Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Community Highlight - Ariel Greenwood

Responses by Ariel Greenwood, Holistic Ag Herdess

Please introduce yourself and describe your role with Holistic Ag and Pepperwood.
I’m Ariel Greenwood, resident herdess for Holistic Ag at Pepperwood. We partner with Pepperwood in using our cattle as a management tool to sustain and restore its many acres of grasslands. For my part, this means I’m somewhere on the preserve most days of the week—picking up and building out fence, herding the cows, observing and documenting health indicators in the animals, soil, and landscape as a whole, working with herd founder Aaron Lucich or managing volunteers, and using mapping software to plan and record our movements. 

What got you interested in holistic management and how did you get started working in the field?
My interest in holistic management began in college while I was studying agroecology and psychology. Through coursework and producers I began to learn about grassland ecosystems and adaptive management. At the time I was also growing for a software company on their corporate campus, producing fussy food for chefs in fenced-out plots while surrounded by sweeping but poorly managed grasslands. The more I learned, the more I wanted to play a part in using well-managed animals for ecosystem functionality and carbon sequestration. A couple of years and a move to California later, I began actively seeking a herd to work with, got connected with Holistic Ag a the end of 2014, and I’ve grazing ever since.

Ariel with Holistic Ag founder Aaron Lucich
What are some of the benefits holistic management provides for the land?
Holistic management is a decision making framework that enables us to work with complexity: biological, human, and especially what emerges at the intersection of both. It allows us to take into account and then specifically manage for what we deem valuable, which includes ecological health as well as quality of life, relationships, financial sustainability, and so on. In the context of Pepperwood, our holistic grazing plan is shaped by Aaron and I and the Pepperwood staff. It guides our practice to support qualities like breeding bird and amphibian habitat, perennial bunchgrass health and recruitment, healthy soils and streambanks, and so on. Our exact practices depend on the time of year, but generally speaking we move our animals rapidly and rest the land for long periods to select against invasive species and support native perennials. 

Ariel with her ATV full of equipment
How as the time you've spent working at Pepperwood influenced you? What have you learned?
This work is grazing for ecological benefit is equally challenging and beautiful. I have made mistakes that have humbled me and experienced triumphs that will serve as psychological resources for years to come. I learn and see something new every day, but to date the biggest lesson is this: as a human animal, I am bound to influence my environment. So the best thing I can do is exert that influence with humility and intention, pay attention to the feedback in the land and animals, and never be afraid to change direction when necessary.

Moving the herd between enclosures
What have been some of your most memorable moments working with the cattle on the preserve?
Two memories come to mind immediately. One morning I came upon the herd to find a calf and a wild raven playing together. They were both croaking, spinning, and dive-bombing one another with apparent glee. Another memory was witnessing the Valley Fire explode in the course of a few hours. I watched its spooky orange glow from Weimar and we made contingency plans to evacuate the herd if necessary. Both experiences reminded me of how complex is nature. To quote the naturalist Wendell Berry, “I don’t understand everything that I am involved in.”


Check out this cool video Ariel made about Holistic Ag's work:

Here's a glimpse into what we do.
Posted by Holistic Ag on Thursday, February 11, 2016

Link not working? Click here to view the video on Facebook.

Visit the Holistic Ag website:
Check out Ariel's own blog:

A watchful eye on our most precious resource

By Celeste Dodge, MS, Systems Ecologist

Water returns to the landscape at
Pepperwood's Weimar Falls
Water is the driving force behind ecosystems, determining which plants can thrive and what types of habitat they can provide for animals. In Mediterranean climates like Northern California’s, the extreme shift in seasonal water availability is largely to thank for the incredible amount of biodiversity we enjoy, as many species have adapted to our region’s unique climatic conditions. As much needed rainfall is only just beginning to alleviate a historic drought, we are reminded of how delicate this water balance truly is.

Pepperwood is studying the relationship between water availability and vegetation so our region's land and water managers can better prepare for what is expected to be a more arid future for California. The work we are conducting at our preserve gives organizations like the Sonoma County Water Agency and the US Geological Survey key data on not just variations in weather, but also how our soils, plants and animals are responding to these changing conditions.

Volunteers learn how to collect data from rain gauges
As part of our Sentinel Site monitoring network, Pepperwood is expanding our capacity to measure water on our preserve.  We now have a team of 20 volunteers monitoring 21 rain gauges at remote locations across the preserve, with the goal of improving the span and accuracy of our rainfall monitoring. Four of the rain gauges are located at weather stations in Martin Creek, Double Ponds, Rogers Canyon and at Bechtel house. Rain gauges at these stations will help improve the accuracy of existing electronic rain sensors called tipping bucket gauges, which are susceptible to underestimating rainfall amounts, particularly during high intensity storms.

Pepperwood's TBC3 team discussing best 
practices for monitoring soil moisture
The other 17 of these rain gauges are located at a selection of our 50 long term forest monitoring plots. Installed by the UC Berkeley Ackerly Lab, these plots span the preserve and allow us to track key indicators of forest health including growth rates of both young and mature trees within the plots. This biological data is analyzed alongside climate data collected at the same plots so we can determine the effects of long term climate trends and extreme weather events—like the recent drought—on plant life.

By recording rainfall under the canopy at the forest monitoring plots, we are getting a pretty good sense of the environmental conditions experienced by seedlings in our forests. Total rainfall at these site varies by as much as 40% and is controlled by both canopy and topographic effects. At one site where there are particularly strong canopy effects, the rainfall we have measured thus far amounts to only 20% of the rainfall out our wettest location. We may decide to move our forest plot gauges out from under the canopy to a nearby grassland area to better understand the effects of topography alone next season. This will also make our data more valuable to forecasters. A nationwide citizen science project called the Community Collaborative Rain Hail and Snow Network collects backyard rain gauge data along these lines and uses it retroactively to improve weather models.
Systems Ecologist Celeste Dodge with a leaf wetness sensor

In addition to the new rain gauges, some of the forest monitoring plots are already equipped with instruments that collect data on leaf wetness, temperature, and humidity. Data from these instruments is relayed across the preserve by a wireless mesh network, a series of antennas that transmit across the preserve to a central computer.

A mesh network sensor at a forest monitoring plot

But measuring the amount of rain that falls is only one piece of the puzzle. We also need to determine what happens when it hits the ground. Pepperwood is one of only four sites in the entire Bay area equipped with soil moisture probes, which allow us to gain vital insights into the amount of water available to plants in the soil throughout the year. We currently have two sets of probes installed, and our goal is to install 10 sets of probes at two depths at our mesh network antennas before this year's spring dry-down occurs. This will give us a better sense of the heterogeneity of the preserve's hydrology, and will enable forecasters to better predict potential flood or mudslide events.

Pepperwood’s ever-expanding Sentinel Site monitoring work is generating a wealth of data to help our region’s land and water managers better prepare for the climate challenges that lay ahead.

Our green season of renewal

By Lisa Micheli, PhD, President & CEO
February 6, 2016

You ask me why I dwell in the green mountain; 
I smile and make no reply for my heart is free of care. 
Li Po (701–762)
Views from Sonoma Valley.
The other day I was driving the gorgeous route from home to Pepperwood and taking in the views of the Mayacamas Mountains from the floor of the Sonoma Valley. Suddenly, I found my heart overflowing with gratitude-at first for apparently no reason—and then I realized the cause: gratefulness for green!  After four long years of drought and parched hillsides, we actually had gotten enough rain to start sprouting grass seeds laying in wait below ground.

A new generation of green finally had the power to push up through the gray thatch of previous seasons’ growth.  A deep sense of relaxation and relief was palpable throughout my entire body. How thankful I am that we’ve gotten enough rain to shift our hills from dismal gray to vitally verdant!

As I learn ever more about the terrestrial (land-based) ecosystems of our Mediterranean region, I have a greater and greater appreciation for the regenerative power of our winter rainy season.  For some organisms, like showy forest species and plants that bloom, this season is “downtime.” 

Soil microbes
However, for the practically invisible billions of micro-organisms—including bacteria and fungi—that inhabit just a single gram of soil, the cool wet season is when they get to work breaking down organic matter to turn it into nutrients for our pioneering grass seed sprouts!  They are largely the architects of our local soil’s structure and fertility.

One effect of climate change we are realizing may come to pass is shorter and warmer winter wet seasons in our region.  Shorter winters could actually reduce the productivity of these subterranean beings and in turn impact the health of our soils.

Preserve Manager Michael Gillogly uses a "flamer" to control weeds
Meanwhile, ecologists are working above ground at Pepperwood to use the winter season to prepare our grasslands for a growth spurt once the rains get going. One of our goals is to give our perennial native plants an advantage relative to the invasion of European annual grasses brought to feed livestock imported to the “new world.”

One way we try to help native plants is to do our best to remove or at least hinder the spread of annual grasses and invasive weeds. One of the more dramatic techniques is using a “flamer,” a small hand-held torch, to knock back weeds (see photo of Preserve Manager Michael Gillogly using the flamer on a restoration site near our red barn).

Facilities Assistant Sonja Barringer in our new shade house
Once we have treated a site with a weed removal treatment, in some key locations we actually plant baby native grasses and forbs. We have just increased our capacity to hatch native grass starts thanks to the generosity of the Giles W. and Elise G. Mead Foundation, who sponsored the construction of a greenhouse for this purpose at Pepperwood.  Below you can see our Facilities Assistant Sonja Barringer in her element nurturing our latest crop of plan starts, sprouted from seeds carefully collected by our awesome Pepperwood volunteers.

With some timely management, we can help maintain native plant communities and enable the wildlife they support to thrive!