#EarthDay2014: Green Acres to Green Cities

Earth Day. The hippies started it in the 70’s, and the hipsters carry on the tradition today. The goal of environmental awareness remains constant, but I’ve noticed a shift in how people participate. The large scale protest has been replaced with sponsored Earth Day marathons, and highly-share-able infographics and digital tools instructing on how to be green zip across the web through social media. I’m liking the focus on “green cities” the movement is taking, empowering people to make practical changes in their own lives and communities. I tend to find taking ownership in your own roll on an issue a lot more valuable than casting stones toward “the others”.

While the focus is on green cities, we keep our attention on our green acres, how to continue to raise beef to provide city consumers.

While the focus is on green cities, we keep our attention on our green acres and how to continue to raise beef to provide urban consumers.

There is at least one angle of the modern environmental movement that I can’t personally get down with. It’s the self-loathing I notice in my generation, which seems pretty concerned with the environmental impact of the water they use and the food they choose (you know, basic needs), yet participate in so many modern electives in fashion, technology, entertainment and other optionals. Feels a little schitzo to me. And the way it plays out gets a little annoying – with buying habits transitioning to favor vague labeling terms like “local” and “sustainable” instead of an effort to truly understand the whys and hows of modern farming and ranching. Eating is one of those things that people can’t opt-out from, so they look for products that feel good to them. Here in Washington, we produce over 300 types of food crops. Other than when you are jonesin’ for some citrus or tropical fruit, it’s remarkably easy to “eat local” here – from crops in season, to many frozen or canned products you’ll find on any old grocery store isle.

Washington is also unique in that we have ranches like ours, feedyards, and beef processing facilities that create a naturally local/regional production model.

Washington is also unique in that we have ranches like ours, feedyards, and beef processing facilities that create a naturally local/regional production model from start to finish.

Food production is one of those areas where the Earth Day movement perhaps perpetuates myths and some poor assumptions about “the others” (the 1-2% of farmers and ranchers responsible for producing food for consumers) and modern farming and ranching practices. One area where we’ve fairly invisibly contributed to the environmental movement is our efforts to truly measure the environmental impact of raising beef. This is significant, because without this true measurement, it would be impossible to understand if we are sustainable, improving, or heading in the wrong direction. While the Eat Low Carbon quiz is really, um, interesting (DYK — lamb curry is destroying the planet, but chicken tikka masala is a totally conscientious choice!? LOL.), it lacks quite a bit of context.

Modern farming and ranching seems like it gets a poor rap in conversations about the environment and sustainability in favor of a glorification of urban gardens (which are cool, but inherently limited) and going back to farming practices of earlier eras. The results of a Washington State University study by Dr. Jude Capper comparing the environmental impact and resource use in producing beef in 1977 versus 2007 would help us draw different, more complex conclusions about how we raise beef and attempt to feed 9 billion people by 2050.

Production

Our efforts to truly understand the amount of resources it takes to raise beef, and whether or not we are on the right track of an environmentally sustainable production model will continue, and I think this is an important investment we make as cattle farmers and ranchers.

Those are my personal thoughts about Earth Day as a millenial and a rancher. Here are a few ways I see our efforts on behalf of the environment play out on our ranch. Hint – most of these have duel environmental and economic benefits to the ranch. This is a much more common thread around here than profit actually interfering with stewardship.

1. We recycle a lot of crap

The containers that hold mineral supplements where cattle are grazing are made of old tires and plywood.

The containers that hold mineral supplements where cattle are grazing are made of old tires and plywood.

Everybody can do this in their own daily life, and there are just a lot of ways old materials get reused and re-purposed around the ranch. Why buy it when you can make it?

2. Holistic management and intensive grazing

These cattle are grazing a paddock of a pasture for a set number of days intended to improve the productivity of the range and the health of the native grasses season by season.

These cattle are grazing a paddock of a pasture for a set number of days intended to improve the productivity of the range and the health of the native grasses season by season.

Pop has studied and subscribed to the benefits of holistic management and intensive grazing since the 1980’s. An environmental scientist named Allan Savory has studied grassland management all across the world, and many of his findings in management philosophy apply to our dry, rocky range land. He gave a fantastic TED Talk about this subject, titled “How to fight desertification and reverse climate change” and the conclusion, surprising to many, involves high-volume livestock grazing to enhance the water and nutrient absorption on dry lands, which restores the productivity and health of native plants and grasses. His work has really significant implications globally, but the principles apply equally well to the sustainability of grazing on our ranch.

3. Multi-generational continuity of management

During certain times of the year it looks like we are running a deer farm. They like it here.

During certain times of the year it looks like we are running a deer ranch. They like it here.

One of the benefits I see to farming and ranching being a vocation passed down through the generations is the continuity of knowledge and experience that results. Pop and Rancher are aware from their own experience and the previous generations’ accounts of times when the wildlife populations have thrived and when they have thinned. All of that combined knowledge and experience allows us to be good managers in our time here. Being surrounded by different species of game, birds, and fish is a total job perk we don’t take for granted.

4. A focus on the future

RB is learning rapidly already!

RB is learning rapidly already!

Farming and ranching is set apart in our new economy of start-ups and investment-flipping. The land and resources we have here on the ranch are the most valuable assets of our business, which is a trade we want to keep available to our kids should they choose the work and the life we have. On an asset inventory, buildings and machines and implements are valued by the dollar, but those tools come and go. The main, irreplaceable, priceless asset we have is the land and resources here. We work to treat it that way accordingly, and pass that philosophy down by generation. If we can all teach our children through our example to be mindful stewards, this planet of ours is probably going to be just fine!

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