Billionaire Tom Steyer and his wife Kathryn Taylor own an 1,800-acre ranch in California called TomKat Ranch. Like everything Steyer spends his money on, the ranch is intended to change the world. In this case he wants to demonstrate that “regenerative agriculture” can be just as profitable as the factory farming that Steyer believes is destroying the planet. But according to Politico Magazine, Steyer’s experimental ranch isn’t producing all of the desired results thus far:
While President Donald Trump accuses Democrats of wanting to ban beef—and prominent climate activists and alternative meat entrepreneurs denounce beef—Steyer is quietly producing beef: grass-fed, hormone-free and intensively managed through a system that mimics the wild buffalo herds that once roamed America’s grassy expanses. He’s also financing exhaustive scientific research on the property, hoping to prove that ranching in harmony with nature, without lethal chemicals to protect grass or corn feedlots to fatten cattle, can pull carbon from the air, hold water on the land, and produce enough delicious meat to disrupt the beef-industrial complex.
Basically, TomKat is an unusually spacious and scenic lab, experimenting on 110 mooing, cud-chewing, manure-dropping specimens, aiming to produce evidence to back changes on the agricultural operations that cover half the land on earth. So far, its experiments—like Steyer’s campaign, which has attracted enough support to qualify him for the fall debates but not enough to contend—have produced mixed results. TomKat’s regenerative approach has provided clear environmental benefits, reducing erosion and enhancing plant diversity at the ranch, and its scientific monitoring program has already been extended throughout the state. But there’s no evidence that it’s sequestering more carbon in the soil to help the climate, much less demonstrating a viable business model for ranchers who aren’t billionaires…
Steyer and Taylor have sunk more than $10 million into TomKat, and the sales from their premium LeftCoast GrassFed beef brand don’t come close to covering their costs. Steyer joked to me that ranching has been an expensive hobby, but that’s the point: Most cattlemen can’t afford to risk capital on unconventional eco-theories about holistic management and nature-based grazing, unless someone like Steyer can prove it will benefit their land and their bottom line.
But let’s face it, Steyer doesn’t really care whether this makes economic sense. It would probably be fine with him if the price of beef skyrocketed. His real goal is improved carbon sequestration to fight climate change. But here too, the evidence suggests the ranch isn’t working:
Point Blue Conservation, the group TomKat hired to conduct research at the ranch, has conducted ongoing soil samples and found that water infiltration has improved significantly…
But Point Blue’s data for soil carbon, available on TomKat’s website, suggest the ranch is actually storing less carbon than it was in 2014; only nine of the 42 sites sampled by Point Blue showed improvement, 20 registered declines, and only two achieved the ranch’s carbon goals for 2020. Porzig speculated that California’s severe drought may have artificially depressed TomKat’s numbers, and noted that soil carbon tends to be a lagging indicator that can take years to improve in measurable ways.
“But yeah, those results are a bummer,” she acknowledged.
They’re a particular bummer considering all the hype around compensating farmers and ranchers for regenerative practices, under the assumption that those practices will automatically store more carbon. Booker, Ryan, Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Steve Bullock and Michael Bennet all pushed the idea during the recent presidential debates and televised climate forums. “We’re going to put farmers and ranchers in the driver’s seat, renewable and sustainable agriculture, to make sure we capture more carbon out of the air and keep more of it in the soil,” Beto O’Rourke declared. The Drawdown list of climate solutions has “regenerative agriculture” at #11 and “managed grazing” at #19, with the combined potential to remove 40 gigatons of carbon. But if TomKat can’t even realize that potential, why should the government spend taxpayer dollars to get others to follow its lead?
That’s a great question. Another great question is why so many Democratic candidates are pushing this dubious solution to climate change while claiming to be heeding the science. This is one of the dangers of the rush to change the world in 12 years or less. It should also set off alarm bells about previous government-led efforts to manage food resources in places like Russia and China. When the ideologues get control of the food production, there’s a potential for things to go very badly very quickly.
The story points out that Steyer’s ranch may actually be worse for the environment than the competitors he hopes to replace. His natural ranching methods mean his cattle add weight more slowly, therefore it takes longer to produce the same amount of beef. So if the ranch isn’t actually sequestering more carbon then it’s almost certainly producing more carbon than those other ranches.
The director of sustainability research at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association told Politico Magazine, “The problem in this space is there’s a lot of enthusiasm for things that don’t have a lot of data. People have gotten way out over their skis.” I guess it’s good that Steyer is at least trying to put his theory into practice, but I wonder if he and his wife will dial back their enthusiasm for “regenerative agriculture” if the data continues to show it isn’t working out as hoped.