Orella Stewardship Institute

Digging Deep

On a hillside overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Guner Tautrim digs around in a barrel planted with native grasses and pulls out a weed. Instead of tossing it aside, he looks at the roots. “These are nitrogen-fixers,” he says, prodding the tiny nubs glommed on to the roots. Behind him, piles of compost are lined up for testing. A keyline plow, recently used to spread compost tea and seeds as it loosened the soil in a nearby pasture, rests to one side. The goal of all the assorted materials and equipment: to create healthy soil. “When you have no life in the soil, you have no transfer of nutrients from the soil to the plants,” Tautrim says.

wooden sign in pasture, words Orella RanchOrella Stewardship Institute

The health of the soil – and the land itself – is central to Tautrim, who is the sixth generation of his family to work on Orella Ranch, a 300-acre spread on the Gaviota Coast near Santa Barbara. It’s also a central part of the vision of the Orella Stewardship Institute (OSI), an Earth Island Institute-sponsored project started by Tautrim and his friends. For the past several years OSI has been running workshops in sustainable land use and other environmental best practices. Now, they’re using the ranch to develop a working model of regenerative agriculture that they hope will show how ecological farming and ranching techniques can benefit the land while also providing a good living to those who work on it.

Ranching has long been a part of this area’s history. Bruno Orella, Tautrim’s great-great-great grandfather, bought the land that’s now Orella Ranch in 1866. Over his lifetime, he acquired 5,000 acres in the area and used the rolling hills for cattle grazing. After Orella’s death the land was divided among his 11 surviving children.

Orella’s descendants brought in dryland farming – walnuts, garbanzo beans, tomatoes, lima beans – but cattle continued to be a central part of life on the land. Guner Tautrim’s father, Mark, studied animal science in college and graduate school and worked on a ranch in Clearlake, California before returning home to run a 150-head cow-calf operation. In 1984 the elder Tautrim moved his own family to the slice of land known as Orella Ranch.

Guner Tautrim spent much of his childhood at the ranch, but when he left for Humboldt State University, he wasn’t sure he’d come back. An avid surfer, he spent two-and-a-half years after college sailing the Pacific on a 55-foot sailboat. He was hunting waves as well as looking for examples of sustainable tourism that could benefit traditional cultures, a subject in which he’d created his own major. “I had this vision of wanting to couple my love of surfing and islands, and nature and ecological preservation, into a living,” he says.

photo of a landscape tinted greenOrella Stewardship InstituteOrella Stewardship Institute is using a 300-acre ranch near Santa Barbara
as a living laboratory for the next wave of land stewards.

But on his return in 2001, Tautrim realized that the ranch offered everything he was seeking. The Gaviota Coast was under similar pressures to those he’d seen on his travels: Developers were eyeing the area for homesites; farmers and ranchers worried about how a proposed national seashore designation could affect their land and livelihoods. The threatened rural culture, the endangered landscape, even the islands – on a clear day, the Channel Islands seem almost close enough to touch – were all within reach of his family’s land. Tautrim says he realized “how beautiful it is here, how lucky I am to have the land, and how my skills and my passion were needed right here at home.”

Tautrim began talking with a group of friends about how best to realize their shared interest in sustainability, both for themselves and for the wider community. They dubbed the nascent venture “Project Imagine,” and took years educating themselves in sustainable farming techniques, low-impact building practices, and other environmental concepts. “We didn’t really know what we were doing or where we were going. We were just a group of like-minded friends who wanted to do something bigger and better,” Tautrim says. As a way of gaining the knowledge they needed for their eco-aspirations, they started to host workshops at the ranch for area residents. The Orella Stewardship Institute is dedicated to taking what the group learned through those workshops and putting it into practice, as well as expanding their research on regenerative agriculture.

One of the group’s proposed investigations is to test out their repertoire of sustainable land-use practices to see what makes their pastureland thrive. They’ve applied for a federal grant to create a series of test paddocks where they’ll experiment with everything from augmenting soil health with compost tea to creating contour strips with plant species that provide fodder, fix nitrogen in the soil, and attract beneficial insects. The results will be compared to already-conducted baseline studies on flora and fauna, carbon content, and the soil health of land that has been untouched for five years.

Cattle will be an important part of the process, too. Tautrim scaled back on cattle operations as the group started investigating land stewardship practices. “The whole thing drilled into enviros’ heads is how cattle and livestock are ruining the landscape,” he says. “I was probably one of those people who had that leeriness towards livestock.” But OSI now has six Belted Galloway cattle, a heritage breed known for its well-rounded foraging diet, and is working on growing the herd. The institute plans to rotate them through pastures in order to let the soil regenerate. “When you give long recovery periods to land, it bounces back, and the biology beneath the soil surface totally responds to it,” Tautrim says.

Tautrim dreams that in a few years people will look at the ranch and see healthy wells and streams and the benefits of cattle that don’t need hay or corn – and a financially healthy environment as well. “Obviously there’s going to be plenty of failures with the successes,” he says. “But the hope is that the successes will be obvious to the point that it will spread – whether it be the neighbor next door, or ten ranches over, or a couple counties over.”

“We have the opportunity to be a living laboratory for the next wave of land stewards,” says David Fortson, one of OSI’s founders.

Fortson, Tautrim, and their families, along with most of OSI’s steering committee, live on-site. This has helped them create an intimate relationship with the land as they grow some of their own food. But it also forces them to pioneer ways of balancing their OSI responsibilities with their professional lives. The group includes a doctor, a soon-to-be-lawyer, a teacher, and a former nonprofit development director. “We’re not all farmers, we’re not all cattle ranchers,” Fortson says, “and in a lot of ways, it requires that mix of people to make something happen.”

old photo of a horse-drawn plowOrella Stewardship Institute

Part of what holds the community together and drives its work is a shared passion for addressing the environmental concerns they see looming on the horizon, from global warming to peak oil. Regenerative agriculture shifts the land away from fossil fuel-heavy pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, Tautrim says, and it can also capture and store carbon in what’s grown on the land and in the soil itself.

Tautrim wants to spread the institute’s reach to those who might not consider themselves a part of the permaculture or other “green” movements. He’s encouraged by the growth of interest, by people from all walks of life, in local foods. “These are everyday people who are realizing, ‘Hey, I want good food for my family and I want to support local farmers, because if I support local farmers, I know where my food’s coming from.’”

There’s already one very important person who has developed an unexpected interest in OSI’s work – Guner’s father, Mark Tautrim. A traditional cattleman, he was initially skeptical of his son’s plans. But along with leasing land to the institute, he’s since attended several OSI workshops and is featured in a forthcoming video talking about using the natural contours of this land, land that’s been in his family for generations, to gather water. “He’s open-minded enough to come and listen,” the younger Tautrim says of his father, “and as we got more and more into the agriculture stuff, he began to see how all this fits together.”

Learn more at orellaranch.com.

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