Authors Note: this piece was originally written for the October 9 Edition of the Nugget Newspaper.
Hobbs Margarét, 32, of Sisters Cattle Company, might be a radical.
Maybe that’s a result of his deep west Texas ranching roots, his degree from the University of Oregon, or because he lived too long in the low-intensity warfare of Los Angeles. Whatever the source, it’s no accident that the word “radical” reaches back to the Latin “radix”, meaning “root,” because Sisters Cattle Company is aiming for a radical change in the way we treat our soils, and beef cattle, in commercial agriculture.
Over the last couple of years Margarét has been quietly building a cattle outfit in Sisters Country, using regenerative grazing practices to build healthier soils and bring locally raised, grass finished beef to your dinner table.
Regenerative ranching starts with a basic question: can we produce food and regenerate the soil beneath our feet, all while eliminating the need for heavy doses of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, and while at the same time actually increasing the amount of food we produce on the same ground?
The answer is yes. Regenerative practices start by eliminating the till, which rapidly kills microbial life and sheds topsoil at alarming rates, and by replacing monocultures with a variety of annuals and perennials that increase biodiversity in the ground. And it uses cattle, grazed in high-intensity, low-duration sessions to graze those plants hard. The cattle are moved every day, sometimes several times a day, and the end result is better soil, which means better plant life. No chemical fertilizers are ever used, and no pesticides or herbicides are ever applied, which means when you eat a steak from Sisters Cattle Company you aren’t also eating Roundup or Warbex.
“Grazing and raising cattle this way is probably the only scalable solution for building healthy soil that feeds on itself,” Hobbs says.
Around the world, farmers and ranchers who have replaced traditional practices with regenerative methods have seen their yields grow exponentially. They can stock more cows on less ground, and breed for traits that create cattle resistant to pests and disease — rather than relying on each new round of miracle cures from Monsanto.
Growing food is what matters,” Hobbs says. “And what’s clear is that the old model isn’t working. Can people find a way to feed themselves in a way that makes the world a better place? Better people, better animals, better soil. That’s the idea.”
Cattle have long been the bogeymen of environmental extremists, blamed for almost every eco-horror imaginable, but people need to eat, and despite sustained misinformation campaigns by detractors, they like to eat beef. This year, the average American will consume 217 pounds of beef, and what’s missing from the traditional formulas, Hobbs says, is the long-term health and productivity of the soil.
“The nutrient levels seen in our soils have dropped dramatically,” Margarét says. “Soils are often so devoid of actual nutrients that even though you can go to the store and buy a really green green bean, there are less nutrients in that green bean than ever.”
That decline in the nutritional value of our food is a result of industrial scale farming whose focus is quantity, not quality.
And the decline in quality is visible across the board, from beef cattle to asparagus. If you buy fresh vegetables from a farmer’s market, where those vegetables are more likely to have been grown in soils rich with microbial life, you can actually taste the nutritional difference.
Many soils across the nation have been severely reduced in their ability to sustain microbial life. They are dependent on the yearly injection of chemical fertilizers to maintain productive growth levels, which is akin to delivering a shot of Narcan to an opioid overdose. The chemicals will bring the patient back to a kind of temporary, zombie-like sobriety, but that’s about it.
Margarét is eager to change how consumers, and detractors, see the role of cattle – from a destructive bogeyman to an eco-necessity and a net contributor to the health of local soils. That’s a radical mindset in today’s environment, and it’s one reason, in full disclosure, I decided to throw in with him and run a few cows under the Sisters Cattle Company brand. I’m just radical enough to think he’s on to something important, and something ultimately good for the long-term health of our waterways, soils, and community.
The eye of Sisters Cattle Company is firmly fixed on a regenerative agricultural future, which is more critical than ever as the water-starved west continues to settle up and there are more and more mouths to feed. “Post fossil-fuel ranching will be both big and necessary,” Margarét says. “The question is how we approach it. Are we going to keep trying to overpower nature, or are we going to mimic nature?”
One cow at a time, Sisters Cattle Company is building resiliency into the local future. “We are trying to build a culture that is endlessly repeatable. If we keep doing what we’ve been doing for the last 100 years it’s probably not going to work out in the long term.” And it’s designed to remain precisely local: “We’d be happy if not a single animal ever leaves our zip code.”
As for the end product, grass-finished beef, and the endless debates over how to best finish beef for the consumer, Margarét is confident Sisters Cattle Company’s product will stand up to the very best. “Our beef tastes the way beef should,” he says. “And even better.”
More information can be found at SistersCattleCo.com