By Tom Parker
MCPHERSON, December 29 – At first glance, Courtney White might not seem like the ideal candidate to address the Kansas Graziers Association during their annual winter conference in January. He grew up in the city where the only agriculture was the occasional family garden, and the only wildlife were the neighborhood cats and dogs. His only interaction with livestock was with the horses his family owned for trail-riding. He was a hard-driving activist for the Sierra Club, lobbying for new wilderness areas, protesting clear-cut logging in national forests and writing handbooks that were used by grassroots organizations to oppose hard-rock mining. As an activist, agriculture and livestock were barely on his radar, and when they were it wasn’t in a positive light.
But people change, and times change, and divisive wars eventually take their toll leaving only the wounded and the coppery taste of defeat.
The constant battle between environmental activists and ranchers, loggers and other rural residents was an endless war of attrition. “No one was winning,” White wrote in the introduction to his book, Grass, Soil and Hope. “Everyone and everything was losing, especially the land.”
Even worse was the negative energy being expended. It was like a toxic cloud sucking the life out of everything it touched.
Dispirited and not a little jaded, White was increasingly aware of the hopelessness of the struggle. Just when it seemed that neither side was capable of listening to the other without threats of lawsuits or personal violence, he met a free-thinking rancher who had reached out to the environmentalists as equals. The meeting set White on the path to becoming a rancher himself, wading into the middle of the grazing wars and co-founding the Quivira Coalition, a Santa Fe-based based non-profit organization devoted to finding a “third position.” They called it the New Ranch, where people interested in innovative ideas and fruitful dialogue could meet, discuss, and learn. His latest book, Two Percent Solutions for the Planet, expands his unique outlook from the American West to a global vision for simple, low-cost solutions for environmental regeneration.
Having experienced both sides of the environmental debate gives him a perspective that allows him to reach consensus among conservationists and ranchers alike.
“I bridged those two worlds,” White said. “Now I want to show farmers and ranchers that there is common ground with conservationists. I try very hard to work with what I call the radical center, those people who come together to solve problems pragmatically. We don’t do legislation or lawsuits; we share new ideas and talk about our experiences in climate issues and soil health.”
“Grass, Soil, and Hope,” the theme for the Kansas Graziers Association Winter Conference in Salina, on Saturday, Jan. 16., expands on White’s experiences in the Southwest and, more recently, around the world, to the Midwest. The lessons he and others have learned are applicable everywhere on the planet within specific or generalized ecosystems, he said, and for the most part require reasonably cost-effective and simple solutions.
Mostly importantly, the solutions laid out in the book are based upon nature’s own carbon-based model, and can be implemented with technologies that already exist. In other words, he said, “We don’t have to invent anything new.”
While writing the book, White began to look at a wider variety of farming that he didn’t know much about, from holistic grazing, edible backyard forests, biochar, weed-eating livestock, food co-ops, bio-energy and rainwater harvesting to animal power, bees, bears, wildlife corridors and a wide variety of other regenerative practices that have been field-tested and proven to be practical and profitable.
“When I was in conservation, I wanted the public to understand the issues,” he said. “With the book I wanted to do the same thing. As far as farmers and ranchers were concerned, I wanted to give them some ideas they haven’t thought of, an alternate narrative. Generally, the whole idea is that we can address a lot of these problems with fairly simple systems.”
By taking his message to the Midwest, he said, he wanted to provide a “different perspective to Kansas.”
Other guest speakers will be Gail Fuller and Dale Strickler.
Fuller, of Fuller Farms near Emporia, began experimenting with no-till farming during the early 1980s, and has since gone on to practice holistic management techniques for his operation. His presentation, “Soil Health: Makes Dollar$ and Sense,” will center on why soil regeneration should be a priority for everyone and which management techniques have been proven successful on his farm. Soil health, Fuller believes, equates to farm health. Without soil regeneration, the future of farming is at risk.
Put bluntly, Fuller said, “The only reason to focus on soil health is if you have an interest in your children and grandchildren’s survival.”
Dale Strickler, a former agronomy instructor at Concordia’s Cloud County Community College and now cover crop and forage specialist, will discuss livestock management from an environmental standpoint in his presentation, “Livestock: The Four-Legged Bandage for a Wounded Planet.”
“Livestock agriculture, with cattle in particular, has been given a black eye in the press over the past few decades,” Strickler said. “Cattle have been blamed for global warming, soil erosion, depletion of water resources, habitat loss, and a whole host of environmental problems. Many people have chosen to reduce or eliminate their beef consumption out of environmental concerns, because they have believed these media half-truths. However, the actual truth of the matter is that well-managed cattle grazing can be used to reduce potential climate change, reduce soil erosion, improve water availability, and increase wildlife habitat and biodiversity. Cattle can be put to use for environmental benefit.”
Together, the three speakers will provide dynamic information that Kansas Graziers can implement to increase grazing performance as well as improve the environment.
The Kansas Graziers Association Winter Conference in Salina, sponsored by Amazing Grazing III, opens at 8:30 a.m. on Saturday, Jan. 16 at the Salina Ambassador Hotel, 1616 W. Crawford, Salina. Registration can be made online at kansasfarmersunion.com/events or by contacting Mary Howell at 785-562-8726 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. The cost of the single-day event is $50 for the first person, $25 for spouses and $15 for students.
For more information on this or other upcoming workshops sponsored by Amazing Grazing, call Howell at 785-562-8726 or visit Amazing Grazing’s Web site at http://www.kansasfarmersunion.com/amazing-grazing.
Amazing Grazing is a collaboration of the Kansas Farmers Union and the Kansas Graziers Association. Funding for this project was provided by the North Central Extension Risk Management Education Center and USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture under Award Number 2012-49200-20032. Project partners include the Kansas Alliance for Wetlands and Streams, Kansas Grazing Lands Coalition, K-State Research and Extension, Farm Credit Associations of Kansas, Kansas Center for Sustainable Agriculture and Alternative Crops, and NRCS-Kansas.