Sunday, May 20, 2018

Long Term Stewardship in a Short Term World

My two favorite farmer-writers, Wendell Berry and James Rebanks, often write about the agrarian importance of long-term attachment to place. Berry, from Kentucky, is part of a farming community that has existed for centuries. Rebanks, from England, raises sheep on pastures that have known his family's sheep for much longer than that. Both eloquently describe the commitment to and knowledge of the land that comes from this multi-generational tenure. As a Californian, and as a farmer in whom the farming gene lay dormant for several generations, I sometimes find myself envious of the ties that farmers like Berry or Rebanks have to their places. Sometimes I feel that no matter how carefully I farm or how observantly I watch the world around me, I'll never know the places where my sheep graze as intimately as someone whose family has been on the land for centuries. And yet, as I watch some of the successful first-generation farmers in my community - and as I watch my own ranching endeavors, I'm hopeful that careful and observant farming can lead to this deep-rooted knowledge of place here in the Sierra foothills.

For me, one of the great challenges to developing a durable commitment to the land in a place like Auburn is the economic value of the land itself. In California, as in much of the West, farming and ranching are often seen as interim land uses - agricultural land is simply inventory for future development to a "higher and better" use (usually houses). Because of this, real estate values typically outstrip the agricultural production value of the land - in simpler terms, farmers and ranchers can't afford to purchase land based on what it will grow. New farmers and ranchers (and 15 years into my ranching career, I consider myself a new rancher) typically must rent the land they farm.

Even with the most iron-clad, long-term written lease and most supportive landlord, many ranchers (myself included, at times) have difficulty justifying long-term (and I mean multi-generational long-term) thinking given the insecure nature of our tenure on the land. Why should I invest time, money and worry in land that someone else might own next week? Why should I invest in these things if my landlord might lease to someone who offers more money next year?

For my part, I always try to take a longer-term view of my stewardship of other people's land, as well as my own. Based on conversations with other ranchers and observations of their management, I think most of us do. Despite the often thin economic returns from grazing livestock, most of us are motivated to ranch as much for our love of the land and our animals as for economic reasons. For me, the work is too hard and the risks are too great to continue to ranch without this long-term commitment to stewardship - even on land that I know I may not be able to graze next year.

However, sometimes our long-term goals can conflict with the short-term needs of our landlords - reducing wildfire danger is just one example. Some of the landowners for whom we graze would prefer that we graze off all of the annual vegetation before fire season starts in June. While fire hazard is a consideration in our management planning, we're also concerned about having enough dry forage to return to in the fall - we look at this dry grass as a standing hay crop as well as a potential fire threat. To address these paradoxical objectives, we prioritize our summer grazing to protect homes while reserving other areas for fall grazing.

We seem to be living in an era that emphasizes immediate gratification, which makes farming and ranching all the more unusual. The decisions I made last fall about which rams to put with which ewes will influence the genetic makeup and quality of my flock for the rest of my ranching life. Similarly, our grazing management decisions about how long to graze an area, how long to rest pastures, and which season to use specific pieces of land - in other words, our entire approach to grazing management - will influence the quality of our grazing land next fall, next year, and for many years to come.

To make these decisions, a rancher must know his or her livestock and landscapes intimately. These are complex natural, social and economic systems, and operationally-specific knowledge only comes with years of careful observation and record-keeping on the part of the rancher. I'm often reminded that I won't always get these decisions right, but because I ranch for the long-term, I'll have another chance to try. And livestock must know the the land as well as the rancher. Our sheep know the landscapes that they graze - having watched generations of our ewes graze the same lands for more than a decade now (a blink of the eye to someone like James Rebanks), I realize that they have spatial and temporal memories just as I do.

In the face of a changing climate, I believe that farmers and ranchers are crucial agents of adaptation. We deal with changes - on the land, in the environment, in the weather - on a daily, weekly and annual basis. When our conversations move beyond the politics of climate change, I am always struck by the creativity and intensity that farmers and ranchers bring to the discussion of adaptation. Long-term stewardship, I think, even in the face of uncertain tenure on the land, requires us to constantly adapt. The practical, problem-solving focus of farmers and ranchers is critical to our future - well beyond the fact that all of us need to eat.

Our small-scale sheep operation won't solve the world's problems (climate, or otherwise). That said, we're blessed at the moment with landlords who appreciate and share our long-term focus and commitment to their land. And this gives me great hope - that there are others in our community who value long-term stewardship suggests that we might move beyond our society's short-term focus.

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