Over the past five years our ranch has been affected by three major fires. The first in 2017 caused just under $4 million in damage to our ranch. The second in 2018 torched the ranch’s historic water source. As I write this, I am under evacuation warnings from the North Complex fire, which is raging mere miles away from me, raining ash.
In addition to these massive fires, I have also experienced a flood, a drought, and finally multiple years of extreme grasshopper infestations. Our area of California seems to be ground zero for “historical” and “unprecedented” natural events. These events have cost our family ranch millions of dollars and untold mental anguish.
Our family came to California in the 1850’s. Since then, we have farmed and raised cattle in the same area of the state. Each generation has operated our ranch much like the last, mimicking the patterns of the native grazers. The family has passed down knowledge of the area and how best to graze our animals. As a small child, I remember my grandfather sharing his wisdom on how many cattle I could graze per pasture.
However, things are changing. In the long history of our ranch, we have never experienced so many disasters in such a short amount of time. Of course, like all producers, we have experienced the kind of weather events—a once-in-a-lifetime flood, an occasional drought—that would be added to the family legend and lore. But nothing in our ranch’s 170-year history compares to the constant and compounded events I am living through now.
Climate change is no longer something we can pretend does not exist. We cannot blindly repeat the industry talking point, “graze it, log it or watch it burn,” in the hope of improving our climate. For years, I believed and even perpetuated that belief. That is, until I logged it, grazed it and hopelessly, watched it burn. Then flood. Then get devoured by grasshoppers, twice.
Science has been telling us some major changes were coming for years, and we did not listen. Now I am living in those changes—this way of life is not sustainable emotionally or financially.
Knowing I will be forced to evacuate my home annually negates the sense of safety I once felt. Choosing what animals to load in my trailer as I have mere minutes to flee for our lives, is a choice I am not ready to make, yet again. Watching flora and fauna I am obligated to care for, wither and die after months of no rain, is a slow heartbreak. Feeling my animals and my health suffer after living in toxic, thick smoke for over a month, makes me question if I am making good choices for us.
The financial damage to our ranch is much more tangible. Repairing miles of fence after floods and fires is expensive, and my cattle ingest hardware from damaged fencing, causing them a slow and distressing death. Increased insurance premiums are an expensive reminder of what I’ve lived through. I cannot graze as many cattle as my grandfather when they compete with grasshoppers. I have learned from experience and my extension agent that 30 pounds of grasshoppers will eat as much as a 600-pound steer. Finding enough hay for my livestock either during a drought or flood is a challenge, forcing me to cull cattle I normally would keep. It is getting incredibly challenging to earn a livable income on this ranch.
Production agriculture is already a stressful lifestyle; surviving disaster after disaster in such a short period of time will test even the most passionate agriculturists. We are well past the time of using industry talking points to deflect the impact of climate change. Agriculture uses science to assure the public our use of technology is safe. It is time we use that same science to address climate change, before our land becomes so inhospitable that we become stubborn witnesses to the death of our industry rather than resilient farmers, ranchers, and stewards.
Megan Brown is a sixth generation rancher based in Plumas County, California. You can follow her on Twitter at @MegRaeB.