Farmers and ranchers share land for healthier food and less waste

Farmers and ranchers share land for healthier food and less waste

Sharing land and other resources among farmers isn’t new. But research shows it may be increasingly relevant in a time of climatic upheaval.

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The livestock trucks arrived all night. One after the other they backed up to the wood chute leading to a dusty corral and loosed their cargo — 580 head of cattle by the time the last truck pulled away at 3pm the next afternoon. Dan Probert, astride his horse, guided the cows to paddocks of pristine grassland stretching alongside the snow-peaked Wallowa Mountains. They’d spend the summer here grazing bunchgrass and clovers and biscuitroot. The scuffle of their hooves and nibbles of their teeth would mimic the elk, antelope and bison that are thought to have historically roamed this portion of northeastern Oregon’s Zumwalt Prairie, helping grasses grow and restoring health to the soil.

The cows weren’t Probert’s, although the fifth-generation rancher and one other member of the Carman Ranch Direct grass-fed beef collective also raise their own herds here for part of every year. But in spring, when the prairie is in bloom, Probert receives cattle from several other ranchers. As the grasses wither in October, the cows move on to graze fertile pastures throughout the Columbia Basin, which stretches across several Pacific Northwest states; some overwinter on a vegetable farm in central Washington, feeding on corn leaves and pea vines left behind after harvest.

Sharing land and other resources among farmers isn’t new. But research shows it may be increasingly relevant in a time of climatic upheaval, potentially influencing “farmers to adopt environmentally friendly practices and agricultural innovation,” according to a 2021 paper in the Journal of Economic Surveys. Farmers might share knowledge about reducing pesticide use, says Heather Frambach, a supply chain consultant who works with farmers in California and elsewhere. As a group they may better qualify for grants to monitor soil and water quality.

Most research around such practices applies to cooperatives, whose owner-members equally share governance and profits. But a collective like Carman Ranch’s — spearheaded by fourth-generation rancher Cory Carman, who purchases beef from eight other ranchers to sell under one “regeneratively” certified brand — shows when producers band together, they can achieve eco-benefits that would be elusive if they worked alone.

Vitamins and minerals in soil pass into plants through their roots, then into cattle as they graze, then back around as the cows walk around pooping.

Carman knows from experience. Taking over her family's land in 2003, she started selling grass-fed beef “because I really wanted to figure out how to not participate in the feedlot world, to have a healthier product. I didn't know how we were going to survive,” she says. Part of her land sits on a degraded portion of Zumwalt Prairie replete with invasive grasses; working to restore it, she thought, “What good does it do to kill myself trying to make this ranch more functional? If you want to make a difference, change has to be more than single entrepreneurs on single pieces of land. It has to happen at a community level.” The seeds of her collective were sown.

Raising 100 percent grass-fed beef requires land that’s got something for cows to graze in every season — which most collective members can’t access individually. So, they move cattle around their various parcels. It’s practical, but it also restores nutrient flows “to the way they used to move, from lowlands and canyons during the winter to higher-up places as the weather gets hot,” Carman says. Meaning, vitamins and minerals in soil pass into plants through their roots, then into cattle as they graze, then back around as the cows walk around pooping.

Cory Carman sells grass-fed beef, which requires land that’s got something for cows to graze in every season.

Courtesy Cory Carman

Each collective member has individual ecological goals: Carman brought in pigs to root out invasive grasses and help natives flourish. Probert also heads a more conventional grain-finished beef collective with 100 members, and their combined 6.5 million ranchland acres were eligible for a grant supporting climate-friendly practices, which compels them to improve soil and water health and biodiversity and make their product “as environmentally friendly as possible,” Probert says. The Washington veg farmer reduced tilling and pesticide use thanks to the ecoservices of visiting cows. Similarly, a conventional hay farmer near Carman has reduced his reliance on fertilizer by letting cattle graze the cover crops he plants on 80 acres.

Additionally, the collective must meet the regenerative standards promised on their label — another way in which they work together to achieve ecological goals. Says David LeZaks, formerly a senior fellow at finance-focused ecology nonprofit Croatan Institute, it’s hard for individual farmers to access monetary assistance. “But it's easier to get financing flowing when you increase the scale with cooperatives or collectives,” he says. “This supports producers in ways that can lead to better outcomes on the landscape.”

New, smaller scale farmers might gain the most from collective and cooperative models.

For example, it can help them minimize waste by using more of an animal, something our frugal ancestors excelled at. Small-scale beef producers normally throw out hides; Thousand Hills’ 50 regenerative beef producers together have enough to sell to Timberland to make carbon-neutral leather. In another example, working collectively resulted in the support of more diverse farms: Meadowlark Community Mill in Wisconsin went from working with one wheat grower, to sourcing from several organic wheat growers marketing flour under one premium brand.

Another example shows how these collaborations can foster greater equity, among other benefits: The Federation of Southern Cooperatives has a mission to support Black farmers as they build community health. It owns several hundred forest acres in Alabama, where it teaches members to steward their own forest land and use it to grow food — one member coop raises goats to graze forest debris and produce milk. Adding the combined acres of member forest land to the Federation’s, the group qualified for a federal conservation grant that will keep this resource available for food production, and community environmental and mental health benefits. “That's the value-add of the collective land-owner structure,” says Dãnia Davy, director of land retention and advocacy.

New, smaller scale farmers might gain the most from collective and cooperative models, says Jordan Treakle, national program coordinator of the National Family Farm Coalition (NFFC). Many of them enter farming specifically to raise healthy food in healthy ways — with organic production, or livestock for soil fertility. With land, equipment and labor prohibitively expensive, farming collectively allows shared costs and risk that buy farmers the time necessary to “build soil fertility and become competitive” in the marketplace, Treakle says. Just keeping them in business is an eco-win; when small farms fail, they tend to get sold for development or absorbed into less-diversified operations, so the effects of their success can “reverberate through the entire local economy.”

Frambach, the supply chain consultant, has been experimenting with what she calls “collaborative crop planning,” where she helps farmers strategize what they’ll plant as a group. “A lot of them grow based on what they hear their neighbor is going to do, and that causes really poor outcomes,” she says. “Nobody replanted cauliflower after the [atmospheric rivers in California] this year and now there's a huge shortage of cauliflower.” A group plan can avoid the under-planting that causes farmers to lose out on revenue.

It helps avoid overplanted crops, too, which small farmers might have to plow under or compost. Larger farmers, conversely, can sell surplus produce into the upcycling market — to Matriark Foods, for example, which turns it into value-add products like pasta sauce for companies like Sysco that supply institutional kitchens at colleges and hospitals. Frambach and Anna Hammond, Matriark’s CEO, want to collectivize smaller farmers so that they can sell to the likes of Matriark and “not lose an incredible amount of income,” Hammond says.

Ultimately, farming is fraught with challenges and even collectivizing doesn’t guarantee that farms will stay in business. But with agriculture accounting for almost 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions globally, there's an “urgent” need to shift farming practices to more environmentally sustainable models, as well as a “demand in the marketplace for it,” says NFFC’s Treakle. “The growth of cooperative and collective farming can be a huge, huge boon for the ecological integrity of the system.”

Lela Nargi
Lela Nargi is a Brooklyn, NY-based veteran freelance journalist covering food and agriculture system, social justice issues, science & the environment, and the places where those topics intersect for The New York Times, The Guardian, the Food and Environment Reporting Network (FERN), Eater, Modern Farmer, USA Today, and other outlets. Find her at lelanargi.com.
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