Meredith Ellis is not fazed by the demands of running a cattle ranch. As she offers me a cozy blanket to keep warm during our “buggy” ride on her Kawasaki Mule around her family’s three-thousand-acre G Bar C Ranch on a crisp December morning, she tells me she has “about a hundred items” on her to-do list. Ellis, forty, isn’t complaining; she just knows what it takes to do what she loves, and to do it well. When I ask if she ever takes a vacation, she replies immediately, without a trace of regret: “There is no day off. Ever.”
G Bar C Ranch lies between Rosston and Era, just thirty miles north of Denton. Ellis is in charge of maintaining the land and the cattle, along with longtime ranch manager Mike Knabe; her dad, G.C., who is 69 and “trying to retire”; and ranch apprentice Jen Peterson.
Peterson sits in the back of the buggy during my tour, along with Ellis’s dog, Eva. Ellis’s seven-year-old son named the dog after a character in the Pixar film WALL-EEllis shares many interesting facts and stories as we climb steep, rocky cliffs to visit her cattle. On this winter day, the ranch has 146 pregnant cows, 62 young females, two Charolais bulls, five black Angus, and two horses that pretty much serve as “yard art.” They’re all off grazing in one of the many pastures whose grass height and soil health Ellis and Knabe watch closely, so they know when it’s time to move the cattle along. The ranch has 58 permanent pastures and several temporary pastures through the which the animals are rotated in accordance with the principles of regenerative farming. This is a more sustainable, popular type of agriculture. Animals plough the soil and manure provide the fertilizer.
Family legend has it that forty years ago, Ellis’s dad, a longtime rancher who once owned a fishing-lure company and a pecan farm in South Texas, wore out two pickup trucks driving around the state in search of the perfect spot for his dream ranch. His daughter is now a strong voice in the field of regenerative ranching. She’s on the board of the Integrity Beef AllianceShe is a member of the, which advocates for sustainable, progressive ranch management, humane livestock handling, as well as educating others about the benefits and advantages of eco-conscious ranching. Ellis tells me she’s given talks in upstate New York, North Carolina, and Las Vegas, of all places, which felt to her “like being on another planet.”
Ellis points out her temporary fencing as we drive through the tranquil pastures of her ranch. She also points out the patches of peas, okra, and other cover crops she plants to improve soil health and reduce the use of chemical fertilizers.
“My job is to try not to be a stupid human and to figure out what the cattle want and need,” Ellis tells me as she stops to point out a stag grazing nearby. She’s making it sound simple, but regenerative ranching—which prioritizes soil heath by discouraging chemical fertilizers and overgrazing, and instead advocates no-till principles and practices that mitigate the effects of climate change—is anything but. Like “organic” or “grass-fed,” “regenerative agriculture” is fast becoming a catchphrase that’s creating a rift between the large corporations that have dominated the industry for decades and the next generation of smaller-scale farmers and ranchers, many of whom are determined to do better by the environment and by the consumer. The approach is gaining popularity. General Mills has pledged to use regenerative techniques on one million acres by 2030. The Biden administration also proposed The creation of a carbon marketThis could encourage farmers and ranchers to trap carbon in their soils, which could be an incentive. Willie Nelson is closer to home. During the processImplementing regenerative practices at his five-hundred acre Luck Ranch.
Ellis tells me that she did the math, and the amount of beef she produces on her ranch in a year is about the same quantity that McDonald’s uses globally in 45 minutes. “I’m this tiny blip on the radar,” she says. “But if I could get all ranchers across the nation doing the job sustainably, then we’d have a lot of clout.”
She said that most consumers do not know if their beef is raised on a ranch that has environmental goals. “I want to give them that choice.”
Ellis acknowledges her advantages: since her dad had already started the ranch, she didn’t have to purchase land or spend thousands on farm equipment and a first herd of cattle. Still, it’s a tough business. “Year to year, we run a narrow profit, ” she says. “We’re getting by.”
At the same time, she’s found that an eco-friendly strategy has distinct financial advantages: “A lot of the regenerative practices we’ve adopted keep us more drought- and flood-resistant.” That may increase profit margins, Ellis argues, as does not having to pay for huge amounts of fertilizer. “I don’t want people to think that converting to a more regenerative approach is costly,” she says.
Travis Krause Parker Creek RanchThis ranching and farming is more complex in the fifty-miles west of San Antonio. He is not a romantic about the work, just like Ellis. Parker Creek has been in his family since 1846, and Krause says they’ve mainly been “dirt rich and money poor.” Still, after graduating from Texas A&M University and then working in India as a field director focused on the study of parasitic diseases in livestock, Travis (with his wife Mandy) headed back to the ranch with an ambitious goal: running a sustainable, profitable business based on the principles of regenerative agriculture.
“We were young and full of piss and vinegar, with lots of ambition and energy,” Krause says.
Add a few years of hard labor, with a newborn baby eventually thrown into the mix, and the couple’s dream proved much tougher to achieve than they’d expected. Krause does not see regenerative farming as a new trend that will be popular overnight, but rather as an analogy to the way his great grandparents and great-grandparents used the land. It was a cowboy riding on a horse back then. When “progress” in the form of fertilizers and large-scale, fuel-burning machinery came into the picture, the old ways were, in a sense, turned to so much dust. These advances allowed farmers and ranchers the ability to produce more meat and crops. This kept prices artificially low for consumers. However, it came at a price: more carbon dioxide was released into our atmosphere, pesticides and tilling depleted the soils, and water sources were polluted by chemical runoff and drug residues. Like Ellis, Krause views the principles of regenerative farming as more in line with the ranching culture of his forefathers. He sees the philosophy not as a threat to modern ranching but rather as a benefit. But that doesn’t mean it comes easy.
In 2020, Travis and Mandy Krause “semi-closed the doors” of their ranch after realizing that the around-the-clock stress, work, and financial instability was just too much. They still own and operate Parker Creek Ranch, but they’ve scaled back. In partnership Soilworks Natural CapitalKrause is now the CEO of Grazing Lands, a company Krause founded to help ranchers adopt regenerative practices. Krause says he still believes in regenerative practices “one hundred percent,” but that it does a disservice to novice farmers and ranchers to pretend it’ll be a simple, straight path to success.
“Let’s not romanticize it to the point that we are conveying a message that people can make a living,” he says. “You can do it, but let’s call a pig a pig and a unicorn a unicorn. On social media you always see the beautiful side of things,” he says of the dreamy, photo-ready back-to-nature farmsteads popping up all over the country. “You’re not going to be able to make a healthy living unless you’re at a certain scale.” Krause says that to make money, ranchers can reduce overhead, increase turnover of livestock (basically, add more animals), or add value via marketing. The biggest hurdle to profitability, though, is often “between people’s ears,” he says. “The ranching business is slow to change.”
It can be a full time job trying to convince landowners who are skeptical or outright hostile about regenerative practices. Megan Clayton, Texas A&M range specialist AgriLife ExtensionIt helps landowners remain profitable and suggests changes that could benefit the ecosystem. She says that sometimes she feels as though she’s talking to two clashing groups, and her goal is to bridge that divide. “This is not something new,” Clayton says of regenerative practices. “It’s what we should have been doing all along.”
However, not all agree. Critics claim that regenerative farming is not sustainable. It is just a marketing term. to make consumers believe they’re helping the environment, when in fact the only truly eco-conscious choice is to stop eating meat altogether. These skeptics argue that switching to nonmeat alternatives reduces carbon emission and water use, among many other benefits. If you ask a proponent of regenerative practices, though, they’ll tell you that mass-producing plant-based alternatives can also negatively impact the environment, and that abandoning meat entirely is unrealistic. Unless you’re going to convince everyone on the planet (and in Texas) to stop buying and consuming meat products, maybe a middle ground between a fully plant-based diet and regenerative ranching is the answer.
From far awayIt could look like Taylor Collins and Katie Forrest. Roam RanchOutside Fredericksburg, a couple has created an Instagram-perfect lifestyle by living off the land. In 2016, the couple sold Epic Provisions, a meat-snack company, to General Mills. This gave them the financial stability to realize their dreams. They now have nine hundred acres of multispecies, regenerative land with 160 free-range bison and chickens. When I ask Collins how long it took to make a profit, he doesn’t gloss over the truth. “Three years,” he says. “I guarantee you’re going to be at a loss for at least three years.” He suggests that novice ranchers find creative ways to add to their revenue streams, such as offering vacation rentals or agritourism workshops. Roam hosts approximately two thousand guests annually for events like a Thanksgiving turkey harvest, guided hunts with deer, and farm-to table dinners.
“You’re going to be working harder than you’ve ever worked in your life,” Collins says. He, Katie and their small staff were all outside during the February 2021 snowstorm, shivering and pumping water from the Pedernales into their trucks. They only had intermittent power for the well pump they used. “It was a nightmare.”
Ellis stops at an overlook as we make our way back to G Bar C Ranch. We can see the valley below from the overlook. It’s one of her favorite spots. When I ask if all that land belongs to her family, she tells me we’re looking down at part of the neighboring Dixon Ranch. Roger Dixon, the late owner, founded the Dixon Water FoundationIn 1994, to promote healthy soils and watersheds through regenerative practices. “They’re my idols,” Ellis says of the people who run Dixon Ranch. Is it because they have the largest cattle or the highest profits? Nope. She reveres them because they’re attempting to replace their land’s invasive Bermuda grass with native species.
“That’s a tough nut to crack,” she says.
Ellis can sometimes sound like a Jedi of regenerative farming. She utters such aphorisms as “Use your intuition and focus on your principles, and the answers will come to you.” Or, “Everyone is on their own regenerative journey.” To my surprise, she also told me that she believes in using the tools at hand, and if that means occasionally, sparingly implementing a fertilizer as a last resort if it allows you to stay profitable, she’s all for it. For most eco-conscious farmers and ranchers, the ultimate goal is to get rid of all synthetic fertilizers and chemicals. However, this takes patience and time. “It’s not about being a better rancher than your neighbor,” Ellis says as we head back up to the house. “This is so much more than a piece of land. It’s a grand experiment.”