By Daisy Carlson
I revisit the opening of John Steinbeck's book, East of Eden about once a year, to reaffirm all that I know and love about nature in California. “East of Eden,” turns out to be just south of San Francisco, high atop a ridge of the Gabilan Mountain Range in Monterey and San Benito County. This year in May, without turning a page, Steinbeck's poetic account came to life on a visit to a conservation ranch project. After turning off the highway we wound our way through rolling pastures, vibrant with native blooms that I imagine inspired Steinbeck to write " I remember my childhood names for grasses and secret flowers. I remember what trees and season smelled like." The twenty-five-minute drive up to the ranch had views of California's central coast as poetically narrative now as they were then. The Gabilan Cattle Ranch sits on top of a ridge overlooking the Salinas Valley, and as Steinbeck described, they are “light gay mountains full of sun and loveliness and a kind of invitation, so that you wanted to climb into their warm foothills almost as you want to climb into the lap of a beloved mother." John Steinbeck opened his novel, “East of Eden,” with these very pastures in mind. Pastures that are punctuated with wise old oaks that are keeping watch over human progress, and here they are not disappointed. A cordial redwing blackbird came to greet us at the top of the hill, just outside the gates of the Gabilan Cattle Company homestead and escorted us thru to the historic barns. I step out of the car and the air is filled with the smell of sunshine on warm hills.
Back in 2008, The Reeves-Baldocchi-Boyle family, who have had this ranch for four generations, began a partnership with The Nature Conservancy and later Point Blue Conservation Science. Together, over the last 13 years, they have studied, regenerated and documented exciting changes to this expansive 11,000- acre ranch. Pastures are now teeming with a diversity of life resembling what I imagine is close to the original splendor that Steinbeck loved and wrote about so eloquently. The hillsides of purple Lupin, sunshine yellow Mules Ears, and pink Mallow flowers are restored and restorative on so many levels. The plants are so alive here that I wonder to myself if the Owl's Clover evolved to have all those faces so that it could enjoy a 360-degree view of these beautiful meadows. Evolution has had a lot of time to adapt and comingle, so why not a clover that can see. In the past one hundred years, meadows like these have often lost some of their evolutionary balance that comingles with equal parts beauty and function. Human activities and industrialized farming practices have interrupted balanced systems that have evolved over millions of years. Nature's intelligence has been interrupted and biodiversity has dwindled and soils have been degraded by overgrazing and industrial farming practices. The youthful exuberance of human intelligence that did not have a 360-degree view on the millions of years that it took to evolve these systems made some brusk, and often very damaging decisions.
Pastures can support a tremendous amount of crucial biodiversity and have a mighty potential to absorb and store significant amounts of carbon dioxide in the prairie grasses deep root and microbial systems. Overgrazing depletes biodiversity both above and below the ground and destroys carbon-rich soils. It has taken time for humans to understand the negative impacts of this. Cattle, on the other hand, have always been more than happy to move on to greener pastures. They know that the most nutrition in the grass is found only in the juicy top fifty percent where it tastes good. They naturally just nibble the top and leave the rest as they move across the land. Cattle 'migrating' the way the ancient herds did and leaving pastures to rest is part of a balanced carbon cycle. The cloven hooves of the herds break up the earth's crust and press the seeds to an optimal depth for regrowth, add a bit of manure and voila, you have set your pasture to grow new grasses and sustain themselves without nitrogen fertilizers that strip the roots and cause a toxic runoff. These pasture soils can store up to five times more carbon dioxide than the plants on the surface. Rotational grazing practices emulate the migration cycles of the ancient herds of elk and buffalo that once roamed these wild lands and begins to bring the land and animal relationship back into balance.
The Gabilan Ranch rotates their cattle onto fresh pasture, before they are overgrazed, which allows the grasses to continue to provide rich habitat while restoring the earth’s natural carbon cycle. This, in turn, strengthens the grasslands ability to grow back without disturbing the deep root system and makes the soil more drought tolerant. With rotational grazing practices, the cattle are eating more nutritious food and are less prone to disease, and the roots stay long and strong and full of sequestered carbon dioxide. The grass readily grows back in about forty days. When overgrazed pastures cannot recover and the carbon storage capacity is compromised by the shortened root structures and diminished microbial systems characteristic of overgrazed pastures. Why is that so important? Up to thirty percent of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could be stored in healthy pastures and soil. The longer and stronger those roots are the more carbon can be stored in them and their microbial communities, which also allows the soil to hold more water. For every one percent of additional carbon dioxide in the soil, about ten percent more water is retained, that is significant in drought-prone areas like California. Healthy soils are crucial to climate restoration and carbon sequestration as well as to our capacity to produce nutritious food and provide habitat.
Industrial farming and ranching have disturbed this natural balance and the result is a carbon-intensive ranching cycle that produces a lot of greenhouse gases and beef that has half of the nutritional value that it had a century ago. These industrial farming systems are so unhealthy that all the animals require antibiotics, and hormones as well as nitrogen-fertilized grains that have severely damaged ecosystems. Choosing grass-fed beef that comes from local producers will not only taste better and be more nutritious, but it is also considered a viable method to sequester excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Industrially farmed meat, on the other hand, has a carbon footprint of about a tank of gas for every six ounces of meat; talk about a guilty pleasure. Choosing local grass-fed meats are considered healthier for you and the land because they reduce your exposure to antibiotics, hormones, and unhealthy fertilizers.
At the Gabilan Ranch and also at Stemple Creek Ranch in Marin, the full majesty of California’s spectacular biodiversity has returned through their application of conservation ranching practices and rotational grazing. These intergenerational family ranchers are providing an important legacy by partnering with organizations like The Nature Conservancy, Point Blue Conservation Science and MALT (Marin Agricultural Land Trust). The generations of families left to steward these large ranches are producing food, stewarding habitats and facilitating significant carbon sequestration to protect us from the ravages of climate change.
The co-benefits to the rancher, land, birds, plants, insects, and animals are incredible. This form of regenerative ranching protects the essential “microbiome” of the soil that is packed with carbon-rich beneficial bacteria and mycelium. Pollinators buzzing about the wild array of spectral colors and blooms also benefit. Local coyotes can now live at peace with the cattle herds. They are often found among the grazing herds as the cattle flush out small prey that coyotes prefer. Local coyotes benefit the grazing livestock by running off the transient coyotes that might otherwise endanger the herd. Bobcats and Mountain Lion have also struck a balance as they are not a threat when smaller prey is more abundant. Restored lands like these allow scientists to witness nature's tendency toward balance and coexistence as a benefit. We have lost many of those benefits in modern farming practices that prefer to tame nature rather than coexist with her and understand her evolutionary intelligence. Farmers have often been taught to battle with things that have now been found to be very beneficial to our health and the very systems that can improve our farming economics if managed correctly.
There is a new, not to be missed film, The Biggest Little Farm, directed by John Chester. This film follows John and his wife Molly Chester over eight years as they restored a 200-acre farm forty miles north of Los Angeles. Their commitment to using natural systems to regenerate soil and restore balance to farming practices was repeatedly challenged. After what is characteristic of a great narrative arc their farm has become resilient to climate change and is healthier and more abundant.
Information on healthy soils has often been muddied by industrial land-use practices. Organizations like Point Blue Conservation Science with their sustaining working-lands initiative has brought new life to the public’s interest in soils and their capacity to store carbon dioxide and revitalize biodiversity for healthier pastures. Climate-smart ranching has a vast array of co-benefits only one of which is healthy soils. With over half of California’s land being privately owned and much of that for agricultural use, the science behind these co-benefits is essential to support the many communities of people and other species dependent on that land. Clarifying these co-benefits will help farmers understand and integrate conservation practices for mutual benefits to them and the planet.
To build this working knowledge, partnerships have been made with scientists, farmers, ranchers, and policymakers to study and share information on soil management. These partnerships build a future for working lands that can rise to the challenges of restorative practices including enhanced carbon sequestration which is a top priority for the global health of all systems. Our society's homework assignment is to reduce our carbon emissions to 80 % below 1990 levels by 2050, to keep atmospheric warming below 2 degrees centigrade. The soil has the potential to absorb a lot of that through regenerative farming and ranching. A healthy atmosphere needs healthy soil and a robust carbon cycle is high up on the menu of adaptation strategies to achieve that goal. Climate-smart conservation can have a wide array of co-benefits including making agricultural land more resilient to the climate challenges that lay ahead. State funding has been made available to farmers interested in conservation farming practices. Organizations like Point Blue Conservation Science have been helping these farmers collect and share data to meet the grant requirements. California's Climate program gathers the funds to pay for these grants from California Industries who are charged for their carbon pollution.
CoolHive.com is also helping to restore soils with carbon offset projects that have a cascade of benefits for biodiversity and economic development. Did you know that the average American household emits 20-30 tons of Carbon Dioxide a year? We can sequester that amount into greener pasture projects. Many verified carbon offsets projects cost only $15 per ton. That is a deal when you consider that an expansive report from NATURE in 2018 estimated that each ton of excess Carbon Dioxide left in the atmosphere will do more than $417 of damage to infrastructure and economies globally. We currently have a trillion excess tons out there. Roughly carbon footprint of three average round-trip flights in the US emits 10 tons of carbon dioxide directly into the atmosphere. The average automobile emits 5 tons of carbon dioxide per year. If you want to balance your carbon debt lingering in the atmosphere with healthy pasture projects that can sustain and produce healthier food and more biodiversity there are several projects available. Our goal at Cool Hive is to use nature and soil to sequester the carbon dioxide of 10,000 households by the end of 2020 with projects that protect populations from the ravages of climate change and drought. To find out more about how you can help us sequester carbon dioxide emissions with greener pastures visit https://fourpastures.com/ or https://coolhive.com/.