We Have Data. Where’s Yours?
When I was growing up in the Nebraska’s Sandhills, neighbors were spread out. Our closest was 4 miles away and the 7 families comprising the members of our 4-H group encompassed about 240 square miles. Neighbors got together to fix the phone line, brand calves and enjoy calf fries, and attend our one-room country school Christmas programs. We didn’t see one another too often and everybody pretty much did their own thing.
After school was out each year and before haying started, my mother would send us to summer vacation bible school. We would stay with the minister and his family. It was about an 8 or ten-block walk from their house to the church. At 10 years old, I could catch my horse, ride several miles, and pick up a bum calf to bring back to the headquarters but that ten-block walk, through a town, was simply terrifying. I mean, there were like two-thousand people and it seemed like there were so many houses on streets going this way and that.
My neighbor, Danny, heard that I was going to stay in town for a week and leveled the worst insult any of us could imagine. He said, “So, you’re going to be a townkid, huh?” Simply devastating.
I was walking to the minister’s house after bible school one day and a big kid from bible school jumped out from behind a bush, grabbed me, and threw me down on the ground.
He said, “Why don’t you take your pointy boots and funny talk and get outta town!”
I didn’t like being a townkid. For the rest of the week, I kept an eye on that bush, like a horse veering around a rattlesnake. I wanted to get back into the country where people left you alone.
Left alone or Let alone?
The world keeps getting smaller. When I was a kid, my dad had the freedom to smoke a cigarette almost anywhere he wanted. Now, people have the freedom to inhale smokeless air. When I was a kid, you could use private property and graze a creek however you wanted. Now, people have a right to clean water. We used to be able to extract public resources as if we owned them and now endangered species have precedence, even on private land.
How do we operate when agencies, special interests, and even neighbors won’t leave us alone?
For generations, we got a free pass. Ranchers and farmers got the benefit of the doubt. Maybe we were even honored? But as awareness and the community closed in, we became more responsible for the outcomes of our actions. And when I look at the concerns, fresh air, clean water, and species diversity, I agree. We have a responsibility.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) set up permanent trend and condition transects on one of our allotments in Wyoming. As the data collected over 15 years, the BLM increased our permit by 260%, as the rangeland health improved. We had another BLM allotment that was a higher percentage of private land and the BLM would not set up transects. So, we did. We leased a neighbor ranch and established more permanent transects.
The following spring, we rolled out our Holistic Grazing Plan to the Coordinated Resource Planning group, including many diverse interests from our community. Our Holistic Planned Grazing tactics were not initially well received by a wildlife habitat interest.
As they finished their anti-livestock case and paused my wife, Andrea said, “We have data. Where’s yours?”
Checkmate. Our grazing plan was approved, with the assumption that we continue monitoring rangeland health.
In a world of melting biodiversity, an unstable climate, dying soil, increasing auto-immune disease, and rampant obesity, we cannot expect to be left alone. We need to figure these things out.
Expecting the Unexpected
Holistic Management’s feedback loop asks us to assume we are wrong. We ask this so we can identify the first variable flagging us that we are veering off course. The simple and obvious early warning indicators are increasing bare ground, less species diversity, more undesirable plants, shrinking working capital, escalating debt to asset ratio, increased grazing periods, frayed relationships, and increased conflict.
These are simple, measurable, and obvious. But what about the factors that are not as obvious?
“We can’t see something until we’ve seen it,” says Spencer Smith, from the Savory Institute Jefferson Hub. Keep fresh eyes coming to look at your project and they will inevitably point out something you were blind to. Then, as Spencer points out, we will see it everywhere. It’s like when you are a kid and you learn a new spelling word. You see it everywhere and wonder how you could have possibly communicated without knowing it. Or like the first time, Kirk Gadzia showed me bare ground. I’d been riding the range for years and never really noticed bare ground. After Kirk pointed it out, I was quantifying bare ground all of the time. Ah Hah!
Toward that end, we recently held a couple of monitoring gatherings, designed to bring fresh eyes to old habits. The first weekend, several eyes, connected to minds, circled through our place to read some old Land EKG transects.
Our good friend and maverick of soil health monitoring, Peter Donovan, led the weekend rereading the transects and resampling some of the first Soil Carbon Challenge plots. Peter has the rare ability to boil complexity down and dilute the noise.
Peter also invited agroecologist, Nicole Masters who we found so engaging at the Regenerate conference hosted by Holistic Management International, The Quivira Coalition, and America Grassfed Association last year. Being a systems thinker and story teller of the underground, Nicole brought a keen eye and new awareness to the new property.
To round out our gathering, rangeland ecologist and fifth-generation cattle rancher Dallas Defrees, came with her encyclopedic recognition of plants. She rolls down the point intercept line rattling off the species and then comes back and can holistically explain interactions between functional groups of plants.
As we wandered through our pastures identifying every plant because Dallas was there, Nicole encouraged us to dig holes. At one place she pointed out a 3-4 inch thatch, on the surface had roots growing horizontal rather than rooting down. Nicole suggested that it might take several years for microbial activity to break up and decompose the thatch so roots could go deeper.
That may explain what happened on the Dairy Pen from year 4 through 9, but we didn’t have the awareness that Nicole brought at the time we established that transect. Nicole said that we were sitting on a gold mine, just break up that thatch and plants will root down and grow up. Ah Hah!
After nine years of Holistic Planned Grazing, the Dairy Pen transect had a very positive trend in production. Here is a one pager detailing our results in one pasture.
With new awareness for how to manage this soil type and hydrophytic plants, we could see value in properties for sale. Ah Hah!
Andrea, Spencer and Isidora Molina from the Chilean Hub, Effecto Manada, set up new Ecological Outcome Verification (EOV) transects on the property. There is nothing like baseline data to clear your perceptions. I simply knew, for a fact, that an upland site would be bare ground. Though Andrea kept on saying we can’t ignore the uplands of our new ranch, I kept on insisting on the 80/20 rule. As we started collecting the data, we found many perennial grass species and even seedlings. There was very little if any bare ground. Ah Hah!
Bottom line, we can quantify and qualify what we are managing. We can track change and even manage the change we want. It’s not mysterious. Data moves us beyond fear and superstition and we become more curious. Rather than, “Oh no,” it’s “Ah-Ha!”
We don’t know what we don’t know. Monitoring provides an opportunity to identify what we don’t know.
One thing we do know that’s begging for change is to better manage our soil. Much of our nation’s soil has been reduced to dirt and simply exists to hold plants erect as technology “mainlines” drugs to grow our food. As a result, people’s health suffers. We are learning that people health links to soil health. More and more people are developing an auto-immune disease. Glyphosate has become linked to liver disease. Sick soils contribute to sick people.
Just a few years ago, we could spray herbicides and use pesticides, as we wanted. Now, some question the safety of our food and they’re asking questions. GMOs add to the confusion. I don’t think we should leave us alone until we consciously take steps to build healthy soil. Mainstream farming practices are being scrutinized, but not urban living?
Being a Townkid
Part of our place lies within the city limits. I mean, I am really a town kid. In town, we have ordinances and they all have a reason. One ordinance that we are presently in violation of involves grasses and weeds over 10” tall. From an agriculture and ecosystem health perspective we want tall grass because the height of the grass is indicative of how deep the roots are. The ordinance seems to be after appearance rather than soil health. City folk spray herbicides, such as glyphosate based lawn and garden products to kill dandelions and other unseemly plants. Pretty lawns are more important than healthy.
We have some Canada Thistle going to seed. Some of our neighbors want us to spray or mow them. There is a huge misunderstanding that plagues our ability to truly regenerate the land. The idea that plants going to seed are the problem misses the important concept of the biological weak link. The biological weak link asks us to stress a problem species at the weakest point of its life cycle. The biological weak link also asks us to care for the desired species at the weakest point of its life cycle. That is usually the point of germination. The first step towards fewer weeds and healthier soil means covering the soil surface. A covered soil surface invites diverse perennial plants to crowd out the weeds.
Another important factor of weed management gets lost in the weeds. Weeds and annuals are a critical step in healing disturbed ground. Weeds begin the nurturing necessary to break capped, plated, and compacted soil. Simple soils need simple plants to begin the process of diversity and complexity. I would rather have Canada thistle, dandelion, cheatgrass, or even knapweed than I would bare ground. Anything that can capture sunlight, photosynthesize, penetrate and cover soil is better than bare ground.
We discussed these points with Doug, the city administrator and pointed out that our monitoring data demonstrated a positive ecological trend. We discussed the dilemma of being zoned agriculture but regulated by city ordinance. Doug was not dogmatic at all and discussed the situation from the point of a practical need. He said the 10-inch height was directed to prevent fire more than aesthetics.
We continue working with Marilyn, the code enforcement person working toward a simple point. We wanted to know how we can be let alone?
Authority, Responsibility, and Accountability
Progress toward ecological regeneration and increased community well-being begins with enabling decisions at the soil surface. That enabling begins by giving the land manager the authority to make decisions, select tools, and take action to manage their charge. Enabling that decision continues with the land manager accepting responsibility for outcomes of their management. Finally, the key to being let alone sits on the credibility of the data documenting land health.
We used to rely on stories and anecdotal data. And they were better than having no context at all, but we often tend to weight our memory to make the story more dramatic. To get more credibility, we need to use a method that can be repeatable and different people getting similar readings on the same transect. If we have monitoring data, we can develop an argument. Finally, like the Dairy Pen pasture, if we can get data, over time, showing a positive trend, we truly have evidence. The evidence will provide accountability.
With evidence, the agencies, the customers, and our neighbors will trust our data, we will be let alone.
If being a town kid means that others will be sticking their nose in our business, or simply messing with us like the bible school bully, we are all town kids. We should not expect to be left alone if we do not accept authority to make decisions, be responsible for our actions, and agree to be accountable. With credible monitoring data demonstrating a trend toward healthier ecosystems, decision-makers at the soil surface can expect to be let alone to do their good work.