Ranch Hand, Product Lead, Oyster Farmer
Moving livestock, building rotational paddocks, designing low-code assessment tools, harvesting oysters
Building the Western Sustainability Exchange's first digital product that led to a paid partnership with the World Wildlife Foundation
August 2020 - September 2021
Summer 2020 was a time of forced reflection. I was existing in a tiny NYC apartment, made smaller by the grip of the pandemic, working 14-hour days on a company that was struggling to figure out why it existed.
In that time, I learned that I had put so much effort in to the actual work of building Jam, and had not put nearly enough effort into choosing the right thing to work on.
And that shortcoming was catching up to me. I wanted not only a change of scenery and a break from the endless hours spent staring at a screen, but an opportunity to gain a toehold in to a world that offered more meaningful work. Conveniently, an expiring apartment lease presented that opportunity.
Motivation to identify that toehold, along with the desire to stretch my legs, set in motion what would later be recognized as a quarter-life crisis. And with those wheels in motion, I made two quick decisions: first, climate change, our generation-defining problem with a closing window to fix it, would be the north star I followed, and second, a motorcycle would be how I got there.
After making those two decisions, the action items followed. I started to tap my entire network to see who was involved, directly or indirectly, with work on climate solutions and in parallel, I slid down the rabbit hole that is craigslist vehicle listings. Eventually, through a friend of a friend, I was connected with Chris Mehus of the Western Sustainability Exchange in Montana. Founded in 1994, WSE works with ranches throughout Montana to help them make the transition to regenerative agriculture. After speaking with Chris, the take-away message was simple: find your way to Montana and he'd help find a ranch to get to work on.
With a destination circled, I turned down my apartment renewal, sold most of my belongings, and put in an offer on a 2016 Triumph Bonneville T120. I mapped a back-road route west, convinced a friend to tag along for some of the journey, and set off on the 2600 mile trek to the Treasure state.
10 days were spent winding through the curves of the Shenandoah Valley, towards Indiana's Chain Lakes, along the Missouri into LaCrosse, Wisconsin, taking a peek at the world's largest boot in Red Wing Minnesota, confining in a chocolate donut in Wall, South Dakota, lost on a dirt road in the Badlands, and finally on highway 310 across the Wyoming border into Montana.
After 10 days and 2600 miles, I had made good on Chris' invitation and found myself in Montana. We met early on a Monday morning at the Big Timber Bakery to talk through how I could make myself of use to WSE and the ranches they worked with throughout the state.
We arrived at a combination of three different things. First, as a way to exist in Montana, I'd work as a Hand on several different ranches, learning how regenerative agriculture actually worked in practice. Second, to gain a macro view on the space, I'd work with WSE on their Montana Grasslands Carbon Initiative, one of the first carbon credit programs in the state. Third, I'd use my product experience to build WSE's first set of digital tools intended to help more ranchers make the transition into regenerative agriculture.
Over the next 10 months, the Triumph would take me to different ranches across the state where'd I'd get the chance to work and learn alongside the ranchers dedicated to raising the healthiest possible livestock while improving the quality of their land. Starting with Meagan & Pete Lannan of Barney Creek Livestock in Paradise Valley, then Jon & Brittany Sepp of Flathead Bison Company in Hot Springs, and then the Holzer family of Mill Iron Livestock in Moccasin, these ranches would teach me what regenerative agriculture actually looked like.
While every day on a ranch is different, the work regenerative agriculture demanded had common themes: fencing, movement, and water. A majority of the work I'd do across the different ranches involved building the fencing needed for holistic rotational grazing to work, moving livestock into new pastures based on forage budgets, and designing or maintaining the water systems for both the forage and livestock. Through this, I'd develop a skill set, and an appreciation, for raising the livestock that both feeds us and improves our land.
I showed up in Montana having barely spent any time on a ranch and therefore had little sense of the lifestyle that came with it. And by the time I left, while I still barely knew anything, there were a few things I learned the fun way. I learned things like the right amount of pressure to place on a cow to get her to move through a shoot. Or that no matter what amount of pressure you apply, sometimes bison decide to move themselves. I learned that it really hurts to touch a hot fence and that a fence, not matter how hot, is no match for a steer moving a full speed. I learned that cows can cover some ground and that Japanese horses are more effective in chasing after them. I learned that it's fun to drive a skid steer, especially when there's a bail of hay spiked to the top, but not very fun if that skid steer is transversing a coulee. I learned that twisting cross-ties is satisfying and tightening wire is therapeutic. I learned that white lithium grease is best when it gets cold out and that no matter how cold it is, getting a 1976 Ford F150 to crank consistently is a challenge. And I learned that working with your hands, on land that provides for others, is one of the most rewarding ways you can spend your time.
My time in Montana helped me understand that with regenerative agriculture, while livestock are sold on markets and end up on a plate, the real product ranchers work for is healthy soil. And that product, not only can improve the diminishing quality of the American prairies, but can be sold in the emerging carbon offset markets.
The logic goes like this: if you ditch the soil-crushing chemicals that have come to dominate big agriculture over the last half-century, don't till your land, protect topsoil with cover crops, and use livestock to aerate and replenish nutrients back into the ground, then you can convert a dying grassland into a robust carbon sink. Livestock specifically, have always played a role in this process, from when herds of constantly migrating bison would eat, manure, move on quickly, and allow the grass to replenish, pulling down carbon the process. Scientists have estimated that soils—mostly, agricultural ones—could sequester over a billion additional tons of carbon each year.
Through WSE's Montana Grasslands Carbon Initiative, I got to experience first hand how that sequestration potential can be monetized. WSE created a program that pays ranchers and other land stewards for sequestering carbon on grasslands through regenerative grazing practices. So during my time, I got to see what a carbon offset program actually looked like. It entailed things like moving cattle twice a day to new pastures so grazed grasses can regenerate and mature. Setting up the extra water tanks and solar pumps to make remote paddocks work. Fixing diversions and ditches for water access. Digging soil samples to send off to a lab to quantify the amount of carbon sequestered. The work was hard but the process was simple really: Graze, rest, measure, repeat.
WSE asks the question: "What if there was a strategy that sequestered carbon, protected wildlife habitat, protected water quality, increased soil health, increased soil resiliency, and increased the economic viability of a ranch family to stay on their land?" Regenerative agriculture is that strategy. Yes, there are plenty of limitations on regenerative agriculture, but it's a strategy that not only produces the healthiest meat, but one that heals our soils and supports thousands of ranchers in the process.
At the core of WSE's mission is to help ranchers become more profitable and more resilient. Unsurprisingly, becoming more profitable and more resilient can be obtained by incorporating regenerative practices into your operation. Over the course of their 27 year history, WSE has largely relied on manual outreach and baselining when working with ranchers looking to make the transition to regenerative.
I got the chance to work with WSE to take their decades of experience helping ranchers establish a regenerative baseline and translate it into an automated assessment tool that would scale their impact. The goal was simple: build a tool that could quantify how regenerative a ranch was today and then give them action items on where to begin focusing their efforts. WSE knew that there were certain nonnegtiables when it came to regenerative agriculture—do you measure your soil health? do you avoid the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides on your land? are you providing rest periods for grazed plants?. If we could build an assessment form that ranchers found easy to use, scored those answers against the regenerative nonnegtiables, and automatically generated a report that told ranchers where their operation was today, then WSE could begin to dramatically scale their impact to not only more ranches in Montana, but across the region.
In designing the assessment architecture, there were a few core considerations we needed to make:
Ranchers are busy and seldom find themselves sitting in front of a computer. For this to work, the tool needs to make sense and be easy to use.
WSE are experts at improving ranch operations. They have little interest in maintaining a code base. So maintaining this tool shouldn't require any technical knowledge.
While there are core themes in regenerative, every ranch operation is different. For this tool to resonate with its users, it had to capture those nuances.
With those considerations in mind, I began mapping the architecture for how the product would work. We could use Typeform as our data capture, store the logic for scoring the assessment in Airtable, and communicate with users via Zapier integrations:
2a. Do you measure your soil health?
2l. Have you minimized tillage, harrowing, and sources of animal/equipment compaction?
3j. Are you progressing away from using pesticides/insecticides/parasiticides on your livestock?
4d. Do you use mob (cell) grazing or some form of short-duration, high intensity grazing?
4l. Are you providing a rest period for grazed plants to completely recover leaf and root growth, and regular seed set?
5c. Are you using grazing animals to improve the health of your land?
6a. Are you running your ranch as a business, do you know your inputs and are they making you money?
8c. Are you working to increase biodiversity and/or creating more opportunities for living things to thrive?
9a. Do you prioritize water quality, quantity and riparian area integrity in your management?
Once we had the list of assessment questions detailed and their values mapped, we then needed to build something that could take that raw data, quantify it, and process it into a deliverable that a rancher found valuable and actionable. It turns out that building automated pdf generation via no-code solutions is very tricky and doesn't really work. So though it went against the core principle of only using no-code tools, we needed to write a python script that could handle the scoring logic and build a customized report.
Piecing this all together, we had an assessment tool that ranchers found easy to use, captured the essence of the core principles of regenerative agriculture, and helped ranchers quantify how regenerative their practices were today while pointing them in the right direction on where to start focusing. Now, instead of traveling out to a ranch and conducting initial interviews, WSE could send ranchers the assessment tool, establish a baseline, and then offer targeted suggestions, all while building a database of ranches across the West.
In the three months since launching the first pass of the Regenerative Ranch Assessment, WSE onboarded 32 ranches across Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, South Dakota, and Nebraska that collectively manage over 135,000 acres across the Northern Great Plains region. While there was plenty of feedback to incorporate back into the next iteration, what became clear was that this was a tool that helped ranchers reflect on their operation and highlight the pieces that needed to be strengthened, setting the table for WSE to heighten their impact when it came time to working one-on-one with these ranches.
Beyond building something that ranchers were using, the biggest win came from paid license with the World Wildlife Foundation. Through their Sustainable Ranching Initiative, the World Wildlife Foundation aims to partner with ranches across the Northern Great Plains region and the Regenerative Ranch Assessment gives them a tool to quantify their impact.
Today, WSE continues to expand the tool to ranches across the region and I help tweak the product from a distance. While I'm not actively involved in the day-to-day of any of the ranches I once worked on or WSE's initiatives, I'm lucky enough to have said I made life-long relationships with the people I met during my time in Montana. From Chris Mehus' initial invitation to find my way to Montana to then fly fishing down the Yellowstone with him months later, or helping the Lannan's put up sheetrock on a weekend I found myself back in Paradise Valley, to Kathy Holzer teaching me her infamous sour cream raisin pie recipe, the people I met and the lessons I learned solidified the types of problems I want to work on the type of people I want to work alongside.
Montana opened my eyes to world of solutions being used to combat climate change. And while it gave me hands-on experience with regenerative practices, it simultaneously opened my interest to other arenas that were pulling down carbon from the atmosphere. One arena specifically that I became fascinated with was the ocean and the potential of aquaculture.
As the interest built, I decided to follow a similar playbook to that of Montana: find a place where I could learn hands on alongside people who had dedicated their lives to improving their local ecosystem.
With that, I pointed the Triumph east and journeyed 2900 miles from Paradise Valley, Montana to Freeport, Maine to work on an oyster farm and learn about sustainable aquaculture.
When I first spoke with Eric Oransky, one of the owners of Maine Ocean Farms, it followed a similar conversation to the one a year prior with Chris Mehus: find your way to Freeport and we can put you to work on the farm. When Eric started MOF with his good friends Willy Leathers and Tom Klodenski, the goal was to grow the best oysters in America in a way that replenished the local Maine waters they depended on.
While in Montana, I read about the potential both oysters and kelp had in improving water quality and sequestering carbon. But it wasn't until I was handling thousands of oysters a day that I realized how incredible of a species they are. Oysters are filter feeders, sorting and eating plankton brought in and out by every tide. In the warm summer months, a single market size oyster can filter an excess of 25 gallons of water per day, doing their part in helping to clean and cool the waters they're grown in. They require no inputs outside of water and motion, and are a healthy source of protein and essential vitamins.
Similarly to when I showed up in Big Timber, I showed up on the docks of Freeport having essentially no skill set for oyster farming. At the time, I couldn't tell you the difference between a bowline and butterfly knot, the largest vessel I had every operated was a canoe, and I thought oysters were to be eaten with horseradish. Luckily, Eric and Willy had been teachers most of their lives, and were willing to trade some lessons in exchange for hard work. By the end, securing our skiff to our dive boat with a bowline was highlight of each day, I could set up the entire processing station for handling oysters, I managed to navigate around the farm on our 17-foot Carolina skiff, and I learned that anything other than a drop of lemon would be an insult to the oyster.
In hindsight, the initial decision to move to Montana was completely driven by what can best be described as a quarter-life crisis. I was burnt out working on things that people didn't really care about in a city that was confined to a 10x10 room. Selling my stuff, buying a motorcycle, and moving to Montana and then Maine was one of the best decisions I've made. Not only because I got to meet and work alongside kind, salt-of-the-earth people who I hope to call life-long friends, but because it pointed me in the direction of life-long work.
Working on ranches across Montana and then on the water in Freeport showed me that combating climate change is going to happen largely by working with our hands. Whether it's using nature-based solutions like regenerative agriculture and aquaculture, or implementing new technologies like direct air capture, the work can't be done exclusively from behind a computer screen. These are real, tangible, problems that you can feel with your hands and that require putting those hands into the earth. Nonetheless, technology is well positioned to work in parallel to what is happening in the field and that's exactly where I want to sit. The year spent shimmying across the country taught me that working alongside the Megan Lannans and Eric Oranskys of the world building technology that multiplies their impact is exactly what I want to be doing. And I have the quarter-life crisis to thank for it.