing capacity to function as a biological system, increase soil organic matter, improve soil structure and water-and nutrient-holding capacity, and result in net long-term greenhouse gas benefits.”

Here’s the actual language from the bill, which set a precedent for other efforts:

Section 569. (a) (1) “The program shall seek to optimize climate benefits while supporting the economic viability of California agriculture by providing incentives, including, but not limited to, loans, grants, research, and technical assistance, and educational materials and outreach, to farmers whose management practices contribute to healthy soils and result in net long-term on-farm greenhouse gas benefits. The program may also include the funding of on-farm demonstration projects that further the goals of the program.” (see)

This text is important because it formalized in legislation (ie made mainstream) the roles of soil carbon and regenerative agriculture in fighting climate change and improving food security. In other words, what had been a far-out idea in 2010 was official state policy now – only six years later! It happened thanks to the dedicated effort of many people, including critical advocacy work by the California Climate & Agriculture Network (CalCAN), an inspiring nonprofit organization.

In 2019, the California the Department of Food and Agriculture selected 217 projects across the state for grant awards under the Healthy Soils Program, totaling $12.48 million dollars divided between direct incentives to farmers and ranchers and demonstration projects (see). Very cool!

Here is a photo of healthy soil from CalCAN’s Twitter account:

There have been a number of soil initiatives passed by legislatures around the country since 2016, including ones in Hawaii, Maryland, Washington, Illinois, Connecticut, Nebraska, Iowa, New York, Vermont, and Massachusetts (for a full list see Resources below). Not all of these bills address climate change or embrace the full suite of regenerative practices but they are significant in that they promote the benefits of healthy, carbon-rich soils – a huge departure from the traditional support for industrial agricultural practices.

In 2019, New Mexico (where I live) joined the wave with the passage and signing of the Healthy Soil Act, creating a program within the Dept. of Agriculture “to promote and support farming and ranching systems and other forms of land management that increase soil organic matter, aggregate stability, microbiology and water retention to improve the health, yield and profitability of the soils of the state.” The grant process is underway and the first awards will be made before the end of June!

Hopefully, more states (and eventually Congress) will join this exciting wave of initiatives that encourage soil health - on which all life on earth depends.

That’s what Terra Firma is all about: looking at the world in a positive way, grounded in nature, experience, facts, and hope.

Resources:

These articles summarize state-by-state healthy soils initiatives (most recent first):

Video:

  • A three-minute video on the 4 for 1000 Initiative from a global perspective. (see)

  • A one-minute video on California’s Healthy Soils Initiative featuring Karen Ross, CA Secretary of Food & Agriculture in 2017. (see)

  • A eleven-minute video via the Soil Health Institute/Tufts University surveying state programs in 2018. (see)

Organizations:

COURTNEY’S CORNER

~ Through on-the-ground experience over many years, I have come to believe there are five principle areas where effective, low-cost, nature-based answers to pressing challenges can be found, forming a basis for policy work. They are listed on my web site under the title Action: (see)

~ Latest book: Fibershed: Growing a Movement of Farmers, Fashion Activists, and Makers for a New Textile Economy by Rebecca Burgess and yours truly, 2019, https://www.chelseagreen.com/product/fibershed/

~ Here’s my pick for the Terra Firma photo of the week (credit unknown):

Thank you for reading this issue of my newsletter. It is published every Thursday morning – for free! Please consider sharing it with a friend or two or three:

Share

About me: For twenty years I worked to create a radical center among ranchers, conservationists, agencies and others focused on western working landscapes. Today, I am a full-time writer. My nonfiction books include Forewords by Wendell Berry and Michael Pollan. For more information or to contact me visit: www.jcourtneywhite.com

I am also the author of a MYSTERY novel called The Sun. It is a modern-day story set on a working cattle ranch in northern New Mexico (see). To purchase a copy go here. Here’s an endorsement from Anne Hillerman, New York Times best-selling author of the Leaphorn/Chee/Manuelito mysteries:

“In this far-ranging debut novel, Courtney White creates a story worthy of his deep and detailed knowledge of the American West today. Nicely done!”

Share Terra Firma by Courtney White

Terra Firma means ‘solid earth’ or ‘firm ground’ in contrast to air or water. Historically, it was first used by the Republic of Venice to describe its holdings on the Italian mainland.

#8 The Carbon Ranch

A Crazy Idea At The Time

Welcome to Terra Firma by Courtney White. I’ve spent my life prospecting for innovative, practical, and collaborative answers to pressing problems involving land and people, sharing them with others. I’d like to share them with you!

Don’t miss the next issue, sign up here:

I hope your holidays were great! I’ve resolved to make 2020 the year of regeneration. I’ve had a very good response to Terra Firma which tells me there is a need for regenerative stories and news about land and people. I’d love to reach more readers. If you know of anyone or any group who would like to subscribe to the newsletter send them an email note (click on box). Thanks!

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News Item: Here’s an end-of-the-year story (with lots of links) from The Weather Channel about how the terrible weather in 2019 has many farmers and policy-makers pondering regenerative practices, policy changes, and carbon markets. It follows up on other news items I’ve posted, underscoring how fast times are changing (see).

In the previous issues of Terra Firma, I have argued for regenerative agriculture, overturning entrenched beliefs, and working in the radical center (TF#4), with a special emphasis on the essential role carbon plays (#5). I also discussed how all these different pieces come together in a very hopeful model called a fibershed (#6).

In this issue, I’d like to back up to 2010 and revisit a crazy idea of mine called a carbon ranch. It was part of an effort by a small group of scientists, authors, and activists who had begun to advocate for the sequestration of carbon in soils as a way of slowing climate change, an idea that was a total outlier. Very quickly, however, soil carbon caught on and today it has become the focus of an energetic and hopeful movement!

For me, it began in early December 2009 when my eyes (ears actually) were opened by a NPR story that aired in advance of the UN climate talks in Copenhagen, Denmark (original story here). It described an experiment taking place on a ranch in northern California called the Marin Carbon Project. Its goal was to scientifically determine if the carbon sequestering potential of soil could be boosted by certain land practices.

The idea was so ‘out there’ and exciting that I had to go see for myself!

I went to California the following March (described in the first chapter of Grass, Soil, Hope) where I learned that that the only ‘shovel-ready’ solution for removing carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere was plant photosynthesis and progressive land management, such as practices that grow more grass. There were cattle involved too! I suddenly realized there was a frontier of action and hope underground among the microbes, protozoa, nematodes, and fungi. It was time to become a soil nerd.

John Wick, a rancher and the director of the Marin Carbon Project, told me that the potential for CO2 storage in soils was three times greater than the atmosphere and since large parts of the Earth are covered with grass the impact on climate change could be huge. Scientists had run the numbers, he said. It was possible. Wow! In fact, the MCP was assisting the research of Dr. Whendee Silver of UC Berkeley to verify the carbon sequestration potential for California rangelands. More good news!

But the kicker came when I read a quote by NASA’s Dr. James Hansen, the nation’s leading climatologist, who postulated that 50 ppm (parts-per-million) of CO2 could be drawn down and stored in the soil by improved agricultural practices (see). How crazy was that? Seriously crazy, I thought – and very cool.

All of this was extremely hopeful and I was a different person when I returned home to New Mexico. Here’s a photo I took during my visit of John Wick explaining the goals of the Marin Carbon Project to a group of Chinese scientists:

Back at work, we decided to focus on soil carbon sequestration as the subject of the Quivira Coalition’s annual conference in 2010 and invite everyone to come learn about this exciting idea. However, it needed a better name – I mean, would you to go to an educational event with the word sequestration in its title? No way! So I decided to call the idea a carbon ranch.

No one was talking about soil carbon in 2010 in this way other than a few ‘out there’ scientists, such Christine Jones, and a handful of agriculturalists, so I did what every activist must do sooner or later to spread the word - write an op-ed. In it, I wondered: why is society so obsessed with high technology as a solution to our problems, including climate change, when the low technology of nature could be more effective? Why not use the power of photosynthesis as a solution instead?

In the op-ed, I argued that we could store carbon in soils by: (1) switching to planned grazing systems using livestock, particularly on degraded land; (2) restoring riparian and wetland zones; (3) protecting open space from development; and (4) implementing no-till farming practices.

“The time has come to bundle them together into one economic and ecological whole, which I call a carbon ranch,” I wrote. “The goal of a carbon ranch is to reduce atmospheric CO2 while producing substantial co-benefits for all living things. These include local food production, improved ecosystem services, restored wildlife habitat, rural economic development, and the strengthening of cultural traditions.”

That sounded good, but was it practical? To find out, I sat down and made a map. I drew (badly) every sustainable, resilient, regenerative, land-healing, soil-building, local food-producing activity I could pull from my experience, putting them into a single mythical landscape. Here it is (artwork by my friend Jone Hallmark):

The map is incomplete, I realize now. It needs trees and indigenous land practices and a wool mill and cattle grazing on crops, to name just a few. But the map holds up because I wanted to make a basic point: we all in this together. Too often, proposed solutions to pressing problems, such as climate change, balkanize us into separate and often competing camps or else leave too many people on the sidelines. I wanted a map that engaged everyone at some level, from food producer to eater and beyond.

That’s what is cool about carbon. It’s everywhere. It is the graphite in our pencils, the diamond in our rings, the oil in our cars, the sugar in our coffee, the DNA in our cells, the food on our plates, the cement in our sidewalks, the steel in our skyscrapers, the charcoal in our grills, the fizz in our sodas, the ink in our pens, the plastic in our toys, the wood in our chairs, the leather in our jackets, the electrodes in our batteries, the rubber in our tires, the coal in our power plants, the nano in our nanotechnology, and the humus in our soils.

My crazy idea turned out to not be so crazy after all. In a few short years, the idea of sequestering atmospheric carbon in soils took off thanks to the hard work of many people and organizations. It’s become a movement, which I’ll discuss in the next issue – a hopeful thing indeed!

That’s what Terra Firma is all about: looking at the world in a positive way, grounded in nature, experience, facts, and hope.

Resources:

  • Here’s an important science article on livestock management titled ‘The Role of Ruminants in Reducing Agriculture’s Carbon Footprint in North America’ by Richard Teague, Rattan Lal, and others: http://www.jswconline.org/content/71/2/156.refs

Video:

  • John Wick and Jeff Creque speaking at the 2010 Quivira Coalition conference (part 1 of 6) about the Marin Carbon Project (see).

  • An introductory 4-minute Bioneers video on carbon farming featuring Rebecca Burgess, John Wick, and others (see).

  • A very informative general 4-minute video by Kiss the Ground (a nonprofit) on carbon sequestration (see).

A trio of speakers from Australia and New Zealand:

  • Here is an early TED talk on soil carbon (2011) by a soil scientist Ichsani Wheeler (see).

  • Here is soil scientist Nicole Masters speaking at the 2018 Quivira Coalition conference (see).

  • Pioneering soil scientist Christine Jones talks to a farming audience in 2019 (see).

Web sites:

Kiss The Ground:  https://kisstheground.com/

Carbon Underground: https://thecarbonunderground.org/

Carbon Cycle Institute: https://www.carboncycle.org/

Regeneration International: https://regenerationinternational.org/

COURTNEY’S CORNER

~ I am very pleased to announce that Grass, Soil, Hope will be reprinted in 2020 by a Chinese publishing house. It’ll be my first foreign-language edition of any book! I received the news from Chelsea Green a few months ago. I don’t know the publication date yet, but I’ll let you know when I do.

~ In June, I’ll be speaking at the Groundswell No-Till Agriculture Conference, hosted by the Lannock Manor Farm, an hour north of London, England. More details later.

~ I write a monthly blog on life and writing called The Grass Canoe. In a new post, I discuss my deep dive into the world of William Shakespeare, including my two-line “performance” in a recent production King Lear. (see)

Thank you for reading this issue of my newsletter. It is published every Thursday morning – for free! Please consider sharing it with a friend or two or three:

Share

About me: For twenty years I worked to create a radical center among ranchers, conservationists, agencies and others focused on western working landscapes. Today, I am a full-time writer. My nonfiction books include Forewords by Wendell Berry and Michael Pollan. For more information or to contact me see: www.jcourtneywhite.com/

I am also the author of a MYSTERY series called the Sun Ranch Saga, set on a working cattle ranch in northern New Mexico. The first book, titled The Sun, is available and I’m working on the sequel. See: http://jcourtneywhite.com/fiction/

Terra Firma means ‘solid earth’ or ‘firm ground’ in contrast to air or water. Historically, it was first used by the Republic of Venice to describe its holdings on the Italian mainland.

#7 The Sun: a mystery

An excerpt from Chapter One

Welcome to Terra Firma by Courtney White. I’ve spent my life prospecting for innovative, practical, and collaborative answers to pressing problems involving land and people, sharing them with others. I’d like to share them with you!

Don’t miss the next issue, sign up here:

It’s the Holidays so I’ve decided to take a break from the usual (serious) content of this newsletter and offer something different and fun: an excerpt from the first chapter of my mystery novel The Sun (Book 1 of the Sun Ranch Saga).

Instead of a news item, I’ll quote an endorsement of my book by Anne Hillerman, New York Times best-selling author of the Leaphorn/Chee/Manuelito mysteries: “In this far-ranging debut novel, Courtney White creates a story worthy of his deep and detailed knowledge of the American West today…Nicely done!

Here’s the story pitch for The Sun:

Without warning, Dr. Bryce Miller, a young doctor in Boston, inherits a historic cattle ranch in northern New Mexico from a wealthy uncle she barely knew. She flies out to sell The Sun to the highest bidder, but things get complicated when a body is found murdered. She must choose among suitors who want to turn the large ranch into either: an upscale housing development with golf courses, an oil-and-gas field, a nature preserve, a casino resort, the underground home for a doomsday cult, or the plaything of a shadowy business mogul. Each is willing to pay a large sum of money – and maybe do anything – to get the property. She has seven days to decide.

Bryce could see a cluster of buildings under two rows of tall trees up ahead, looking like a leafy oasis in the sea of grass. Ranch Headquarters, had to be. The foreman’s house should be the first building on the right she recalled from a map. She slowed the car as she approached a small brown house. Near it stood a tall windmill, its heavy gray blades making a screeching sound as they turned slowly. It looked like it came straight from a western movie, Bryce thought – or a museum. Behind the house was what appeared to be a corral. What really caught her eye, however, was the silver pickup truck parked in the driveway. The foreman was home!

She parked behind the truck and pushed up her sunglasses as she stepped out of the car to get a better look at the house. It was a simple, cinder-block thing fronted by a white fence. Behind a gate sat a small, thirsty-looking lawn. It was late May – shouldn’t the grass be greener? She waited. Where was the foreman? Napping? She honked the rental’s horn, surprising herself at its loudness in the quiet air. Nothing. She walked to the gate in the fence, opened it, and crossed to the front door. She knocked once and waited. The windmill screeched again. She knocked a second time.

“Mister Harris?” she called loudly. “It’s Bryce Miller.”

Nothing. Feeling slightly annoyed now, she cupped her face with her hands and peered through the living room window, whose curtains were partially open. Dimly, she saw a light-colored sofa, a stuffed chair, and a pair of mostly empty bookcases against a far wall. There was carpeting and possibly a stereo system on a wooden console, though she couldn’t be certain. A laptop sat on a coffee table in front of the chair. She could see a closed door in a hallway and what looked like the entrance to the kitchen.

No foreman.

Bryce pulled her phone from the vest pocket, but there was no signal at all. Maybe he was out back. She crossed back through the gate, leaving it open, and turned to her right. Rounding the corner of the house, she had to side-step a rain barrel that had fallen over. Behind the building was a miserly backyard with two neglected-looking trees and a peeling bird bath. No foreman.

She folded her arms across her chest in frustration. Where was he? Uncertain if she should continue to feel annoyed or begin to feel worried, Bryce turned a half-circle, peering around. The silver pickup sat quietly in the driveway. Something didn’t feel right. She decided to hold her breath and listen. Other than the screeching windmill and a few distant bird calls, everything was so quiet. There was no background noise, she suddenly realized. The steady urban hubbub that she had known all her life was gone.

At the sound of another metallic screech, Bryce walked toward the windmill, shading her eyes against the bright sky as she traced a spindly metal ladder to its top, not entirely sure why she thought the foreman might be up there. He wasn’t. Was there an outhouse? She surveyed the grounds. Maybe the foreman was busy at one of the other Headquarters buildings. Maybe they had a more relaxed attitude toward keeping appointments here in the country. Perplexed, she began walking back to her car. She glanced at the silver pickup as she walked past.

A dog suddenly lunged at her from the bed of the pickup, snarling and snapping its jaws. Bryce recoiled, tripping over a tree branch that lay incautiously along the side of the driveway. She recovered quickly and spun around athletically, but the dog had disappeared, no doubt lurking in the truck’s bed waiting to attack again. She could feel her heart beating fast. She approached the pickup cautiously, rising a bit on her toes in order to peer into the bed without getting too close. It was empty at first. Then she saw a black tail followed by a black-and-white body, then a head, pointy ears and brown eyes. Reflexively, she pulled back, but the dog didn’t attack. She peeked again. The dog stared back. Its eyes were sad.

 “Hey there,” she said soothingly. “Where’s your person? Did they go away somewhere?”

Bryce decided to peer through the open passenger window into the cab. She saw a travel mug in a cup holder, a water bottle next to it, a pair of work gloves on the passenger seat, and a magazine on the floor with a cow on its cover. Did that mean the truck belonged to the foreman? Maybe everyone here had cow magazines. There was a CD on the seat next to the gloves. She reached through the window and picked it up. Loyal Brigand. Hard jazz. Not what she expected a ranch foreman to listen to, but you never knew. She dropped the CD back on the seat and pushed off from the pickup with both hands as if she were in a small boat leaving the dock. Maybe she was supposed to meet him at one of the other buildings?

She climbed into the rental, shutting the door harder than she planned. She swung the car back onto the road and drove slowly through the Headquarters looking for a sign of the foreman. On her left, she saw a brown, rambling, one-story building, looking historic. A sign stuck in the ground said Office. Next to the house, a sprinkler sat quietly in the middle of a large lawn. A hammock hung motionless between two tall trees. On the right, she passed a double-door maintenance facility of some sort, looking new. Its doors were closed tight. A yellow tractor sat passively beside it, near a pile of large rocks. As the building slid by, she caught a glimpse of three tall, cylindrical containers on thin metal legs behind it. Hoses hung down from each one.

A little farther on, as the canopy of trees began to thin out, she spied a short road on the right leading to a large circular structure. It reminded her of the corral back at the little house. It was empty as well. On the left, under the last row of trees, was a trailer. It was long and narrow, its silver metallic hide pocked at regular intervals with windows, each closed with curtains. A solitary door occupied its middle, connected to the ground by a short stair. She slowed down. There was evidence of tire tracks in the semi-circular driveway, she thought, but no vehicles. It looked lifeless.

A small chill tingled her spine.

Bryce hit the brakes, stopping the car in the middle of the road. She had reached the edge of the sea of grass and didn’t feel like venturing any farther in fear of getting lost. She drummed her fingers impatiently on the steering wheel. Where was the foreman? Did he forget their meeting? Unlikely. She pulled her phone from her vest but it still utterly lacked a signal. She tossed it onto the passenger seat in exasperation. Honestly! What sort of foreman skipped appointments? The missing kind. The chill returned. She pushed it away, feeling faintly ridiculous. They had crossed wires somehow, that’s all. She decided to go back to her uncle’s house – maybe he went looking for her there.

Bryce tugged on the steering wheel and stepped smartly on the gas, forcing the car into a tight U-turn, tires crunching loudly on the gravel. She had miscalculated. The car rocked side-to-side violently as it left the road, tossing Bryce around in her seat. The steering wheel slipped from her hands briefly. The wheels made a straining sound in the grassy dirt and the car slowed to a crawl. She prayed it wouldn’t get stuck! Fortunately, the vehicle kept going but rocked again as it reentered the roadway. Finally, everything settled down. Bryce took a deep breath as she gripped the steering wheel firmly.

No more wrong turns, she promised herself.

The Sun is the first book in a mystery series titled the Sun Ranch Saga, set on a working cattle ranch in northern New Mexico. You can purchase a print or ebook version HERE: https://www.amazon.com/Sun-Mystery-Ranch-Saga/dp/1732756104/

If you like it, write a review! Thanks!

Thank you for reading this issue of my newsletter. It is published every Thursday morning – for free! Please consider sharing it with a friend or two or three:

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About me: For twenty years I worked to create a radical center among ranchers, conservationists, agencies and others focused on western working landscapes. Today, I am a full-time writer. My nonfiction books include Forewords by Wendell Berry and Michael Pollan. For more information or to contact me see: www.jcourtneywhite.com/

Share Terra Firma by Courtney White

Terra Firma means ‘solid earth’ or ‘firm ground’ in contrast to air or water. Historically, it was first used by the Republic of Venice to describe its holdings on the Italian mainland.

#6 Fibershed

A Hopeful Example of Putting It All Together

Welcome to Terra Firma by Courtney White. I’ve spent my life prospecting for innovative, practical, and collaborative answers to pressing problems involving land and people, sharing them with others. I’d like to share them with you!

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News Item: Here’s a great story about regenerative agriculture in the Southwest titled ‘Agriculture Is Part of the Climate Change Problem. Colorado Wants Farmers’ Soil to Be Part of the Solution.’ It links land, water, people, and profit all together (see).

In the previous issues I’ve tried to paint a broad picture of regenerative agriculture, the importance of confronting paradigms, the need to work collaboratively in the radical center, and the role of carbon, the essential element.

In this newsletter, I will discuss an exciting concept that pulls all these different pieces together into a hopeful whole. It’s called a fibershed, which is like a watershed or a foodshed except for your clothes!

Fibershed is a place, a movement, and an organization (and a book, see below).

It started one day in 2009 when Rebecca Burgess, a natural dye and fiber educator in the Bay Area, waited in an airport terminal to catch a flight home. Watching yet another news story about American troops being deployed to the Middle East, she realized that everything surrounding her had its origins in oil and conflict – the jet fuel, the plastic chair she sat in, the carpeting below her feet. That included her clothes too.

Rebecca realized she needed to walk her talk about progressive agriculture, ecological integrity, and addressing climate change starting with what she wore every day. She decided challenge herself to live for twelve months in a wardrobe entirely sourced from natural fibers grown and assembled within a 150-mile radius of her home north of San Francisco.

Many people don’t realize that clothes are an agricultural product. Wool comes from sheep and goats, cotton and linen from plants, silk from silkworms. Farms and ranches have been the source of the raw material for our garments for thousands of years. It’s only been in the past few decades that fossil oil has replaced natural fibers and dyes as the primary ingredient in our clothing.

Most people also don’t realize the damage our oil-derived clothes do to our physical health, the environment, and the planet. Petroleum-based fibers and dyes are packed with toxic chemicals, many of them unregulated, whose effect on human health is poorly understood. Our skin is the largest organ on our body. We should be very careful what we put next to it. Some of these chemicals are endocrine disrupters, for example, which can have devastating effects on our immune systems. There are other consequences. Micro-plastics from clothing, for instance, are polluting our oceans. The list goes on.

Then there are all the terrible costs of manufacturing our clothes, including the tragic work conditions in sweatshop factories around the world, the use of child labor, and the immense carbon footprint of transporting these garments to the marketplace.

Rebecca decided she needed to get away from these unhealthy systems for a year and focus instead on positive, local, regenerative relationships and practices. Her goal was inspired by the philosophy of the Slow Food movement, founded in Italy by Carlo Petrini, which advocates for local food traditions that are good, clean, and fair.

Her vision was also influenced by the geography-based approach to managing our water called a watershed. As Rebecca embarked on her year-long wardrobe experiment, she coined a term for her place-based approach. She called it a fibershed.

Here’s Rebecca wearing locally-sourced clothes:

Rebecca’s wardrobe year was a big success, drawing in enthusiastic textile artisans, designers, sewers, dyers, and natural fiber producers, including organic cotton farmer and plant breeder Sally Fox who has developed new varieties of naturally colored cotton. In creating the wardrobe, cross-links were established between different parts of the natural fiber world, energizing a radical center focused on the origins of their clothing. The year concluded with a gala celebration that featured the work of these community members.

For Rebecca, the next step was to found a nonprofit organization in order to provide support to the quickly expanding fibershed community, organize events, and continue to connect the dots between farmers, designers, weavers, and wearers. Central to the educational mission of Fibershed was the promotion of regenerative agricultural practices, including holistic management of livestock and soil carbon-building.

Fibersheds put it all together into a practical, natural, and hopeful whole. It based in the philosophy that nature still knows best, whether it involves the role of animals on the land, promoting life in the soil, keeping the ground covered with plants, building up soil carbon, generating local jobs, and using ingredients sourced from nature. Fibersheds depend on biological and human relationships that have worked together successfully for a very long time.

Fibershed has also become a movement, with local efforts springing up across the U.S., Canada, the United Kingdom, and beyond. For example, there has been a surge recently in flax farming in America. Once a major part of our agricultural economy, flax plants produce linen, a useful fabric in both cold and warm climates. However, as the industry turned to petroleum-based garments, flax farming faded. Today, it is seeing new life as the local fiber movement grows.

Here’s a ‘Farm to Garment’ photo from the Meridian Jacobs ranch in California:

Fibershed is also a book – one that I had the honor of co-authoring with Rebecca. Here is her vision in her own words:

“With every passing day we increasingly see, hear, and feel the destructive effects of our complicity in perpetuating systems that were designed to make us the primary recipient of the planet’s finite resources. Fibershed asks: how can we work together to transform contemporary cultural and economic systems to benefit all life and promote regeneration? And how can we do it without perpetuating consequences that force the hand of another set of technological solutions?”

“As we learn the fundamentals of the carbon, water, and nutrient cycles, we understand that the earth’s true ecological carrying capacity is directly connected to regenerative capacity of natural resources such as the soil and the fiber it grows. This knowledge begs a deep human question: how will we care for, protect, and use what the earth provides in a manner that leaves the land and water more diverse and productive than when we found it?”

That’s what Terra Firma is all about: looking at the world in a positive way, grounded in nature, experience, facts, and hope.

Resources (there are a lot to choose from):

Video:

  • Here’s Rebecca speaking at the 2015 Quivira Coalition conference - a talk that I highly recommend (see).

  • Here’s a 2-minute video featuring Rebecca that introduces the Fibershed concept (see).

  • Here’s a 6-minute video about Fibershed from the Bioneers organization (see).

  • Here are nine short videos about various Fibersheds (see).

  • Here’s a great 7-minute video about the negative costs of the Fast Fashion industry, made by The Economist magazine (see).

  • Here’s a thought-provoking 6-minute video about the life cycle of a T-shirt (see).

Web Sites:

COURTNEY’S CORNER

I originally profiled Rebecca and her work in my 2015 book Two Percent Solutions for the Planet: 50 Low-cost, Low-tech, Nature-based Practices for Combatting Hunger, Drought, and Climate Change published by Chelsea Green: https://www.chelseagreen.com/product/two-percent-solutions-for-the-planet/

Here is a review of the book, which offers easy-to-digest profiles of a wide variety of carbon-friendly practices and approaches: https://www.ecolandscaping.org/12/resources/book-reviews/book-review-two-percent-solutions-for-the-planet/

My selected Terra Firma photo for the week - flax growing in northern California:

Credit: https://www.paigegreenphotography.com/

Thank you for reading this issue of my newsletter. It is published every Thursday morning – for free! Please consider sharing it with a friend or two or three:

Share

About me: For twenty years I worked to create a radical center among ranchers, conservationists, agencies and others focused on western working landscapes. Today, I am a full-time writer. My nonfiction books include Forewords by Wendell Berry and Michael Pollan. For more information or to contact me see: www.jcourtneywhite.com/

I am also the author of a MYSTERY series called the Sun Ranch Saga, set on a working cattle ranch in northern New Mexico. The first book, titled The Sun, is available and I’m working on the sequel. See: http://jcourtneywhite.com/fiction/

Share Terra Firma by Courtney White

Terra Firma means ‘solid earth’ or ‘firm ground’ in contrast to air or water. Historically, it was first used by the Republic of Venice to describe its holdings on the Italian mainland.

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