An interview with Mark Biaggi, Kendra Johnson and Wendy Millet
To build on our many land tenure resources, California FarmLink and TomKat Ranch Educational Foundation teamed up to create a new guide to land leases that support regenerative grazing practices. This guidebook aims to empower private, nonprofit, and public landholders, as well as easement-holders and grazing tenants, to create leases that incentivize management that fosters and restores diverse and healthy ecosystems, just and thriving communities, and profitable farm and ranch businesses.
The guide provides a framework for grazing agreements that articulate shared agricultural, ecological, and social values of each party; foster effective communication to support adaptation and innovation; and align incentives so that the productivity and resilience of the lands are improved. Recently we had an opportunity to discuss the guidebook with its lead creator, Kendra Johnson, and two partners in the project, Wendy Millet and Mark Biaggi at TomKat Ranch. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The FarmLink team has been excited to co-create this resource for our land tenure work. What is regenerative grazing and why is it important?
Mark Biaggi, Ranch Manager, TomKat Ranch:
Regenerative grazing uses livestock to heal grasslands and ultimately the soil. Regenerative grazing is about managing cycles: the water, carbon, and energy cycles. It’s about being in tune with the natural functions of growing plants and cycling them through ruminants, the way a lot of grasslands developed. Ultimately, it can help address some of the basic problems that will help mitigate drought including improving the water table, water availability, carbon storage and sequestration in the soil, and greenhouse gasses.
There’s also the economic cycle. Those who have learned to regeneratively graze and heal their lands have seen big improvements on the economic side because they are working in sync with nature. After all, sunlight is the only free energy out there. If you’re doing regenerative grazing, you are capturing sunlight for plant growth and turning it into protein that can feed people, and at the same time, helps you manage whatever rain falls by helping water infiltrate into the soil and hold it for either for your land or your neighbors downstream.
Why did TomKat Ranch and California FarmLink choose to spearhead this project?
Wendy Millet, Ranch Director, TomKat Ranch:
In case you forget why we care about all this stuff, let’s go high-level: We’ve got a real problem on our hands. We’ve got drought and fire and climate and an old style of managing land that doesn’t respect ecosystems or think about land as a whole, and where the mindset is about what we can extract, not what we can give back [to the land]. This is true for our ranch and why we keep doing everything we do to care for it, and restore it through regenerative agriculture. We see such a need in the world for tools and models that support landowners who want to get into this kind of work. We do this work, because this is the way we’re going to be able to create a different kind of food system and keep everything on this planet – people, animals, soil, air, and water – all healthy.
I could be wrong, but I believe rain falls on more acres of grassland than any other kind of acres in the world. Therefore, those who are managing lands through grazing have a huge influence on drinking water supplies. Rain that lands on ground that runs off isn’t potable water. As our weather becomes more erratic, it becomes more important how we manage our lands. I see that there’s a real societal component, that it’s not just what you do on your land. It’s all the people downstream and all the neighbors.
There are places in the world where large swaths of land have been managed regeneratively and have actually started to have major and positive changes on the microclimate and the communities around them. We need more of this everywhere around the world. To help achieve that, a tool that encourages regenerative practices versus extractive grazing where you just take everything, is why regenerative grazing leases are so important.
The guidebook is a great new addition to FarmLink’s land tenure resources. Who is this publication for and how should it be used?
Kendra Johnson, co-author and program advisor:
This publication is for a lot of people, but especially landowners, whether they’re private landowners, land trusts or government agencies with grazing land. It’s for landowners that are realizing the value of bringing in regenerative graziers and regenerative practices, and are interested in creating lease agreements that further those goals, whether that is increasing biodiversity, addressing soil health, water infiltration capacity, and water quality, all sorts of ecological as well as social goals.
We took a broad definition of regenerative in this publication and really extended that systems thinking to also encompass some social and equity goals. Public or nonprofit landowners might be thinking about how to not only heal or care for their land, but perhaps honor the history and ancestry of that land, and think about the future viability of the next generation on that land and the local food system.
The way that we talk about the issue of regenerative grazing from TomKat Ranch’s perspective is that it’s a solution to multiple crises of our times. It sounds like a catchy line, but it’s true. Mark just wrote down [in the notes] “fire and water,” I would add biodiversity and healthy soil and soil carbon. These are all resources at risk in today’s world. Everybody is facing this, and regenerative agriculture is one of the ways to manage land in a way that can benefit these resources we care about.
You can graze a piece of ground to make it fireproof, when you’re done it looks like a desert and you’ve damaged the water cycle. And you can graze it so that you don’t damage the water cycle. Grazing is a tool, and just as a hammer is a tool, you can build something or break something depending on how that tool is used.
Tell us more about how people use these tools. What impacts can regenerative grazing leases have for landowners and tenants?
Fire and water. It’s about our California context and people’s goals. If you are a landowner who wants a more healthy ecosystem, there are so many multiples of things to manage for. If you manage for one thing, you may do so at the detriment to a whole host of others. In regenerative agriculture, it’s about having the right animals at the right place at the right time at the right impact and success has a lot to do with recovery. In a regenerative grazing program, the very first thing you do is plan your recovery. How long should the land sit? In our Mediterranean climate, depending on elevation, water, aspect, etc, you may graze a place once every year or every 30 days in the growing season. The benefits for the landowner are multiple because grazing is a system tool that allows you to address crises and also allows you to build on things you want.
Take native perennial plants, for example. At TomKat Ranch, starting in 2011, 75 pastures were monitored by Point Blue Conservation Science. In the beginning, only five pastures had detectable native perennial grasses due to years of conventional grazing. Within two years of changing our grazing program, 55 out of 75 pastures had native perennial grasses. Going through the drought of 2014-2018, it grew to 70 of 75 pastures. Nothing had been planted, we had not done anything but planned grazing with a focus on regenerating grasslands. There’s a whole host of other things that cascaded out from those events, but that’s just one.
We’re aiming to introduce this resource to a wide variety of landholders. Why are land trusts and other conservation groups interested in regenerative grazing?
Many people are beginning to know that it is possible to achieve more ecological and economic outcomes on working lands than is common today. Where there’s science, they’re more excited about adopting it. We’re still working on getting enough science into the field so people are not still wondering and doubting, especially when they hear from a conventional producer that it’s too expensive. Those that are interested in it, they’ve seen the possibility and the potential for both their bottom line and the health of their ranch.
How does TomKat Ranch incorporate regenerative grazing into its own lease agreements?
We have some leases and MOUs where people have asked us to manage their land because they see the way we graze. So there’s not even a financial transaction. In the MOU, we state that we will graze this way with specific goals in mind, so it’s very clear to the landowner why we move cows in and out, why we concentrate them, why we do what we do. They understand the end product. They look at our fields and say, “We want our fields to be that healthy.” They may not understand the process, but it allows us to operate and not create friction with the landowner.
FarmLink focuses on creating win-win scenarios whenever possible. How do the leases create value for both parties?
The human dimension of this, again, is really what California FarmLink adds to the guidebook. A regenerative grazing lease that’s done well has a chance to weed out potential tenants that are not as creative and are not ready to think differently about their management practices.
But on the more positive side, it’s a way to lift up those creative, innovative, regeneratively focused graziers who, as Mark says, are ready to make a difference. And by having a lease that sets a high standard and high expectations — a regenerative grazing lease – we can put a competitive advantage out there for really excellent practitioners.
A regenerative grazing lease also has some… I wouldn’t even call them compromises, but has some principles that must come from the landholder as well, so that the grazing lessee can expect a certain degree of trust and flexibility so in a way that’s codified in the lease. It’s a safer and I’d say more conducive way for graziers to use adaptive practices than a standard, hard-edged, legalese lease that may or may not understand the need for that kind of trust, flexibility, and good communication.
Yeah, I think a super point, Kendra. I’m glad you beefed that up a bunch in the document because we were coming at it from the grazing side obviously. But getting that part of it in there, it’s such a healthier way to be in a transaction on a piece of land together.
Trust is incredibly important. We’ve had that issue at Potrero Nuevo when they were concerned about certain weeds taking over. I told them “Hang on. We’re coming, we (cows) are hungry to eat them!”
More than 20 ranchers and conservation groups provided feedback for the guide. What were some of their contributions?
I learned a tremendous amount from the feedback that we got from a whole host of land trusts and independent landowners with regenerative grazing values. We’ve heard from a good number of fairly young, next-generation graziers who all had just so much insight in our first round of drafting this guidebook. UC Extension folks pressed us, asking “what’s different about this versus a standard grazing lease guide for annual rangelands?
Also, we really wanted to speak to land trusts, but got advice early – like from Curt Riffle – that covering easements and leases would be too much for one publication. So we focused on leases knowing that land trusts that own land, and land trusts that are trying to share tools with their partner landowners, would be able to find language and an approach that would be valuable to them.
There were things I learned from younger ranchers or graziers who really resonated with that need for adaptive management and flexibility that we were just talking about. For example, excluding livestock from riparian areas. There were some really interesting comments from experienced graziers that said, “There might be unintended consequences if you just flatly exclude animals all the time from these riparian areas.” They pointed out certain outcomes that both parties might prefer, if you allow limited grazing in some riparian areas, for example.
There were land trust staff and other conservation managers, Laura O’Leary, Cam Tredennick and Christy Wyckoff and others, who just had great feedback on the nuts and bolts of what kind of language could go into an agreement that they’ve seen work and how to approach it. We even heard from folks elsewhere in the country who have experience working with indigenous communities, and lifting up access to grazing opportunities for otherwise underserved ranchers.
One of the things I wanted to underline is how much it matters to set up a good relationship with the landowner from the beginning. I don’t think landowners hear that perspective often enough. This is powerful because, ‘This isn’t just a financial transaction. This is a piece of land that we all care about, doing the best that we can for.’
People are interested in being part of the solution. How can landowners find and engage tenants in order to incorporate these practices?
If I was a landowner or looking for tenants, I would reach out to organizations that are helping train and support people such as the local Resource Conservation District or NRCS. They engage with a lot of graziers. Do they know anyone that’s using these practices? Who are the local certifiers in that area? Who’s gone through trainings to learn this work?
On a bigger scale, you can reach out to groups like Savory Institute or Holistic Management International. Not all, but most regenerative graziers are somewhere on the internet in some kind of grazing group with one of these bigger organizations. There’s not a list out there of all the regenerative graziers that you can tap into and find out who’s in your area, but I think that’s where I would start.
Or you could work backwards, if you know a grass-fed beef producer. Or you check out your local farmers’ market, see who’s selling grass-fed beef. You won’t have a hard time finding people who want to talk about expanding their grazing, especially the way we [lack] rain in California right now. And farmers’ market managers would likely know who in your area might be doing this kind of grazing. Farmers and ranchers don’t have a lot of time to get off the ranch, so finding them through an organization that’s philosophically aligned, or going to markets and finding where they’re producing their product, is a way to find them.
Years ago, the way I found leases was finding out who was under the Williamson Act. In other words, who had their land signed up that didn’t have cattle? I pointed out to them that they could lease their land to me for a dollar a year and I could save them money on their taxes.
I can think of many times when I was on staff at California FarmLink, helping farmers and ranchers find landowners, where we would get calls from really excellent graziers. Several of them have made comments on this guidebook and are still grazing today. But sometimes, they’d call up really desperate for more pasture or rangeland. They’d be so creative, too. Some of these graziers are knocking on doors, just beating the bushes. They’re just asking everyone they can think of. They’re working really hard just to find a little bit more ground to keep their [head] counts up, just to have enough space to not have to buy feed, or to keep their operations viable.
This actually can be a critical issue for younger graziers that are trying to establish themselves in business who aren’t landowners themselves. California FarmLink and its Land Portal is one of several places to go for landowners and land trusts who are interested in finding some of these excellent practitioners.