I used to read a lot of Wendell Berry. His eloquent, penetrating, passionate prose influenced me profoundly, solidifying my awareness of the pivotal role that human presence and local culture play in the shaping of landscapes. Berry is a strong advocate for all things local—local ownership and control of resources, local food, locally appropriate and locally derived management approaches. I took his preaching to heart in the early 2000s, and started to think about my family’s ranch from this perspective of being local and “native”. I became somewhat obsessed by this idea, and strove to become the epitome of the “modern native”, in deep harmony with the ecological nuances of my “place” in the world.
But, I also reached the sobering realization that even though my family had been in western Colorado since the 1890s, we weren’t really genuinely “native”. We were still pioneers, attempting to make our European-derived tools and livestock and husbandry practices fit the semi-arid West, and we really didn’t know much about our local environment—and I mean REALLY know it, like the Ute Indians and their predecessors, who had been there for thousands of years before us, who deeply knew that landscape and its myriad subtleties.
I still believe there is a fundamental truth in Berry’s perspective. Deep local knowledge of a specific place, and how to live there, is key to the sustenance of ecological, economic, and social integrity. But, in my opinion and experience, that almost doesn’t exist anymore…anywhere.
For the most part, everywhere humans live, we are now the keystone species, and we have been for a long time—arguably since we figured out how to light a fire. We’ve exerted enormous influence for many hundreds of thousands of years. Most recently (the last few hundred, and especially the last 70 years), with our modern agricultural and industrial practices, we’ve evolved to the point that we threaten to overwhelm everything else. By utilizing the atmosphere as the great common dumping ground, we even threaten to shift this planet into another state altogether, unsuitable for the continuance of our current civilization.
Because of the advance of all forms of technology (including modern medicine, which has enabled our population to grow exponentially), there are extremely few places where humans, as the keystone species, are builders, rather than liquidators, of ecological capital. Even family farms and ranches—the images of which impart scenes of pastoral bliss—are mostly deeply flawed. The advent of synthetic nitrogen, hybrid crops, and “the get big or get out” imperative has drastically distorted farm country to enormous monocultures of wheat, corn, and soybeans. And, the marginal economics of cattle and sheep ranching out West, under the current range management paradigm of “light stocking rates equal range health”, have resulted in fully depreciated (and impossible to replace via operating cash surpluses) infrastructure, over-rested forage and soil surfaces, mal-adapted livestock, and a demographic crisis of young folks shifting to the city.
So, it’s easy to assume that the best thing for the land is long term, indefinite occupancy by native, locally-adapted, locally savvy humans, but even our closest current approximation of this vision—“family farming/ranching”—is (with a few exceptions of course) far from matching the ideal.
Within our Grasslands on-the-ground crew, there has been some recent interest in this topic of local ownership, local control, local culture, and local knowledge, and what that all means for the Grasslands investment and business model. I think some of these evolving perspectives have been at least partly stimulated by a dive into the works of Wendell Berry. While I identify, my thinking has certainly evolved over the past 15 years. I would say I’m now as much a realist as I am an idealist, and you guys out on the ground deserve an explanation of how Grasslands, in my view, is a wonderful synthesis of idealism and realism.
First, let me say that I still prefer to see holistically grounded, intergenerational, savvy family ranchers and farmers occupying our landscapes. But, due to many circumstances, we’ve lost many thousands—millions globally—of pastoral families to other walks of life. And, as the globe’s wealth has become increasingly concentrated, and as safe, relatively low risk, investable assets that promise a healthy financial return have become increasingly scarce, land has become an attractive asset class for those with financial capital.
It makes sense. Land is a finite resource—even more so than gold, which we’re still slowly mining, and thus adding to the aggregate supply. But there is no more land than we have right now, and due to the incessant degradation and desertification of so much of the world’s landscapes, this supply is effectively shrinking. And, unlike gold, productive, food-producing land, in addition to serving as a solid long-term store of wealth, can also generate a dividend to the owner/investor. And, the source of these returns won’t go out of style, since, as a Kiwi shepherd once told me, “The last thing we’re going to stop doing is eat.” This increase in demand, combined with a declining supply, has caused an enormous increase in land prices—more on that below.
Also, unlike gold, land has to be managed. This is a reality that largely escapes many of this burgeoning class of absentee landowners, who mostly never see their land, and typically lease it to those who have some idea of what to do with it. As I look at potential land deals all over the world, many of the places I inspect indeed follow this pattern—landowners don’t really know what they own, and lease to people they don’t know and with whom they have no relationship. Usually these leases are short term—year-to-year, or maybe out to five years, but their terms typically do little to incentivize the lessee to do anything but generate as much short term profit as possible, to hell with everything else. Ecology suffers. Infrastructure suffers. Humans suffer. Community resilience suffers. Local culture continues to degrade. The only word for it is “tragic”, and Wendell Berry’s warnings ring true.
The land/landowner/land tenant relationship described above does not reflect our Grasslands project. First, we are fortunate to be aligned with investors who, while absentee, are also deeply interested in the ecological health of their assets and the creation of viable, economically and socially resilient business models. They also foresee owning these properties indefinitely. Selling a specific property will always be an option, but these investments were not entered into with the explicit idea of liquidating and cashing out.
Grasslands is definitely expected to perform in accordance with our annual financial projections, but there is no finite time limit on these projects that would incentivize us to squeeze out every penny “while we can.” Like our investors, our perspective as managers is also long term, and we are thus encouraged to steward and enhance each property’s ecological capital. If we do that, consistently through time, Grasslands stands to profit, sustainably and genuinely, over the long term. In that sense, our project is different than most other “agricultural land funds” of which I’m aware.
I know a lot of us out there on the ground, myself included, come from family farming and ranching backgrounds. The details are obviously different for each of us, but we’ve all either outgrown our family’s operations, or our families have sold out, or there just hasn’t been a niche for us to fill back home. I know the ideal for many of us would be to buy our own places and persist as independent ranchers, but due to land price escalation and the resulting meager return on investment that’s possible, it just isn’t in the cards for most of us to buy our own places. It’s a different world than it was even in the early 1990s, when land prices still made some sense in terms of their potential economic returns. Since then, in most geographies, appreciating values (as opposed to operating cash returns) have constituted the vast bulk of any financial return.
As a result, those of us who still want to ranch (but without a land base of our own), and who “know what to do” with the country, have become the new “management class” of ranchers. The owners need lessees or managers, and the managers need land and livestock to tend. If the owners are values-aligned with the managers, as we are with Grasslands, this is a great marriage. Is it ideal? Again, I’d rather the holistically aware, multigenerational family rancher be the owner, but I’m confident that we’ve done our best to create the next best thing, honoring and embracing the reality of our current context.
And, in some ways (even many ways) it’s better. There’s no way we could be ranching at this scale, across our incredible range of landscapes, without this merging of like-minded investors and managers. As managers, we still have the option to be owners of livestock, if that fits our values and context. Our investors have the financial wherewithal to make the additional capital improvements that are necessary for our ranches to reach their ecological and financial potential—something that land rich/cash poor family ranchers struggle with mightily. With our scale, we have the luxury of creating administrative hubs (many thanks, Bozeman and Christchurch teams), which free up us cowboys and shepherds from all the office and bookkeeping work that most of us resist, enabling us to stay focused on our passions.
Because of our long-term horizon, on both the investor and manager sides of the equation, the land will benefit with the associated continuity of human presence and increasingly skilled and nuanced stewardship. We are developing the place-based history and knowledge that will lead to the long term ecological regeneration and economic resilience that we all want, and in the context—the reality—of the modern world. It is a context under which we indeed can once again become native to these places—the “new natives”. Let’s all embrace this marriage and be grateful. I honestly do think that Wendell Berry would approve.
I'm busy working on my blog posts. Watch this space!