As a graduate student studying sustainable water management with a concentration in food systems, I had an internship conducting agricultural research on a non-profit farm, Wolfe’s Neck Center, in Maine.
Growing Perspectives: Understanding Water’s Role in Varied Ecosystems from Coast to Coast
Katherine Berry is a research fellow at the National Science Foundation in Boston, Massachusetts. She is currently a graduate student at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University focusing on Sustainable Water Management and Food Systems. In 2021, Katherine did an internship and was the Agricultural Assistant at Wolfe’s Neck Center for Agriculture & Environment. During her winter break, she came out to TomKat Ranch to learn about regenerative agriculture and experience firsthand how a regenerative ranch adapts to drought and wildfire risk.
As a graduate student studying sustainable water management with a concentration in food systems, I had an internship conducting agricultural research on a non-profit farm, Wolfe’s Neck Center, in Maine. One of our exciting grant-funded projects was to incorporate seaweed that was grown in the Gulf of Maine into the diets of dairy cows to test the effects on their methane emissions. We also attempted to trial different drought-tolerant summer annuals in the hopes of integrating them into our pastures, but, ironically, the abundance of rain we received inhibited many of them from germinating.
As an agricultural research farm, Wolfe’s Neck Center receives many visitors. In the summer of 2021, one of those visitors was Wendy Millet, TomKat Ranch Director. After speaking with Wendy about TomKat Ranch, I knew my perspective and knowledge of other systems was limited by the fact that I only had experience working on land in New England. Cold winters, humid summers, and increasing annual rainfall within the region are what I had been accustomed to.
I had never been to California until I had the opportunity to visit TomKat Ranch over my winter break this year. My ride from the San Francisco airport to TomKat Ranch was so thick with fog that I couldn’t see the ocean next to me, only smell it. When I arrived at the ranch, water quickly condensed on my jacket, and my suitcase splashed up dirt on my walk down the driveway. To my surprise, it was not the budding desert that I had been led to believe it would be.
The contrast of the water systems from one Coast to the other was obvious. During Wendy’s visit to Wolfe’s Neck last summer, as we walked around the farm a few days after it had rained, our California guests were starstruck by the water that was still present around us. Upon arriving at TomKat Ranch, I was certainly the one starstruck by the rolling hills, diverse concoction of vegetation, and certainly the most important piece of the puzzle, the cows. I believe everyone who works with land, especially livestock, highly values water, but now in the presence of California ranchers working in a drought, it felt as though I had never fully appreciated it.
On my first day shadowing the Land and Livestock team, I told Mark, the TomKat Ranch Manager, about the farm I had worked on in Maine and the flat, green, clover and meadow foxtail laden pastures that covered it. I mentioned one pasture that every spring and summer would flood and act more as wetland than grazable pasture. It was unable to be used in rotation for our dairy cows or our heifer herd, and was considered “lost pasture” that put pressure on the remaining land. I mentioned how everyone said that it would not be productive unless it was drained. Mark had a questioning look on his face and said something along the lines of, “Why drain it? What if the land shouldn’t be drained?” Until that moment, I had not really questioned the necessity of “fixing” the problem, as staff and consultants alike constantly commented on the need to act.
On one of my last days at the ranch, we ventured to Potrero Nuevo to move the cows and look at the pastures to inform planned moves. We hopped on and off the bikes around the property, and one of the pastures next to the road felt like walking on a plush carpet. While talking about the plant makeup and the sponginess of the soil, Mark mentioned that during the dry season the water in this pasture would be crucial to the success of the vegetation growing there.
As he pointed out the different vegetation and the presence of species that indicate a poor water cycle, I thought about the wetland-like pasture I had come to know on the East Coast. How I had–without hesitation–accepted that the flooded land was a nuisance that needed intervention. And how I had, in my two weeks of being at TomKat Ranch, tried to soak in all the local knowledge of the land and water systems of a place so alien to me and begun asking questions I hadn’t thought to ask in my own backyard. My first experience in California exposed me to a new landscape in regenerative ranching, but more than that, the diversity of systems and functions across the ranch inspired new ways of thinking that I’m excited to bring back to my next semester.