by: Hernan Colmenero

Tammi and Stephen Bell are the kind of couple who believe that less is more. Their motto seems to be to let the plants and animals do the work. That’s exactly what they’re doing at Waterline Farm in Pryor, Oklahoma.

Now, they are not completely hands off. Although they don’t usually mow their lawn, much to the chagrin of their neighbors, their goats do the mowing by grazing it. Similarly, they believe it’s important to first think about infrastructure. That means digging small trenches to direct the flow of water and building hügelkultur mounds to slow and keep water on their land a bit longer. It also means being patient and observing the land. They may agree with Michelangelo when he said “the task of the sculptor [is] to discover [the statue].” They want to discover the beauty of the land and help it become what it wants to become.

The Bell’s goal with Waterline Farm is to become a homestead demonstration site practicing regenerative agriculture with an emphasis on ecological stewardship. Their operation has seen its fair share of challenges, but the Bell family has turned them into opportunities. In 2019, a massive flooding event raised the level of Lake Hudson in Oklahoma, on which their property is located, and crept up several hundred feet onto the pasture. As the water receded, it created natural contour swales, which they used to plant sycamore and oak trees to increase water absorption and retention, therein slowing the flow of water to the lake. Realizing that their shoreline was fragile after seeing how their neighbor’s shoreline receded, they also planted several more sycamore and cypress trees closer to the shore, creating a wide strip of protection. Additionally, they made use of the silt the lake water brought and let the native grasses grow tall, allowing the deep roots to take hold in the soil. This added organic matter, created more soil aggregates, and increased the presence of wildlife, such as Monarch butterflies and a resident bald eagle. Both of those changes served to expand their silvopasture system while making progress on their goals of regeneration and wildlife conservation by simply giving the land more of what it could use.

But not everything can be accomplished by watching from afar. Stephen is adamant that one needs to get their hands dirty, their boots muddy, and observe the land from various places to get an idea of where the water is going and what the land is doing. Then, it’s important to act. In this way, he noticed that rainwater was flowing from his property into his neighbor’s. So, he built up hügelkultur mounds along that edge of his property to slow the flow of water. Most recently, he dug a trench with his 39-hp tractor to direct water to his orchard. All these actions serve to catch and hold more water in their soil, lessening the potentially damaging effects of floods.

Even though the Bell family doesn’t do it for the money (they’re both comfortably retired), they expect to turn a profit this year. They are saving money by not buying costly fertilizers and by supplementing their groceries with the food they grow and harvest themselves. Even their livestock enjoy the fruit of their harvests, which means less spent on buying animal feed. Moreover, their farm has garnered the attention of Food Animal Concerns Trust (FACT), the Oklahoma Forestry Department, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT), and perhaps most importantly, their fellow community members. Some of this has led to grants and other beneficial financial opportunities. Tammi says it is “the big circle coming back.”

The Bell family says that the peer-to-peer learning systems such as Women, Livestock, and the Land course and the Soil for Water Network, both part of NCAT, have been instrumental to their success. “People feel isolated and when they see others doing something similar, that works,” says Tammi.

Learn more in the YouTube video, Welcome to Waterline Farm.

Erik Tucker has been ranching in Southeast Colorado since his early 20s, and although he didn’t grow up on a ranch, he has long felt  that the old way of ranching just wasn’t working. He likes to observe the sunshine, rain, and natural processes of the world that culminate in pastures and healthy cattle. He knows livestock didn’t always need so much handling, especially when bison freely roamed the area. He often thinks about those times and wonders if they can be recreated in their efficiency.  

A meeting with Allan Savory, co-founder of Holistic Management International and founder of Savory Institute, confirmed what Tucker’s intuition told him all along: there is a way to ranch that promotes economy AND ecology, never one at the expense of the other. To accomplish that, Tucker makes sure three components are in order: stockmanship, grazing, and marketing. Tucker believes that if you invest in these three things, you’ll receive dividends that pay over a lifetime.  

The idea of proper stockmanship originated from Bud and Eunice Williams, creators of what BeefProducer called one of the most important innovations in 2011 (along with barbed wire and antibiotics) (Williams, 2022). In essence, Tucker says proper stockmanship is about getting the cattle to the right place at the right time for the right reasons. If a rancher understands what livestock want, could, and probably will do, they can get the animals to respond how they want them to, more often. The result is less stress on the animals and handlers, and more time for everything else. 

Appropriate grazing management is key to meeting your ecological goals, says Tucker. While he uses the principles of planned grazing, he says one’s specific context should ultimately drive decision-making. In fact, he thinks context is so important that he (and others) would like to add that as the sixth soil health principle. No two pastures are the same, let alone two ranches, so they should be observed diligently and acted on accordingly. By practicing proper grazing management, a rancher can catch and hold more water in their soil, leading to more dense and diverse pastures. Visit the Soil for Water Forum to read how others are catching and holding more water in their soils. 

Proper marketing is what brings the entire operation together and makes the engine move forward. Tucker is adamant that a rancher creates value by investing his time, effort, and energy into improving a product or service. The more skillfully a farmer does that, the more value that is created. Good marketing tells the story of that value, the story of that producer’s time, effort, and energy; it tells the story of why balancing economy and ecology is the responsibility of each of us, producers and consumers alike. This can no doubt lead to bigger margins.  

Sometimes economical decisions take precedence over ecological ones, or vice versa, but neither should be made at the expense of the other. Tucker suggests that all new producers first understand  why they want to get into the agriculture business. Then, he urges us to understand our context. There are already plenty of resources like the Soil for Water Network and its partners that can help new, transitioning, and established producers understand and work within the ecological limits of their land. There’s no end to better, as Bud Williams says. It takes the development of one’s intelligence, skills, and commitment to their work. Tucker reminds us that setbacks are good because they serve as a sign of what is broken and where to go next. That process adds value to an operation. As chiefs of whatever land we may be on, we can make sure every decision we make relates to the welfare and well-being of generations to come (Vecsey and Venables, 1980).

Reference: 

 

Vecsey, Chirstopher and Venables, Robert W (eds.). 1980. An Iroquois Perspective. American Indian Environments: Ecological Issues in Native American History. Syracuse University Press. 

Roberts Ranch was donated to the YMCA by Bob Roberts of Comfort, TX in the 1990’s. Since then it has served as a place where families and children can gather to explore the outdoors in a beautiful Hill Country setting. The pristine habitat, native plants, and wildlife make the ranch the perfect laboratory for learning about and exploring nature. The property has served hundreds of children through outdoor education program sponsored by Texas Parks and Wildlife and hosts conservation and stewardship workshops, hiking, tours, and environmental education field trips for youth and adults.

The Roberts Ranch has always been a working cattle ranch as well. In 2019, cattle were removed from the ranch in order to let the land rest and to undertake various restoration projects that include brush clearing, cross-fence repair, and riparian restoration. Cattle will be reintroduced in 2022.

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Texastopia is located outside of Blanco, TX along the Blanco River. It is the property of Pete Van Dyke and his wife Elenor Goode. Pete owns Van Dyke Earthworks & Design, a permaculture consulting business. They started managing a 10 acre Bermuda grass pasture on the homestead in 2017. Prior to their arrival it had been used to propagate coastal hay for 30 plus years. The soil was very hard and compacted. It is their intention to regenerate this pasture using various permaculture strategies to decrease compaction, improve soil health, and increase above and below ground biodiversity. Additionally, they plan to incorporate silvopasture practices that includes livestock grazing.

In the fall of 2017 they used the subsoil ripper to help relieve the compaction, without disturbing too much of the ground cover. A subsoil ripper creates thin rips in the ground at various depth on contour to relieve compaction and allow moisture to penetrate the soil. The first time using the ripper they were only able to get down about 6 inches due to the heavy compaction from the disturbance caused by years of hay farming. They then broadcast cover crop seeds into the slightly disturbed soil. Their first year of cool season cover crops in 2017 did not do that well. The Bermuda grass was still thick so a lot of the cover crop seeds did not germinate. Also the deer pressure was high which further reduced germination. Two transects have been created in the field as described below.

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Located Center Point, Texas in East Kerr County, Zanzenberg Farm specializes in raising heritage breed pigs on pasture. Much like heirloom vegetables, heritage breeds were very common on the American homestead centuries ago. Farm owners Justin and Kayte Graham take extra care to raise these animals on open pastures where they are free to breathe in fresh air, take in the natural sunlight, root in the nutrient rich soil and enjoy daily mud baths. The hogs are humanely raised and finished on whey. Their pork is sold at three different farmers markets in Central Texas. Their products are corn, soy, antibiotic, and hormone free. Zanzenberg Farm practices holistic management principles such as intensive planned grazing as well as innovating new management strategies that optimize soil health.

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Dr. Chris Grotegut is a veterinarian, farmer, and stockman in Hereford, located in Deaf Smith County in the Texas Panhandle. Hereford has a rich agricultural heritage and economy built on the waters of Ogallala Aquifer. But this aquifer has been in perilous decline over the past hundred years as more and more land has been plowed for row cropping and turned into feedlots for thirsty cattle. Aquifer decline is a serious threat to the longevity of many producers in the Texas Panhandle. Chris is taking steps on his land to replenish the aquifer, and he freely shares his lessons learned along the way. 

Chris is the cutting edge producer/owner of an 11,000 acre farm named Tierra de Esperanza that produces organic crops and livestock. In recent years he has transitioned the family operation toward more efficient uses of water, labor, and equipment by returning much of his cropland back to native grass pastures. He plants winter crops over dormant grasses in years with favorable moisture, minimizes irrigation, and takes measures to protect his playas, which are the clay basins in his fields and pastures that infiltrate water very slowly to refill the aquifer below.

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Ward Whitworth and his family have lived in the far western end of the Texas Hill Country near London, Texas for many generations. Today Ward and his wife Barbara manage multiple properties. The Whitworths are diversifying their operation by running multiple species of livestock together as one herd. They like the convenience and the challenge of running the stock together. It allows them to plan for longer recovery periods for their pastures while increasing the utilization of the forages available. Stocking rates have fluctuated as a result of Ward’s learning and monitoring process to lengthen recovery periods following two years of hot, dry weather. The Whitworths are intent on rebuilding a healthy complex of high succession perennial native grass species which is proving to be successful.

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TerraPurezza was founded by Tina and Orion Weldon in Spicewood, TX in 2015. It has grown to over 1500 acres of native Texas prairie on multiple campuses including the Shield Ranch on Austin’s Barton Creek and Willie Nelson’s Luck Ranch in Spicewood, TX. With backgrounds in nutrition, agriculture, and conservation ecology, the TerraPurezza power couple applies multiple approaches to rejuvenate the land for a more resilient food system. 

TerraPurezza partnered with the Shield Ranch in 2019. Stewarding and protecting the Hill Country ecosystem is the sole purpose of the Shield Ranch. The TerraPurezza-Shield Ranch partnership focuses on producing nutrient-dense food while managing the ranch’s natural resources through rehabilitating soil health, rebuilding native grasslands, and restoring natural water cycles. TerraPurezza manages 65-acres of the 6,800-acre Shield Ranch with adaptive high-density multi-species livestock grazing, which includes pigs, sheep, and poultry.

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The Stowers Ranch was established in 1904 by prominent Texas merchant and rancher George Arthur Stowers. The 11,800 acre operation is located at the headwaters of the North Fork of the Guadalupe River near Hunt, Texas. It is enhanced by over two miles of riverfront and a large beautiful natural lake. Today the Smith family, direct descendants of George Stowers, own and operate the ranch for livestock, hunting, and recreation.

The Smiths chose a small area of the ranch to try something new without major risk. Two transects have been established in a small 30 acre pasture at the Stowers Ranch. This pasture was divided further with temporary electric fencing to create one 18 acre and one 13 acre paddock. 250 head were allowed to graze in each paddock for eight and 12 hours. Grazing this size of a heard in these relatively small paddocks is a demonstration of high stock density for a short duration of time. One pasture will be rested for six months and the other will be rested for one year.

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Katie Forrest and Taylor Collins’ journey to becoming ranchers began in an unusual way. They first developed the nationally marketed EPIC Bar, a jerky based protein bar; then sold their company and followed an inspiration to begin livestock production as a way to improve the environment. Located in the heart of the majestic Hill Country, ROAM Ranch sits on 900 acres of awe inspiring river bottom land on the outskirts of Fredericksburg, TX. Katie and Taylor shared a vision to positively impact large-scale agriculture through producing nourishing food that improves the lives of animals, enriches the health of consumers, and regenerates the land on which we depend. Like much of the world, this once-fertile region has been industrially farmed for the past 100 years. 

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