Community Agriculture Alliance: The future in our ground

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I was lucky to attend a free conference last week at Colorado State University called “Ranching and A West that Works,” developed by CJ Mucklow, the Western region director of the Colorado State University Extension, and his colleagues.

Community Agriculture Alliance

This weekly column about agriculture issues is written by area farmers, ranchers and policymakers. It publishes on Fridays in the Steamboat Today. Read more columns here.

I was lucky to attend a free conference last week at Colorado State University called “Ranching and A West that Works,” developed by CJ Mucklow, the Western region director of the Colorado State University Extension, and his colleagues.

I was expecting to bring back new information and ideas regarding range management to the Conservation District and local land stewards.

I was pleasantly surprised that instead of the specifics, the overall concepts, which caused one to think, were the stars of the show. Again and again, the speakers drove home the keys to “a West that works”: resiliency, diversity, flexibility and community.

One key concept presented was that of “slow wisdom” — a concept Wendell Berry thinks is as important as any “to support ranching, farming, irrigating and logging because our society will need these teachers as mentors and critics in the years to come.”

The people who spoke at the conference came from all across the West to passionately discuss their trials and tribulations with the land they work and the people with whom they work.

This is information we desperately need to share in order for conservation and production to coexist.

The world is faced with a growing population and a shrinking inventory of resources, tangible and intangible.

I saw a cartoon the other day that said, “The next generation of grandparents won’t know how to cook, sew, hunt or farm, but they’ll be able to take a darn good selfie.”

This is a generalization, but it offers a picture of the growing disconnect between the people and the land. You can’t save the people without saving the land; to save either, you have to save both.

Rejuvenating the land will depend on reinvestment in our ecosystems. That reinvestment translates into reinvestment of the local economy, of rural communities and working landscapes.

One ranching couple from McNeal, Ariz., shared their quest for a breed of cattle that could withstand the climate and graze the native vegetation so they could discontinue supplemental hay. They found the Criollo breed and slowly have built a manageable herd that is able to sustain weather variability, and they have been able to turn their ranch into a profitable operation.

In turn, they produce grass-fed beef without hormones or supplements and sell it to local businesses and individuals.

They also use almost everything they can on their land: Wool from their sheep is dyed and sold; vegetables are grown in greenhouses; straw bale construction is utilized and contracted out; and agave is being used to produce mescal.

In Oregon, the conservation districts have worked with the logging and fishing industries, conservation professionals and other partners to make great strides in reinvesting in the ecosystem to create a sustaining timber harvesting economy while protecting water quality for the salmon runs.

In California, conservation organizations are working with landowners to begin looking at watersheds as water catchment basins instead.

Together, partners are implementing strategies such ash rock catchments to slow runoff and filter sediment in streams and creeks while maximizing the availability of storage in their natural reservoirs.

They are going above strategizing to thinking by teaching landowners to read the landscape, energy flow, nutrient cycling and biotic integrity. This reinvestment will allow the land to rehabilitate while still being operational.

In Montana, the Blackfoot Challenge has created a large watershed conservation organization made of local landowners, producers and federal and state agencies and non-governmental organizations.

Together, they have tackled water quality, the reintroduction of wolves and grizzlies and best management practices all around. Together, the area is remaining rural and producing a good economy.

There are many challenges to working the land. Natural and man-made, each year produces a new set of circumstances.

Here in Routt County, we are blessed to have many landowners, organizations and agencies — “coalitions of the good” — do the good things that will make a difference in sustaining working lands and creating healthy ecosystems.

Whether you fall left, right or center of the political spectrum, hopefully we can all agree on the importance of a “West that works.”

Thank you to the producers, consumers and organizations that passionately believe in the reinvestment of our land to sustain us all.

Jackie Brown is the district manager of the Routt County Conservation District and the watershed coordinator for the Upper Yampa River Watershed Group. She also is a member of the Yampa White Green Basin Roundtable.

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