I had the opportunity this evening to participate in a panel discussion about careers in sustainable agriculture at UC Davis. I was the only animal agriculturist on the panel, and at the end of the evening, a young woman asked whether I thought there was a future for animal agriculture generally, and for sheep production specifically, given growing concerns over climate change and greenhouse gas emissions.
In answering her question, I realized that I've had the good fortune to find work that allows me to embrace the intersection of social science, economics, and bio-physical science. I've had the opportunity to immerse myself in the cultures and places where rangeland agriculture is practiced in California. And I've had the opportunity to engage in rangeland livestock production myself.
My somewhat tongue-in-cheek definition of rangeland, as I explained in my answer tonight, is that it is comprised of land that is too hot, too cold, too dry, too steep - too "something" - to support cultivation. The rangelands in my part of the Sierra foothills don't grow crops - but they do grow grass (more in some years than others). Some would say these lands are of marginal productivity (apparently they've never heard the frogs sing at night during lambing season - fecundity is the word that comes to mind for me). Ruminant animals, through the miracle of their digestive processes, can turn the "crop" grown on these "marginal" lands (that is, grass, forbs and brush) into muscle, fiber and milk. The lambs and wool I sell each year are the products of this conversion - renewable products that benefit my community and the world. Properly managed, grazing animals (like my sheep) also benefit the environment - my sheep help keep invasive weeds in check. Grazing can help reduce the threat of wildfire, as well. The lands my sheep graze provide habitat for a variety of wildlife - critters that wouldn't be here if these lands were converted to housing developments.
I've always rooted for underdogs, so perhaps my affinity for rangelands stems from this character trait. "Marginal" lands (like rangelands) are the "underdogs" of both agricultural and natural landscapes. Rangelands can't grow more valuable crops. Until recently, rangelands weren't considered recreational or aesthetic assets, either. Since rangeland productivity varies greatly depending on annual weather (on our local foothill rangelands, annual grass growth can vary from less than 1,000 pounds of grass per acre to nearly 5,000 pounds per acre - depending largely on the amount and timing of precipitation), ranching has always required a combination of courage and resignation. Some years we guess right - many years, we don't. Consequently, many of us are conservative (with a lower-case "c") by nature - we don't take too many chances. Gambling is bad for business - and bad for our rangelands.
Circling back to the question tonight, I realized while driving home from Davis that I'm most at home working on these rangeland landscapes. I'm happiest working with (and more importantly, learning from) people who have spent lifetimes working on these landscapes. In my fiftieth year, I've arrived at a profession than matches my avocation - I have the good fortune to be doing research and education work centered on rangeland agriculture. And I have the added good fortune to be engaged in rangeland agricultural production myself. I'm truly at home on the range.
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