How A Skeptical Rancher, Aided By An Outdoors Brand, Turned Climate Friendly

Feb 26, 2018
Originally published on February 26, 2018 1:19 pm

Lani Estill's family ranches on thousands of acres in Modoc County on the border of Nevada and California. Her operation, Bare Ranch, sits in a place called Surprise Valley. It's a beautiful, almost forgotten place "Where the West still lives" — that's the county's motto.

"We have things going on here that you just don't see going on everywhere in the nation," Estill says. "Cattle are still gathered on horseback. We have cattle drives down the main country road."

There are fewer than 10,000 people in the whole county, and very few industries besides agriculture and hunting exist. The Estills have three bands of sheep that trek through the area where the Burning Man festival takes place yearly. The family raise sheep for both wool and meat.

"There's a lot that goes into this," Estill says. "It's really hard to run a business this size. It's not always a beautiful day like this."

That struggle got a little easier around four years ago, when she got a call from Rebecca Burgess with the textile group called Fibershed, which focuses on regional textile production. The organization's goal is to connect farmers and ranchers with companies, all while benefiting the environment.

Burgess asked Estill if her family would incorporate climate-friendly farming practices that would also keep the farm economically viable.

"To be able to do that, they needed an economy to be stable enough to retain their way of life," says Burgess.

It took a bit of arm-twisting for the family to get on board, however, because of previous encounters with environmentalists.

"Ranchers have been threatened constantly by the environmental community," Estill says. "So, we had to kind of open up our minds a little bit to accept what was being offered as a genuine offer."

After many conversations, the family accepted. This meant they could establish an environmentally friendly farm plan with grant money. It was a new thing because few people ranch in a sustainable way in Modoc County.

In fact, three years later, Estill often gets questions from climate-change deniers. But now she bristles at such claims: "'So, you don't believe in global warming and climate change? OK. What about your riparian zones? What about your soil that is now is full of worms and producing more grass than it did before? Just, why not?'"

But Bare Ranch couldn't become an environmentally friendly farm on its own. With Fibershed's help, the family created a Carbon Farm Plan. And it's simple, she claims.

"Climate-friendly farming is just being aware of the soil," Estill says.

She's talking about farm practices that take carbon out of the air and suck into the ground. Too much carbon in the air is a bad thing because it warms the atmosphere, but in soil it's a plus because it releases nutrients for plants and boosts soil health

Today, the family has been aided in the form of grants from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which helped with the Carbon Farm Plan and other projects, like invasive juniper removal. And there are now five carbon-farming practices in play on the ranch — fencing off riparian zones, composting, planting sorghum and radishes rather than leaving soil bare after crops like alfalfa and wheat are harvested. They are also rotating where sheep graze and are planting four miles of trees alongside plants to support pollinators.

Now, her ranch takes the equivalent of 850 cars worth of carbon dioxide out of the air and into the ground. The popular outdoor brand The North Face got wind of this and offered to further help the ranch with grants. The end result? A climate friendly beanie using wool from the Estill's farm.

"It's unbelievably soft, it's unbelievably warm," says James Rogers, director of sustainability for The North Face.

The brand is expanding the line to a scarf and jacket using Estill's wool, he says, adding that the company is "trying to reduce the negative impact of a product. And that's what got us so excited about this initiative."

For Estill, this partnership — that all started with a cold call — has given her a second chance at life. The volume of wool The North Face buys allows her ranch to get into larger mills at wholesale rates. She hopes the partnership also opens the door for other ranchers in Modoc County.

"I definitely feel blessed," Estill says. "It's taking what's in your storehouse and making that a plus. I think this area has the potential to be a small manufacturing area because the cost of living is less."

She sells her cloth and yarn at Warner Mountain Weavers in the town of Cedarville and stores in Lake Tahoe and Oakland. She hopes to get that number up to nine.

This story comes to us from member station Capital Public Radio in Sacramento.

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