Producing Food and Capturing Carbon
An interview with Ariel Greenwood, a “feral agrarian” and grazer who manages a herd of cattle while restoring ecosystems.
Describe where you work.
I live and work on a 3,000-acre research preserve in the inter-coastal Mayacamas mountain range region of Sonoma County. Pepperwood has around 1,000 acres of open grassland, another several hundred of mixed oak woodland mosaic, deciduous and evergreen, and some serpentine outcropping, and then some dense dark woodlands. We actually have, I think, the eastern most stand of redwoods in the County. There’s a lot of bay trees and scrubby chaparral too in its own natural state. It’s a really breathtaking and in many ways really challenging landscape.
Pepperwood is a private operating research and ecological preserve. Really, every aspect from the vegetation to the soil to the broader watershed, and then even more largely the climate that we’re situated in is monitored and researched here with staff and other visiting researchers, so it’s very much a progressive conservation-oriented place. This is considered quite a robust eco-tone, the meeting of several different environments.
How does holistic management differ from conventional thinking and methodology?
It’s a broad question, because holistic management is a pretty broad comprehensive platform. But essentially holistic management is a way of managing complexity; it emerged from Allan Savory who is a Zimbabwean biologist and researcher in Africa as a way to attend to some of the problems that were plaguing ranches and grassland preserves in that area. What he found was that while people may profess to have certain values, we often do not manage our projects or ourselves in a way to actually honor those values and those goals.
Here, what that means for our planned grazing is that we regularly compare notes with the preserve about what its goals are in grazing. I graze for a company called Holistic Ag. We are a separate entity from Pepperwood, but we are essentially operating their conservation grazing program. The goal of that program is to steward grasslands, and that looks like many different things, but it’s all predicated on the notion that grasslands need grazing in order to stay healthy. So the grazing here is intended to mitigate the spread of invasive exotic annual grasses and other species. It’s intended to propagate and revitalize native bunchgrasses like Stipa pulchra. It’s intended to improve soil condition and water holding capacity, to mitigate the spread of coyote brush, which in turn mitigates the spread of Douglas fir.
Holistic Ag, of course, has its own goals on top of that. The herd was formed as an ecosystems services company, but because we are doing this with domestic cattle and have to be able to pay for the expense of doing so, we produce and sell beef, which I market under my own brand, Circle A Beef. That means we have to keep our animals healthy. There’s that added layer of complexity, but all of that is intended to be harmonized with the outstanding ecological goal of the place.
So, holistic management allows us to discover those goals, articulate those goals, and then test our decisions against those goals. A really important principle I find very hard to practice, but nonetheless very important in holistic management, is this idea that you’re supposed to assume that you are wrong, so you are actually looking for evidence that you’re right rather than assuming you’re right and, as it often turns out, avoiding evidence that you are wrong.
Because it’s so complex here in California, especially in the Mayacamas, and because we are in not only seasonally dry and wet areas, but pretty significant hills, just moving cattle sensitively across the landscape is another layer of complexity.
Holistic management is just a way to check all of our decisions and make sure they are in keeping with our actual goals. I find that if we didn’t have goals, it would be so easy to drift from our mission. Holistic management puts ecology on the forefront. That is one thing that is kind of non-negotiable with holistic management, whether it is managing a company, a ranch, or a research preserve, or all of those combined. The idea is that if you are managing for the whole, you can’t externalize costs, and the most easily externalized cost is the environmental cost. Social cost is often pretty invisible too.
You said holistic management is how you manage yourself too. How has that informed how you go about your work?
Something I discovered through this is that I really love working with large animals specifically. I’ve never been as excited about sheep or goats as I am cattle. It’s not even the fact that they’re cattle. The fact that they’re large and they can do a lot of damage or a lot of good depending on how you manage them is very exciting to me.
There’s a whole part of my mind, that really comes online when working this intimately with nature, with phenology, with weather, with animals, soil and so on. There are levels and layers of intuition and instinct that– at least in my life, that I’ve not had the opportunity to emerge until I began to engage with this work. That’s been very humbling and exciting at the same time.
How do you read your landscape? How do you go about understanding what the landscape is offering in all of its dynamics?
It kind of depends on the questions I’m asking. If I’m standing at a knoll on the preserve and looking across at an area I might graze, there are a few things I’ll notice before even posing any questions. One is where the shade points might be, because shade matters to the herd when it’s hot. This time of year, the grass is shifting from its growth period to its senescence in dry period. I’m looking at how much brown there is, how much green, what species are growing in different places, because that tells me a lot about the soil, the hydrology of the given acre that I’m staring across.
I’m often asking questions like: Where can I run fence lines? Where can I move cattle without fence? Where can I run water pipe? Where will I need to put in vents for my water pipes? How can I bring material on the ATV or on foot? How much time is it going to take to do one thing versus another, and what will most achieve my goal? I’m looking for wildlife, signs of deer activity, because if there’s deer activity I won’t put my fences up so far in advance, because I’ll just confuse them or they’ll get caught in it or mess it up. I’m looking at wildlife corridors, hard-wired fence lines and seeing if they need to be repaired.
The most implicit overarching question is just simply how does this need to be grazed and am I able to pull that off. Some hill sides need a lot more restorative, sensitive grazing, others can take a lot more impact. Time of year matters significantly in that respect. How dry is the ground? How wet is the ground? All of these questions in anticipation of moving 120,000 pounds of animal across the area.
Now that you’ve been on that land for at least a few years, what’s the difference in what you see now than when you first started?
I really like that question. The first thing I developed an eye for were perennial bunchgrasses. There are a few species here we’re trying to manage for and improve the recruitment for. Now I can see them hiding out even in dense growing exotic annuals. That was very fun to see, once I got an eye for that.
I now notice things like how much litter is covering a soil versus thatch. Thatch is just kind of the plant growing and shedding its own lignified material over time. Litter is what I’ve actually put down on the soil with the herd. If I can see litter remaining year after year, that’s very exciting to me. That means I’m doing my job. I’m not leaving too much, but I’m leaving enough and it’s cycling through.
It’s been fun to watch oak woodlands. I’ve been doing some oak woodland grazing and grazing animals on the species called Festuca californica, which is a native bunchgrass. It grows in deciduous oak stands that traditionally have either had more large animals in them, or have been burned by native people. Lacking the impact of either, the Fescue tends to grow over itself. I’ve come across a lot of dead Fescue plants that probably died within the past two years because their growth point becomes so thatched over that the new shoots can’t actually reach light or even oxygen. So taking the cows in and doing some experimental grazing that we’re monitoring and then taking them out and seeing how that plant bounces back is really exciting.
So now I would say I have a lens for plants that need animal impact, and asking why they haven’t received it yet on this land base, especially if I’ve already grazed an area. Then I think: Do I need to be grazing at a higher density? What’s the deal there?
In some ways this can be a very punishing environment. It gets very hot, hilly and dry heading into the time of year. But it’s also because of those factors, it needs a lot of rehabilitative grazing. It needs a lot more care. It’s been very damaged by lack of grazing or over-grazing, lazy grazing for a long time. And I know why, because it’s physically difficult and sometimes emotionally and financially difficult to graze areas that deserve to be grazed.
Every once in a while I’ll notice new little things, new species, and then I’ll have this like paradigm-shifting thing I’ll notice that scrambles everything.
Can you talk about the impact of animals on that landscape? What happens during over-grazing and under-grazing? How does your system mimic nature?
Over-grazing means something more than just eating a lot of grass. Over-grazing generally means animals have the opportunity to come back to the same individual plants before that plant has had sufficient time to recover from the last time its vegetation was removed. When you have over-grazed situations, you often end up with plants like thistle, star thistle, bull thistle, mustard, things like this that have a very fast reproductive cycle and blitz their seeds everywhere and are unpalatable to cattle.
You also tend to have just annual grassland dominate in places. The trouble with that is that it’s not that annuals don’t have their place, it’s that when their place comes at the cost of native perennial bunchgrasses, that’s what we’re trying to reverse. Bunchgrasses are especially, as individual organisms, sensitive to repeated grazing because when the plant is vegetative as opposed to dormant, from say September through June, if a cow takes a bite out of bunchgrass or several bites, that grass will put out a flush of new growth from its energy source in its perennial root system. But if the same cow is in the same place and can come back through and eat that again, every time that happens it depletes the energy reserve of that bunchgrass before it has a chance to photosynthesize enough to rebuild those roots.
The act of eating bunchgrasses is the goal in some ways because not only do they release a lot of glomalin and root exudate that pour carbon into the soil in perpetuity, it also clears off thatch and the plant can grow. But the problem with over-grazing, which is usually achieved through what we call set stock grazing, which is where you just put a bunch of cows in, say, a 50 or 200-acre area for weeks and months at a time. That’s called selective browsing. Animals basically have the ability to come back to the same plant that they found palatable, and they’ll graze it into oblivion. That’s over-grazing.
You can also end up with situations like hard pan soil or ruined riparian areas, things like this, because the impact of cattle is like a low-grade trauma on the landscape as opposed to a high-intensity disturbance with a lot of recovery time.
Under-grazing you can actually end up with similar plant species, ironically, and some of the same conditions. It’s helpful to think about this in terms of succession. Under-grazing is sort of a recipe for one successional pathway. Usually that goes from healthy, lush grasslands to less complex grassland that begins to be populated by scrubby chaparral species. Around here it’s often baccharris [coyote brush] and Douglas fir. They end up growing large. They shade out the grasses. The soil’s exposed. They propagate. Those pioneers end up taking the successional trajectory down a different path.
Similarly with over-grazing, you are kind of retarding succession too far back. You’re never getting to this kind of midway, stable perennial bunchgrass dominated pathway. So under-grazed plants can similarly exhaust themselves because it’s as if they are not able to photosynthesize enough, but rather than being too exposed repeatedly, they are smothered and covered either with their own thatch or that of neighboring grasses.
They also can be significant fire hazards. You might have an area that is not grazed for 10 years and then a grass fire catches and completely obliterates that grassland.
But the main thing is that whether through over-grazing or under-grazing, the California grassland ecology is now so changed due to the importation of domestic cattle a couple hundred years back, and just through regular repeated disturbance that we have specific species we have to manage for, specific species we have to manage against, so to speak, or manage out of the system if we want a stable grassland community, because grasslands are so vulnerable to development, whether real estate or wine in California. I think it’s really important that we not only manage the ones we have but try to create new grasslands in areas that have been overcome with brushy species. So it’s kind of a low-grade ecological crisis if you think about how many species depend on grasslands just for their survival.
When there were large wild herds of deer or elk browsing the land, predators would come in, put pressure on the heard resulting in the herd moving that would create the balance between over and under grazing. Your role is taking the place of the predator in terms of moving the herd.
Absolutely. Through herding and electric fence, I’m basically functioning as a conscientious predator. I don’t have a predator relationship with the cattle. They know me. I leave them more than I push them. They associate me with forage and water and things like that. But in terms of the decisions I’m making in moving them, I am functioning as predator.
What that means is I’m keeping the cattle in a group, bunched up, so they practice what we call non-selective grazing. Rather than having the freedom to wander willy nilly to whatever watering hole or lush low area to eat exactly what they want, when they’re concentrated they eat more competitively, less selectively. They walk over more, so they’re laying litter down, they’re eating things they wouldn’t otherwise eat and distributing that selection pressure across the whole range of grass they’re on. It’s basically using cattle behavior, using the fact that they are prey species, to the advantage of the landscape in lieu of the predators that we used to have that would do that job for us.
Are there other ecosystem services your system?
Sure. One thing that we get really excited about that not a lot of people know about is when you manage large animals you can concentrate their impact in ways that is sort of like terra forming. For example, there are certain waterways that will be very steep. When we run fence lines and move the herd across these waterways at certain times of the year, they break down the steep inside shelf of these drainages and streams which allows that soil to resettle and reseed and vegetate such that after two or three times of this, the stream bank is henceforth stabilized. Stream bank stabilization is a byproduct of moving large animals across landscapes.
Once it’s stabilized, then perennial species such as willow can then actually have a foothold to grow and further stabilize the area. From an erosion mitigation perspective that’s valuable.
It’s also valuable just in the sort of permaculture sense of flow it, spread it, sink it. You have more gradual stream banks in more areas that divert water laterally. It’s holding more water in the soil. It’s a lot of water to pool up sometimes, which is important for wildlife, especially amphibian breeding and life cycles. Just keeping water on the landscape longer that would otherwise eventually run, in our case, into the Russian River and out again.
Another ecosystem service that we provide is simply the propagation of seeds. There are some times of the year that the Stipa pulchra, purple needlegrass, is going to seed, and the cattle graze it so its seeds mostly survive their rumen. We are spreading those seeds to other areas that didn’t have them otherwise, at least not have them in the same amount. Of course, you can say that’s happening with annual grasses too, and to some extent that’s true, but the difference between propagating a perennial versus annual grass is the perennial, once it’s established, will be there for potentially decades if not hundreds of years to come if it’s managed, whereas that annual grass will be there next year, and not necessarily again.
We’re also able to do target grazing on specific areas. One grass of concern on the watch list here Pepperwood is Medusahead, which is considered an invasive annual. It really takes over like a monoculture. It smothers others plants and creates the conditions only for its own survival. So we are able to interrupt that life cycle if we’re nearby with the herd. We graze it really hard such that it is delaying or completely removing its ability to go to seed that year.
Of course, there’s seeds in the seed banks, but if you can prevent several acres of a given exotic annual going to seed for one year, that gives everything else a chance to hold its own. It gives the perennials a chance to grow larger, gives them a chance to propagate. We’re playing competitive interference here and selecting for and against different species, depending on the context.
Something that’s really important in the grazing practices that we do is, for the most part, we never graze the same spot of turf in the same phenological period as the year prior. So the areas I’m grazing now, I’m grazing as we’re plunging into dormancy. Almost everything is dormant. Whereas last year, I was grazing it about a month-and-a-half earlier. I was leaving a lot more material behind. I was grazing it last year when the soil was softer. Now I’m grazing when the soil is harder. All of that impacts the decisions I make with the herd.
And the reason for that is to maintain the health of the plants?
Exactly. It’s to mix things up. And it goes both ways. It’s to spread and distribute benefits. It’s also to mitigate potential damage. For example, if we are interfering with grasshopper, sparrow breeding grounds because we’re running big animals through it and we’d be stepping on some nests, that means we’re not going to be doing that at the same time next year. We are a disturbance interfering with the breeding cycle of some species some times of the years on certain areas, just the way large herds of elk would and many of the large herbivores in the Pleistocene period prior to them. But that means that it’s just that spot on the preserve for just that week or two window where that’s happening, and everything else is left alone.
What is your response to the folks who say that animal production has a very impactful carbon footprint?
I would say for the most part they are right, and right to be concerned. The follow-up question is if that’s not true for all animal production across the world, when is it not true. And that really matters. I am not an advocate of eating meat just to eat meat, and I would say even if it’s grass fed, people should look very closely at their relationship between that given herd and how that herd is getting its food, just as we should be concerned about how we’re getting our food.
Unfortunately, as I’m sure you know, a lot of the data informing broad statements about what we should eat come from that which is easily measured. So it comes from, as we like to call it, industrial animal agriculture, economies of scale that rely on commodity grain for animal feed, that rely on these massive gestures of shifting one economic widget to another to produce the final product. Working at that large scale, it’s inevitable that costs will be externalized beyond what the average consumer should feel comfortable partaking in.
What I like to tell people is 1) this scale at which you’re participating in your food system really matters; and 2) you can’t make intelligent decisions about especially meat, animal products, unless you understand the bioregion that you are living in. For example, my customers are generally people who wouldn’t be eating beef if it weren’t for my beef, but they’ve learned about the role of managed ruminants, not just in grassland health, in soil health, but in actually sequestering carbon such that they are not just climate friendly but carbon negative. So they aren’t just doing better, but actually improving the environment relative to the global situation as a whole.
I’d say if you can’t confirm that, someone should reconsider eating meat. But also know that everything we eat has a carbon footprint. So far as I can tell, it’s only perennial agriculture and really well-managed animal agriculture that has the capacity to be carbon negative.
Think about where the data is coming from, get to know your bioregion, and then eat according to that. I’d say it’s the latter step – getting to know your bioregion or the bioregion from which your food comes from – that most of us really fall down on, because that’s really hard to do. But I think it’s our birth right and responsibility as human beings and human animals that need calories at the end of the day to take on. Once you know those things and you can be an active agent in shaping your surrounding environment, that’s sovereignty right there. If you don’t practice that privilege and that muscle, then we are just pawns in a global unconscious conspiracy. So it starts at home, at first in your bioregion.