Restoring the region’s grasslands
San Diego County has grasslands well suited for regenerative ranching, which means there is the capacity and resources to restore what has been lost through history.
For thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans, a large portion of what we now know as San Diego County was covered with a dynamic array of perennial grasses, wildflowers, shrubs, and chaparral, inhabited and tended to by the region’s Indigenous peoples. Colonization would radically change land use. First Spanish, followed by Mexican, then American settlers introduced agricultural practices from their homelands. Among many other profound and lasting impacts, these practices changed the natural rhythm of perennial and annual grasses, reducing their extent to only a few preserved locations.
Today, San Diego contains only about 147,200 acres of grassland, much of which through either neglect or intensive use has lost most of its soil health, water retention, and biodiversity. A new generation of ranchers in San Diego is revisiting, learning from, and supporting the delicate, dynamic balance between grazing and resting the land.
The regenerative movement is a land use philosophy and practice that’s coming full circle to create a healthier future for people, natural systems, and the plants and animals we coexist with. There is not nor should there be a single definition for regenerative ranching, but those who walk this path seek an ever deeper understanding based on the ancient intelligence of the earth and first peoples. Ranching regeneratively requires us to eliminate artificial ways of tending to the land and encourages the remembrance of the harmonious pace of nature.
Some of the main principles of regenerative ranching include:
• Building topsoil
• Enhancing the biodiversity of native plants and animal species
• Sequestering carbon
• Rotational or mob grazing
• Adding cover crops
• Reducing chemical input
• Humane processing
Ranchers like Gabe Brown have demonstrated through their work that regenerative practices have the ability to enrich all life on the planet.
Brown has collected data on the carbon sequestration levels his soils have achieved; just in the top 48 inches, his soils have 96 tons of carbon per acre. On conventionally farmed soils in his region, typically only 10 to 30 tons of carbon is stored. Regenerative ranching is a completely different approach compared to conventional ranching. This type of land management can reduce or reverse damage that has been done over the last few centuries through excessive tilling, the use of petroleum-based fertilizers, genetically modified crops, and more.
As we question aspects of agriculture that many have taken for granted, simple questions can lead us away from soundbites and towards more informed choices. For example, separating animal farming from plant farming seems normal, right? Well, actually ruminants have evolved to act as natural fertilizers and tillers of the soil. Without them in the picture, many farmers add mechanical and chemical inputs, which are expensive and can be very damaging to soils, waterways, wildlife, and our own health.
Another way that food production has been stepping away from natural systems is the so-called fake food industry. Millions of dollars are being invested in projects to create GMO animals and meat with 3D printers. Imagine the land we could regenerate with that money. Envision all the food that could be grown and the ecosystems that could be restored if all that energy was put back into the land instead of a lab. Though it may seem overwhelming to make an impact on a global scale, we absolutely can on a local one if we vote with our food dollars to support pastured animal products.
Currently, in the field focused on innovation and regeneration, cattle, goats, and sheep are being deployed all over California to clean up areas prone to wildfire. Some ranches have contracts with Cal Fire while others collaborate within their communities, sharing animals to reduce the cost and workload. As these herds graze and consume all of the vegetation in their paths—which is now nourishing the herds rather than feeding a fire—a syntrophic relationship is created that continues to support and restore native plants and increase fungi activity below the soil.
The microbes in the soil are the foundation for the health of the plants and foods we consume. Practices such as moving the animals so that the land is not overgrazed and not overusing antibiotics plays a huge role in supporting soil microbiomes. In addition to animals aiding in fire prevention and increasing the organic matter below our feet, they are also our allies in reducing carbon emissions. According to a paper published in late 2020 by the Rodale Institute, global implementation of regenerative practices could sequester more than 100% of human-related carbon emissions.
The San Diego Climate Action Plan drew much attention to new technology, purchasing clean electricity credits, and other forms of inorganic ways to draw down carbon with a goal of net zero emissions by 2035. It doesn’t have to be so complicated. There are examples locally and globally that demonstrate that not only are we able to reduce our carbon footprint with holistic management of livestock, but we can also regenerate and restore ecosystems.
Are you aware that there are over 5,000 farms in San Diego County? This data was taken just two years ago and more farms and ranches have sprouted since. Less than a year ago, Ty Thompson and his family started a regenerative pastured pork operation on 400 acres in Ramona. “Ranching has been a passion of mine since I was a very little kid, and there are very few that do the operation we are doing. So I thought, let’s start something that I already have prior experience in and get out of working for someone. I wanted to make a change,” Thompson says. Thompson Heritage Ranch practices rotational grazing and will be testing the soil every six to 12 months to shed light on changes and improvements in organic matter.
How can eaters find a meaningful connection to where their food comes from?
“I believe the best way is to go on [farm] tours and spend time observing the animals and their habits. Look at the soil and their impact, and how that relates to the food that ends up on our plates.” —Ty Thompson, Thompson Heritage Ranch
Regenetarian: A person who consumes food that has been grown or raised in a regenerative way that supports soil health and human health.
There is a resonance to food that has a story—food that is raised with intention, not just for your family, but for generations to come. One of the most exciting things is going into a restaurant, reading its menu, and seeing a list of SoCal farms from which some of the ingredients are sourced. Farm-to-table is the way to wine and dine in 2023. Seeking out food that is pasture-raised in California, grass-finished, and organic is key when becoming a regenetarian. In the grocery store, one can search for labels like “regenerative organic,” “no-till,” or “glyphosate residue free.”
As consumers, it is easy to get swept up in diet culture and fad food labels but still have no real connection to the food and its impact on our soil. We can get wrapped up in the popular or ethical ways of eating but still not be connected to who grows or raises the food we eat, especially when talking about animal products.
• Who feeds you?
• Who nourishes you?
• Are you in a place to receive nourishment?
• Does your source of nourishment support your body and the land?
These are just a few questions to chew on. It’s important to recognize that there are significant barriers to accessing food produced with these qualities and values, but the more we learn about, support, and purchase regenerative foods, the more we can reach our goal of making them more widespread and accessible to more people.
When we shop with the seasons, we are connected to the natural rhythm of the earth. Eating with the seasons informs our bodies of what it needs to know to live a resilient life. Living in Southern California, we have the weather for growing year-round, and farmers’ markets, farm stands, and CSAs offer the freshest and most local food possible.
“We’re passionate about the animals we steward, the soils we’re reviving through our grazing practices, and helping people live healthier and more connected lives.” — Kevin Muno, Perennial Pastures
Because of logistical limitations and a lack of meat processors in San Diego County, we can have food, even regenerative meat, that is grown locally, then shipped several hundred miles (through LA traffic) to processing and distribution centers, then shipped back to a major grocery retailer in your neighborhood. The farther our food must travel, the earlier it is harvested and the less nutrition it has to offer once it reaches the table weeks or months later. Shopping at the grocery store means tackling labels with healthy skepticism. It falls to us to research the claims made about ingredients, sourcing, and processing. Ask questions as you shop so retailers know you care.
When looking at regenerative ranchers, Perennial Pastures is a prime example of how these land and animal management practices can help inform the community. Their team is working with the Bionutrient Food Association to collect data to further demonstrate that soil health is tied to the nutrient density of the food grown in it. Many of us inherently know that an animal raised humanely on pasture is healthier than an animal raised in confined spaces and fed GMO feed, but there is limited data out there proving this. The Bionutrient Food Association is still at the seed-planting stages of its operation and is raising money for research.
“One of the things that has long bothered me about producing pasture-raised chickens is that there’s no way my middle-class parents could have afforded our birds when I was growing up. I hope this amazing movement doesn’t get limited to producing food for rich people. The big companies bring in economies of scale, which can help bring down prices so more people can afford nutrient-dense food. Of course, consumers will need to pay a bit more for better food. I don’t think anyone will argue that. But it’s also on us farmers to innovate systems that make these regenerative practices efficient, affordable, and accessible to more people if we want to see systematic change.” — Paul Grieve, Pasturebird
One of the most beautiful things about the regenerative food movement is that it restores connections that have been lost to nature’s abundance, our farmers and ranchers, local economy, native plants, and the world beneath our feet.
This is a multigenerational project.
One that can heal, one plate at a time...
And the time is now.
Glossary of Terms
Regenerative—to regrow, renew, or restore something that has been damaged or lost
Carbon sequestration—capture, removal, and storage of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the earth’s atmosphere
Biodiversity—variety of life in a habitat or ecosystem
De-La Ranch, Lake Elsinore, CA
Happy Hens, Ramona, CA
Pasturebird, Oak Grove, CA
Perennial Pastures Ranch, Warner Springs, CA
Rancho Guejito, Escondido, CA
Thompson Heritage Ranch, Ramona, CA
Three Sons Ranch, Ramona, CA
Follow the Regenerative Organic Alliance and learn about best practices and certification standards.
Check out the Bionutrient Food Association for more dirt on what they are working on.
For more groundbreaking research, look to the Rodale Institute.
To promote funding for regenerative agriculture in the federal 2023 Farm Bill, connect with the team at Kiss the Ground. Following the publication of the 2017 book Kiss the Ground, Michelle Lerach, La Jolla resident, local food advocate, and founder of the Berry Good Food Foundation became an executive producer of the 2020 documentary film of the same name, which has since been screened millions of times globally. Feedback from world leaders, state and federal politicians, and farmers motivated by the movie’s impact have helped the organization to form Regenerate America, a coalition of bipartisan businesses, farmers, and citizens supporting legislation for regenerative agricultural resources.
*Disclaimer: This article is not intended to provide dietary advice. Consult with your healthcare provider before making significant dietary changes.
Regenerative Ranching in San Diego originally published in the spring 2023 issue.