WELLS, Vt. — In the coolness of a Vermont landscape etched with green pastures, green mountains and small farmers stood a passionate rancher from South Africa ready to inspire others about the “whole” future of grass-based agriculture.
The internationally recognized, holistically-driven grazier, Ian Mitchell-Innes, is not shy about sharing his opinions on grazing, which excited the capacity crowd of farmers and conservation professionals gathered at the farm of Rich and Cynthia Larson on June 10.
“We must work to nudge Mother Nature, not club her over the head and move away from the 99 percent of agriculture that deals in parts,” said Mitchell-Innes.
His message is catching on as the new USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service Soil Health Initiative gets underway.
In his three-month stay in America, where he has been teaching countless ranchers and farmers about holistic decision making and grazing management, Mitchell-Innes said he has seen a phenomenal change in the audience, with 80 percent being young farmers asking lots of questions about the status quo of conventional, linear thinking.
“We’ve got to keep you farmers on the land by addressing root causes with management and not sending your money to town treating symptoms. If there’s a problem, it’s best to look in the mirror first before blaming. It’s high time to start managing towards what you want with what you have and change our bottom-feeder status in the community,” he said.
Mitchell-Innes referred to the environment in which producers work as “managing chaos” along with emphasizing the importance of goal setting and holistic planning.
“We are in the energy business: energy is money, money is energy, and time is money,” he said. “For us to be successful, we must capture the free solar energy by converting plants through the grazing and trampling of the grass by animals and feed the soil with this carbon-based material. One day we will be recognized for our organic-matter building capability by consumers around the world and be justly paid for sequestering carbon.”
Mitchell-Innes thinks all this can be accomplished through a holistic decision-making process concentrating on soil health, grazing management, animal performance, diversity, wealth generation from carbon, and most of all, having fun.
He talked about improving the four ecosystem processes: the water cycle, the mineral cycle, energy flow and community dynamics (diversity).
His said his approach to grazing management, which includes high density, taller grazing, and only taking off the top third of the plant with lots of “wasted grass,” could be construed as contradictory to the intensive grazing model advocated in the Northeast, but Mitchell-Innes defends his position by looking to the soil surface for answers.
“I’m suggesting not telling farmers to feed the carbon on the soil as well as getting top animal performance by grazing for energy and not for protein, which means grazing just the tops and letting the animals have more selection. Graziers need to get beyond the paralyzing paradigm of wasting grass if we want to be truly sustainable,” he said.
After lunch, Mitchell-Innes led the large contingent of farmers into the pastures of the Larson farm, looking at trampling ratios, animal grazing behavior, rumen fill and soil health indicators, while the animals were moved to a new paddock.
Hosts of the workshop, Richard and Cynthia Larson, owners of Larson Farm & Morningside Stables, believe and practice what Mitchell-Innes has taught them on their 120-acre, multi-species dairy, beef and equine operation.
“He taught us to keep an open mind and be flexible with our management and gave us the tools to monitor our farm. We can see our land, animals and bank account improve, and realize trampled forage as a true soil conditioner. We like being in the energy business,” Rich Larson said.
Brian Maloney, a beef farmer and custom grazier from Brylee Farm in Thurso, Quebec, traveled more than five hours to get new ideas and meet like-minded people.
“I came to learn about the 80-20 percent trampling ratios and what they look like on the land and getting away from purchasing hay. I came away being punch-drunk by having all my preconceived paradigms broken,” Maloney said.
Massachusetts Conservation District professional Bruce Howlett attended as part of his training in a Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education or SARE professional development project, working with farmers on holistic planned grazing.
“I came to hear more about mob-grazing and how it can relate to my small farm customers. I left with a better understanding of how trampling and feeding the soil as an essential part of the whole grazing system. It was eye-opening experience,” Howlett said.
Jenn Colby, Vermont Pasture Network and Northeast SARE Professional Development Program grazing training coordinator, said she was absolutely thrilled with the turnout and ideas exchanged.
“To have grazing and land management concepts from all over the world brought to my home state is awesome. It helps me realize I’m on the right track with looking at wholes. For me, Ian stitched all the threads together,” Colby said.
“It’s amazing to me to see the change of attitudes from the beginning of the day to the end. I think some paradigms have been trampled,” Mitchell-Innes said.
The event was sponsored by the Central New York Resource Conservation and Development Council in partnership with the Utilizing Holistic Planned Grazing as a Regenerative Engine for Sustainable Agriculture project funded by Northeast SARE and the University of Vermont Center for Sustainable Agriculture.
To find more on planned grazing tools and techniques, go to www.cnyrcd.org/planned-grazing-participants/ or contact Jenn Colby at 802-656-0858.
To see a conversation with Ian Mitchell-Innes, visit www.youtube.com/watch?v=I3r2cqNfkKs