"C'mon up here," Frank Fitzpatrick calls. "I'll show you something."
We’re in a golden pasture that rises to the edge of a parched, scrubby ridge. Fitzpatrick is on horseback, a 65-year-old cattleman in a long-sleeved work shirt, snuff in his lip, dust on his boots, a big silver belt buckle commemorating a 2005 team roping contest cinching his middle. It’s late in the grazing season in one of the driest years anyone can remember, and what’s left of his herd is nosing the stubble.
In one direction, their view is the view cattle here have had since this pasture belonged to the vast Rancho Trabuco: sunbaked chaparral, the tall and timeless Santa Ana Mountains. From most other angles, however, these animals are pretty much grazing in a suburb. And it’s a thirsty suburb. Across the road, the homes of Portola Hills march up the incline, their landscaping cut short by mandated firebreaks. In the Hidden Ridge subdivision below Fitzpatrick, minivans traverse the hot black asphalt.
Whatever this pasture used to be, today it’s just another development-in-waiting in the “wildland-urban interface,” as planners call it. Some of Fitzpatrick’s 400 head of satiny brown Barzona cattle get to eat here because of a deal the livestock expert struck with the owners: He manages the property while they wait for the right time to build, and they repay him, in part, by letting him use the land for 5 Bar Beef, his artisan grass-fed beef business.
It’s a novel concept, and it has given Fitzpatrick and his cattle a certain celebrity among local foodies. (Earlier this morning, he chuckles, he was interviewed by “some gal with a website called ‘Chicks With Knives.’ ”) What Fitzpatrick wants to point out from the top of the ridge, though, isn’t his Facebook-famous herd. Nor is it the development on the once-pristine hills where he grew up, the son of a Silverado Canyon “dirt merchant” who cleared orange groves for homebuilders.
No, what Fitzpatrick wants you to see is what he has seen happening here on his home turf for more than six decades—the ground itself, getting drier and less productive with every season.
“When the conquistadores came, all the records say this was the land of milk and honey,” he says, squinting into the relentless sunshine. “Well, look around. I don’t see milk. And I don’t see honey. What I see here is a really stunted ecosystem.”
Environmentalists don’t often identify with cattlemen, and vice versa. For decades, a range war has more or less raged between those who see modern cattle ranching as an archaic net-generator of ecological troubles and unhealthy living, and those who see it as a great—and endangered—American livelihood.
On public land and open ranges, critics say, grazing areas have been damaged by too many cattle left for too long on land with too little water. On industrial farms, where most beef is raised, the use of chemicals and fossil fuels has unsettled consumers. Cattle are jammed into pastures sprayed with fertilizer and weed killer. They’re shipped on diesel trucks to be fattened on feedlots, and stuffed with corn that requires vast quantities of petroleum to synthesize the nitrogen needed to maximize crop yields. Then they are pumped full of hormones and antibiotics to fatten them quickly and tamp down the diseases that spread in close quarters.
Little wonder that beef consumption has been falling in this country for the past two decades. On the range or in the feedlot, it’s a disturbing picture. Little wonder, too, that those who make their living from beef find its decline offensive.
But Fitzpatrick isn’t your average cowboy, and not just because he’s still stubbornly running cattle in a place where they’ve been mostly absent since the 1970s. The youngest of four siblings, and the only one who went into the cattle business, he admits he vomited when he slaughtered his first cow. He refuses to pigeonhole himself either as an environmentalist, as a rancher—or even as a “cowboy.” “I prefer the term ‘cowman’,” he says. “Cowboys chase them; cowmen own them.”
His operation is lean, mainly him and his 26-year-old son Ryan, the progeny of a brief marriage Fitzpatrick says ended because of his job’s isolation. He never remarried, and lives alone in the Silverado house where he grew up, shuttling seven days a week from pasture to slaughterhouse to farmer’s market, where he tends his brand. (“5 Bar Beef is a certified ‘Farm to Fork’ vendor for Bon Appetit. How awesome it that?” he boasted on Facebook after the Bay Area upscale restaurant management chain took him on as a supplier.)
And he indulges his enthusiasms—the avoidance of white flour, the restorative powers of bone broth, and Bikram yoga, a rigorous 90-minute series of postures, done in 110-degree heat, that he took up after a riding accident left him walking “like Chester in ‘Gunsmoke’.”
There’s his reading, too. Though he “thinks like a cow” thanks to the legendary farrier Newt Wright, a mentor, he also has a degree in animal science from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. “You need to read Weston A.Price’s ‘Nutrition and Physical Degeneration,’ ” he tells anyone who will listen. And “I just finished Judith Schwartz’s ‘Cows Save the Planet’—it’s counterintuitive if you’ve grown up in a linear world.”
But what really sets Fitzpatrick apart is the philosophy he has held for decades, a belief—shared by Schwartz and a growing segment of the modern environmental movement—that cattle actually could save the planet if ranchers were to holistically manage their land and herds. Conventional ranching damages the environment—“absolutely no damn doubt about it,” he says. But environmentalists who want to rid the range of cattle entirely “don’t know their ass from a white rock.
“Environmentalists don’t like cows because cows cause desertification,” he says. “But cows don’t cause anything. Cows just do what cows do. They’re a derivative of a wild animal God put here. Desertification is caused by man-made decisions.”
Fitzpatrick contends that beef needn’t be so bad for our water, air, soil, and health. With the right land management, the right grasses, and a handful of years, he says, cattle can create a virtuous circle. Their hooves naturally till the soil; the perennial grasses they eat naturally reseed themselves as part of the animals’ digestion; and if a rancher has enough land to systematically move a herd from pasture to pasture so that each area is grazed only briefly, grasslands not only will be maintained, but will put down deeper roots. Those roots, in turn, help the soil hold more moisture and capture more carbon dioxide during the plant’s life cycle, slowing the accumulation of climate-changing greenhouse gases.
It’s a system that, at least in theory, not only creates healthier meat, but also a less arid landscape—a crucial benefit in a fire-prone region where each fire season seems more devastating than the one before.
Fitzpatrick gestures with a calloused hand toward the brittle canyons. All this, he says, could change with the right kind of grazing: “With holistic management, I could eliminate the holocaust fire risk in Orange County in six years, for the cost of about one fire truck.”
To some, this may sound like just another crackpot agricultural theory. But in fact, the sustainability movement now embraces the brand of holistic ranching that Fitzpatrick has been doing for years. Michael Pollan, the food writer, has been touting its merits on his latest book tour, and Allan Savory, a noted grasslands biologist, made it the subject this year of a much-discussed TED talk.
Fitzpatrick—who says he has read Savory’s “Holistic Resource Management” at least six times—is stunned that the world seems to finally be coming around to his way of thinking. Over the years, he says, he has tried in vain to get someone to let him use enough acreage to make a difference. Instead—though Orange County has thousands of undeveloped acres in places such as Trabuco Canyon—development and nature preserves have steadily crowded out both his cattle and opportunities to test his theories.
Still, he has tried, where he can, to responsibly manage the acreage to which he has access. His animals start their lives on a date palm ranch in Indio, where they feed on tender grass, ground up palm fronds, and surplus vegetables. Then those that are not breeding are moved to this 800-acre Orange County pasture.
“If I owned this land,” he says, “I’d cut it up into 10 or 12 pastures. Then I’d put in a blue-stemmed buffalo grass, some of the big, tall, perennial grass plants. You don’t have to seed it. All you have to do is throw out a bale of hay and throw in some seeds and let the cows eat it and plant it.”
But he doesn’t own the land, and can’t divide it because it’s slated for housing; his contract prohibits him from erecting fences. And in any case, he says, 800 acres isn’t enough. To do it right, he would need several thousand, and so far, he says, no one with control over the land has been willing to listen.
The closest he’s ever come was a few years ago, when he had nearly 1,500 acres of undeveloped land to manage. But then it went away—some to the 241 Toll Road, some to houses, some to preservation groups entrenched in the belief that there is no such thing as environmentally responsible grazing.
“Nobody wants to change their paradigm,” he says.
Still, a cowman can hope.
“This is going to be the biggest problem we face as a species, and not just in Orange County,” he says. But—as anyone can see from the ridge top where he sits—times have a way of changing.
“Eventually, if I live long enough,” he says, “I’m gonna win.”
Photograph by Rick Rickman
This article originally appeared in the December 2013 issue.