The thousands of people living in the valleys near the Monterey Bay Sanctuary treasure the green hills surrounding them. Most give little thought to who is taking care of that land, or what would happen if it were not cared for well. Those green oak studded slopes are almost all grazed by cattle. The cattle business is tough, and the usual way to make money ranching is by using the land hard. But one rancher, Joseph Morris of T.O. Cattle Company, has found a way to use cattle to help manage the land better while making an honest living. We have him to thank for hills that stay green a little longer, oaks that have a chance to get started, and streams that flow longer and cleaner - at least on 8500 acres of those hills.
Joe and his wife Julie have been learning a new approach to ranching that is called Holistic Management™. It is a decision-making process that uses grazing and animal impact to manage watersheds. It’s also a new way to do business planning for ranch operations. Because this system actually enhances the quality of the land, property owners are willing to lease the land to Joe for the low end of or even less than market rates. Lower costs, along with innovative marketing strategies, have allowed T.O Cattle Company to prosper in a very difficult business. But the root of their success lies deep in the clear values that underlie each decision the Morris’ make about their life on the ranch. “We have three main goals, which are really three parts of one complex goal: First, a peaceful, happy life. Then, produce some profit to sustain our livelihood. Finally, maintain a healthy, biologically diverse landscape, including our community."
Joe has arrived at his ranch home under a giant oak tree in the hills overlooking San Juan Batista by a circular path. His roots are in ranching, but for much of his life it was not clear that it was his destiny. His family was in the cattle business for five generations in California, but skipped a generation with his parents. So Joseph (Joe) grew up in the City. “Even though I grew up in San Francisco, I knew from the time I could walk that I loved riding horses out on the hills and working cattle”.
He went to school at Notre Dame during the 80’s where he majored in the Great Books program and learned to think creatively and see unorthodox connections. “When I got out of school I went to work for a big ranch in Nevada. I loved it, but ultimately I left because I felt that I could not connect that work with my desire to do social justice work. So I became a lay missionary for the Catholic Church for two years in Venezuela. I came back and studied a semester at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, then back to the ranch briefly, then on to Washington DC where I looked for a job doing grassroots development in Latin America. I couldn’t find a job, so I started substitute teaching in high school Spanish. That turned into a full time job teaching Social Justice and Spanish.
One day I was preparing for a class in the public library on James Baldwin and right next to him was a strange little book by Wendell Berry called Home Economics. I pulled it out, started reading and it blew my mind. It opened up possibilities that I had not seen before. Berry showed me the connections between agriculture and the larger human culture social justice, and love of work and the land. Then I read an article in the World Monitor about Allan Savory’s work, and it was at last clear that I could pursue my love of ranching with a clear conscience, for Savory’s ideas would help me move powerfully toward my goal.”
In 1991, Joe and his fiancé Julie married and came back to the 200-acre home place, bought 40 cows, and started to ranch. He began to study the business to find a way to make it meet his goals. “I learned that the best guys in the business, whom I really respected, told me that you really could not make money in the cattle business. My response was, “OK, I won’t do it like you do it because you really are the best, and really capable guys, so logically - I either adopt your position, where you can’t make it, or I do something different. So I opted to do something different, which was Holistic Management™. “
“I was really turned on by it. It seemed clear to me from reading Allan Savory that it was not a technique that he was promoting: it was a way of thinking about resources and making choices about how you are going to move forward. So Julie and I made the decision to use this process and this rigorous form of planning. We also decided that we would pay attention to biological planning, or what we call holistic grazing planning. It seemed that if we were really going to do justice to the idea we were really going to have to do what they were telling us to do.
“I started learning about the plants and the animals and how they interacted, and we started seeing some really neat results. Perennial plants were regaining vigor and even propagating themselves, and the oaks were regenerating, too. Over the years I was able to lease a little more land here and there but I was not making any more money. We were still learning how to do it.”
The system that Morris uses is based on the work of Allan Savory. Large ruminants like cattle evolved along with perennial grasslands, and predators in a natural relationship. The animals were kept in bunches by predators on small sections of grassland. They ate the plants evenly, left their manure, and churned the soil thoroughly before moving off to another section driven by flies or limited forage. They did not return until the plants had plenty of time to regenerate. Morris emulates this natural relationship by keeping the heard together on discreet pastures and timing their movements from one to the other.
“We use holistic grazing planning in order to produce greater numbers of and healthier perennial plants. When you do that, you produce a more effective water cycle where the water that falls as rain or snow is both more rapidly absorbed by the plants and soils, and then released more slowly. Where that release is in riparian areas you have vegetation that slows it down even more. We try to do everything we can to slow the water down, and when we do that we create beauty.”
T.O Cattle Company is really two enterprises; one is land management, and the other is livestock management. “The return to land management in the form of sub-market leases is really significant. We lease 1200 acres from a state park, 3000 acres from one family, another 200 from another, and another 3000 acres up on Pacheco Pass. All of them are at low or sub-market leases, anywhere from half to 75% of market rates.” So Joe’s land costs are lower, but he can’t realize a profit unless he can raise and sell cattle effectively.
“You do that by being very rigorous about modeling your cattle business on how nature works. Large herding animals have evolved along with grasslands eating grass. They have the virtue of taking low quality, indigestible cellulose and converting that into high quality food for other animals including humans. So if you model your commodity business on animals that eat grass, and do the harvesting rather that feeding them grain or putting grass in a barn you can become very efficient.”
He watches the cattle market carefully and tracks both the short-term cycles and the longer ten-year cycles. He remains flexible and tries to act independently, what Joe calls “contrarian,” from what most of the cattle world is doing. “Very simply stated, when people are selling heifers we keep our cows, and when people are buying heifers, we sell our cows. It’s not rocket science.”
Julie and Joe have begun a successful direct marketing program to people prepared to buy a lot of beef. (See their web site www.morrisgrassfed.com) “We market grassfed beef directly to families. This year we will market fifty head in quarters or “split-halves.” It turns out that the nutrient profile of grass-fed meat and milk is quite different than in grain fed meat. The ideal ratio of omega-three and omega-six fatty acids for the human diet is almost exactly the ratio found in grass fed meat and milk. It is really good for you, the land and it tastes great! Direct marketing 100-125 cattle to 500 people will be about as big as we want to get because, at that point of growth, our ability to know and take care of our customers will become very limited. We want to know them, and we want them to know who we are. We want them to understand how and why the food is produced the way it is.”
Each part of T.O Cattle Company reflects the vision and values of Joe and Julie Morris. The people, plants, and cattle that touch that vision benefit from it and should count themselves lucky that there are people like them keeping the hills green and the streams clean.