I have been reading Tony Malmberg’s writing for almost 20 years, since when he would occasionally write pieces for HMI’s publication, IN PRACTICE. I always found his writing to be insightful because of his humility and curious, open mind. For that reason, I was eager to read Tony’s new book, Green Grass in the Spring: A Cowboy’s Guide to Saving the World. I was not disappointed. Tony’s writing is honest and forthright, telling stories and providing scientific detail in a way that makes it accessible to a wide audience.
Tony’s introduction to and implementation of Holistic Management is legendary as he pushed the boundaries of how to implement the Holistic Grazing Planning, but also because of his interest in and willingness to engage with the government employees and community in his region to help more people understand what he was doing, the results he was seeing, and the benefits they could experience.
The essays about those experiences as well as how he used the Holistic Financial Planning process and the decision testing questions to determine the right course of action, including the financing of his land and his marriage to his wife, Andrea, (a particularly entertaining chapter you will want to read) are wonderfully crafted stories that draw the reader and make you root for Tony and his journey toward a better life.
As Judith Schwartz writes in her foreward: “Holistic Management’s emphasis on observation and monitoring makes it harder to fool ourselves; it also provides a structure for facing reality, and ourselves, head-on.” Indeed, Tony embraces this tool to help have those difficult conversations whether with his own family members or when working with a collaborative addressing water shortages in the West.
Tony begins his book with sections titled “Disturbance,” “Overgrazed,” or “Succession.” In these essays he not only describes these land management tool concepts, but he weaves them into the social components that are mirrored in human experience. Through it all is woven the memoir of his life as things fell apart and what he learned along the way about the preconceived notions of what was “good” or “bad” and how they constrained his creativity and effectiveness.
Tony sprinkles quotes from Lao Tzu, Allan Savory, and Shakespeare, and writes about how in his darkest hours he began to read broadly from the Bible to Lee Iacocca to Alvin Toffler. It was then that he began to explore changing management practices and the way he viewed life.
As part of this narrative, Tony writes about the time he spent managing investors ranches across the West. From that experience he became clear of the major challenges facing ranchers everywhere: 1) They had too much machinery on their places that was rusting and depreciating; 2) They had crippling debt from borrowing against the land’s appreciated value; and 3) poor estate planning left complicated management and assets extremely vulnerable. He knew these traps could be avoided and wanted to get past the experience of most ranchers that his friend, Ron Cunningham, described: “Most ranchers have ten years of experience that they repeat five or six times. Can you get past that ten years and learn something new?” Tony said that question focused him to learn more.
One of the ways Tony learned was to force himself to listen to outsiders, those outside his peer group. “I started to forcing myself to stay, listen, and learn. It was uncomfortable, but I became more comfortable with being uncomfortable. I knew that too much comfort and tradition had strangled me.” Enter Holistic Management in 1987. Tony now had a framework to hone his questioning mind and improve his management skills.
With that framework came the discipline to question old practices and stoked his curiosity to try to integrate these principles through a grazing plan. The results were that after seven years of planned grazing on his ranch he went to a pasture to prepare for a cattle move and realized how there was something different. He got out and began identifying grasses like blue bunch wheat grass, leafy green needlegrass, needle-and-thread grass and Indian ricegrass that had not been there for the 18 years he had been managing before. And, they were healthy stands, not small seedlings. He realized his management meant there was 80% more productivity versus when he had been grazing that area all season, while improving ecological health and function.
At the end of his book Tony writes that a keystone species must create more life. Our choice as humans is to make decisions to create more life, more green grass in the spring. Tony’s book is a study in one person’s attempt to do that because of his passion for life and learning.
You can purchase Green Grass in the Spring from ReaderHouse.