This post was originally published in this Beef Initiative newsletter.
Winter is a time for rest, a time to reconvene and rejoice in the warm embrace of friends and family. To forgive past grievances, to give gifts, to to be present. Winter is also the time for reflection, to consider what has been accomplished over the past year, and to set one’s sights on the future.
This past year, the Beef Initiative has onboarded over 100 producers across the country after starting the year with just three. We have hosted high-signal Micro Summits in Texas, Colorado, Georgia, and Tennessee fostering comprehensive, mutual understandings between ranchers, consumers and bitcoiners who wish to support both parties. Following the lead of content producers like Texas Slim, a growing number of contributors are committing their time, talent and treasure to the organization, and are msking an impact.
In 2022, The Beef Initiative has pioneered protocols for creating market access that benefits all involved parties – i.e. producers access to intentional and passionate consumers, and those consumers’ access to premium products, and practical education. Yet, with all that has been accomplished, there are still many miles to go, and more impact to be had.
Based on data collected in the USDA’s 2017 agricultural census, the average age of an American producer was 58.6 years old; over 73% of those surveyed identified as having 10+ years of farm experience. Only 8% of respondents indicated that they were below the age of 35. In the five years since the census, it is likely that these figures have become more drastic; there is an upward brain-drain occurring in the United States, particularly in the agricultural sector.
As a nation, we are losing access to our agrarian heritage as older ranchers retire, and sell their land holdings due to the lack of willing or capable heirs.
Time is of the essence, as local producers are suffering from supply chain issues. Per the USDA’s 2022 Farm and Wealth Statistics, total production expenses have increased 18.82% from 2021 to 2022.
At a point in time where the world is in the grips of economic recession, we must support our farmers and ranchers, in particular, we must find avenues through which to pass down knowledge from the older to younger generations.
Hands in the Dirt, Boots on the Ground
In the same way that time waits for no one, innovation is elusive and must be courted through intentionally engineered suffering. What this means is, in order to secure and pass along hands-on, practical agricultural skills to the next generations, the Beef Initiative will once again create a new form of organized market access to that knowledge.
As announced at the December Micro Summit in Nashville, the first recipient of the I Am Texas Slim Foundation’s annual grant will be none other than Jason Wrich, of Wrich Ranches. Jason is a born educator and leader with experiences ranging from electrical engineering in coal mines, military service, and now working to rehabilitate top soils in his home region of Western Colorado, in the San Luis Valley.
Although considered a first-generation rancher, Jason has been involved in agriculture his entire life, and has developed an intimate understanding of the lands he stewards. “We have to be strong enough to get back to our roots,” Jason explained, “we have all the technology we need already.” This is a commonly shared belief among those ranchers who are interested not only in their bottom lines, but also in the rehabilitation of pasture lands through intentionally managed animal-impact. Jason calls his practice Observational Science, and he stresses the importance of paying attention to all aspects of the landscape – from the types and numbers of insects in the garden, to the erosion potential of a particular field.
His keen awareness of surroundings took years to develop, and was cultivated by experiential study (practice) as well as a willingness to try and fail. Wrich Ranches is known for producing some of the most sought-after Black Angus beef in the country: grass-fed and grass-finished, these beef cows spend 30 months grazing pastures with views that would make anyone jealous. “Before I got into buying cattle, I spent a year researching breeds, breed associations, and working for free for successful ranchers,” Jason explained to me. Those formative experiences in ranching created valuable relationships that he draws on to this day for wisdom, transparency and friendship.
A Link in the Chain
At the December Micro Summit in Nashville, I was fortunate enough to share several conversations with Jason about his plans for the grant funds. He told me emphatically about his vision for an internship program – his desire to provide opportunity for young men and women who (in his words) “are not candidates for a cubicle.”
The plan is to construct low-impact structures on the property – like yurts – which will house interns or agritourists for the duration of their stay.
Beyond ranching-specific internships, Jason intends to provide lodging for those interested in living on and experiencing a ranch, but who may not be as interested in chasing cattle, hauling hay or shoveling manure. The intention is to provide satisfactory amenities for young families interested in recreation, while also having internship programs in place that outline the scope of ranching – practical learning experiences, an understanding of why things are done when they are done, and an introduction to the intensity of the work.
For 8 months of the year – weather and other circumstances permitting – Wrich Ranches will provide high-quality, hands-on education across modalities related to ranching, farming, and ecosystem restoration. These opportunities not only benefit those who visit the ranch, but also benefit the rancher by providing additional revenue streams to augment the volatility of a ranching enterprise. Jason noted that he is “not as interested in catering to rich folks looking to go on guided hunts.” As an educator, Jason wants to continue to educate in the manner that he has been doing his entire life by leveraging his own experiential knowledge to provide foundations for the next generation.
It should be clear at this point in time America’s agricultural self-sufficiency is in jeopardy: for over 50 years now, misguided policies have tended to centralize land holdings, politicize meat processing availability, and has caused a myriad of other negative externalities. Our producers are rapidly approaching retirement age, and their next-of-kin want nothing to do with their agricultural heritage – generally speaking. If no action is taken to reverse the current course, billionaires and politicians will to leech the remaining wealth from our rural communities, completing the hollowing out of our most crucial resource.
Scaling by Multiplying
A frequently asked about topic in regenerative agriculture is it’s potential “scalability.” Frankly, the question is framed incorrectly.
As Will Harris of White Oak Pastures explained to Joe Rogan, framing the scalability problem as a simple calculation of calories produced per acre has led us to where we are today: depleted topsoils, contaminated groundwater supplies and a litany of side effects from harsh chemicals.
There does not yet exist a comprehensive valuation formula that accounts for the soil regeneration, stimulation of biodiversity, reduced use of typical inputs (e.g. petroleum, fertilizer, potable water) all of which are associated with regenerative agricultural practices.
What does seem to be happening is a steady shift in public perceptions around the inherent value of such practices. Gradually, consumers and investors alike are coming to the same conclusion: that they are willing to support producers who’s sole intention is not profit, but are concerned with a holistic approach to land stewardship and animal husbandry.
Ranchers like Will Harris and Jason Wrich are intimately familiar with the concept of a land’s carrying capacity – they run their operations in such a way as to maximize their herds, while not putting excess stress on the land. That knowledge is developed through the practice of Observational Science and is incredibly context-dependent – meaning that land in Bluffton, GA is entirely different than in Crawford, CO.
Our younger generations are desperately in need of hands-on, context-dependent education about the ground they stand on. This is ultimately the goal of the I Am Texas Slim Foundation grant program, to empower the Great American Rancher to deliver structured exactly the way they wish to do so.
Ultimately, regenerative agricultural practices do not (and cannot) scale past a particular plot of land’s carrying capacity; excess capacity tends to degrade the environment and therefore undo the positive effects of intentional animal impact.
Scaling will occur through multiplication – meaning that the more young people exposed to responsible ranching, the more likely it is that new regenerative ranch “nodes” blossom in the coming years.
Complacency kills: as an movement, we cannot rest on the successes of 2022, we must continue to innovate and to elevate those producers who wish to have an impact on the next generations. Jason Wrich is just such a rancher, leader and educator.
As we close out the year, let us all reflect on our successes, failures, and our plans for the new year to come. There is much to be proud of, much to be improved, and no shortage of work to be done – here we go!