Brittany Cole Bush (BCB) is a modern-day shepherdess and the founder of Shepherdess Land and Livestock, a targeted grazing business based in Ojai, California providing climate beneficial vegetation management services. Their goats and sheep reduce fuel load for wildfires, enhance native habitat by eating invasive species, and promote soil health and watershed function.
Soil Centric (SC): Let me start off by saying I'm so proud of you for starting a targeted grazing business! Can you explain to our readers how good grazing practices reduce the dangers posed by wildfire?
BCB: Diana, it’s so exciting to be sharing this chapter of my journey as a next-generation agrarian now with my own grazing business! I’m grateful for friends and mentors like you who cheerlead folks like me and believe that it’s absolutely essential to have this support while we forge new pathways to this meaningful work.
To answer your question: we’ve been lacking the on-the-ground management needed to adapt to the realities of a changing climate. Our landscapes are in dire need of tending and the managed grazing of small and large ruminants is growing in response to this need.
Our animals are “biological masticators” that essentially chew up vegetation that has built up over time from lack of animal impact, or management, in areas deemed critical to fire prevention. Grazing animals are a tremendous alternative to fossil fuel dependent machinery that spews carbon into the atmosphere at alarming rates. Instead of throwing the C02 upwards the animals help bring it back down to the Earth and into the soil with the help of their plant pals and the animal’s basic biological activities of dunging and urinating. It’s quite a match made in heaven when we are looking to find alternative solutions to the current norm! Along with machinery, the use of chemicals has been prevalent in the management of fire hazardous vegetation. Although an often temporary solution, chemicals do not solve the underlying problem of an ecology out of balance.
A healthy ecology is one that has functioning biological processes and symbiotic relationships to the animals that rely on productive cycles and feedback loops in nature. As land stewards we can usher in practices that help restore the momentum of the Earth’s powerful ability to recover and adapt but it takes proactive tending to do so. In short, well-managed grazing can support the transition back to a healthy, functioning ecology that is fire safe and fire ready.
SC: Tell us about the mini transhumance adventure you and your team embarked upon last November.
BCB: I have to say that ending the first season of the first year in business with a three-day trek on foot with a team of shepherds, two horses, herding dogs, and yes, my very own parents was one of the most incredible experiences in my life. When I recognized that the last areas that we were contracted to target-graze was connected to our winter grounds through a large network of canyons and old ranch trails and in the management of the client, I thought to myself that it would be possible to herd the animals on foot rather than loading them up in a trailer. There are many reasons why herding the 16 miles on foot was my preferred choice to ending the season and, although not the quickest way to move the herd of 500, it was an incredible experience for the team, reinforcing the culture we are co-creating while celebrating the work of land and livestock grazing for good. It was the grand finale to experience real tried-and-true shepherding outside the containment of fences, working with our dogs and one another in the backcountry of the most populated counties in California. My team experienced this timeless activity of moving animals in a present-day context less than an hour and a half (depending on LA traffic!) to the heart of Los Angeles. It was something that we were awestruck by and was evident in our glances at one another, with jaws dropped, saying, “I know! Right?!”
To be caring for the animals while experiencing their interaction with the environs that I grew up in, the familiar smells, the colors, the sounds, affirmed that I am doing the work that I am called to do. Transhumance uses all of the skills I’ve built working throughout California, while grounding the knowledge I’d gained by studying pastoralism and the art and science of shepherding in Spain and France.
Transhumance is a practice, a traditional way of life recognizing the relationship between an animal's life cycle with the seasonal shifts on the landscape. Pastoral stewards of the land and domestic grazers work to mimic the rhythms of wild grazing herds. Those in the Northern Hemisphere, for instance, traverse up into high grounds for spring and summer to graze the bounty of growth after seasonal rains and then seasonally migrate back down to valleys and flats to have their offspring.
Grazing animals have played a central role in the evolution of so many landscapes around the world. Historically, wild herds grazed many continents, informed by mass movements of “predator pressure.” This pressure created the perfect scenario where the animals in high density cause high impact on the vegetation and the Earth below them, but for short periods of time. This recovery period allows grasses, forbs, shrubs, and trees to regrow often with vigor, stimulating the growth of deeper root systems that store carbon at depth.
SC: Do you have plans to do it again in 2022?
BCB: Absolutely. Simply for camaraderie and celebration of a season well worked with the team of shepherds the trek is well worth it. Meaningful work must include a culture of celebration of the way of life we are dedicated to and that feeds us, not just monetarily (not much at this point!) but the nourishment this work provides for heart, mind, body and soul. I believe that it’s truly the spirit of the work that gets us through the heat, the long days of toil, never truly clocking out, the pain of loss and suffering of the animals that we cannot save despite our enduring efforts.
SC: Speaking of meaningful work, there's a lot of action at the state level on climate here in California right now. In fact, Governor Newsom's 2022-23 budget includes money for the University of California for "workforce development for climate-focused careers." What role do you think college students can play on working landscapes?
BCB: I believe that investment in workforce development for climate-focused career development is absolutely necessary. And, I think that universities play an important role contributing to the research, access to expertise in various fields, and the system that supports higher education but I feel that true momentum will be built when more avenues for training and education are available to more people who don’t go the route of higher education. This means community colleges, trade schools, vocational training programs, certified apprenticeships, non-profit job placement and labor equity groups are also elevated and equipped to make training possible for a much broader range of society. Training for veterans, previously incarcerated, youth at risk, indigenous community, individuals in underserved communities who lack accessible pathways to break open cycles of oppression, all of these people need to be included in this growing “herd” of individuals who are making a living while making a difference. We need people from different backgrounds, education levels, folks from rural communities, the suburbs and cities to all have the opportunity to plug into a new vocational reality.
There also needs to be support for new businesses. In order for beginning farmers, ranchers, graziers, or land-base entrepreneurs to even get started there needs to be access to land and capital. The limiting factors I’ve struggled with tremendously are the realities of student debt, the cost of living, health care, and land access in a place where the value of land is so high that development will always win over small or mid-scale agriculture. My journey to starting this business has taken me over a decade as so many pieces needed to be created or acquired. Magic opportunities had to emerge and the timing had to be right personally for the leap I’ve made to have any chance of turning from a free fall into a soar. Of course I am not just acting alone but with a community of people who share my vision and values. Vision and values that will keep our heads and heart in the game.
SC: What advice do you have for young people who are concerned about the climate crisis, but don't know how to get started on their path to regeneration?
BCB: It’s our responsibility to build resilient systems of all kinds and we can do it wearing many different hats. If we are brittle as a society we will break. So how do we stretch our limiting beliefs to create the flexibility, the bravery, and the hope to adapt? I believe that it is through collaboration, collectivity and redefining community that really is “community” where we trust, serve, and feel safe to depend on one another, that stepping into the unknowns of change are possible.
In most industries I think there’s a way to find a career that in some way, big or small, can make an impact. Create your own true North, a compass of what you stand for. Mine is called my “holistic context”. Create your own “constellation of stars”: various people throughout time or present day who inspire you, have qualities that you aspire to, or have accomplished things that are super exciting to you. I have had a growing list of individuals who have impacted my life and career on my own pathway and their inspiration, collaboration, and belief in me and my pursuits have kept my light of hope alive many times.
SC: What is your biggest frustration / biggest joy with this profession?
BCB: My biggest career frustration has been the speed (or lack thereof) in which decision-makers, government, academic institutions, and industry have taken to look towards alternative solutions. It is disheartening to me that even with the privilege I have as a white educated woman who has built a career in the world of regeneration, it has been incredibly difficult to acquire the resources my new business has needed. This includes acquiring the capital to operate efficiently, effectively and safely while paying the people who are a part of my founding team enough to meet the local cost of living. I’ve been preparing for years and yet the pressures of access to capital, land tenure, student loan debt, health care, and ability to retire someday are realities that I don’t think will let up any time soon for me or most anyone who is bootstrapping a business like mine. I feel like I’m a poster child for the grazing movement and yet the path to even get to the starting line has tested every bit of me. I kind of feel that if I can’t do it, I don’t know how folks with less privilege, access, experience, or tenacity can forge a path as entrepreneurs in this work.
My biggest joy, on the other hand, is meeting and beating the limiting factors and challenges I’ve faced. Despite these challenges, I made the leap. I built the team. We grazed hundreds of acres as contracted land stewards with hundreds of animals together working to build a more fire safe and resilient community in the Ojai Valley. We have begun to create our own culture of being SoCal shepherds. We work hard. We care for one another, have pride in what we do, and are part of a regional guild of folks who are practitioners, entrepreneurs, educators, and the like who are running beside us with the shared mission of making our region a better place. All the while having a quality of life that is fulfilling, rewarding, full of friendship and camaraderie and it’s worth every square inch of sunburn, hours of thirst, chasing goats or guard dogs, or getting tangled up in electric fence netting.
SC: In closing, what's something you'd like the public to know about being a modern day Shepherdess?
BCB: As much as I love working with the animals on the land, the way I define my role as a modern-day shepherdess is actually shepherding people to discover their own pathways so they too can contribute to regeneration.
With Shepherdess I’m testing a model that has yet to be proven but I know through adapting, enduring, and navigating the challenges of starting a new business in a burgeoning industry in very strange times, with my comrades, almost anything is possible. I think the message is clear: stay optimistic, lean on those who are cheering you on and those more experienced, and know that if you want to live and work and play in a way that is rewarding and bigger than yourself, don’t quit trying.
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