INTERVIEWEE: Peggy Sechrist (PS)
INTERVIEWERS: David Todd (DT)
DATE: April 19, 2002
LOCATION: Fredericksburg, Texas
TRANSCRIBERS: Chris Flores and Robin Johnson
Please note that the video includes roughly 60 seconds of color bars and sound tone for technical settings at the outset of the recordings. Numbers correlate with the time codes on the VHS tape copy of the interview. “Misc.” refers to various off-camera conversation or background noise, unrelated to the interview.
DT: My name is David Todd. I’m here for the Conservation History Association of Texas. It’s April 19th, year 2002, we’re somewhat west of Fredericksburg, Texas on the Sechrist Ranch and we have the good fortune to be interviewing Peggy Sechrist about her many contributions to sustainable agriculture both in an education advocacy role and also in—in running a—a b—a business that produces sustainably grown beef and chicken and sells those products and others. And I want to take this chance to thank you for spending time with us.
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PS: You’re welcome, it’s a f—it’s a pleasure to be a part of the program.
DT: Great. I thought we might start by asking you, where this might have started for you, you’re interest in—in the outdoors and conservation, and these kind of related topics?
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PS: Well, I suppose it’s similar for a lot of people that do the work that I do, and it did start as a child. And I was born on a r—on a farm in the Midwest, and—and that was just my environment, I didn’t question it at the time. I didn’t know how unusual it actually was at the time. It was a period of time when, you know, a nu—the number of farms in this Country were decreasing and I got to grow up in an environment with—that was extended family on both sides, so there were, like, three farms, all connected. And we, in addition to raising some—some crops, and a little bit of live stock for sale, we raised all
of our own food. And in that section of the Midwest, we could also do a lot of fruits and berries and we just literally raised the vast majority of our food, and I could run out to the orchard or to the garden and grab something to eat, and Thanksgiving was actually the biggest holiday of the year for us, because we were eating all of our own food, and it was truly kind of a re-enactment of what we imagined, you know, the first Thanksgiving to be like. And so all of that was just kind of—I just ‘course to that for granted growing up as
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a child. It wasn’t until I went away to school, I came back, and even spent eight years working for agri-chemical company. Did some of that start, did my background and my upbringing start to feel very incongruent with the work I—I was doing at an agri-chemical company. And I left, and relocated. And then—and then at that point kind of started into, you know, a whole new—a whole new era of sustainable agriculture.
DT: (inaudible) You said you grew up on a family farm, and that it seemed thr—somehow incongruent with business at an agri-chemical company, was—was your family farm essentially a conventionally o—operated farm, or was it pretty sustainable in the modern term?
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PS: Yeah. It was, now in retrospect, I realize very sustainable from how we define or describe the sustainability today: no chemicals. And that had to do a lot, I realize now, with the fact that my father’s family had been farmers for two hundred years. An aspect of that that is very, very p—pertinent to our experience as farmers is that we were of the Quaker faith, it’s called “Society Of Friends.” We had a deep, you know, belief system, based in an agrarian lifestyle, where you were self—somewhat, you know, mostly self-
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sufficient, and you lived in community with family and others, with—with that same belief system. And that’s why his family had been in—in the farming livestock for so many years, from the very first Quakers that came to this Country, a—along the East Coast. And so my family, my parents never adopted the chemical-based agriculture as it was starting in the ‘40s and ‘50s, and of course, I grew up in the ‘50s; so we didn’t have that. So it was basically organic, but we didn’t call it that, then; weren’t even really
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aware of it being so different, you know, at that time. It was, like I said, in retrospect, after going to work for an agri-chemical company, being there eight years and fully not beginning to understand the—all the implications around application of chemical products into the agricultural system, that I began to think: “Now, that doesn’t make sense.” The other thing that during that time of the ‘70s, was the first farm crisis, you know, what the media called farm crisis. In stories I was reading in the paper and on—
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and hearing on TV about farmers having to go to the food bank to get food, now that really seemed strange to me, when we grew our—all of our own food. But this was after a period of time, when Earl Butt seems to get a lot of the credit for saying: “Get big and a—or get out, and specialize or get out.” So what farmers were beginning to do, of course, was to specialize so much so, that they had no back-up and they had no food for themselves, and they, you know, it—it—it became a mono-culture for them if they became totally dependent on the viability of one crop in—in the—in the instance of
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production agriculture, or one form of livestock. And if something happened to the commodity that year, or a weather event, which all agriculture producers are vulnerable to, then they were out; they were broke. And then there were a bunch of other things, in terms of the Farm Bill and agricultural policy, USDA, that changed all the rules, and—and farm lending, and a—a lot of things that caused a domino effect, and then we started
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seeing this series of farm crises, up to the present day.
DT: Maybe we can return to the way your family in the Midwest operated its farm. It sounds like not only did they avoid using the—the chemically-based fertilizers and as such and so on, but that they had a more diversified operation than some of the cash crop businesses that have grown up since. Can you explain how—how their farm worked?
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PS: Yes. I—you know, I—I—I will to th—the extent that I can, I was quite young. And—and unfortunately, my father passed away when I was ten, and a lot of things changed at that point. So, but what I recollect prior to that, was of course, the crops were primarily corn and soybeans, but there were some various ty—kinds—other kinds of squash varieties, for example, that were always planted with the corn, and mixed in with
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that, and I know that my grandparents had very specific rotational plans, and companion planning, planting, you know, scenarios, that they were doing. I don’t remember since I—from, you know, since I was so young, I don’t remember exactly how those fields were laid out, but I know in the gardens, there was lots of variety and diversity;
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everything was changed, where it was planted from year to year. And we had lots of diversity in terms of fruits, and berries and, and, I was trying to think of some of the—what the—are some of the examples, but the diversity, again, was the key; and it was the key to maintain soil fertility and to—to prevent insect infestation, and things, and that’s what now, sustainable ag-research is showing us now today. And that was something
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they had learned, and it had been passed on. And my grandparents passed away before I really got into the advocacy work. Or—and—and it was unfortunate because through them, I could have had a classic opportunity to record the knowledge they had received, passed down from generation to generation. I have a—I have a…
DT: (inaudible) Were some of these crops heirloom seeds that they had saved from year to year?
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PS: Some of that was true for the gardens, vegetables, it wasn’t so true by that time for the larger fields. And I have my oldest brother, who—who was the first born in my family, did decide in the late ‘50s to go away to Iowa State University, which was the leading Land Grant University in the Country at that time, and study agriculture. But—and he went away to school in 1959, but they were teaching chemical agriculture at the
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time. So none of what my grandparents knew was really passed on and replicated. So we have now, you know, my family had lost that. And of course it’s—it’s a blow to re—re—realize that, if we had been aware, we could have captured a lot of that knowledge that had been passed down for many, many generations.
DT: Tell us a little bit about wh—when you first felt uncomfortable, or somehow out of sorts when you were at this agri-chemical company, or when you came back and saw how your brother was operating things.
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PS: Yeah. At the agri-chemical company, as I was there long enough to experience, you know, some promotion and in—in positions of a little more responsibility that—and what came with that is a little bit more inside information, and I became aware of some of the issues around—this—this particular company, primarily marketed herbicides a—for weed control. And so what some of the issues I discovered is that the fellas in the laboratory doing research on the products we were selling knew about some carry-over
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effects, some residual in the soil, and knew about some potential leaching into groundwater, and a variety of things like that, that were—I discovered, were intentionally kind of kept quiet; and—and—and certainly not made known to the public and to the—and to the industrial farmer community, you know, who was using—buying and using the product; because it could—it might discourage the use of the product. I, of course, subsequently found out that all the agri-chemical companies basically did this. And so there was a lot of discussion that went on in the company about h—what do you reveal, what do you not reveal, how do you promote it in such a way that limits you liability;
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and, you know, a number of things that didn—just didn’t feel right i—in that regard, you know, an ethical issue. An—th—then in—in conjunction with that, you know, the first real farm crisis where farmers were going broke, didn’t have food and going to the food bank; that was really out (inaudible) for th—with my ex—past experience, or childhood experience. And I—and I—it just began to be a concern and an issue, I—and I ultimately chose to leave the company; and shortly after I did that, I relocated to Texas and got
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involved in livestock and the ranching community in—in the West Texas area. And then—then went through with them, with that community people, in the mid-’80s, went through another, you know, farm crisis, or—or ranching crisis, where they were—a lot of them going broke and bankrupt and losing their places. And then—so it really was in 1985 and ’86, when I began to assertively do research on sustainable agriculture.
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DT: (inaudible) In you experience in West Texas that were these sheep and goat raisers?
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PS: No, they were primarily cattle.
DT: And I—what was there struggle? What was the—the financial problem that they were facing?
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PS: What they had done is that, you know, increasingly and on a gradual basis, the financial return on livestock production was decreasing; was—m—that was be—you know, kind of decreasing over a period of time. From the early 1900s, the general practice had been, you borrow all your operating money, you operate through the year, you sell—and—and that’s because you’re producing a cash crop, for example, or you’re feeding out, you know, stalker calves, fattening them on gain, or your doing various things that take the mu—the majority of the year. So you do that, then you sell, at the end of the year, you sell you’re—what you—your crop or your heard, or your cash crop.
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And you take that money and you pay back the bank, and then you have whatever the surplus is you have to live on. Well these guys, increasingly over a period of time, were not making enough, you know, were not making any profits. So year after year after year, if they would pay, in some cases, if they could, they’d pay it back all of the principle and the interest, and then renew that note for the next year. And then when
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things started getting tighter and tighter and tighter, they would pay back the interest, part of the principle, increase the note for the next year. And finally what happened is, kind of simultaneous with some of the other, I think saving and loans scandals and stuff that were happening, these—these lending institutions began calling in those notes on these fellas, on these ranchers who had been rolling them over for several year—ten, fifteen, twenty years. And they had no money to pay them off; they didn’t have any cash; they had no net profit saved up to pay them off and they had—they had to liquidate their business.
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DT: (inaudible) … debt that they built up, was there something basic about their business that made it so that they couldn’t cover their bills?
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PS: Yes, the—the quantity of production, the, you know, was decreasing from year to year. And that was happening for a whole variety of reasons and it was kind of so slow that is was hard, you know, the way—the way that farmers and ranchers, I guess I want to
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say, had been trained to operate, it made it difficult for them to observe what was happening. So on a ranch for example, the volume of grass they were producing every year was declining; but overall a big ranch, you couldn’t see that. So the number—so different things was happening in terms of your livestock. You either couldn’t carry as much, you—your, perhaps your conception rates were declining, and you weren’t producing as many calves, or—and at the same time there was a lot of stuff going on in
the marketplace, in the commodity marketplace regarding prices. And so, you had operating expenses that were going up, but in many years, some—some event would drop cattle prices to below what operating costs would be. So then you might sell everything, but you didn’t come close to making the money you needed to pay your operating expenses. So the—there was a lot of these drastic fluctuations going on in the agricultural industry.
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DT: Wh—why do you think the grass production was falling and at such a rate?
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PS: Well it, in terms of livestock production that was happening because—basically if I simplify it, simplify my answer without going into all the details, we were basically a European culture that settled the western United States, meaning all the land west of the Mississippi. And we brought a Europe—a European mentality on how to raise livestock with us. And so we s—attempted to practice—management practices, to apply
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management practices in arid environments, that only work in humid environments. And there’s a—there’s some aspects that have to do with atmospheric moisture with—with the way rainfall patterns, which in humid envir—environments are pretty consistent and in arid environments are radically inconsistent; and—and then doing continuous grazing, meaning we put our livestock out, and we just put them out in the pasture, and we just leave them there, without any other additional management. And that combination of
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taking our—taking the knowledge and mentality from a humid environment, to apply in an arid environment caused a very gradual degradation of the range conditions in those environments. So the stocking rate for the area in west Texas has decreased dramatically since the turn of the nineteenth—of the century in 1900. And the volume of grass and the grass cover had decreased in the diversity and complexity of grasses had decreased. And it really wasn’t until holistic management came into Texas that we knew what was going on.
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DT: Let me ask you one other question before we get into holistic management. You said that also the commodity prices had, I guess, become both more volatile and lower, why do you think that was?
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PS: Well I d—haven’t spent the time studying that, but—but my understanding from talking with other people who have is that there was a lot of manipulation going on by the packers which, you know, were—were increasing a monopoly of that industry. And—and they were fluctuating—they were controlling and causing fluctuations in the market to benefit their businesses. Now exactly for what purpose and so on, I—I don’t ‘cause I haven’t spent the time studying it, but even to this day we know that one of the big
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packers can make, you know, a—a—a—a small change in their—in the way they conduct business and it ripples out all throughout the market and then it affects prices and it—it can really impact a rancher, at the ranch level.
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DT: Is that because the packers have oligopoly-kind of control?
PS: Yes. Yeah.
DT: Well knowing the—the problems that were being faced out in West Texas and—and those who—that you saw in the Midwest, farm families, there, did that persuade you to get involved in holistic management?
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PS: It did. When I first started re—doing research, and—and—and by that I mean, I began reviewing literature and I began contacting people in other land grant universities, and—and getting my hands on as much information literature about sustainable agriculture as I could, ‘cause I had just started hearing about sustainable agriculture programs and what—what tho—those—what the intent of that was. And the first university I contacted was University of Nebraska at Lincoln. And it turned out that there
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is an individual who’s still there, Dr. Chuck Francis, and what I learned that—and he had one of the very first in his d—his—the department—the Chair of the Department of—of Agriculture, where he was working was a—another individual, Dr. Warren Sauls, and—and they kind of went out on a limb, and they were one of the first land grants to actually began to create a—an academic program called sustainable agriculture, you know, with study and research. It turns out that Dr. Francis had done his post-doc work at the Rodale
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Institute Research Farm in Pennsylvania. And so he was very—I migh—I might use the term inoculated with the philosophy and the passion from Bob Rodale. And he believed very deeply. And so then he then took a position with University Nebraska and that was one of the very first programs that started and I have since had the opportunity to become acquainted with Chuck and—and he very, very committed and still working on that. But in the process of accumulating or—or acquiring information about sustainable
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agriculture, I was introduced to some people who told me about holistic resource management. And told me that there was a small little group just starting here in Texas and I went to one of the Board meetings in 1986, and—and—and based on that ec—experience, I enrolled in a—in a six day course in holistic management, and I went to Albuquerque for that; and it was taught by Alan Savory, who is kind of the founder, at least of the Center for Holistic Management, still based in Albuquerque, and I went
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through that. Two months later, I went through another one, and I have to say that by nature, I kind of function a lot at an intuitive level; and before I fully understood how holistic management worked, I intuitively felt like this is—is—is—has the most chance for restoring agriculture tha—of anything that I had found. And so I really then kind of jumped in, you know, whole hog. And one of the things that I did in those early years of—of 1987 and part of ’88, is I worked as a volunteer to market those courses that Alan
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Savory was holding. And if I would—could get so many recruits to enroll in the course, then I got a seat for free. So in about an eighteen month period of time, or thereabouts, something like that, I went to nine courses.
DT: Okay, well what was it about holistic resource management approach that rang true with you as a sustainable agriculture solution?
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PS: Because, number one, it was very, very grounded in the Science of Ecology. And then, number two, because it was attempting to embrace the full scope of agriculture, and for me that means the culture along with production. And—and the aspects about agriculture that include lifestyle and values and community and because from the late ‘60s, up until the initiation of the sustainable ag movement, agriculture was undergoing a
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reform driven by politics and big business to just be a mass production business. And it was losing elements of family lifestyle and culture, and it was losing elements of rural community. And it was losing a lot of that, and, which I felt one of the real fundamental backbones of this Country, of the founding of this Country. And we were losing that really rapidly. And so holistic management was recognizing that as a very important element into the, kind of the restoration of agriculture. But then it also recognized, you know, there had to be some financial management, and—and effective financial—and
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profitability; and then—and then this s—s—you know good s—ecological science, too. So it was the only thing that I had found at—at that point in time, 1986, that was bringing it all together. Now to jump forward a—a—about twenty years, or fourteen or fifteen years, whatever we are now, the whole sustainable agricultural movement now for the most part, has also embraced the holistic perspective. And so now, that’s all being, you know, meshed together, it’s all being entwined, it’s all being recognized, all those aspects are being recognized as a vital component of a healthy, agricultural system for our
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country. So, a—and most—or gr—a great number of the sustainable ag programs have actually adopted a lot of the holistic management curriculum. And a lot of our holistic management compadres have helped make that happen. I—I began becoming active with the SAIR Program, the Southern Region SAIR Program, I think we’ll talk a bit more about that in a minute. Before we define that, I’ll just state that when I went to some of my SAIR meetings and mentioned holistic management, hardly anybody there knew what
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I was talking about. But now it’s taught at almost—in almost all the workshops. And that happened all over the United States, a lot of other holistic management practitioners and teachers began working collaboratively with the sustainable ag leaders in their regions and in their communities and so we’re now all really one group now. And that’s terribly exciting.
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DT: Just to give people who aren’t familiar with holistic management an idea of—of what that all entails, can you talk about the idea of solar dollars and, maybe how that pulls together some ecological ideas and some financial ideas?
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PS: Yeah. The fascinating thing about that is, a—an—in—in—within holistic management, we do have a lot of our own wh—vernacular, our own terminology. One of them is solar dollars. That is an attempt to help people understand and visualize that when—for the most part, all of our money, our paper money that we hold in our hand, can be traced back to somewhere, to a natural resource material, a raw ingredient of some form. That’s not so much true for like, for totally service-oriented companies. But in terms of ma—material goods, somewhere they started as a raw material. In agriculture,
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we grow food, we grow fibers, and we grow materials we can use for shelters. And that stuff is produced as natural resources out in the environment. And the energy that creates those—those eventual products, is all comes from the Sun. And it’s all captured in the form of plant material, and then from there, converted. It might be converted in—into, you know, that plant material might actually be a food crop, it might be grass, which is
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con—could be converted into any form of livestock. That livestock then could be further converted into a food or a fiber product. It can be converted of course into materials like lumber and other materials that we might use for building and/or shelter; but it all can be traced back to the Sun, we call solar energy. In agriculture, we have a blessing and gift. We can harvest solar energy in a variety of forms, and without very little, with a—with relatively minimal processing, we can turn around and we can sell that to a consumer. And it’s that solar energy is free to us every single day, we don’t have to pay for it like
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you have to pay for fossil fuel energy, to run a plant. So it’s free gift, we can—and it’s—and with it, we can produce material and goods that’s essential for life: food, fiber and shelter. Now we’re losing our capacity to do that in this Country. And we’re losing it from a couple of reasons: environmental degradation is one of them, but urban sprawl and development is another one. And we’re actually displacing very good productive land, into development projects and/or very, what I want to say here, w—w—developed recreational places like theme parks and water parks and so on. And we’re slowly losing
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our capacity to take that free gift of solar energy and to create an—a commodity or and I hate to—kind of hate to use word c—commodity, but to pre—to create a good, that’s absolutely critical for living, and instead, we’re giving that up, for things that are not critical to life. And that’s what the average consumer is—has no war—no awareness of.
DT: (inaudible)…You said th—th—that agricultural businesses pr—often produce a commodity, but that it’s not just that, that they also are producing a lifestyle for the people there. Could you talk about that aspect of holistic management?
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PS: Yes. One of the—one of the aspects of holistic management—holistic management that I find very important is a notion that we build a life and we even build our businesses around a set of core values. And that that core—that set of core values, if we act upon them, in other words if we choose behavior that is—is co—incon—is congruent with those values, matches them, then that manifests into a certain quality of life. And that quality of life will then be manifested throughout your family and it can go
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on and be manifested throughout your whole rural community: neighbors, the schools, the—the—th—the town and how people relate to each other, and whether or not they trust each other, and whether or not they reach out and help each other. And all of that comes back down to making a choice to live by a set of core values. What’s happening, I believe, increasing in this Country, is that we grow up and—and become attached to a set of standards of living. Now that’s different than quality of life. The standards of living
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may have to do with the material things, with income, with position, with where your kids go to school, you know, the name of the school and the reputation that it has; and a variety of things, and that’s not to say that those things have no value, it’s just that, to some extent, we’ve replaces quality of life with some of those standards of living. And in doing so, we’ve lost some qualities, we’ve lost—it’s hard, for example, I think it’s increasingly harder for neighbors to stay in touch, to get together, maybe have picnics
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and cookouts like we used to; therefore, we don’t watch out for each other as much as we used to. I think increasingly trust is being lost in communities and even s—without—without a doubt within school systems when you the kind of security measures now that have to be put in place in school systems. And there’s—so there’s a lot of those values that we’re losing and I don’t think—it—it’s nothing deliberate—de—deliberately
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designed by anybody or any group, I think it’s just a slow—I—I’m not sure of the word I want to use, but somehow a slow deterioration of our human lifestyle and—and I think it’s inful—influenced partially by, certainly the fast-pace, and it is influenced, I think, everything that we get through the mass media causes us to plug into the notion of—of goods, you know and materials. And I’m going to even say that it’s also affected by the lack of nutrition in our diet in this Country today. And I’ve, in the last two years, since we opened a retail store, and we specialize in organic foods of all kinds, I have made it a
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point to review a lot of studies on nutrition. And I’ve been flabbergasted at what we know about nutrition or the lack of it, and the impact that it has on, not only our bodies, but on our brains, which lead to behavior. And what we know from really sound, reliable studies, and we’re doing nothing about it. And that’s partly because now, fast food, processed food, convenience food, is a giant industry; and that industry of course doesn’t want anyone really thinking about and reviewing the information like that. But I actually
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think that what one might call some deterioration in quality of life and deterioration in how we behave as adults, I think without a question now, I believe that one of the factors is poor nutrition.
DT: Well, taking some of these ideas that you’ve built up through your—your own study and also through you study of holistic management, can you talk about how you put these into effect with collaboration with the Texas Department of Agriculture, for instance, or with SAIR, or Planet Texas, some of these projects that you’ve been involved in?
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PS: Some of these projects? I went to work for the Texas Department of Agriculture in 1988, and I w—did so s—specifically for the purpose and the intent of helping to create a sustainable agricultural program. And we had to do a little convincing, Jim Hightower was Commissioner at that time, and there wasn—he had done, already had broken ground in a lot of ways, with this Organic Certification Program for grains and—and produce. And with Farm Worker Right to Know Program for example. But he still
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didn’t have something that was focusing on the—the broader component of sustainable agriculture. And so, we did convince the—the leaders there at TDA, I’ll call it, to—to allow us and to fund the cr—the development of a briefing paper to give a background and a history and—and—and also some, you know, show some future development in that area, which did ultimately allow us to then establish an Office of Sustainable
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Agriculture. And I was then hired on a—on a permanent basis to come in and create that. Well I came then to that position with my background in holistic management. And so we working—we were trying to fuse all of that together, and we were desiring to create a sustainable agricultural program that embraced the full scope of holism, of a holistic paradigm of natural resources along with ecology; human resources with family and community lifestyle and culture; and of course, financial resources. And there were a few other programs around the Country just beginning sustain—few other sustainable ag programs I should specify, just beginning to embrace that idea, too, and so we were working and had the opportunity to work collaboratively from our office at the Texas Department of Agriculture, to not only begin to introduce the concepts and some appropriate practices in Texas, but to work collaboratively with groups around the Country to help strengthen a national movement, which now today has quite a bit of
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strength to it, considering that it’s still relatively small in numbers. Where we’re growing now because there are so—the whole agricultural community of farmers and ranchers is shr—still shrinking, I—I’m sorry to n—still know farmers and ranchers going out of business today: but we’re slowly drawing in consumer populations who are beginning to understand how it impacts them, and how their welfare in terms of good quality and nutritious quality food, y—you know if that—a—and how much that’s available. So we’re beginning to see more and more support by consumer populations as well, which is
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exciting. And so we did that at TDA until a new Commissioner came in, in 1991. And of course, at the Texas Department of Agriculture, that is an elected position, and so obviously, when one Commissioner goes out, it’s the alternate party that—that—it was elected and comes in and it’s very traditional to basically get rid of much of the old party’s programs as possible and start all over again; and so the sustainable ag program was completely shut down. From there then, I went in—on and—and g—and began
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doing some contract work for the Holistic Resource Management of Texas. Well actually, I should back up and say that right from there, I went to work for the Alan Say—Alan Savory Center in Albuquerque for a couple of years. It had a slightly different name at that time, which is more or less irrelevant, but I went to work directly for them for a couple years after which, I did do contract for the Texas group, which is an independent non-profit organization. And so during that period of time, we deliberately began building as many bridges and collaborative projects with the Texas A&M system,
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especially Department of Ecology and Range Management, and also horticulture and, you know, some of the other agricultural departments over there. And Parks and Wildlife and the Texas Wildlife Association, which is a non-profit organization focused primarily on wildlife. And we’d—we worked, you know, d—those were the three main groups, along with a lot of the environmental groups. We felt like that we had a means, through holistic management, to begin to build bridges between the environmental groups like
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Audubon, let’s say, Nature Conservancy, and Sierra Club, who at that time were vilifying all agricultural, you know, producers; and try to build bridges and say, you know, we really are partners in this. We really don’t have—we really can’t afford to be opponents, we really need to be partners and collaborators. And so, we did a lot to facilitate that, and one of the projects that emerged out of that—all of that collaborative bridge building activity, was a separate project called Planet Texas. And this arrived out of a conflict that had reached a peak in about 1992, here in Texas, and it was a conflict between
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environmental organizations and private landowners. And to be—to be frank about it, that conflict hit, kind of a fever pitch, partially as a result of—of developers getting into the middle of it. And the conflict was over environmentalists were—wanted to enforce or see enforcement of the Endangered Species Act, to the maximum. And so, in doing so, that suggested that there would be some land that would have to be kind of restricted from what th—what you could do on that land, if you had endangered species habitat. Well, the d—it really did restrict developers from buying up land for—for speculation
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and future development. And the developers were a very small number, and so they went and recruited agricultural producers and other landowners and started calling it a private property rights issue saying, there shouldn’t be—no one should be able to tell us what we can do on private property. And—and there was a—and the conflict heated up and that—at—there were even threats made on people’s lives, on different sides, in about 1992.
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And it had a lot to do with misinformation. Well, I want to give credit to Donny Harmel who’s now deceased, who spent most of his career as the Manager of the Kerr Wildlife Management Area near Hunt, Texas, working for the Texas Parks and Wildlife System, who was a Board member of Holistic Research Management of Texas. And who said, th—there is—if we can get the correct information to the people, they can see that there is not a conflict over Endangered Species Act in terms of farming and ranching. There is
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a conflict over development, but not with farming and ranching. And so we held a forum, where we invited in Texas, the key leaders from the environmental community and the key leaders from the agricultural and—and wildlife management, which were kind of also private property right enthusiasts to come, and we just led them through a little workshop of—and—and it was a simulation of how holistic management u—is used in a planning process, where you start with your values and then you develop a set of goals, and we—and it worked like a gem. And it captured their attention and it captured their sincere interest that maybe there is a way to work this out. It evolved over eight
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years into a—a project where we had a coalition of members, in—it—made into an advisory team. We interviewed and then selected a private landowner, and then we worked with that landowner for several years, to create management plans so—to help that landowner become ecologically sound, financially sound, and—and—and—and at the same time, try to account for all these different interests, you know, endangered species. It had to be a landowner with endangered species habitat. And so that we—we were able to find someone here in the central Texas area that was willing to participate, and what we discovered over this period of time was that there is no inherent conflict,
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there is no—necessarily no inherent conflict between maintaining endangered species habitat and pursuing agricultural production activity. And the—and—and—and one of the outcomes of that, which we’re still in the process of documenting is, everybody who sat at that table is soundly convinced. And they were representatives of a variety of agencies and organizations, but what we discovered is that while the pr—the individual people became one hundred percent committed to the experience and to the outcome, the other people, back in their agencies and in their organizations, didn’t have that
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experience. And you can’t just go back and say, “It’s okay, you know, you can forget about this is not a problem. It didn’t happen.” So what we found is that within agencies and non-profit organizations, there’s a strong political agenda that helps with fundraising, that helps with building constituencies and so on, that’s hard to overcome. We were able to make a hu—vast difference on an individual basis.
DT: (inaudible) When you talked about the Planet Texas Project, I think this is the Red Corral Ranch, what were some of the, I guess two questions: Wha—where were some of the differences between the environmentalists and ag producers; and where were some of the commonalities? And—and secondly, if you could maybe give us some examples about some of the proposals you made to the owners of Red Corral Ranch for how to satisfy both constituencies.
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PS: Some of the conflict had to do with the idea that if there’s endangered species habitat, and there was warbler habitat, as well as some plant species, I—I can’t na—tell you the names of those plant species right now, endangered species out there. There was a notion held by the environmental group that you couldn’t possibly run livestock there, without degrading those habitats: And so one of our challenges then was to arrive at a—at a co—at a—at an agreement to do some trials to see what would happen. And of course, the agriculturalists said, “Well, if you can’t—if I can’t run livestock, how am I going to make any money out here? I have to do that to help pay my overhead.” So the
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common ground though was that everybody at the table where they were—whether they were from the livestock or agricultural group, or the environmental group, they actually all agreed that they wanted the healthiest land, possible. That we wanted healthy, functioning, ecosystem processes, and we could agree on what that meant. A healthy, vegetative groundcover, you know, in other words, minimize bare ground. Really good healthy water cycle. That means capture rainwater, and not a lot of runoff and not a lot of erosion, you know, and things like this, and a—and a good wildlife habitat for all
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kinds of species. So that part, we could agree on. And w—w—of course what were the disagreement had been and historically had been and well then you can’t—you shouldn’t be able to have any livestock out here. So we, in the spir—in the—in the spirit of ‘Let’s do a test, let’s do a trial,” everyone agreed to do livestock management. But the caveat was, it would be livestock management, managed through a holistic management grazing program, which is a program designed, and let me say this to you, emulate as much as possible, the way wild grazing (inaudible) lived in this environment, or lived all
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throughout the Great Plains of—of the middle America, middle of the United States. And in doing so, nature, what we—what we basically—the basic tenant is, nature has that figured out, you know, the land, the Great Plains didn’t degrade year after year after year with forty million buffalo. So, what was different then, that kept the land healthy. How can we emulate that now? And so without going into, you know, a lot of detail about that, the program is an attempt to emulit—emulate that as much as possible. And what it does basically is it allows for utilization of forage plants and then it allows for a recovery
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period, so those forage plants can re-grow. And research even shows that certain plants actually do better when they have been bitten. And so it—it—it made it clear that grazing animals were native to this area, and—and do have a role here, if we can manage them properly. And so that was the big trial that was done there. And—and everyone felt like that it was—everything was compatible. So there was primarily livestock grazing with cattle done there, and then the other element that was added was, a—a very active
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eco-tourism program, a l—in conjunction with a—a bed and breakfast, several bed and breakfast units on that piece of property. So it’s been—it’s turned out to be very successful for the landowner.
DT: (inaudible)…sustainable ag proposals that were funded through the Southern SAIR that—that may give us some other examples of how people are addressing this whole problem of getting us more sustainable (inaudible)
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PS: In a—I can in a real general way. There is, David, all of that available, I think through the Sustainable Ag Network, which has a—an expansive website, (?) website. But in general for example, some of the different res—research that’s been funded through USDA—DA has looked at, how do you manage, for example, to—what’s interesting is a lot about sustainable agriculture is not how to manage, for example, for
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weeds and insects after the fact, but how do you manage your system, your agricultural system in a—with preventative measures, to keep from having a severe insect infestation, or a severe—severe weed problem. So a lot of the research has been on those kinds of things, and a lot of it has been on soil fertility. A lot of it has been on what are some of the kinds of crop rotations that seem to, you know, help enhance and create maximum production and maintain soil fertility and all of those kinds of things. A lot of the research is on waste management, wa—from livestock operations if there’s—some places
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have more confinement than others, and so what do you do with the waste. And how do you keep it from being a liability and turn it into an asset? And some of it, of course had to do with some of the organic soil amendments like compost and different ways to make compost; different ways to apply it and what is the most effective; and what does it do to the profile of the soil? And there’s a whole variety—there’s some out there, quite a few out there on marketing, too. How do you—because once you start—in most sustainable
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ag farms and ranches are creating a product that’s a—that’s slightly different than the mainstream commodity of just wheat and just corn and just soybeans and just cotton. So how do you market this slightly different and is there—are there things about this product that might be unique and maybe more valuable than an ordinary commodity profit. So how do you market that? And so there’s some research on all the variety of different ways of how to do that. And then there are some research projects that have begun
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looking into the culture component of sustainable agriculture, both in terms of families and community level. And—and training there’s—there’s a—there’s a—a—a small pool of money segregated just to spend on how to train farmers and ranchers in sustainable agriculture, so that they can if they wa—if they choose and have an interest in making a transition, they can go to some training funded by USDA, and learn how to wean
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themselves off of chemicals, and restore some natural fertility to the soil: how do you—how do you do that? And so it’s—there’s—it’s vast, it’s pretty vast and it’s very valuable.
DT: (inaudible)…maybe we can move on and talk about your own experience in—in running the Sechrist Ranch and Homestead Healthy Foods and—and how that’s helped you explore sustainable agriculture in your own family.
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PS: It’s—it’s been a—well it’s been a valuable experience, and—and it’s taught us a great deal. It’s totally different, being an advocate for sustainable agriculture and being a sustainable agriculture producer, because it’s for the most part, when you’re actively in production, you are going against the grain of modern agriculture. And there are—it’s surprising in all the ways that that creates barriers for you. In some instances, there is no infrastructure, so in our case, it was a family decision that in 1994, to stop using any
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chemicals. And when I say family, it—i—it really was a decision made by my husband and his three sisters because they are the heirs of this Ranch. It’s m—it’s my husband’s family’s ranch. And they all agreed: no chemicals. And so we sat down and said that w—that essentially means, we’re going to have an organic product. Now what do we do? Because if we created, first of all, our—it’s a small family ranch, so we couldn’t produce
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enough livestock off the ranch to make a profit of any kind. We actually couldn’t produce on the commodity market values; we couldn’t produce enough livestock to even pay operating expenses; so we knew we’d have to do something really different. And so then we be—had to research out, all right, we’re going to have an organic beef, and then—and then a couple of years later, we added poultry, and we’re going to have
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organic poultry. Now how do we sell this? We had to figure out, how we were going to get it processed? How we were going to get it packaged. What w—w—what are all the regs that regulate how we can label it and what we can say about it? How do we take it to the consumer? What are all the avenues to do that? There was no infrastructure for that. None. We had to start from scratch and create all of that. It’s very difficult, it—huge time intensive, fairly capital intensive, and we didn’t have a lot of capital, we didn’t have, you know, a lot of—of—we didn’t have any kind of a big investment, you know, behind us to do that. And so it’s been—it’s been the most difficult thing we’ve ever
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done. It’s now, seven years later, we’re starting to see some pay off for that. It’s still difficult, one of the hugely gratifying things is that, Richard’s son, who’s mid-thirties with a—with a wealth of experience in both the beef and food commodity industry is now working with us, consulting with us, and he says, it’s the hardest thing he’s ever seen. And that’s been an interesting revelation because he said all these other gigantic corporations with multi, multi-million dollar budgets, have an ents—infrastructure in place, we have none. He said it’s the most difficult thing he’s ever had to be a part of and help us to create and design and to make functional. So we’ve learned a lot about that
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we’re—we have a ways to go in this Country to create the infrastructures that we need, that will allow small and medium-scale farmers and ranchers to be viable in an alternative industry. And ultimately, I would say as of this date, the consumer will determine that. The consumer will either become aware of these issues and then make purchases that support other companies and other producers like us, or they won’t. And if they don’t, we will not be able to sustain business. So it’s ultimately going to become a matter of the consumer choice. So I’m hoping, you know, consumers become more aware and
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certainly our marketing strategy is primarily a fundamentally, an educational strategy. To say, “Here is what we are. Here is what we have to offer. Here’s how we’re different. Now, you choose, you choose which—which kind of food system you would like to have.
DT: (inaudible)…in looking into the future, what would be the—the major environmental challenge that you would work on?
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PS: I think—I—I—I—it—it actually all—it’s so interrelated, David, that it really I think, can be relatively simple. And there’s two components. Certainly population density is going to be a challenge. And I’m not quite sure how that’s going to unfold. And I will say this, that in other species, population dynamic tends to right itself, one way or another. I don’t know if that’s going to apply to the human species or not. Only time will tell. If we see a continuation of new viruses and new antibiotic-resistant types of germs, and actually some of the genetic technology we doing, has—fully has the capacity
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to create brand new, unknown viruses, that—that may end up r—somewhat balancing out the population growth over the next, you know, couple of decades. We certainly don’t hope for that to happen. So population explosion is going to continue to be a challenge. But other than that, what I see is, the availability, the capacity to grow food is going to become critical in this Country, because the dynamics that are in place today with the
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amalgamation going on in the food industry, and that’s at all levels; that’s at production, that’s in processing and handling, and that’s in retail, the ma—amalgamation going on, where they’ll essentially be a monopoly, and there’s not a lot going on in the Government today that is inhibiting that trend. If that continues, right now studies produced by university sociologists tell us that what those large, dominant corporations would prefer
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to do is to have our food grown in Third World Countries, and then imported in. Now in those Third World Countries, it’s cheaper. There are much fewer regs, for example, and they would rather have it grown there in—in—in a vertically integrated industry and then bring it into here; and use the land we have in the United States for vast recreational development as well as residential and business and industrial development. That really begins to limit our choices about where we—our food comes from and how it’s produced. So that’s the current trend in place, then having—that’s going to mean, I think serious environmental degradation, which is coupled with diminished capacity to grow
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food. Now some people don’t think that’s a problem. I believe it’s going to be a serious problem. I believe that history and research and studies has proven that diversity of species in all elements of nature is absolutely essential for a m—a m—a modest amount of homeostasis to maintain a living environment, that we can survive it. When the diversity goes, the homeostasis gets thrown out of whack. You begin seeing these extreme examples of climate conditions; begins to diminish, gradually diminish the
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environment our—our—the—the environment in which we live in, the—for example the compos—the composition of the air we breathe is changing dramatically. And of course, the carbon dioxide is increasing the oxygen is decreasing. How long before, you know, that affects us? How h—what is the rate of increase of respiratory ailments in this country which is rapidly on the increase, kind of skyrocketing, almost epidemic proportions. So there’s a h—there’s a whole kinds of things that are e—affecting the
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environment. I think we forget that w—we as human beings, as a human species, really need a fel—relative static environment to survive in and that…
[End of Reel 2204]
[End of interview with Peggy Sechrist]