Monday, January 9, 2017

The oldest profession?

Rancher Glenn Elzinga says herding might be the oldest profession. I wonder if he also knows shepherds have a long record of improving human culture. Shepherds brought civilization to people in the 4,000 year-old Epic of Gilgamesh. A couple thousand years later, shepherds starred in many Greek myths. One story traced the roots of cowboy poetry to the shepherd Daphnis, who composed the first pastoral poem on the island of Sicily.

Today, the profession doesn’t maintain the workforce it did in ancient times and it provides fewer cultural innovations, but shepherd still watch flocks of sheep in the western U.S. Herders live 24/7 with bands of a thousand animals. With the help of herding dogs, the shepherd guides the flock to browse a variety of plants and avoid poisonous fare. The animals are watched at all times and can be kept away from areas protected for other uses. The herder sleeps nearby to help the guard dogs protect the sheep from predators and theft.

For years, I wondered why herding sheep made so much sense, but herding cattle was, well, unheard of. I wondered until I heard Glenn Elzinga’s keynote address at the 2015 Idaho Sustainable Ag Conference. He's developing a "new" approach to ranching: he's herding his cattle.

After lunch, I lurked with intent and buttonholed Glenn as we walked back to the afternoon session. I followed up with an email. Later, I asked if I could write about him. He and his wife Caryl agreed. My story on Alderspring Grassfed (and herded) Beef was in the Fall 2016 issue of Edible Idaho.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Local land trust helps Swift River Farm grow in Salmon, Idaho

Local food used to be the only food in rural central Idaho. People living in isolated mountain valleys grew and shared most of what they ate. When paved roads and trucks arrived to stock grocery store shelves, residents shopped more and farmed less.

Jessica McAllese and Jeremey Shreve are (re)creating local food networks in Salmon, Idaho. The couple settled in the Lemhi County town in 2013 with a border collie named Nora, a tractor named Fergie, and years of experience farming in Pocatello.

Salmon has been fertile ground for Shreve and McAllese’s Swift River Farm. Other small farmers, a local foods group, and a farmers market are reviving small scale production and distribution systems.


Ranchers started the Lemhi Regional Land Trust to protect local landscapes and rural lifestyles. The trust found a way to help McAllese and Shreve buy land to expand their farm and build a home together.

I told the Swift River Farm story in the Summer issue of Edible Idaho.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

The Vineyard is a-LIVE

Vineyards are evocative, pastoral landscapes that invite visitors to linger and relax with a glass of wine. These agricultural fields can be more or less environmentally friendly, depending on how they are managed. Bitner Vineyards is the first and, so far, only Low Input Viticulture and Enology (LIVE) certified vineyard in Idaho.

Ron and Mary Bitner use science-based practices to protect water, soil, and pollinators. The couple provide habitat for pollinators and use cover crops, integrated pest management (IPM) techniques, and biological control methods to reduce their use of pesticides. Embracing science comes naturally for Ron Bitner--his first career took him around the world as an expert on leafcutter bees for pollinating alfalfa.

I wrote about the Bitner’s LIVE vineyard in the Spring issue of Edible Idaho.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Hop Harvest

The hop yards of southwestern Idaho are growing quiet and empty. The walls of hops are falling as workers cut and gather the lanky plants. Unpaved roads wave dust plumes behind the trucks that carry the plants to the hop-pickers and -driers that rattle and hum day and night in the farm fields around Wilder, ID.

Wrangling the tall plants takes special equipment. This short video shows how the Obendorf Hop Farm first clips the bottoms of the plants and then pulls them down and gathers them into a truck.
My story in last fall’s Edible Idaho describes the action at the picker/drier and shows how the hop fields of Wilder have changed with the popularity of hoppy craft beers. An earlier blog post shows how workers install twine for the young hop plants to climb in spring.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Do Sagebrush Steppe Grasses Need to Be Grazed?

A rancher in southwestern Idaho and I have been having the same conversation for years. We both enjoy it and we always have something to talk about. My friend, the rancher/cow whisperer, thinks our native perennial grasses are better off when they’re grazed. By better off, he means greener and more vigorous, without old, dead leaves.

Rancher/Cow Whisperer told me about perennial grasses growing in a steep canyon, where his cattle can’t reach them. The grasses are choked with dead leaves and their centers have died. Grazing would have kept the grasses trim, green, and vigorous.

I haven’t scrambled into the canyon to see the ungrazed grasses, but I’ve kept my eye on some non-native landscaping plants in Boise. These grasses haven’t been grazed and the inside of each plant has died. I got a photo of the dead centers after the grasses’ annual hair cut in late spring. The plants' outside leaves will soon be tall enough to hide the dead centers.
I tell Rancher/Cow Whisperer that I also prefer green plants to dormant or dead ones. I’d rather see lush green lawns, pastures, and alfalfa fields than dry, brown ones. When I see big, thick summer grasses bucking and waving in the wind of the Dakotas or the Great Plains, I want to roll in them.

But, are sagebrush steppe grasses embarrassed by their old leaves? Do they worry about their dead centers?

I remembered my on-going conversation with Rancher/Cow Whisperer when I saw a piece by a writing rancher. Rancher/Writer had visited one of my favorite places on the Sagebrush Sea, where management includes restrictions on grazing. She wondered if there wasn’t too much bare ground and if appropriate grazing could help fill in between the plants. As a plant ecologist, I see bare ground and I’m reminded of the admirable tenacity of our native perennial grasses.

Bare ground reminds me that sagebrush steppe grasses grow in clumps so they can use the water and nutrients in the space around them. The plants have to do all their growing in the limited time between the “too cold” of winter and “too dry” of summer. They have to grab all the water and nutrients they can, as fast as they can, from as large an area as they can.

Our native bunchgrasses aren't altruistic. They won't cut consumption so other plants can grow around them. If they left water and nutrients for others, the other might be cheatgrass, which would increase the chance of fire. Cheatgrass is fuel for fires; bare ground is a firebreak that helps protect bunchgrasses.

Rancher/Writer noticed dead grass leaves and wondered if appropriate grazing could rejuvenate the plants. I see dead leaves and dead grass centers and I’m reminded of how well the plants are protecting the soil.

Dead leaves remind me that the material will decay and release nutrients into the soil for the plant to use. When the center of a bunchgrass dies, the dead material goes on protecting the soil, its water, its nutrients. The plant cries, “It’s just a flesh wound!” and keeps growing out around its edges--finding more water and nutrients.

Do our native sagebrush steppe grasses need to be grazed? If we look at it from the plants’ and the soil’s point of view, I don’t think so.

I’ll slow down to enjoy the sight of green irrigated pastures and breathe in the fragrance of a just-cut alfalfa field. Someday, I might stop to roll in the lush summer grasses on the plains. I'll also be amazed by our native perennial grasses. These bunchgrasses grow in challenging country and can do an exemplar job protecting our soil and keeping cheatgrass out of the Sagebrush Sea.

Instead of focusing on their unkempt appearance, let's thank our sagebrush steppe grasses for all the work they do.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Events Not Seen at PRCA Rodeos

I left my camera at home and watched this weekend's Salmon Stampede through my big purple glasses instead of my tiny Canon viewfinder. During a break in the action, I studied my program while a rodeo clown whipped fans into a standing, arm-waving Oprah Giveaway frenzy, "Me, me! Right here!" I caught a rolled up Pendleton T shirt torpedo with my face.

Last spring's regional high school rodeo included events missing from this weekend's PRCA (Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association) Stampede. Both pro and high school rodeoers compete in tie down roping, where cowboys jump off their horses and tie together three legs of the calves they rope. High school rodeo adds breakaway roping, which doesn't include jumping or tying. Contestants, usually girls, catch calves using ropes designed to break and release captives.

The man perched above the action springs the calf with a lever that opens the front of its chute. The running calf gets a head start before the rope barrier in front of the horse's chute drops.

The rider tosses her loop.

Yes! She got him.

The contestant follows the calf to the end of the arena to retrieve her rope.

Both pro and high school rodeos include team roping, where two riders catch steers that are larger than the calves used in tie down and breakaway roping. Each team consists of a header and a heeler; in high school rodeo, both cowboys and cowgirls compete.

The header, on the right, swings for the steer's head.

She catches the horns, which are protected by leather wraps...

...then turns her horse to point the other end of the steer toward the heeler.

The heeler swings a loop under the back legs of the steer to catch those, too...

...which is a tricky maneuver. This steer was only half caught, which gave the team a complete "no time."

The high school rodeo lacked a few activities featured at the Stampede. There was no beer drinking, as it was an ethanol-free event, and the rodeo clowns were all business. They protected the bull riders and didn't assault spectators with articles of clothing.