Restoring Ciénegas | Saving the Planet

A ciénega is a wetland system unique to the American Southwest. Ciénegas are spongy, shallow, wet meadows with permanently saturated soils in otherwise arid landscapes, although few remain in such a healthy state today. One of the goals of a well-managed ranch is to restore the ciénegas.

Dear Friend,

Sallie Calhoun’s work found her, unfolding out of a love for, and responsibility to, a particular place.

An engineer by training, she and her husband founded a successful tech company, Globetrotter Software. After 25 years, an unexpected offer to buy out the company led to the impulsive purchase of a 7,600-acre ranch in Paicines, California, saving it from development.

Their first instinct was simply to rent out the land, but learning about Allan Savory’s concept of Holistic Management convinced Sallie that well-managed livestock might restore California’s grasslands. As steward of Paicines Ranch, she had an obligation to try, and so she took on ranch operations with the help of an engaged team.

Cattle and sheep now roam and forage in closely monitored rotating pastures, all the while building the soil’s capacity to retain water and resiliency. The high trellised grape vines permit sheep to graze underneath, thus eliminating the need for chemical weeding and modeling a new vineyard technique for the drought-prone region. The 500 acres of once conventionally grown crops are being converted to regenerative agriculture practices that increase soil health and yield tasty cabbage and greens.

Climate change adds extra urgency to the soil issue.

Improving soil health, which sequesters carbon, is the only way we know to quickly suck huge volumes of carbon out of the atmosphere and put it back where it belongs. . . . It can be done relatively quickly and has lots of co-benefits, like more productivity, more resilience, less flooding, and better nutrition. It would be one of the most important jobs of the 21st century even if climate change didn’t exist. With climate change, we believe that it becomes the most important project for mankind.

But should Paicines Ranch be Sallie’s sole charge, large as it is? Former RSF Social Finance Executive Director, Don Shaffer, posed the question: Do you know what your money is doing tonight? Sallie realized that the proceeds from the sale of Globetrotter were largely invested in projects that contradicted the very principles she was working to apply at Paicines.

“Grudgingly” at first, she took on making her own investments, teaming with Esther Park to form Cienega Capital. Their portfolio includes farms and ranches that employ regenerative practices with funds lent at low interest rates so as not to force overproduction. Cienega does not invest in land where return is anticipated through a future speculative sale of the land. Cienega wants farmers to stay on land.

Investments also include food companies that support independent regenerative ranchers and farmers. Farmers do not farm in a vacuum; they are part of an infrastructure of businesses that deliver food to a community. Cienega recognizes this and supports the elements of that infrastructure in its investing.

Sallie’s own trial and error at Pacines Ranch helped her understand that not all farm and ranching initiatives can support payback of borrowed funds. There are risks. Her Globetrotter Foundation shares that risk by supporting the non-profits that work with the agricultural community to test new methods of cultivation, train a new generation of agrarians, address the issue of diversity in access to land, and promote healthy, locally-sourced food.

At Paicines Ranch itself, the rambling ranch buildings have been converted to accommodate gatherings of up to one hundred persons. Sallie and team share their holistic management approach with other ranch owners and managers. Investors and philanthropists learn to deploy all of their capital with #noregrets while creating community and building a movement.

It’s our strategy to use all of our forms of capital — investment, philanthropic, ecological, and human — to work toward improved soil health. We think that’s the most valuable, most fundamental investment.

Sallie Calhoun will join Greg Watson in delivering one of the 39th Annual E. F. Schumacher Lectures on Sunday, October 27, 2019 at Saint James Place in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. The event will take place from 1:00 to 4:00 PM. Tickets are $20 each and can be purchased here or reserved by calling the office at (413) 528-1737.


All photos from Paicines Ranch.
Quotes attributable to an August 2016 profile written by B the Change.