ARIEL GREENWOOD: GRAZIER + ORCHARDIST
I reached out to Ariel because I was intrigued by the work she does, and I wanted my preconceptions about cattle's impact on the environment to be challenged. They were. While I still have many misgivings about industrial beef, it's not as simple as opting for vegetarianism when we are talking about whole ecosystems and agriculture whose aim is to be regenerative for the land. This is hard work: not only in the monotony of laying out and moving fences daily, but in the work against stereotypes, and the work in educating us, the eaters, about all of the ways a cow is raised, and how a herd can engage with and impact the landscape in a positive way, before it reaches your plate.
Ariel is wicked smart and thinks deeply about the work she does. It was a pleasure to spend time with her and roam the poison oak-studded, dry grass landscape. We are lucky to have such stewards of land and animals. Support her hard work and future by purchasing directly from her at Circle A Beef.
ARIEL in her own words:
Ariel Elena Greenwood
What do you do?
I work within agriculture to promote healthier plant, animal, and human communities. Most of the time, I'm out on a nature preserve grazing cattle with a company called Holistic Ag. We partner with conservation focused land-bases to use Holistically Planned Grazing to restore grassland health, and I market my "grassland-fed" beef as Circle A Beef to my Bay Area community.
When not out with the cows, I'm up in the trees as an orchardist here in Sonoma county, including at Occidental Arts and Ecology Center. I like to think that both of these hats help me support a local food economy that is rooted in perennial food security and high-functioning ecosystems.
How did you come into the work that you do now?
I grew up rurally, and started working on small farms at 16, and continued through college. In school I studied both Psychology and Agroecology on the hunch that people systems and agroecosystems are best considered in tandem. A little while after graduating, I realized I was losing my attention span and physical fortitude for intensive vegetable production and was falling simultaneously in love with grassland ecology. So, I committed to forging a path towards working with animals to improve grassland health and store carbon. I got connected to my current role as a grazier by cold emailing a Holistic Management educator in Northern California, who put me in touch with Holistic Ag.
What are the biggest challenges of your work?
Grazing this topographically diverse landscape with this degree of attention to detail can be very exhausting. Keeping the cows moving all the time while working alone quite far from my friends is isolating. And finding out how to make it work for me financially is stressful. I balance my grazing with the orchard work not only to supplement income but to get down in the county amongst people, and to work with stationary entities (trees) who are about as bad as cows are at carrying on a conversation but are far better listeners, seeing as how they can't walk away from me mid-sentence.
What do you love most about it?
The grazing and tree work have their own distinct charms, and a few in common. I am deeply moved by the notion that my orchestration of over 100,000 lbs of animals can be done in a way that is significantly beneficial to these grassland and savanna ecosystems that I love. Coming to understand individual animals' personalities over the past couple of years, and what that means for the whole herd, has been a pleasure. Herding the group, and sorting out individuals, is fun. Working this intimately with a native ecosystem is sort of fractal. You operate for a while on one understanding, and then something shifts in your understanding and a whole new constellation of questions and ideas breaks free, influencing your management henceforth. And I love the physicality and literalness of it--the direct expression of my values, writ large across the land.
Being in nature isn't an excursion for me--it's where the work happens, surrounded by rocks and oaks and chattering acorn woodpeckers and sneaking coyote and galloping deer and of course, the cows. I enjoy my coworkers.
With trees, I love the catharsis of working on a horticultural level--tree by tree. I appreciate that I can interact with the tree directly--through pruning, training, and harvesting--but also indirectly, by tending their health throughout the seasons by stewarding the health and fertility of the soil, the living understory, and the broader biotic community in which they are producing fruit each year.
What I enjoy about both grazing and the tree work is that it's a long game--the planning makes the product--but the work associated with executing the plan is generally satisfying in its own right. I guess beauty is an essential nutrient to me.
What are the biggest misconceptions about what you do?
The way I graze cattle with Holistic Ag is pretty different from a lot of ranching operations, so I commonly get into conversation with people coming from a conventional ranching perspective who try to tell me how to do things without first asking what is our goal or context. I think a lot of folks assume that I'm just out checking the herd now and then--not that I'm executing a very deeply thought out plan, moving the herd often every day, mending fence, monitoring forage, considering water, and working closely with a team of ecologists and land managers to communicate what I'm seeing and synchronize goals. It's management intensive, which means it's deeply considered, like a game of chess played 365 days a year across 4000 acres.
Holistic Ag is cow-calf through finish, meaning we direct market our product to a consumer base who values not only the amazing taste but the management that it supports and the ecological restoration it's achieving. This means we aren't beholden to the commodity cow market, so we don't have to emphasize things like high weaning weights and instead can focus on how the animals are performing in relation to the constraints of their ecosystem.
Have you found that being a woman impacts your experience in your field?
I'm sure it does in ways that I don't see due to my own willful naivete. More than once I've gotten into conversations with people who assume I'm not the one out in the field doing the work associated with grazing this land with this much care.
But in some ways I feel my gender has given me a leg-up when it comes to moving inventory, because folks see a young woman in ranching and take notice, especially here in the Bay Area where things that are a little unexpected are viewed with interest, rather than suspicion, as may be the case in other parts of the country.
I'm fortunate to be part of a community of ranchers and graziers in the Holistic Management scene who put an above-average emphasis on sensitivity, holism, and compassion, and thusly celebrate and include many women in our ranks. I've got a number of male mentors who invest in me as a land steward, and I think this has helped circumvent the sexism that many women unfortunately experience, and that I may yet experience in due time.
Find Ariel on Instagram.
Buy her grassland-fed beef: Circle A Beef.