by Katherine Mast
We’ve got a complicated relationship with ranching in the West.
There’s the romantic archetype of the rugged, independent cowboy on the open range. It is freedom and it is beauty, and it’s been a way of life and means of livelihood for generations in some Western families.
But there are also the scars of erosion left on the land from years of running too many cattle and sheep on too small a plot of land. There are the wildlife conflicts with wolves and beavers, and concerns about how livestock hooves — and excrement — affect the little water we have.
Divisions between ranchers and environmentalists run deep, but maybe that discord is ill-placed.
In 1997, two ranchers and one environmentalist who believed that ranching and conservation were not only “not” at odds, but quite possibly mutually beneficial, formed the Quivira Coalition to help spread this vision. They described the nexus of their work as “the radical center.”
20 years later, the Quivira Coalition has grown to support farmers, ranchers and landowners across the West — they estimate some 20,000 people have benefitted from their work. Quivira works with several farms and ranches to offer training to young agrarians through hands-on apprenticeships. And each fall, Quivira hosts a conference to share new ideas, hash out sticky problems, and provide a place where people can continue seeking a radical place of commonality in an era that seems utterly steeped in divisiveness.
In mid-November, Quivira celebrated two decades of work with a conference that featured individual talks, panel discussions and engaging roundtable sessions.
After opening remarks on Wednesday morning by Quivira’s executive director, Sarah Wentzel-Fisher (also a regular contributor to and former editor of this magazine), speakers dove into presentations about how better grazing practices can restore ecosystem health, and personal stories of transformation. Larry Littlebird, from Laguna and Santo Domingo Pueblos, reminded participants that food is sacred and to treat it — and our food systems — as such.
Practitioners from California to Colorado, Oregon to New Mexico discussed changes they had seen on their land — more birds, healthier and more diverse plants — after implementing regenerative techniques like rotating where cows grazed, slowing water flow by building rock dams, and finding ways to return carbon to the soil — and keep it there.
But it’s not just ranchers and environmentalists who might be concerned with “carbon farming” or “regenerative agriculture.” Informed and passionate eaters want to know how they can make good decisions about the food they buy, too. Wednesday night closed with a conversation about mindful meat moderated by Mary-Charlotte Domandi, the Santa Fe radio personality behind the Radio Cafe and Quivira’s own Down to Earth podcast. She hosted on stage three panelists working at various points in the food system.
Mike Callicrate, a rancher in Kansas, shifted his cattle operation several years ago from a conventional model to a regenerative system and now supplies meat to Colorado. Adam Danforth left his job in advertising a while back to learn the trade of butchering and now mindfully runs a butcher shop in Oregon. And Deborah Madison, a New Mexico-based cookbook author perhaps most famous for her volumes on vegetarian dishes talked about her experience learning to prepare meals from all food groups.
Thursday’s sessions spoke to some of the stickier challenges of agriculture today — realities of a largely aging workforce and the need to train more young farmers and ranchers; soil that has been so mistreated that it is essentially dead, giving rise to “zombie” agriculture; and a wall between growers and consumers that takes us all out of relationship with our food.
The rift, it turns out, isn’t just between ranchers and environmentalists. It’s also between those of us who eat food and those who bring it to our plates. It’s a rift between our modern demand for immediacy and quantity and our relationship with and understanding of the natural world and its pacing. But as Quivira has been demonstrating for the past two decades, these seemingly irreconcilable divides aren’t really so impossible. It just takes some creativity and hard work, and the radical act of coming together.