Ranching with Fire
Over the past year, we've weathered two extreme fires. Combined, they burned up 45 head of our cattle and reduced over 6000 acres of our grazing land to char. Our home ranch in Potter Valley was the only piece of land we manage that didn't burn.
From the perspective of the gray pines, whose cones open in the heat, this fire is good thing. From the perspective of most manzanita and ceanothus, whose seeds require smoke to germinate, this fire is a good thing. From the perspective of our deer and elk, who browse the regrowth from fire, and who benefit from the re-setting of the grasslands, this fire is a good thing.
Wendell Berry famously wrote that we are all “farming by proxy.” I hope that you get that experience when you buy our meat. As ranchers, we are your representatives in a grand multi-species democracy taking place every day in the hills of Potter and Redwood Valley. When our grass burns, your grass burns, when our trees die, they are yours.
Just as these fires burn away dry grass to expose bare soil, they expose limitations of our attempts to sustain a medium-sized agriculture business in a part of the world which has been overwhelmed by development. The spectacle of a mountain on fire brings attention, even the News, but the quiet catastrophe is that so few large ranches remain in our region that, after the fire burns though, our cows are left with nowhere else to go.
Sustainable agriculture is not a set of techniques but one part of a culture at home in its place. For a rugged, grassy county like Mendocino, sustainable agriculture will mean curing overgrazing in some places by addressing over-rest in others. Returning grazers, cattle, maybe goats, to long ago subdivided and agriculturally abandoned landscapes will bring nutrient-cycling back to these ecosystems, eventually re-opening the ground for native elk. Sustainable agriculture will also mean protecting every acre of the remaining deep valley soils from development, and allowing committed farmers to devote their lives to its flourishing.
While we can hope to use science and gumption to choose when these fire burn, eventually recreating the mosaic of small acreage, cool season burns which provided the abundance upon which we still draw credit, we cannot hope to stop the fires. Sustainable agriculture will be as flexible and adaptable as the ecosystem upon which it relies. Seek out your farming proxies, and join them for that ride.