I’m a former Sierra Club environmentalist who became a dues-paying member of the New Mexico Cattlegrowers’ Association.
It was a surprise to me too.
I’m a city kid who grew up on the suburban edge of Phoenix, Arizona, during the heyday of shopping malls, fast food, and fresh asphalt. The only livestock I knew were the show horses my parents kept in a stable. There was a huge “ranch” near where we lived but it was full of houses, not cattle. I thought the developers were just being clever with their marketing. Later, I learned it had been a real ranch once.
I fell in love with the desert just in time to watch Phoenix grow heedlessly and exponentially, eating up open space like a ravenous beast. By the time I turned twenty, my precious desert had largely disappeared. In its place grew a boundless crop of generic homes and office buildings. That’s when I decided to become an environmentalist. I fought for things: wilderness, public lands, clean water. I fought against things: mines, bad laws, extinction. Livestock were on the bad list. Fellow activists told me cattle were “unredeemable” and had to be removed from the land. For a while, I believed them.
After a move to New Mexico, I met a progressive rancher named Jim Winder and everything changed. Jim grazed his cattle in a nature-based way, growing lots of grass. He loved wildlife and publicly supported the reintroduction of the Mexican Wolf. Jim knew more about the environment than any activist I knew, including myself.
Fast forward to 2008. I’m a delegate to a three-day celebration of sustainable food in Turin, Italy, called Tierra Madre. It’s a biennial gathering of organic farmers, food activists, writers, researchers, chefs, bakers, beekeepers, coffee growers, cheese makers, and many more. They were all there because they believed in healthy, fair, local, and very tasty food. I was there as a producer of grassfed beef from our cattle ranch – the one that earned me a membership in the New Mexico Cattlegrowers’ Association.
A few years earlier, the conservation nonprofit that I cofounded with Jim Winder, called the Quivira Coalition, decided to “walk the talk” of sustainability by becoming cattle ranchers. We took over management of the Valle Grande Grassbank, a 36,000-acre allotment on Forest Service land near Santa Fe. It was started by author and environmentalist Bill deBuys as an innovative model of a public-private partnership with the aim of restoring ecological health to land while strengthening ranching traditions.
We defined a Grassbank as a place where forage is exchanged for tangible conservation benefits on nearby lands. Cattle were brought to the Grassbank for a season so the home ground could receive restoration attention, including prescribed fire treatments. In the first six seasons of operation, the Valle Grande Grassbank took over 2,000 head of cattle from nine separate grazing associations across two National Forests in northern New Mexico.
The Grassbank felt like an idea whose time had come. At one point there were a dozen operating across the West. They were examples of the radical center at work, a termcoined by Bill McDonald, a rancher in southern Arizona and cofounder of the Malpai Borderlands Group, a pioneering collaboration between ranchers, conservationists, scientists, and public land managers. The radical center was a “third way” beyond polarization, a grassroots convening of diverse people to discuss their common interests rather than argue their differences. The goal was to work cooperatively on a pragmatic program of action that improved the well-being of all living things. Our Grassbank was inspired by a pilot one on the Gray Ranch in southwestern New Mexico (the term “Grassbank” was coined by rancher and poet Drum Hadley).
We knew there would be major challenges with our project. Money was a big one. A rancher on Quivira’s Board warned that our Grassbank had “all the costs of a ranch and no income.” He was right. After two years, we had to transition to a hybrid model that enabled us to become cattle owners and produce grassfed meat for local sale. This led to my trip to Terra Madre in Italy and some deep insights about the positive role food can play in conservation work. Food is one of the few things that binds us all together.
Alas, the financial crisis that followed the Wall Street collapse in 2008 adversely affected nonprofit organizations, including us. Grant money became scarce, as did contributions (and customers for grassfed food). Meanwhile, the day-to-day costs of the Grassbank kept rising. Two years later, we were forced to sell the ranch, ending our Grassbank experiment.
Looking back, what I remember best about the Grassbank was its strong sense of place. The ranch sat atop a huge mesa overlooking the Pecos River valley. The view from the rim was truly spectacular. You had to drive twenty long, slow miles down a rutted road to reach the ranch house, isolated on 240 acres of private land, looking lonely. The road, which became an adventurous mud slide with each rainstorm, passed through three large, lovely meadows dotted with ponderosa trees. Often, I’d stop in the middle of the largest meadow, called Valle Grande, shut off the engine and let the fresh air and quiet fill the truck. I needed it – especially after receiving news that the ancient well that supplied the entire ranch with water had broken down again. I also loved coming across our little cattle herd unexpectedly on the drive. They were a rather motley crew, I thought, but they were ours.
I had come a long way from Phoenix to reach the Grassbank and although my adventure in ranching was brief, I’m very happy to have had the experience. It’s important to walk a mile in other people’s shoes – or boots, in this case – and I’m glad I had the opportunity on a pretty place called Valle Grande.
Courtney White is the founder of the Quivira Coalition and author of “Grass, Soil, Hope and Two Percent Solutions for the Planet“. A former archaeologist and Sierra Club activist, White dropped out of the “conflict industry” in 1997 to cofound the Quivira Coalition, a nonprofit dedicated to building bridges between ranchers, conservationists, and others around practices that improve economic and ecological resilience in western working landscapes.