National Grassfed Exchange Conference Covers the Land with Possibilities

By Troy Bishopp 

Albany, NYWould-be travelers to the Albany Airport had to do a double-take as the heralded Desmond Hotel and Conference Center had beef cows grazing on the lawn and smoky barbeque scents wafting towards the jet’s flight path.  “It’s the first time I heard cowbells in the parking lot”, said NYS Agriculture Commissioner, Richard Ball.  

What passersby didn’t see were over 550 farmers, ranchers, chefs, consumers and their collaborative businesses from all over the world in the state capital to learn about unleashing the power of a grassfed production model to nourish human diets, soil health and inspire future generations of land stewards. The three day, 9th annual conference theme of “Reconciling Land and Life” was chosen for its sentiment and goals to coexist in harmony with nature and communities.  “We felt a strong connection to reconcile, said Chairman of the Grassfed Exchange, Dr. Jason Roundtree.  Our hearts and minds have to change because government alone, money alone and research alone cannot solve our world’s problems”.

The Grassfed Exchange is a national, volunteer, non-profit organization of regenerative ranchers and   grassfed industry supporters who believe that regenerative grassland agriculture can create a sunlight-powered future filled with healthy and prosperous families, thriving communities, deep topsoil, clean and abundant water and vigorous biodiversity. Their mission is to empower ranchers, farmers, communities, and governments to create this future with purpose, grace and speed across watersheds and continents by exchanging and connecting knowledge, ideas, strategies, livestock genetics, products and services among practitioners that expand the grassfed industry’s transformative impact.

The exchange idea premise was in full action as 5 busloads of guests toured Paul and Phyllis Van Amburgh’s Dharma Lea grass-fed dairy and beef farm in Sharon Springs, NY and Morgan Hartman’s Black Queen Angus Farm, LLC in Berlin, NY. The Van Amburgh family led the group on a pasture walk where they described their pasture species succession, management style, madre-calf raising, bale grazing benefits and how they produce 100% grass-fed milk for Maple Hill Creamery.  “We don’t always have to understand what we’re doing, we have to works towards what works for us and our environment’, said Phyllis.

Hartman and the Cornell Extension team of Brett Chedzoy, Joe Orefice and Peter Smallidge gave guests a glimpse of silvopasture strategies and Angus beef cows that are adapting to the rugged terrain of eastern Rensselaer County. Morgan dedicated the day to his dad, Roger Lewis Hartman who recently passed away.  He showcased his cow-calf herd working efficiently within his grazing management and his no nonsense, form follows function, approach to genetics.  

The conference portion was held inside the Desmond amongst a plethora of exhibitors and national speakers on regenerative agriculture principles. As the ballroom filled to capacity, Richard Ball inspired farmers to become a student of life.  “Even in the age of social media, there is no substitute for sitting around a table or on a hay bale and talking and making relationships with people while connecting the dots to our food system.”

The recently retired NRCS “soil guy”, Ray Archuleta, stepped up to the microphone and pulled no punches on his assessment of the nation’s soil resources and why holistic management plays a part. “I grew up accepting a degraded resource because reductionist science is out of context.  Our soil is naked, hungry, thirsty, and running a fever.  We’ve spent billions on conservation diapers and our rivers are filled with nutrient management plans. The problem is water infiltration and keeping the land covered with growing plants and roots. Tillage is not OK.  It destroys the elegance of the soil.  You cannot have healthy soil and plants without managed grazing animals period!  Our biggest impediment to success on the land is your mindset.  It’s a game-changer, said Archuleta.  It’s why I endorse forage-based, no-till systems so passionately”.

Savory Institute’s COO/CFO, Tre Cates shared a message of restoration and regeneration. “A trillion dollars or 11% of the world’s GDP is connected to soil loss.  Agriculture’s only hope is to design with the entire “whole” community, economy and environment in mind.  We need to step deeper into these conversations for the next generations.  We were meant to be in community and work in collaboration.  We’re too focused on solutions, we should focus on asking the right questions and live your way into the answers, said Cates.  What is the most underutilized resource available today? 7.6 billion minds.  Change your management and partner with nature and we can unleash the opportunities”.

Agroecologist, Director ECDYSIS Foundation, CEO for Blue Dasher Farm and author of “Relationships of Natural Enemies and Non-prey Foods”, Dr. Jonathan Lundgren brought his expertise on assessing the ecological risk of pest management strategies and developing long-term solutions for sustainable food systems. “Biodiversity and biological networks are the answer to regenerating agriculture.  Pesticides are becoming an addiction.  I’m not saying ban all pesticides but there are unintended consequences in the decision-making of use.  The status quo is not good enough”, said Lundgren. 

Featured speakers included registered dietician and author, Diana Rodgers presenting on the thorny issue of eating grassfed meat versus a low fat diet. Professor of geomorphology at the University of Washington and author of “Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life”, Dr. David R. Montgomery spoke about the history of erosion and changing the ways we think about soil restoration. Author of “Cows Save the Planet” and “Water In Plain Sight: Hope for a Thirsty World”, Judith Schwartz, appealed to farmers to rebuild the soil sponge and react to climate change with biodiverse systems.

Other jam backed sessions presented chronicled keys to ecosystem health, the art of butchering, the ins and outs of grassfed beef, grassfed dairy practices, grazing technology tools, profitable silvopasture systems and incorporating the advantages of multi-species grazing. Networking amongst the farmers and ranchers extended well into the night. 

Another highlight featured the open wood fire wizardry, spectacle and all natural power cooking team headlined by chef, butcher and owner of Fire Roasted Catering, Jeremy Stanton, who slow roasted grass finished beef from Ingallside Meadows Farm in Canastota, NY and pastured chicken from Joyce Farms in North Carolina. Many of the food items came from grassfed exchange members and supporters. 

In an effort to encourage the next generation of grassfed practitioners, 40 beginning farmers and ranchers, aka “Herd Fellows” from all over the country, received support to attend the 3 day bonanza from The Herd, White Oak Pastures, Butcher Box, Michigan State University and the Grassfed Exchange. 

“I love being part of this movement towards a regenerative pasture-based farming system focused on the next generations which is passionate about the stewardship of our earth”, said Bill Hodge.

To learn more about the Exchange and upcoming videos from the 2017 conference, visit www.grassfedexchange.com

Published in Lee Newspapers