Ideas, Innovating and Inspiration from the 2016 HMI Gathering at Paicines Ranch

At the generous invitation of Sally Calhoun, owner of the Paicines Ranch, I was invited to participate in the Holistic Management International conference in California a few weeks ago along with Sara Dent, BC Coordinator of Young Agrarians and Kelly Sidoryk of Holistic Management Canada. Representing both Young Agrarians and Holistic Management Canada, the experience provided an opportunity to “cross-pollinate” with international Holistic Management networks, sharing ideas, learning new skills and supporting the regenerative agriculture movement.

As an outsider, it was fascinating to step into the Paicines Ranch community and get a sense for the agrarian, regenerative ideals they are living by and cultivating in their community. Using Holistic Management, they have created a set of principles that guides the work that they do. Part ranch, part education centre, part retreat, the ranch serves a number of different roles in the regenerative agriculture movement. From testing new ideas like the ranch manager’s, Kelly Mulvilles’, innovative vineyard designed for year-round grazing, to their vibrant community of apprentices working at the ranch and for Morris Grass Fed Beef, to hosting the 2016 Holistic Management International Gathering that we participated in, Paicines Ranch is an ecosystem in and of itself, mimicking nature in building resilience and fertile ground from which amazing things can grow.

In looking back on the pages and pages of notes I took, a theme arose around a concept that I’ve been exploring for a while now. In my work with new and young farmers, one of the things that I am paying attention is the idea of “agrarian arts”. These are the principles, skills, practices and techniques being honed by the wave of new farmers and ranchers we are seeing. Built on the experience of master farmers and ranchers who have come before them, new farmers are hungry for deep, meaningful learning experiences provided by places like Paicines Ranch and the Holistic Management International Gathering. Being lucky enough to have participated in this, I thought I would share some of these “Agrarians Arts” I took in.

Observing Nature’s Ecosystem Processes

On our first day, we participating in a field walk led by Joe Morris of Morris Grassfed Beef, his apprentices Isaac and Michelle and Sallie Calhoon of Paicines Ranch. At first glance, I couldn’t help but be struck by the drought that the region is in. We learned that the Cienega River, which runs through the ranch, used to flow for 10 -11 months of the year and in the past three years has only flowed for two months. That coupled with land management practices had severely impacted the oak trees. We saw beautiful old trees but very few new saplings. Joe is hoping through better grazing practices, that they might see more saplings in the future.


Ranching for Conservation

The drought has not only affected grazing but wildlife as well. The ranch is now working on bird monitoring project with Mel Preston of Point Blue Conservation. We learned how to do spot counts, where you stand in a spot on your ranch a few times a year and do a count of the number and species that you see. To me this was a great example of how ranchers can be working with conservation groups to demonstrate how their management is conserving habitat and ecosystems.


Understanding Animal Behaviour and Using it to Your Advantage

One of the most practical things I walked away with was from the work of one of the apprentices, Michelle, who trained the cattle to eat thistles on the ranch. I had heard of this practice before, but Michelle really inspired me to get my butt in gear, get out in our herd, observe their behaviour and slowly introduce thistles in their diet through lick tubs and by coating the plants themselves. They had much nastier thistles in California and it might be weird to say, but I’m really looking forward to next spring’s thistle crop coming up, I know it’ll be a big one!


Taking Gross Profit Analysis to the Next Level

In keeping with on-farm planning, I admit that I have a lot to learn on the financial planning end of our farm and I really appreciated a presentation from Graeme Hand on dynamic budgeting. He talked about how Gross Profit Analysis can be helpful but it should be extended to look at your profit centres over multiple years in order to see which enterprises are more stable and expose you to less risk. He challenged us to ask “Are current enterprises profitable?” and “Has each enterprise been profitable in the last 10 years?”.

Cultivating the Apprenticeship Model  

One of my main goals for attending this event was to learn about apprenticeships as we are working to build a program in Alberta through Young Agrarians and Organic Alberta. Joel Salatin spoke at the HMI conference on the need for these programs. He detailed out the pros and cons, but what I found most impactful was when we told the audience what he tells farmers when they say that it is not worth doing. He said, “Go home, look yourself in the mirror real hard, and say I want to grow old alone.” In my work with young farmers, there is such a clear need to these types of learning experiences and in the challenge of trying to prepare young farmers to take on larger-scale farms and ranches, we need more people willing to bring these people on to their farms and patiently and thoughtfully teach them the “agrarian arts”. I was lucky enough to hang out with Sarah Wentzel-Fischer and Virginie Pointeau from the Quivira Coalition who have built the New Agrarian Apprenticeship program that is working to help ranchers create apprenticeship programs across the western US. They are amazing and have been a huge inspiration and help in getting our program started!


Advocating and Telling the Carbon Story 

The story of how farmers and ranchers are mitigating climate change through carbon sequestration is a new and emergent one, but as I learned, it can also be a highly effective way to engage everyone from the consumer to the producer. Nikki Silvestri is a writer, speaker and activist working on linking urban communities with carbon sequestration and climate change. An amazing facilitator and community organizer, Nikki talked about how we are all part of the carbon story, that we are made of carbon and that as we build this regenerative movement we can learn from other movements like the Civil Rights and Black Lives Matter movements to figure out what challenges and opportunities lie ahead in this emerging conversation.  I can’t wait to dig more into her work!


This is just a snapshot of some of the highlights of this experience, I could go on and on. But I couldn’t end without thanking Paicines Ranch, Sallie Calhoon and HMI for supporting our trip and providing us the opportunity to be exposed to this community and the amazing pool of knowledge that was gathered together. It was deeply moving, inspiring and it was a great reminder that this movement is larger than our community here in Canada, there is a groundswell of people around the world participating in this creative, innovative, hopeful work.

Big thank you to Sara Dent for the beautiful photos, if you want to see more from our trip, go to her page.


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