I Hope Everyone Is Well!

Hi Everyone.

I apologize for going silent. I had to suspend Terra Firma due to a combination of workload and concern about the emerging pandemic. I’ve been hoping to get back to publishing the newsletter, but I don’t know when that will be now - or what form it will take. The world has certainly changed a lot since mid-February!

Gen and I are well. Our kids, Sterling and Olivia, came home from college in mid-March and we’re enjoying having everyone under one roof again. It’s very hard to read the daily headlines - I hope everyone is safe and well out there. I have no idea what the world will be like on the other side of the pandemic (no one does), but it’s a good bet it’ll be a very different place.

In the meantime, here’s a review of two books I wrote, penned this week by my friend Ken Kailing, up in Montana. Check out his newsletter while you’re at it:

http://www.goodfoodworldathome.com/grass-soil-hope-a-journey-through-carbon-country-by-courtney-white/

Stay well!

- Courtney

#13 Two Stories

Dolly and Hannah / The Roar

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:

News Item: I don’t know about you, but I’ve found the news headlines over the past month to be difficult to bear. I don’t know why we’re at each others’ throats politically and culturally in this nation. At one point, not so long ago, it felt like we were making progress on important issues, including food, water, and climate challenges. Out West, a decade of acrimony over ranching and public lands gave way in the early 2000s to a hopeful bridging of urban-rural and red-blue divides centered on collaboration, land health, and shared goals. The regenerative agriculture movement took off. The news was good – and it still is underneath the daily finger-pointing and shouting that passes as modern civics these days. It’s just harder to find.

In the spirit of reflection, I’d like to share two stories of regeneration and hope – one about a milking cow who had to learn how to eat grass and one about a moment of human connection during a march in downtown Manhattan. Although they were written a few years ago, they feel like they’re from a different era. But they’re not. They represent issues just as important today as they were back then – maybe more so. In any case, I hope you will enjoy reading them.

Dolly and Hannah

Dolly taught Hannah how to eat grass.

Both were Jersey milking cows that lived on the James Ranch, a 400-acre slice of heaven on the Animas River, north of Durango, Colorado. It was a ranch we visited often when our twins, Sterling and Olivia, were young, partly to see inspiring stewardship in action and partly to bask in the enchantment of a truly beautiful place. We would take long walks together as a family across the lush green fields, over to the fish ponds, down to the river and back, sharing the sense of wonder and excitement that comes with exploring new things in life.

It’s also how we met Dolly and Hannah.

They belonged to Danny James, one of five children of Dave and Kay James, who are enterprising pioneers of progressive cattle ranching and regenerative agriculture in the area. Returning home after college, Danny decided to start an organic, grassfed artisanal cheese dairy on the ranch, a venture that has successfully grown over the years to include local restaurants, farmers markets, and many satisfied customers.

Dolly was Danny’s first dairy cow. She was friendly and funny, with bulging eyes and boundless curiosity. Sterling and Olivia always insisted on seeing her as soon as we arrived, laughing with delight when she ambled over acting like she recognized them too. She’d stretch her graceful neck toward the kids, leading with her wet nose, until human and animal were just inches apart. This greeting ritual would end with a big sniff by Dolly, followed by the stamping of gleeful feet and a lot of giggles.

Danny described Dolly as kind and patient. He had never milked a cow before and she tolerated his fumblings in the milk barn without complaint. He attributed her good nature to being raised in a dynamic farm environment as a young cow that included goats and other barnyard animals. Hannah was a different story. Although she looked like Dolly’s sister, she was as skittish and wary as Dolly was friendly, easily frightened by a quick motion or sound. She wouldn’t allow our kids to approach, preferring to observe the greeting ritual from a safe distance. The difference was their upbringing.

Desiring to expand his operation with a second Jersey cow, Danny found one for sale at a dairy in Utah. However, because he was new to the business he failed to ask the owner the right questions, he admitted. After a long drive, Danny arrived at the dairy only to discover it was a confinement operation, full of flies, stench and cement. After loading the cow – known as E349 – into a trailer and handing its owner a check, Danny was presented in turn with a handful of syringes containing antibiotics that the dairyman said were required to keep the animal from getting sick on the return trip. Turns out, she had chronic mastitis (a disease of the udder) which is why the dairyman wanted to sell her. Danny felt duped, but took E349 – rechristened Hannah – home anyway, assuming that all would be well.

Danny was in for another surprise, however. After arriving at the ranch, he opened the trailer door to a pasture full of clover and other yummy grasses, but Hannah refused to exit. After some gentle coaxing, she stepped into the pasture’s knee-deep grass – and stared blankly at the lushness with her bulging Jersey eyes.

Hannah didn’t know how to eat grass.

Raised in a dark, dank, cement warehouse without mental stimulation and fed only corn and other industrial products, Hannah had no cow sense at all. Fortunately, Danny knew what to do. He fetched Dolly. She taught Hannah (by example) how to eat grass, walk on uneven ground, cross a ditch, and not be afraid of running water, among other normal cow behavior. Sadly, she couldn’t teach Hannah to be curious or friendly – it was too late for that.

Hannah was sweet and innocent, but she was also a product of her environment – as we all are – steel and cement in this case. She remained skittish, which is why she hung back during Dolly’s greeting ritual with our children. Hannah’s issues weren’t her fault, we explained to them. She had been raised to be a milking machine, not a cow, conditioned for cement, not grass. Happily, they witnessed Dolly help Hannah recover some of her ‘inner bovine’ over the course of our visits.

Although Dolly and Hannah have passed on, Danny told me that Dolly’s daughter, Molly, two granddaughters, and four great granddaughters are still in the herd. Dolly was the foundation of his now thriving business, he said, as well as a lovely animal. To this day we fondly recall the two Jersey girls and their bond with each other in that slice of heaven, long ago.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The Roar

At 1pm, 400,000 people fell silent. One minute later, the roar began.

It was September 21st, 2014, and Sterling and I stood on Central Park West near 72nd street in New York City, which had been designated by organizers as the Solutions section of the protest march – the solution being food in this case.

We were surrounded by people carrying signs that said “Cook Organic Not the Planet,” “Support Local Food” and “Label That Shit.” Behind us was a large group from the Climate Reality Project, in whose midst vice-president Al Gore magically appeared earlier in the morning. Their solution was renewable energy. In front of us was a noisy crowd of climate justice activists, many of them young people. One man wore a superhero costume with a green wig and a big smile.

It was the People’s Climate March, the largest climate protest ever at the time. Organizers expected 100,000 marchers and got 400,000 instead. The event was timed to send a signal to the more than one hundred world leaders set to arrive in Manhattan the next day for a critical Climate Summit at the United Nations. The march also intended to help break our political complacency and inaction on climate change in this nation by giving voice to average citizens, demonstrating in the process that dissent still mattered in a democracy.

There was another signal: with the crossing of the symbolically significant 400 ppm (parts-per-million of carbon dioxide) threshold approaching and a make-or-break UN climate summit in Paris only fifteen months away, time was running out. All of these were good reasons to travel from New Mexico to the Big Apple, but they were especially good reasons to bring a child along.

There was one more reason to go: the joy of simply being there. It had been a long time since I had participated in a protest march and I had forgotten what an intensely visceral experience it could be, full of stirring emotions and earthy sensations. As Sterling and I took our places, three things about the crowd struck me right away: the colors, the smiles, and the sounds. Many protestors wore T-shirts to express their affiliations – green, blue, orange, red, yellow, white and so on (one solitary dude wore all black). My favorite T-shirt said simply “Save the Humans!”

Many of the groups were from colleges – in fact, I bet that half of the march’s participants were under the age of thirty and many were people of color, which was also cheering. There were smiles everywhere. Maybe it was a sense of relief people felt at being given a chance to actually do something about the condition of the world. Maybe it was also the sense of communal purpose we felt, standing shoulder to shoulder with fellow humans – all four hundred thousand of us.

Maybe it was the music. Photographs of the march that I saw later did not capture the riot of sound taking place, from the nonstop African-style drumming and the protest chants to the singing, talking, clapping, and laughter heard all day. It was like being part of noisy, restless, exultant, mammoth, living creature, coiled and ready for action. Coiled for hours. Surely, we would be moving by now, I kept thinking. I kept an eye on an inflatable Earth a block ahead of us, which vibrated periodically, suggesting imminent marching. Meanwhile, I hugged Sterling, counseling patience, and urged him to soak up all the sights and sounds of this amazing moment in time.

Then everything stopped. Silence fell from the sky like a shroud. It was 1pm. That’s when we heard the first rumble. It began at the end of the line, somewhere near 89th street. It was a low guttural sound, almost feral, like something wild on the move. It came toward us, rising in pitch and volume quickly, moving like a herd or a wave. As it approached, the air held its breath. It was supposed to be a shout but it sounded like a roar – a roar of celebration. A roar of defiance. A roar of protest and frustration and hope.

Sterling and I raised our hands above our heads and roared as loudly as we could. The sound swept away from us, down the Avenue of the Americas and beyond.

I roared for all those who couldn’t be there with us, my family, our friends and colleagues, classmates, teachers, parents, endangered animals, celebrities, ranchers, farmers, distant strangers, wild animals, the dead and the not yet born. I yelled in frustration and in hope as well. I yelled at the moon. And when we were done, it felt good to have roared. I gave my son another hug. Then we marched.

In a nice bit of irony, the route of People’s Climate March cut through the gaudy heart of Times Square, placing us under the smoky gaze of two-story tall fashion models. The contrast was delicious. We had entered one of the cultural epicenters of indifference toward the challenges of our times and the canyon walls seemed to smirk at our protest.

Then in a flash everything changed. It happened at an intersection where the police had halted the long line of marchers to let traffic cross. Sterling and I stood near the head of the line when an open-topped, double-decker tour bus sailed into the intersection. Spying the protestors, a group of tourists in the top section spontaneously raised their hands and cheered loudly. We cheered right back. I glanced at the New York City police officer who was directing traffic.

The cheering had made him smile.

The entire exchange lasted eight seconds, but the cheery triangulation between protestor, tourist, and cop that took place suggested a universe of possibility – that despite our apparent differences we could come together and get things done. People get it. If our leaders would lead, we’d be a lot farther down the path toward resolving our problems.

At the end of the march, Sterling and I kept walking. We had only this afternoon and next morning to see New York and I could tell that the buzz of the big city was attractive to him. We crossed to the United Nations zone, checking out the national flags on the parked cars, before heading to the Staten Island ferry to take a quick peek at the harbor and the Statue of Liberty. It was a beautiful day, warm and full of promise – and more protest. In the banking district, we came across a sit-down demonstration by activists objecting to Wall Street’s complicity in the climate crisis. Although about a hundred cops surrounded the brave little band of protestors, I could detect an echo of the roar in the air.

COURTNEY’S CORNER

~ Dolly and Hannah was initially written for Richard Louv’s new book Our Wild Calling: How Connecting with Animals can Transform Our Lives (Algonquin Books, 2019). If you are not familiar with Richard’s inspiring work to reconnect humans with nature, children especially, I strongly recommend taking a look: http://richardlouv.com/books/our-wild-calling/

~ The Roar is part of a book Proposal for a travel memoir that I hope to write someday titled The Threshold, which focuses on a series of trips I made leading up to the Paris Climate summit in 2015, which I attended. It reflects on how much our world has changed.

~ On Terra Firma – my writing workload requires that I publish this newsletter every other week for the foreseeable future. Thanks for hanging in there. My eyes were definitely bigger than my stomach when I started this!

~ To new subscribers: on my web site you’ll find tons of information about ranching, farming, conservation, and other land and people work over nearly thirty years of writing and activism. See: http://jcourtneywhite.com/

~ 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 Terra Firma photo - Sterling videotaping cattle on the Valles Caldera in New Mexico (back in the day!):

Thank you for reading this issue of my newsletter. It is published every other 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.

#12 Down Under

Hope Born From Fire

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:

Announcement: Due to my workload, Terra Firma will now come out every other week. The next issue will be published on Feb. 13th. Thanks!

News Item: The devastating wildfires in Australia – eighteen million acres burned and one billion animals lost – have been making headlines. However, there have been few stories about the role proper land management can play in preventing such tragedies. Here’s one about a native Australian, Julia Watson, who argues for a nature-centered approach she calls ‘Lo-TEK’. “We need to think about different [futures],” said Watson. “How do we not just fall back to using high-tech solutions and use nature technology instead? [We keep] trying to solve problems with the same tool kit that created the problem in the first place.” (see)

I had the honor of visiting Australia a few years ago and spent time on four farms that employed a regenerative approach to their land and livestock. I learned a great deal about carbon, soils, and resilience – topics very much on the mind of many rural Aussies right now, I imagine. I’d like to share two stories, including one about a farmer whose life was transformed by wildfire.

Australia is salty, flat, and mostly dry. Repeated submerging by the ocean over the eons combined with a lack of geological uplift (necessary for weathering rock into topsoil) created thin, nutrient-poor soils that were rapidly depleted by a pattern of colonial agricultural designed for the wet climes of England. Plow, cow, sheep, gun, dog, fox, rabbit, and tractor – all exotic – transformed Australia’s fragile ecosystem into a ravished landscape of eroding gullies, denuded flora, and declining native fauna. The advent of industrialized crop and livestock production after World War II made things worse as tilling and overgrazing continued to deplete what remained of the soil’s fertility.

As I saw on my trip, however, a corner had been turned in Australia’s assault on its soil. On a sheep farm in northwest New South Wales called Winona, owned by Colin Seis, I learned that not only are Australians re-hydrating the soil of their depleted continent but they are re-carbonizing it as well.

In 1979, a wildfire burned nearly the entire farm to the ground and sent Colin to the hospital with burns. Ruined, he vowed to change the way he had been practicing agriculture. He decided to rebuild the soil’s fertility – its carbon stocks – after decades of practices had depleted it alarmingly. The fire created an opportunity – out of the ashes, a new farm would emerge.

Colin raises Merino sheep (for wool), so he decided to take up holistic management, which is a way of managing animals that mimics the graze-and-go behavior of wild herbivores. It was perfectly suited for New South Wales, whose rolling grasslands, decent rainfall (until recently), and lack of native predators made it ideal for raising sheep. But it is what Colin did next that really caught people’s attention.

Acting on an idea from a neighbor, Colin decided to try an experiment: what if he no-till drilled an annual crop into his perennial grass pastures? Could he raise two products from one piece of land: a grain crop + animals? It was a heretical idea. In conventional farming, 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. Coin wondered: what if you no-till drilled oat or wheat or corn seed directly into the pasture when the grasses were dormant? Would they grow? He decided to find out.

Fast forward to the present – and the answer is a resounding ‘yes!’ Pasture cropping, as it is called, works. Nature likes annual and perennial plants to grow together, Colin told me. Winona grows grain and wool. It’s all carefully integrated and managed under Colin’s stewardship. It’s been productive and profitable too, which suggested that pasture cropping could be an important way to feed people globally.

A research project that compared the soil of Colin’s farm to his brother’s farm next door, which uses conventional agricultural practices, revealed stark differences in soil fertility. The organic content of Winona’s soil was much deeper, indicating that Colin was re-carbonizing his land as the result of the integration of annuals, perennials, and animals. In the study’s Conclusion, Dr. Peter Ampt and Sarah Doornbos wrote:

Rotational grazing and pasture cropping practiced on the innovator site can increase perennial vegetative ground cover compared to the continuous grazing system and conventional cropping practiced on the comparison site. Increased perenniality and ground cover lead to improved landscape function in the pasture through increased stability, water infiltration and nutrient cycling which in turn can lead to improved soil physical and chemical properties, more growth of plants and micro-organisms and an ultimately more sustainable landscape.

That sounds like regeneration to me! Here’s a photo I took of Colin standing in a pasture cropped field:

Later, I visited Eric Harvey on his farm, Gilgai, in central New South Wales. Gilgai also has an important story of regeneration to tell. Employing holistic grazing planning after purchasing the land, Eric was able to expand the number of grass species on the degraded farm from seven to over 130 in less than seven years! He did it by forming the livestock into a herd and carefully controlling the timing of its grazing.

More significant was the composition of the herd: a blend of sheep and cattle, called a flerd. Eric said he has run as many as 5000 sheep and 600 cattle together as a unit. Other than calving and lambing, when the animals need space, he said he’s never had any trouble running sheep and cows together. Nature, in fact, likes mixed-species grazing, Eric told me, because animals complement each other in what they will eat, the composition of their manure, and the way their hooves interact with the soil.

As Eric described it, herbivory creates an organic “pulse” below the ground surface as roots expand and contract with grazing. This feeds carbon to hungry microbes which in turn feed grass plants. The manure “pulse” above ground helps too, especially with nutrient cycling. His plan with the flerd has been to make both “pulses” beat stronger and more steadily. Having two different types of livestock also buffers Eric’s finances against fluctuations in the marketplace.

Did anyone else in New South Wales run a flerd, I asked him? “Not that I’m aware of,” he responded. So why the centuries-old belief that cattle and sheep don’t mix? “It must be a paradigm thing with humans,” Eric replied. “It’s not an issue in nature.”

Here’s a picture of the flerd on Gilgai:

As Australians grapple with the consequences of the fires in upcoming months and embark on the necessary journey of regenerating themselves and their land, I hope they will look to nature – and farmers like Colin, Eric and others – for inspiration.

Resources:

Video:

  • Here’s a seven-minute video about Colin and pasture cropping (2019) with great drone imagery (see).

  • Here’s a 27-minute video of Colin Seis speaking at the Quivira Coalition’s conference in 2012 (see).

Web sites:

COURTNEY’S CORNER

~ Not much news this week!

~ 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 Terra Firma photo of the week - a photo I took of Mulloon Creek Farm in Australia during my trip:

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:

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.

#11 What's In A Name?

Why 'Regeneration' Is Best

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:

News Item: Here is an article about the shift from the term “sustainable” to “regenerative” and why it’s important for businesses. A quote: “A transition toward regenerative practices could bring a huge win-win for farmers, food companies and the environment.” Although it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between actual practices and marketing pr, this article shows how the times are changing (see).

In the previous issues of Terra Firma, I introduced the principles of the regeneration movement, its potential positive impact on climate change (TF#2), its ability to bring us together (TF#4), the essential role of carbon (TF#5), and examples of on-the-ground success. A recurring theme is a simple one: nature still has the best ideas.

In this issue, I want to look briefly at language, offering some thoughts from my experience. The labels we attach to movements are incredibly important and often define how we react to an idea. This is especially true for work that confronts entrenched and powerful interests, as the food and climate movements do, which always generates public-relations push-back. Words have power!

For years, I didn’t know what to call the burgeoning healthy food and land movement taking place in the early 2000s. It wasn’t simply an extension of the local or organic food movement because it was so much bigger, involving as it did everything from ecosystem restoration to carbon sequestration in soils. Besides, ‘organic’ largely meant ‘stopping harm’ – ie prohibiting the use of industrial chemicals and genetically modified organisms. I was looking for something more proactive and healing.

‘Sustainability’ didn’t cut it – not even close – despite its popularity. It was never clear to me what the word meant. What did we intended to ‘sustain’ as a society? Our over-consumptive lifestyle? Our addiction to growth? Business-as-Usual fueled by solar power instead of oil? Also, despite the honorable intentions of activists and legislators, “sustainable” soon became a marketing ploy used by corporations to dodge any real changes in their practices or goals (called ‘greenwashing’).

There were other terms in use at the time: beyond organic, biodynamic, perennial, permacultural, holistic, natural, and agroecological. Then there were the wide variety of practices, many interlinked: no-till, cover cropping, multi-cropping, agroforestry, silviculture, planned grazing, keyline, grassfed, carbon farming, pollinator-friendly, predator-friendly, to name a few. There were also turf wars - over certification requirements, carbon footprints, and ethical worldviews. If the public felt bewildered, it was little wonder!

This was an important problem to solve for two reasons. First, a fractured movement with too many names was no match for the inevitable push-back attacks by industrial agriculture and their corporate accomplices. A good example was the cynical embrace of the term “climate-smart agriculture” by chemical giant Monsanto, who tried to make a case for their “climate-smart” pesticides, herbicides, and GMOs - an effort that essentially killed the term’s usefulness (see).

Second, the healthy soil and land movement needed unifying a term that reflected its practicality and hopefulness. This wasn’t about coming up with a clever slogan or marketing strategy. It had to be as substantial as the soil below our feet. It also had to umbrella the diverse components of the movement as much as possible while also resonating with the public and not sounding too wonky. A tall order!

For me, an answer arrived suddenly in early 2014 when I visited this place:

This is Singing Frogs Farm, located near Sebastopol, in northern California, owned and operated by Paul and Elizabeth Kaiser. I went there because I was intrigued by the Kaisers’ success at pioneering an innovative practice called year-round farming. Typically, farmers harvest one or two crops each year and then let the land idle until the following spring. That’s what the Kaisers did when they purchased the land in 2007. Neither one had a farming background, though Paul Kaiser had a degree in agroforestry.

As it turns out, their inexperience worked in their favor. After a frustrating first winter dealing with broken machinery, a drop in income, and the necessity of letting their employees go, the Kaisers decided there had to be a better way. Not bound by tradition, they invented a year-round model of farming utilizing a greenhouse to grow seedlings, lots of organic compost spread on the fields (which suppresses weeds), and year-round employees. Their novel idea: when a plant is harvested (by hand) it is immediately replaced by a seedling. It worked and the Kaisers never looked back.

I knew Singing Frogs Farm was organic, no-till, and pollinator-friendly (they planted lots of hedgerows). I also knew they sold their crops through a Community-Supported Agriculture model, which meant they were local. I knew the farm was very profitable too. Paul was on record saying they grossed over $100,000 per crop acre per year. In comparison, a typical organic farm in California grosses between $12,000 and $20,000 per crop acre. That meant Singing Frogs was doing really well!

I knew that the Kaisers considered themselves to carbon farmers having successfully elevated the carbon content of their soil from two to six percent (which is a lot) through their composting and no-till practices. During my visit, I learned that the key was growing the microbial population in the soil, which tripled under the Kaisers’ stewardship. Everything flowed from this vibrant underground world they had fostered – crops, profits, and a high quality-of-life for themselves and their children.

The word they used to describe what was happening on the farm was regeneration. That’s when the light bulb went off for me! Life, biology, carbon, round-and-round. Of course! Here’s a photo of Kaisers:

Words matter. Here’s what various dictionaries say about the word regenerate: to be formed or created again; to be renewed to a better, higher, or more worthy state; to be spiritually reborn; to generate or produce anew, especially after an injury; to restore to original strength or properties; to revive, reform, rekindle, rejuvenate, reconstruct, redeem, reawaken, or reanimate.

Its roots trace back to the Latin word regeneratus which means ‘created again.’ It first appears in English in 1550s and was used in a religious context. Shakespeare uses the word in a secular capacity in Richard II when Bolingbroke (the future King Henry IV) says to his father John of Gaunt “O thou, the earthly author of my blood / Whose youthful spirit in me regenerate.”

This was the word I was looking for – I mean, why try to ‘sustain’ yourself when you can regenerate instead!

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

Resources:

Video:

Here is a presentation by Paul Kaiser titled ‘Soil is Life, Tillage is Death: a Future with No-till Vegetable Agriculture’ from the 2014 Quivira Coalition conference (see).

Web sites:

Regeneration organizations:

COURTNEY’S CORNER

~ To the (many) new subscribers of Terra Firma: on my web site you’ll find tons of information about ranching, farming, conservation, and other hopeful work involving land and people over the span of nearly thirty years of writing and activism. See: http://jcourtneywhite.com/

~ 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 - an English meadow to warm your heart in the middle of winter:

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.

#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!”

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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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