Where the Buffalo Roam, Texas Agriculture Thrives
Originally published on Forbes
For a herd of animals that’s ultimately headed for the slaughterhouse, the bison on Roam Ranch are part of a remarkably warm and fuzzy fairytale.
Less than a year ago, the 450 acres of Texas land that comprise the ranch were all but dead after a century of over-tilling and inadequate recovery time between crop rotations. Rain would fall, but it would simply run off; the dirt was too damaged to absorb even the littlest bits of water. Many of the paddocks were bare, and what few patches of grass did exist were failing to grow and multiply.
Today, this piece of Texas Hill Country is in recovery—all thanks to the bison, which have been reintroduced to the area as part of an agricultural experiment spearheaded by Katie Forrest and Taylor Collins, the millennial founders of meat-bar company EPIC Provisions. The couple purchased the land last spring (through Epic and its parent company General Mills GIS +1.32%), and they see it as a living, breathing laboratory for not only their brand, but regenerative agriculture projects around the country.
“Land in this condition is often deemed ‘unsalvageable,’” they wrote in a blog post announcing Roam last June, “and in many circumstances further degenerates with rest—but we are going to prove otherwise.”
Forrest and Collins are barely a year into this experiment, but so far, they’re succeeding in that goal. They began bringing bison to Roam, which sits 70 miles from Austin, in December. They estimate it was the first time buffalo had grazed that particular ground in more than 130 years. They’ve also added about 200 chicken, and 15 ducks. And true to their hypothesis, the addition of animals—and particularly, large grazing animals like bison—has done wonders for the land.
“Since we’ve reintroduced the bison we’ve seen hundreds of migratory birds show up. Different predators: hawks, foxes, coyotes, all that we hadn’t seen before,” Collins told Forbes. “And the insect biology, and the different grasses that are starting to emerge, the bison were the catalyst for all of this.”
This has worked, Forrest explained, because bison and other large ruminants can heal land through their own biological processes. “They have hoof impacts. They start stimulating the grass with each bite they take, and they fertilize the soil with pee and poop,” she said. “As they move around the land they speed up the healing process.”
Regenerative agriculture is different from conventional farming or even organic farming because it goes beyond grass-feeding bison or rotating crop cycles. Regenerative ag—like the farming that Collins and Forrest focus on at Roam Ranch—seeks to actively improve a farm’s ecosystem and enrich the soil’s biodiversity. Proponents of this type of farming say that it can ultimately help reverse climate change by increasing soil’s water holding capacity and reducing carbon’s atmosphere-damaging effects.
“Typically, when we looked at agriculture, we’ve looked at soil as a medium to feed plants. Soil is not a medium to feed plants. Soil is life,” said Shauna Sadowski, head of sustainability at Annie’s, one of Epic’s sister companies at General Mills. Sadowski says that one of the benefits of regenerative agriculture is that it doesn’t prescribe a one-size-fits-all solution for all farms, but instead encourages farmers to understand what makes up their own soil and how it can best prosper. And with one-third of greenhouse gas emissions coming from global food production, Sadowski thinks the lessons Forrest and Collins are learning from regenerating Roam’s soil could have implications well beyond its 450 acres.
“When you restore the land, you’re not needing to add more and more chemicals, because the system can use what you’re feeding it. If every farmer was to do that, you’d see reductions in soil erosion; you’d see more nutrients in soil that feeds plants,” she said.
It’s a lofty vision, and one that Forrest and Collins admit they’ve had people question. Even the farmer who sold them the land for Roam thought they were crazy—which they learned when he accidentally butt-dialed them after the sale and they overheard his expletive-ridden rant about their plan to bring bison to the territory.
As it turns out, Forrest and Collins were able to prove him wrong. They invited him back to the ranch after they let the bison loose, and he was “blown away,” Collins said. “He was like, ‘my cows are more dangerous than your bison! I’ve never been around such happy, docile animals.’”
The circle of life being what it is, the male bison on Roam Ranch—happy and docile as they are—will end up in one of Epic’s meat bars. But the female bison will stay on the land to help grow the herd, and to continue improving the land. Forrest and Collins would love to expand their project, too, buying more land and using bison to rehabilitate it.
“It’s simple,” Collins says of the task ahead of them. “We’re trying to replicate nature rather than fight nature. It’s as simple as encouraging biodiversity.”