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Q & A: Sallie Calhoun on her No Regrets Initiative

With opportunity comes responsibility. In this interview, Paicines Ranch owner Sallie Calhoun talks about a 10-year commitment that she just "couldn't not do."

This Earth Day week, BenitoLink interviewed a few San Benito residents making a positive impact on the earth and on humanity as a whole. We caught up with Paicines Ranch owner Sallie Calhoun, to talk about her use of the ranch to look for larger environmental solutions.

 

Sallie Calhoun and Matt Christiano, both engineers working in Silicon Valley, bought Paicines Ranch in San Benito County around 2001. It’s now known as an event center, a place for weddings and land management workshops. For Sallie, the ranch has become a central part of her life. In 2017, she made a decision to commit 10 years, from her 60th birthday to her 70th, to have a positive effect on her land through experimentation and on the earth in general. She calls this her No Regrets Initiative.

 

BENITOLINK: What made you decide to take on the No Regrets Initiative? 

CALHOUN: I feel like we have this real moral imperative to do something about climate change. And then when you learn that there’s a possible solution that can help mitigate climate change and can also make people healthier and make land more productive and help improve the health of ecosystems—when you can do all of those things at one time, I just can’t not do it.

I vividly remember the first Earth Day, which was when I was in middle school. I was you know, the one who subscribed to organic gardening in 1978. I was the crazy kid who recycled the computer paper back in the ’70s. So, I don’t really think it started here. 

I always thought of myself as an environmentalist, but I was what I now refer to as an urban environmentalist until I got here, which meant I didn’t really understand very much about what I was talking about. It’s about the environment and I understood only enough—a little bit more now—to be more dangerous. 

 

You have done a lot of experimenting since you’ve been here. You’ve  tried so many different things. 

When we got here I became a rancher rather than a landlord, which was the rational thing to do, to lease the whole thing. But a few months after we got here, I was introduced to this idea that we might be able to restore California’s grasslands. We might be able to bring back the native perennial grasses by the way we manage cattle. The whole idea sounded plausible enough. And I was interested in California grasses and I thought if I don’t try it myself, I’ll never really understand how it works. It’s just this idea has led me into many, many terrible habits. It’s been a journey. It’s like just one thing leads to another and you learn one thing and then you learn the next thing and then you try something and you try the next thing.

 

Photo of Sallie Calhoun, Paicines Ranch owner wearing locally made jeans during a Fibershed workshop. Photo by Elaine Patarini
Sallie Calhoun, Paicines Ranch owner, wearing locally made jeans during a Fibershed workshop. Photo by Elaine Patarini

 

So now you’ve come upon this new area of research, what makes it different to you?

I guess I’m sort of a contrarian. If you look at dirt. Dirt has historically been not cared about. 

Boring, boring. It was just, it’s not alive, it’s a little chemistry and a little physics and there’s nothing you can do about it. But it turns out it’s not dirt at all. It’s all about biology. It’s the most amazing system that’s evolved over five billion years while there’s been life on the planet and the way everything is tied together. 

Part of it is the fascination that it is right here underneath our feet. Civilizations have fallen because of the way they mistreated the soil. Yet we think we’re way too smart for that to happen to us. And I think we really underestimate the impact that we as humans can have for good and for bad.

 

Do you think that the average citizen is interested enough to understand these ideas?

One thing I always say to people is if you take a cup of healthy garden soil, it has more microorganisms in it than humans who have ever lived on the planet. But people seem to think that while it’s very hard to create it, it’s kind of always going to be there. And in reality, there are places on the earth that have no topsoil left, lots of them. And you can’t grow anything there anymore.

What we’re finding too in terms of explaining this to people is that it is like the gut biome. Without microbes in your gut, you can’t digest your food. Most of our microbes live in our intestines which is where most of the extraction of energy happens for us and without them, we don’t get any nutrition. 

The plant is the same way, and people seem to be now getting the idea that the soil and the intestine might sort of work the same way and that this could all be mediated by microbes. It’s not because it’s cute or it’s fuzzy or it just has always been there. It’s because you don’t eat unless it works right.

 

So how does it tie into that whole picture?

You know, they’re talking about the amount of food we’re going to need with population growth. Yes, we managed to make yields go up through the use of chemicals but now those yields tend to be flattening off and are even falling off or requiring more and more inputs. If the soil is functioning properly we know it’s more productive.

I heard this professor at New Mexico State make the prediction that our agricultural soils are functioning at 10% of their possible productivity. So really, we have trashed it and it is hanging on by a thread through the use of inputs. But that’s not the only way to grow food. If the soil is working, you grow food entirely through photosynthesis.

 

Then how does it tie into the carbon sequestering?

So life is made of carbon and much of the carbon that is in the atmosphere today started out as life in the soil. In the United States, we’ve lost about a half to three quarters of all the soil carbon that was in there when the Europeans came. So there was all this life.

Through a number of actions, we killed most of the life in the soil. That life was carbon and that carbon is now in the air. Photosynthesis basically takes carbon out of the air and puts it back in the ground. And all we have to do is make photosynthesis happen at scale and then not take carbon back out. Sequestering carbon is all about promoting life in the soil, on millions and millions and millions of acres. 

Photo courtesy of University of California. ucanr.edu
Photo courtesy of University of California.
ucanr.edu

 

What do you think the impact would be if the U.S. embraced carbon sequestration?

If we increased  the organic matter in the world’s grasslands—which cover 70 percent of the planet—by 2 percent, which we’ve seen on our vineyard site, we’d be down to 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide. We have the capacity to basically change what’s happening with atmospheric CO2 levels. I mean it’s a complicated system and there’s a lot that’s gone to the ocean, but problems can be solved. We’d have more food and more nutritious food and less flooding, better water quality and more viable farms and ranches, better for all the critters that live there.

 

What are you doing to try and change things?

We have the No Regrets Initiative. It consists of three parts. First, we’re doing it on the ground here at Paicines Ranch to figure out how to farm and ranch in this way. So the way we’re doing our grazing, the way we’re doing our vineyard, farming on the row crops. Using no till, where we keep the vegetation on the soil and plant with special equipment.

We’re trying to figure this out here as a demonstration, as a learning exercise. Then, we have some philanthropic funding and we are using that across North America to support the leaders in this work. On the investing side, we’re actually investing in the farmers and ranchers who are doing this kind of work effectively.

There’s been a lot of work done at the Marine Carbon Project with the idea of using compost to sequester carbon in plants. It’s fantastic because they’ve gotten the state of California to agree that you can sequester carbon in rangelands. I mean, I think there are lots of other ways to sequester carbon, it does not by any means always require compost.

But if you look at most of San Benito County, we’re too far away from any compost. Compost is really expensive to transport. So then we’re looking just much more broadly at how you can work with nature and work with photosynthesis to get the same thing to happen without the compost.

 

What are the tangible results of No Regrets so far?

We are continuing to work on the vineyard’s water holding capacity. This means that we will hold onto more rainwater to increase productivity and reduce irrigation.

Kelly Mulville, who manages this, says that over the past three years the water holding capacity of the vineyard soil has increased by approximately 20,000 gallons per acre. For the 24 acres, that amounts to 480,000 gallons.

Sheep graze in untilled soil among the vines at Paicines Ranch. Photo provided.
Sheep graze in untilled soil among the vines at Paicines Ranch. Photo provided.

On the ground here, the vineyard is going well, with our first harvest this year and the installation of the next 11 acres. There is a growing number of perennials on the range land, though so far no increase in soil carbon. Our experiments continue on the crop ground, where we are seeing the biggest challenges. We will be planting our first savannah with olives this spring and learning to grow poultry and swine feed in a no-till polyculture.

No Regrets Initiative is going extremely well. There is rapidly growing interest among investors, philanthropists, and farmers. The challenge now is to make sure that as money flows into the space, it is used to make meaningful change on the ground, as opposed to “green washing.”  

 

Have we covered all the ideas you’re experimenting with?

Well actually, one other big idea that people should be aware of and that may be actually the most compelling thing about this in California is that water is inextricably linked to carbon. That is, the more soil organic matter you have, the more water you can absorb and retain.

That’s incredibly important in California, if we could make our water cycle work. It wouldn’t make a really big difference when we have these large rainfall events but it would make a really big difference in needing less water. You have more effective rainfall, which is huge when you think about the cost of irrigation and the damage from flooding that’s happening.

This is something where even if there were no climate change, we have seriously degraded soils and we need much healthier food and we need a much better water cycle. So even if you doubt climate change, and we have to have that discussion, this is still a really important thing to understand and to work on.

For example, when Kelly Mulville who oversees all this, did his trial; the same vineyard, same soil right next to each other. Same plants, everything. His trial area used 10 percent of the irrigation water that the rest of the vineyard used. Imagine, even if we could cut down that much in irrigation.

 

I see Paicines Ranch is using this time with COVID-19 to support local farmers, ranchers and producers with the working list of Food Resources in San Benito County.  

It’s sad that our convenings and workshops are up in the air for an indefinite period. The other thing we are working hard to ensure is that the benefits of increased soil health, which is real wealth, flow to the communities that steward the land. We don’t want to continue with an extractive model which sucks wealth out of rural areas. Hopefully, the current interest in more local, resilient food systems will lead to more rapid change.

 

Editor’s note:                                                                                                                                                                      

Sallie Calhoun and Matt Christiano support BenitoLink as major donors. Paicines Ranch is a BenitoLink sponsor, which enables the business to have a graphic on BenitoLink and provides readers a link to their website. To learn more, review BenitoLink Terms of Use (Donor and Sponsor Policy).

 

 

Leslie David

Leslie David is a Bay Area independent reporter/producer and is a BenitoLink founding board member. She has produced for radio, television, newspaper and magazines in both California and Wyoming. She was with KRON-TV News in San Francisco as camera-woman, editor and field producer, where she won the Commonwealth Club's Thomas Storke Award with Linda Yee for their series on the Aids Epidemic. She started as a small market news reporter shooting her own 16mm film at KEYT-TV Santa Barbara. Leslie lives on a ranch with her family in San Benito County.