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On Becoming a Professional Grazier

By   /  December 19, 2016  /  2 Comments

Why in the world would you want to be a Grazier? Here are some upsides and some of the challenges.

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I am a grazier, a person who raises livestock on pasture. The majority of my work-time is spent managing forage and animals with the intent of running an economically and ecologically successful ranching operation. Most of the work is not overwhelmingly difficult. In fact, most of the work is not really physical at all. I spend quite a lot of time wandering around, brooding, thinking about grazing strategy, reading about what other graziers are doing, scratching out plans for water, fencing, marketing, and talking to people I always assume are smarter than I am. For me, this is a very rewarding way to spend my time and my life.

So, even though I love what I do, I am always a bit surprised when someone approaches me with the idea that they want to be a grazier. Perhaps this is because even though I happen to enjoy my career, being a grazier is certainly not a mainstream occupation. With all the choices available, from Astronaut to Zookeeper, Grazier is definitely a minority fringe selection. Why would someone choose this path?

If you are considering becoming a grazier, it might be very helpful (for you) to know why you want to pursue that profession. Please select the most pertinent answers to the following question:

“I want to become a grazier because ________________.”

1. I want to make money and be paid a reasonable return for my time and skill.

2. I want to pursue ecological progress on the land: build the soil, improve water and nutrient cycles, improve wildlife habitat, protect water quality for my downstream neighbors.

3. I want to work outside in the fresh air, wandering around looking at plants and animals and communing with nature.

4. I want to help move my rural community toward a stable agricultural base, one where land is used in a sustainable way, where people are able to stay on the land, where majestic landscapes remain open.

If you answered yes to one of the above, great! You have a rational reason for wanting to be a grazier. If you selected two, well, bully for you. The fact is, well-managed grazing can accomplish all of the above, and a bunch more positive things at the same time. Here’s a few other things that professional graziering can bring to your life:

An example of one of the joys of being a grazier.

It’s fun! It is intellectually stimulating. It can bring you into all kinds of intense personal relationships with other interesting folks. It can allow you to pursue a rural lifestyle. It can allow you to maintain your mental and physical health at a very high level. It can allow you to have a net positive effect on the earth, your family, your community. It can provide you with a low-stress work environment.

Need I go on?

Now for some down sides: becoming a professional grazier is not easy or simple. It will require a long process of education and experience. There are many different pathways that lead to grazing success, but your progress will be limited by the amount of time, energy, physical and mental skill and financial commitment you bring to the table.

Becoming a grazier is not for the faint of heart. But my goodness, what a great way to spend your time.

Editor’s note: in future articles John will discuss some of the pathways available to novice graziers, along with some of the common pitfalls.

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About the author

John Marble grew up on a terribly conventional ranch with a large family where each kid had their own tractor. Surviving that, he now owns a small grazing and marketing operation that focuses on producing value through managed grazing. He oversees a diverse ranching operation, renting and owning cattle and grasslands while managing timber, wildlife habitat and human relationships. His multi-species approach includes meat goats, pointing dogs and barn cats. He has a life-long interest in ecology, trying to understand how plants, animals, soils and humans fit together. John spends his late-night hours working on fiction, writing about worlds much less strange than this one.

2 Comments

  1. Donald Keller says:

    Thanks, John, for the positive article and thanks, Graham, for your input as well. After fighting the good fight for the last five years we are still motivated and moving forward. The financial issues are real, especially with baby number 2 on the way, but we are pushing on. I do work 50 hours a week off the farm for a decent return with healthcare and other corporate benefits (I feel lucky for this) but we quickly invest the tiny surplus in our farm. Everyone’s situation is different and we had some help to get where we are, but we have also applied ourselves and labored (and cursed and screamed and cried) to keep it going. We never stop researching and talking to people smarter than us and we are thankful for their answers and help. Just in the last few days we have started the planning/analysis stage of the push toward the next level– big lease, bigger herd, possibility for financial stability. The farmers are retiring and the beef cattle need us! Merry Christmas!

  2. I do not contest this author’s experience, but I do contest the accessibility of achieving number 1 on his quiz. Economic viability may vary highly based on geographic location (size of land parcels available, marketing options, proximity to major concentrations of population and wealth, competition, access to processing facilities, regulations by State), access to land, access to finances (you have to have money or land, to make money or acquire land – and if you’re trying to make money by farming to acquire land… this is extremely challenging), the color of your skin (98% of farmland owned in the US is owned by people identifying as white), and other factors.

    We need to have a real conversation globally and in this country (and in my State of Vermont) about the viability of farming, of producing food and ecological services in an economic and political model which literally values neither in comparison with other products and professions (and which doesn’t value equity or social and ecological well being, which are key principlies of ecological farming and grazing – in fact, it manufactures poverty for the vast majority of the population, and concentrates wealth in a very narrow minority).

    I am a landless grazier in a State with one of the highest public interests in locally and ecologically grown food – yet land values and housing are prohibitively expensive, the ecological values we produce are not accounted for (neither are the costs of more destructive farming practices), and land parcel size is too small in most areas to profitably lease and contract graze or seasonally graze to name only a few barriers to economic success. There is not a week that goes by that we don’t question whether it would be easier to just get a 40 hr / wk job so that we can actually finance getting land, having families, and otherwise (and have this conversation with other farmers). We work at at least 20 hrs. / wk off farm, seasonally graze, and work 2 or more days a week doing agroecology design / install. We have been enrolled in Farm Viability (a program working with farmers on their economic viability) in VT for a year and this is very helpful – but it doesn’t change the fact that we are living in an unjust economic system which is out of touch with ecological, social, and human health. We are not the outlier – we are the common narrative in Vermont from people we talk to (and we talk to a lot – I am the Chair of the Board of Rural VT, a grass roots small farmer advocacy organization).

    I write this not to dissuade anybody from becoming a grazier or ecological farmer – I love grazing, I love the relationships with cattle and the land, I love teaching these practices, I love feeding people nutrient dense foods… I’m writing because I don’t want any reader who is not a grazier or farmer to get the picture that grazing or ecologically farming is accessibly economically viable. It is more viable than many other forms of farming, but most farmers are losing money, and then their land; multinational ag. conglomerates are concentrating their shares of the organic and conventional markets (and the land)… We need to have a real conversation about organizing, resisting, and challenging the systems of economic and political injustice which hold us all captive.

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