Change on the Range: Is a New Generation of Young, Female Ranchers Ready to Adapt to Climate Change?

Female rancher in field
First-generation grazier Ariel Greenwood manages cattle and land on Freestone Ranch in Sonoma County. UC Davis graduate student Kate Munden-Dixon is surveying new rangeland managers like Greenwood to make sure they have the resources they need to thrive. (photo Brittany App/Brittany App Photography)

A new breed of ranchers is bringing diverse demographics and unique needs to rangeland management in California. These first-generation ranchers are often young, female and less likely to, in fact, own a ranch. But like more traditional rangeland managers, this new generation holds a deep love for the lifestyle and landscapes that provide a wealth of public benefit to California and the world.

Ariel Greenwood and Erin Kiley, first-generation graziers in the Bay Area, California. (photo Elaine Patarini)

Ariel Greenwood checks fences with a horse named Frog. (photo Sam Ryerson)

 

"When first-generation ranchers succeed, we all succeed," says Kate Munden-Dixon, a Ph.D. student working with Leslie Roche, Cooperative Extension rangeland specialist with the UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences.

Paigelynn Trotter of Sweetgrass Grazing. (photo Ariel Greenwood)

 

Munden-Dixon and Roche recently discovered that many new livestock managers aren’t plugged into information networks such as UC Cooperative Extension and rancher coalitions that provide science and strategies for making sustainable rangeland management decisions. This lack of connection can make first-generation ranchers more vulnerable when dealing with challenges like drought and climate variability, according to their study findings, which was recently published in Rangeland Journal.

To help bridge the gap, Munden-Dixon landed a $25,000 Graduate Student Grant from Western Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education, a USDA program, to reach out to new ranchers and rangeland managers.

Cattle in the hills of Bodega Bay, California (photo Ariel Greenwood)

 

Why rangelands matter

More than one half of California — 38 million acres — is rangeland that provides open space, healthy watersheds, carbon storage, food, fiber and habitat for diverse plants and wildlife. UC Davis research indicates grasslands and rangeland have become more resilient at sequestering or consuming carbon dioxide pollution than forests in California, making them especially important in a warming world.

But rangeland and livestock production are at risk because more rangeland is being converted to housing and crop production. The average age of ranchers in California is 62, and fewer children are taking over the family ranch.

Enter a new wave of rangeland managers. Many of these young ranchers don’t yet have access to the capital required to purchase land and large head of cattle and other livestock. Instead, they often contract with public and private landowners to graze goats, sheep and cattle to restore landscapes and reduce fire vegetation.

A horse and rider at E-L Ranch in Sonoma County. (photo Ariel Greenwood)

 

“What we really need is support in connecting land and contract opportunities,” says Brittany Cole Bush, an “urban shepherdess” and former contract sheep and goat grazier. She now consults with land owners and public agencies from her home base in Southern California. “We need market research that shows the value that grazing brings to fire abatement, soil conservation and so much more. Market research would increase our value and help us become viable players.”

More than one half of California is rangeland that provides open space, healthy watersheds, carbon storage, food, fiber, and habitat for diverse plants and wildlife. (photo Ariel Greenwood)

 

Expanding Extension

Munden-Dixon is interviewing 40 new rangeland managers from across California to explore how decision-making by different demographics influences adaption to climate change and quality of life. Munden-Dixon and her team are also hosting workshops to make sure Cooperative Extension specialists understand and can respond to all ranchers’ needs.

Sam Ryerson and Ariel Greenwood, first-generation graziers and land stewards. (photo Ariel Greenwood)

 

“There is both a need and opportunity for a new generation of livestock managers that is able to adapt to California’s changing climate,” Munden-Dixon says. “This next generation may not look like your typical rancher, so we want to ensure organizations are helping all ranchers succeed, regardless of their demographics or land tenure.”

Human ecology Ph.D. student Kate Munden-Dixon, at UC Davis, is interviewing first-generation ranchers to make sure they have the resources they need. (photo Brittany App/Brittany App Photography)

 

The power of connection

Munden-Dixon would like to become a Cooperative Extension specialist herself one day. Working with first-generation ranchers reminds her that collaboration and public engagement are critical to addressing issues in sustainable agriculture.

“There is no one answer or single expert when it comes to building healthy food systems,” Munden-Dixon says. “We find solutions when we work together.”

(This story, written by Diane Nelson, was originally published in the Fall/Winter 2018 issue of Outlook, a magazine from the UC Davis College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

 

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