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PODCAST

The Leading Voices in Food

E226: Hope for regeneration: photographic documentary of rangeland conservation

Hosted by: Kelly Brownell (Duke)
January 24, 2024


It has been said many times that a picture is worth a thousand words. Our guest today is documentary photographer Sally Thomson, the creative genius behind the book “Homeground.” She hopes her photos of 24 ranchers and land managers can broaden people’s understanding of the impact conservation ranching has on the health of the land, the animals, and the people who live, work, and recreate in Southwestern and Rocky Mountain rangelands. Her book also includes rancher quotes and essays from land managers working to address challenges of climate change and diminishing resources and to find sustainable land management solutions.

Sally Thomson is a documentary and fine art photographer based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her work explores the relationship between nature and culture and how that forms our perception and expression of where and how we live. Thomson’s previous experiences in landscape architecture and conservation planning inform her work as a photographer, which aims to inspire the conservation and regeneration of endangered environments and the cultural legacies they support. She holds a Master of Landscape Architecture from North Carolina State University School of Design. She is the Past President (2017-2021) of the American Society of Media Photographers New Mexico Board of Directors.

Interview Summary

I was especially interested in doing this podcast because we’ve had a lot of people on to talk about regenerative agriculture and there have been farmers and ranchers, some of whom we both know in common. There have been scientists who work on this, people who work with NGOs trying to promote this work, and even some policy makers, but never a photographer. It’s going to be really interesting to hear from you and I look forward to what you have to say. So, we have spoken to chefs and filmmakers before who’ve used their arts to shape and change the food system. But as I say, you’re the first photographer we’ve spoken to. Let’s go back to the beginning. What got you interested in photography in the first place, and how can photography be used as a social or political statement?

Well, I didn’t start out to become a photographer. I took a art class in college and that is really what first introduced me to photography. I was gifted a used cannon camera and a couple of lenses and I started experimenting with the camera. And I was immediately drawn to the medium. Especially watching the images kind of emerge in the dark room was just fascinating and kind of magical. But it never really occurred to me to consider photography as a career. I eventually went on to graduate school and I studied landscape architecture following my interest in environmental design and planning. I figured this would also give me the opportunity to incorporate photography into my creative process. I practiced landscape architecture for many years. But it wasn’t until much later that I realized the power photography can have in storytelling, and raising awareness, and connecting me with people in places that, you know, I wouldn’t have otherwise thought possible. So, up until about this point, I had used photography more for documenting my work. I had worked for a conservation organization in the Amazon Rainforest, and in order to communicate their message, I felt that photography was extremely useful in doing that. That’s really what caused that shift in my thinking of turning to photography. In 2008, I created On Focus Photography, which was an effort to highlight the work of various underrepresented environmental cultural NGOs. I set about trying to learn everything I could about documentary photography at that point. That sort of led me to where I am today. What I do today is primarily divide my time between freelance assignment work, fine art and documentary photography.

Thanks for that background. It’s really helpful to understand how you got to where you are now. So, let’s turn to your book, “Homeground” brand new. Can you provide an overview of the book and what are some of the key things that you’re hoping to convey?

Well, Homeground, of course, is a visual narrative. It explores the endangered rangelands of the American Southwest and the Rocky Mountains, and the people and the practices that are involved in restoring and sustaining these landscapes. I think one of the things that was kind of startling to me was the account of our rangelands, and I just wanted to talk about that briefly. Rangelands account for the largest share of the nation’s land base. They cover more than one third of the land service in the continental US and that’s according to USDA data. Unlike pastureland, rangelands consist of native vegetation, and they include a wide variety of different landscape types such as grasslands, desert shrub lands, and so on. They provide essential habitats for all kinds of living creatures, forage for livestock, and recreational opportunities. But in this country and elsewhere around the world, I learned that these lands are threatened due to land conversion, unmanaged grazing, invasive species, climate change, and things like that. The Nature Conservancy, in fact, says that grasslands represent the most threatened and least protected habitat on earth. Less than 2% worldwide and just 4% in the United States receive any kind of formal protection.

So, thinking about the Southwest and the Rocky Mountains, as you probably know, they connect vast areas of habitat and there are all kinds of organizations, federal, state, private and tribal ownership that form this mosaic of pattern on the land. But private individuals own more than half of the nation’s range lands. The federal government manages about 40%, and state and local governments and tribal councils manage the remainder. I found these numbers were rather compelling, and it sort of put, for me, into perspective not only the scale and significance of these landscapes but point to the important role private land managers play in caring for this huge amount of land in our country.

There’s a lot at stake, isn’t there? Given how much land you’re talking about and the importance of it to environment and everything else.

It is. And there’s a map in the book that shows that distribution. It was based on data collected by USDA, but it was interpreted by Dave Merrill, who works for Bloomberg. It’s just very insightful when you see that big square of rangeland and you realize how much landmass that really is. So, that really struck me and I wanted to make sure that people understood that.

Let’s get back to the themes of your book, because I’m dying to hear about them. But tell me first, what inspired you to take on the issue of regenerative agriculture in particular?

I’ve always been deeply interested in the relationship between people and environment, and sort of how our actions can shape and impact the landscapes that we live in. When I moved to New Mexico in 2013, I’m originally from the East and went to school in North Carolina as a matter of fact. I got a job helping a local nonprofit organization called the Southwest Grassfed Livestock Alliance here in Santa Fe, SWGLA for short. I helped them to produce a short video about how some producers were beginning to manage their animals on the land by utilizing a method called Holistic Planned Grazing. This was a term first introduced by Alan Savory, decades earlier. So, for this project, I visited six ranches spread across the states of New Mexico, and Colorado and Arizona. Traveled all around interviewing these ranchers. And through that experience, I grew a deep appreciation for these people, the men and women who managed these vast and often very remote tracks of land, and their dedication to regenerating some of the most incredible degraded landscapes that I’ve seen. I was inspired by their dedication and their determination, and I continued to visit and photograph over the years dozens of ranches and others who worked toward improving the ecological health of our rangelands. I guess you could say that the book “Homeground” was my pandemic project because I’d always wanted to find a way to share these images and the information that I had accumulated over the years. The lockdown kind of gave me time to sit down and think about how to organize and present what I had learned. So, around 2021, I decided that I was going to create this book and it would be titled “Homeground.” Home alluding to a place of belonging and identity relating to the land. This seemed appropriate for me and the way of life that I wanted to feature.

Sally, you mentioned Alan Savory and I wanted to make a note to remind our listeners that we’ve recorded a podcast with Alan Savory that’s part of our series on regenerative agriculture. And, the person who connected the two of us, Nancy Ranney, a rancher in New Mexico, and I know somebody you know well also has been a guest for part of our podcast series, both very impressive people. So, now let’s talk a little bit more about the book and some of the choices you made in producing it. Some of the book’s photographs are in black and white and some are in color, that’s an interesting choice you’ve made. Can you share some insights about the process of selecting and capturing images, why you did some in color, some in black and white, and how did these reflect the principles of regenerative ranching?

I’ve had a few exhibitions that revolve around this work, and most of those were all done in black and white. When I started putting the book together, I felt because you’re up close and personal looking at these images, that color would be good in moving you along the story. Also, some of the images were old, some were taken back in 2013, some were taken in 2022 and 2023. So, it was sort of a way to differentiate the flow of the work. Along with the images, there are three essays in the book that are written by well-known land managers in the region. Nancy Rainey provided one of the essays on community engagement, Bob Budd, who works in Wyoming, and Tony Berg, who has also worked in Wyoming but is now in Oregon, and he’s a mentor with the Savory Institute. Each of them provided insightful personal accounts of their experiences in regenerative ranching, highlighting themes of the book, which are the importance of rangeland biodiversity, healthy soils, and community engagement. Ranchers also have some quotations in the book, but I worked quite closely with various state federal agencies and local nonprofits and academic institutions, and there’s a lot happening out there in terms of all these other people that are involved in helping ranchers to manage their lands more sustainably. So, some of those are like the Covera Coalition, the Western Landowners Alliance, Holistic Management International, and of course Alan Savory Institute. It’s a very complex and interesting world that is evolving and growing, fortunately.

Well, that’s so true. I mean, if you go back just a few years even, there’s a lot less knowledge about these sorts of approaches to ranching and agriculture, and now a lot more people are talking about it, thinking about it, studying it, writing about it, and photographing it, which is really wonderful. You mentioned that the work took place over a period of 10 years. Are there any specific stories or experiences from this journey you had that you found particularly impactful or enlightening?

Every time I set foot on a ranch, it was impactful. And it’s hard to separate out just one story, but one of the most interesting experiences, I think we talk a lot about holistic grazing and how it tries to mimic the bison that roamed hundreds of years ago on the land. I had an opportunity to go out and visit one of Ted Turner’s ranches in Central New Mexico where they were having a bison roundup. I rode out into this landscape, which was like actually transporting myself back 200 years where there were no cars, no telephone poles, just the land and the animals. It was pretty fascinating to see those bison, 500 of them roaming across the landscape. When I was out there also, there was a herd of antelopes and another herd of elk. So, I really felt privileged to be out on that land and to witness, almost like stepping back into history.

There are a lot of young people now that are getting involved, which is really great because there was a time when it seemed like people talked about ranching dying. And there have been organizations like the Covera Coalition that have really worked hard to get young people involved in now there’s a lot of interest. And not just amongst doing ranching work, but also in the scientific and academic communities. And so, I was able to work with some scientists from the University of Colorado and they were working in robotics of all things, using these robots to monitor the ground and collect data on the temperature of the soil, the composite of the soil, all sorts of things.

Another ranch I went to in Lamar, Colorado, they had reintroduced the black-footed ferret, an endangered species, that almost went extinct in the 1980s and they were bringing back to, you know, regenerate the soil in that part of the country. So, I actually went out with a team of scientists at night because they’re nocturnal animals and the only time you can see them and that they can figure out what they’re doing and where they’re living, and how they’re living is to spot them at night. They ride around from maybe 10 or 11 o’clock at night until the early hours of the morning searching for these black-footed ferrets. They’ll stick their heads up out of a hole in the ground, but they’re determined. And that determination and that interest was really exciting to see.

You paint a wonderful picture of all this when you were talking about the bison and being transported 200 years in the past created this very vivid image in my mind, and I can imagine how powerful it must have been to be there and how wonderful it is that you’ve captured this in your photographs. It is just so important that this kind of work gets communicated. One of the reasons I’m delighted that you did your book. Let me ask you a final question. How do you envision your book contributing to the broader conversation about regenerative agriculture and ranching, and the sustainable use of land, and what do you hope readers will take away?

I think the book provides a broad understanding to a very complex issue. Sometimes those issues are difficult to understand because they’re wound up in a lot of statistics, or the media is not reporting accurately, or even reporting at all on the issue. I’m hoping that a book like this that shows photographs will draw people in to want to understand more. The other thing I wanted to mention was that these land managers that I have met, they understand that ranching and healthy systems go hand in hand, and making the regenerative transition is a slow, and it’s a complex process. There are no quick fixes, there’s no one size fits all answers. And that’s most likely true, I would say, for anyone, anywhere who’s trying to make that regenerative switch. In our fast-paced world, it seems like that nothing is happening, but it just takes time. That’s one thing that I can see over this 10-year period is I can see a change. That’s pretty gratifying.

Grasslands in particular are very overlooked ecosystem in our country, but they play a crucial role in guarding against climate change. And one thing that amazed me was that a three-foot-tall grassland plant has a root system that extends more than three to four times below the surface of the earth. And those deep roots work to stabilize and they nourish the soil and can sequester huge amounts of carbon from the atmosphere. So, rangelands are important in that way, and I think it’s important for people to understand about that. Another thing is that I think our Southwestern and Rocky Mountain Rangelands, they’re a part of our collective history and legacy, and their landscapes that provide us all with clean water and clean air. They offer us respite and recreational opportunities. And in our world now where 80% of the population resides in urban areas, it’s pretty easy for us to overlook what we don’t encounter every day. It’s my hope that “Homeground” will engage viewers from across the country to consider the significance of regenerative ranching and its potential benefits to all of us regarding climate and conservation, wildlife, and food production.

Well, what an important goal. So good luck looking forward. So, for people who are listening, who’d like to obtain a copy of the book, how should they go about doing that?

They can go onto my website: sallythomsonphotography.com.

 

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