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Renegotiating the grass economy

Ogallala Commons, under the auspices of Rocky Mountain Farmers Union (RMFU) Cooperative Development Center and The Promised Land Network hosted the 14th Annual Southern Plains Conference in Nazareth, Texas Feb. 8. Eighty people attended the event with its theme: “Renegotiating the Grass Economy.”

It was held at the Home Mercantile Building, a 75-year old former grocery store that has been renovated into a community center for education and creative arts. Nazareth, a farming and ranching community of 700 people, is located midway between Amarillo and Lubbock in the Texas Panhandle.

Keynote speakers for the conference were Frank and Deborah Popper, geographers from New Jersey who coined the “Buffalo Commons” idea in 1987, and Dr. Jim Gerrish, a grazing specialist at the University of Missouri-Forage Research Center.

Having analyzed demographic and economic data from the past two decades, the Poppers invented the concept of the Buffalo Commons, which calls for a new national policy for the Great Plains, mainly through the re-establishment of grasslands and native grazers like the buffalo. Since 1987, their ideas about the future of the Great Plains region have stimulated a national debate. Their work was the subject of Anne Matthew’s book Where the Buffalo Roam (1992), one of four finalists for the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction.

Gerrish is the co-founder of the popular three-day grazing management workshop program at his research center in Missouri that has been attended by over 3,000 producers and educators since 1990. In his presentation entitled, “The Shift from Growing Crops to Farming Grass,” Gerrish gave an overview of grazing management, and cited statistics gleaned from profitable farming operations that have shifted from crop production to grazing-based systems.

“The drought has caused all of us in the High Plains to consider a long-term strategy for maintaining our farming and ranching operations,” said RMFU member Vince Shively, Wray, Colo. “Grass farming is one option we should consider given global warming and World Trade Organization impacts on the value of our grain products.”

In the afternoon session, the conference featured a group of grazing practitioners who discussed three challenges facing a renegotiated grass economy.

Dr. C. Wayne Hanselka, Texas A & M University associate department head and extension program leader for Rangeland Ecology and Management, spoke on managing and being prepared for frequent droughts and lowering water tables.

Dr. Tim Steffens, manager of Mescalero Cattle Growers in Mescalero, N.M., reviewed the challenges, benefits, and shortcomings involved in various forage selections, as well as different types of livestock, including horses and game animals.

Two producers who direct market pasture-finished meats, Peggy Sechrist and Alan Birkenfeld, gave presentations on “Building a New Infrastructure to Support the Grass Economy.” Sechrist and her husband Richard own Homestead Healthy Foods, Fredricksburg, Tex., and Birkenfeld is the owner of PaiDom Meats, Inc., Nazareth, Tex.

The Ogallala Commons Steering Committee stayed on at the Home Mercantile to convene its first meeting following the conference. Eight members were present representing New Mexico, Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, and Nebraska.

Ogallala Commons will strive to produce four things: 1) a collaborative network supporting entrepreneurs and leaders in the Ogallala Aquifer region, 2) a framework for ideas and education, 3) place-based arts, history, and cultures, and 4) self-reliant communities anchored in sustainable wealth generated from the land.

Bob Mailander, RMFU Cooperative Development Center director and member of the steering committee, said we must stop our capital and our young people from leaving rural communities. These losses cause our region to become less and less self-sufficient. Ogallala Commons is an effort to work together on a region-wide basis to reverse these trends.

The Ogallala Commons will continue to work with its partner organizations, the Center for Rural Affairs in Walthill, Neb., the Kansas Rural Center in Whiting, Kan., the Savory Center for Holistic Management in Albuquerque, N.M., and state Farmers Union organizations in the seven-state Ogallala Aquifer region.

The Ogallala Commons will convene two conferences on water in the next 12 months: Oct. 10 in Ogallala, Neb., as well as the 15th Annual Southern Plains Conference in Nazareth, Feb. 7, 2004. For more information on Ogallala Commons, contact the coordinator, Darryl Birkenfeld at 806-938-2529 (darrylb@nts-online.net) or visit the website (www.ogallalacommons.org).

Photo caption: The Ogallala Commons Steering Committee met at the Home Mercantile on Feb 9. Members present (l to r): Darryl Birkenfeld, Nazareth, Tex.; Linda Kleinschmidt, Hartington, Neb.; Donn Teske, McPherson, Kan.; Vince Shively, Yuma County, Colo.; Andy Wilkinson, Lubbock, Tex.; Shannon Horst, Albuquerque, N.M.; Robert Mailander, Aurora, Colo.; and Kim Barker, Waynoka, Okla.

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