Finding a Proper Balance

It’s all in the eyes of the beholder. Surely this is an easy way to pick a fight with almost anybody as proper and balance are such subjective words when used to describe the way we in agriculture care for the land. Zee and I started our life’s work on our V6 ranch in November of 1961. So this November we will have lived and worked here for 60 years, long enough to raise four children. Two girls, two boys, nine grandchildren and two great grandchildren. I graduated out of college as an exploiter it’s what we did, we even had a name for it, it was called Range Improvement. I was part of the clan that a century ago in the 1860s with a severe drought upon the land the cattle ate every blade of grass and still thousands of them starved to death. I was part of the clan that moved into west Texas and Oklahoma plowed up the prairies to raise a crop of wheat thus causing the great Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

1950 I was 15 years old, by 1960 I was married, had a degree in Animal Husbandry from Cal Poly, a one year old daughter, a fixer upper 2700 acre ranch west of Paso Robles, California and an exploiters attitude that equates to "if it’s in your way, cut it down, if it is a weed, spray it, an oak tree, cut it down and turn it into charcoal". There were thousands upon thousands of oaks. You only needed to go to Paso Robles to the local hardware store where you could buy a case of dynamite, blasting caps and a roll of fuse to light, then drill a few holes in the trunk, put a stick of dynamite with blasting cap attached, light the fuse, then run like hell. After “running like hell” and with a chainsaw you could make this tree, that stood in your way, into charcoal and you also had cleared an area that could now be “dry farmed”, a practice that required you to disk all the grass under leaving the soil bare to raise a crop of barley or wheat. With a trip to the U.S.D.A Farm Service Agency you could get a subsidy payment for doing so, allowing you to clear more land to get an even bigger subsidy check. Once all the flat to gently rolling land was planted with a grain crop the next to go was the steep land, that was disked and planted and the now bare soil was left exposed to whatever weather the new season brought. If a wet year followed there would be ranches that had ditches 5 feet deep down to little rills that altogether transported millions upon millions of tons of topsoil to the neighboring ranches or to the closest creek, then eventually the best and finest of the topsoil would make its way to the Pacific Ocean never to be seen again. That’s how an exploiter works and worse yet we didn’t even know we were doing anything wrong.

By the middle 1980s with the interest rate hovering around 20%, my relationship with my bank wasn’t very good and I was beginning to question many of the practices that were standards of the farming and ranching community and came to the conclusion that most times we were not farmers but miners and the same went for we cattlemen and the way we grazed our ranches.

We, that make our living by working with living things, have forgotten that quite possibly when some unwanted bug or nematode or any other soil born organisms are a problem, we look first to the standard solution which is a fungicide or herbicide or maybe one more good disking to solve the problem may not be the only answer.

Here is where Holistic Management enters the picture. Holistic Management has taught me to assume the decision I’m about to make is wrong for if I assume it to be right I will never change it. Now that I have permission to leave traditional practices behind I can question how best to care for what’s under my feet for there lies the success or demise of the human race. It’s called topsoil and the arbitrary use of toxins and tractors to solve all the different riddles that farmers encounter is not only short sighted but endangers us all. So what is the answer? I believe that we must spend much more time learning to understand how this living soil sponge, under our feet, works and that we will look first to letting this sponge of life solve many of our problems first by learning to ask the proper questions as we continue to feed clothe the world’s population and last to the standard fix that comes in a can marked with “skull and crossbones”.

To the cattlemen’s fraternity, remember it’s not how many cattle are on an acre of land but how long they are on that acre. 100 head for one day is healthy for the land but one head for 100 days is devastating, same number of head days and when I see some ranches eaten into the third layer of dirt. Whoever thinks that’s how to run a ranch is just kidding himself or herself by thinking that eating “roots and all” will somehow make you rich. My guess is that you probably failed your economics class at school and common sense and logic are not part of how you make decisions.

We’ve got to stop right now and agree that we can no longer believe that there is an inexhaustible supply of raw materials, that our present day industrial model for agriculture is the only way, is dead wrong. Mother Nature recycles every single thing on this planet we’ve got to start doing a better job ourselves, least we drown in a toxic ocean of plastic. I’ve heard that we have an “economy of exhaustion” and right now I believe this to be true but it doesn’t have to be this way.

Every acre of land is different from every other acre of land we need to demand from ourselves that we understand those differences, then we can start to follow Mother Nature’s lead on how to really practice the “Art of farming and grazing”. So instead of being adversaries of the land let’s be advocates.

See Ya


The Mustard Field captured by Lauren Varian

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