Once upon a time there was a small house on a small ranch in the middle of a big valley. Halfway to the sky and surrounded by tall mountains, the valley was often cold, sometimes hot, and almost always dry.
A man and a woman lived there, with their cats, dogs, horses and cows. They worked hard and knew what they worked for: happy land, happy cows, happy people, happy everything.
The peoples who had lived and traveled through this valley for eons knew that water could fling itself up into the sky if you dug a hole in the right place. This underground water was so close to the surface that a sea of grasses thick with nourishing seed heads grew across the valley. A harsh place, the valley was also generous.
One year the rain hardly fell. The same the next. And the next. Would it ever rain again?
The man and the woman tried all sorts of things to figure out what they could do differently to live in an even drier place.
They walked the land, and watched and listened. They changed their vision statement. They tried Appreciative Inquiry. Gross Profit Analysis. Gross Happiness Analysis. High-Density Mob Grazing. Direct Marketing.
Still, it didn’t rain. Everyday they looked at the sky and hoped, but all they saw was the same pale blue sky. The farmers with their big center-pivot sprinklers kept pumping the water from the ground, further drying up the land until the cottonwoods and heirloom apple trees, even the tenacious plants that need little water to thrive, were turning to dust and blowing to Kansas.
So the man and the woman decided to seek for wisdom in the unknown.
Change is upon us
The old-timers say they’ve never seen weather like this: record heat, drought and flood. Wells are drying up, and the aquifer has dropped two million acre-feet below the original water table.
Agricultural practices, the result of generations of collective experience with a particular piece of land, no longer work. How are we to raise food while we enhance the health of our land when the weather rages in unpredictable extremes? Whatever the cause, climatic instability is the new norm.
In 2003, during the last “worst drought in 700 years,” George and I learned that our survival depends on our ability to turn outward rather than hunker down with what we already know and close ourselves off from everyone else who is in trouble. We learned that hardship forces change, but that if we embrace the upheaval, we are more likely to find inspiration, mentors and allies. As Paul Hawken states in Blessed Unrest, “Inspiration is not garnered from the recitation of what is flawed; it resides, rather, in humanity’s willingness to restore, redress, reform, rebuild, recover, reimagine and reconsider.”
We’re in This Together
Perhaps the most important thing we realized back in 2003 was that everything we do is about relationship. We work with the cows, the sun, the grass, private landowners, federal agencies. We are dependent on earthworms, dung beetles and ecological processes.
Relationship is a basic building principle of living organisms. Life is made up of complex webs that create larger complex systems of interconnected elements. Organisms continually respond to their neighbors, assembling themselves into a diversity of life forms that develop intelligence by responding to the new information this diversity offers. The more relationships, the more possibilities for successful adaptation. If we are to find solutions to the problems we face, we need to do as nature does, evolve in relationship with people and ideas that stretch us beyond our comfort zone.
George and I inadvertently did this when we fell in love. I grew up in a small city, began acting lessons at seven, spent every summer day at the beach, and wanted to be a dryad (a tree spirit). George grew up on the family sheep ranch in the high lonesome San Luís Valley, playing in the dirt, building “Freeze Bugs” from old car parts, and walking behind the sheep from the valley floor to the high country every summer. I never had a date in high school because I was shy. He didn’t have one because he went to school smelling like the milk cow. I protested the Vietnam War; he wanted to enlist.
Everywhere in nature, you find examples of diverse species living together in mutually supportive relationships. George and I are the same species, but the differences were and continue to be real. Yet we have found that our creativity, strength and momentum as a team is far greater than we ever had individually.
Navigating Terra Incognita
We don’t think anyone knows how to navigate the changes that are upon us. It’s as if we are explorers facing Terra Incognita—sailing across seas with no charts, no guarantees that we’ll find a safe harbor out in the unknown. I’d prefer a little more certainty, myself.
While there aren’t magic beans or magic pasture plans that offer us a sure-fire way to survive, there are a few things that give us hope.
- People learn quickly when they realize that their happiness depends on new skills and information.
- We learn best when engaged with others who are also learning.
- Nature has already solved many of the problems we are dealing with—energy, food production, climate stability—with millions of examples, evolved in context, tested over eons and shown to be safe for generations into the future.
The teacher is among us; she always has been.
The Third Kind of Solution
Hardship forces us from known practices, leading to inspired solutions we would never consider in easier times. In his essay “Solving for Pattern,” Wendell Berry implored us to look for “the third kind of solution.” The first kind of solution is that which, while solving the initial problem, cause a series of new and additional problems. Sprinkler irrigation is a case in point: sprinklers solved the problem of inconsistent rainfall but led to dewatering the aquifer, water tables so reduced that streams don’t run, and adversarial relations between once-friends. The second kind of solution worsens the initial problem—a big tractor lets you cultivate more ground, leading to the need for a bigger tractor, requiring more production to pay for it. A bad solution, Berry says, is bad because it compromises the larger patterns in which it is contained—“the health of the soil, of plants and animals, of farm and farmer, of farm family and farm community, all involved in interlocking pattern—patterns of patterns.”
The third kind of solution is “is good because it is in harmony with those larger patterns.”
It recognizes limitations, improves the symmetries in living systems—human relationships as well as ecological processes, solves multiple problems with one action, and doesn’t enrich one person at the expense of another.
The Land Institute’s Wes Jackson calls agriculture “humanity’s original sin,” and believes that, as agriculture is responsible for much of the harm humans have done to our world, it has a leading role to play in rectifying these wrongs. Combining Jackson’s call to action with Berry’s definition of a good solution, how are we creating that third kind of solution?
George began altering his land practices in the 1980s, reducing the amount of irrigation water and fossil fuel needed by his ranch while increasing its biodiversity.
In 2003 we began taking on interns, and in 2008 hired our first yearlong apprentice and began working with the Quivira Coalition to create the New Agrarian Program. We’ve graduated four New Agrarian apprentices, and our fifth is halfway through his year with us. These young people support our ranch with hard work and passion for a life on the land. They ask questions that don’t occur to us because they haven’t grown up in agriculture. They give us hope in return for the skills and opportunity they need.
Sweet Grass Co-op is a group of small-scale ranchers in northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado who together raise and market 100-percent grass-fed and grass-finished cattle and support each other in finding regenerative land management practices that improve our regional landscape while providing wholesome food to our communities. We currently supply fresh grass-fed meat for La Montañita Co-op and Cid’s Market in New Mexico, and a number of other customers.
We partner with organic farmers in the San Luís Valley, encouraging the planting of forage-appropriate cover crops that 1) increase soil fertility and rebuild soil structure, 2) reduce erosion and troublesome insects without the use of chemicals, and 3) provide high-quality forage for calves and finishing cattle. These farmers are trailblazing local solutions that restore our regional ecosystem and strengthen the local economy. While drought has provided the impetus, these partnerships may have lasting impacts beyond soil health and livestock on grass: we may mend the division between the pastoral and agrarian worlds.
The Creativity of Limitation
Our society ignores limits if it can. But limits have their purpose: without the limiting structure of a riverbank, a river would be a shallow spreading pool. Duke Ellington, hearing that his trumpet player could play only a handful of notes, incorporated the limits into his compositions, and from this adaptation his distinctive sound arose.
We all will benefit by becoming “biomimics”: using the basic functions and patterns of nature, including limitation, as our creative muse and the yardstick by which we measure the integrity of our choices. As simple as these might sound, they become profound when considered as foundations for our social, political, economic, agricultural and personal choices.
We’re asking new questions: Is it time to change to sheep or goats, animals adapted to drier lands? How will the microhabitats in the meadows shift, and how can we shift with them? A recent apprentice, Martha Skelley, designed a future land plan for our farm and ranch, merging Permaculture principles with Holistic Decision Making. Sparked by her plan, Drew Cole, our current apprentice, is helping to implement Martha’s plan, adding his interest in sustainable architecture and his experience on farms in Italy that have been in active production for several hundred years.
In the “once-upon-a-time” of our own lives, we are the only heroes. The demon of drought, the challenge of climate change, is ours to address—it is the work we are all called to, those in agriculture and those who eat. A hero isn’t necessarily smarter or braver than anyone else; she is simply the one who chooses—chooses to answer the call. We may choose badly; we have been choosing badly, as a species. An honest apprenticeship to Nature will help us remember, in our genes and souls, how to explore, invent and adapt in order to make a living and a livelihood. We can find our way through Terra Incognita by remembering that we are a part of a larger living system, and remembering older ways of agrarian and pastoral practice, as well as discovering new ways.
When the hero or heroine sets out in a folk tale in search of answers and assistance, there is no guarantee that she’ll find what she seeks. The only thing we do know is how fully the hero engages in the quest: whether she accepts the challenge the world presents to her, as well as the challenge to grow as a person and, if she fails, as Theodore Roosevelt once said, at least she fails by “daring greatly.”
This article is adapted from a presentation for the 2012 Quivira Coalition Conference given by Ms. Sullivan and her husband, George Whitten, who own and operate the San Juan Ranch near Saguache, Colo. They can be reached at email@example.com