Ranch Diaries: Sustainability doesn’t always mean regenerative

How I came to terms with my subsistence upbringing, and have started to rethink it.


Ranch Diaries is an hcn.org series highlighting the experiences of Laura Jean Schneider, who gives us a peek into daily life during the first two years of Triangle P Cattle Company, a new LLC in southcentral New Mexico. Installments are every other Tuesday.

Before subsistence-based living was cool, I was doing it, much to my twelve-year-old self’s dismay. A compost heap sprouting volunteer tomatoes and monstrous comfrey plants sprawled at the edge of the backyard. Summer vacations were a marathon of weeding and watering two large and abundant gardens. The worst task was picking potato bugs off a thousand hills of potatoes. Beef was a luxury, so my siblings and I hunted to fill our freezers with wild game for the winter.

For years after leaving home, I hid that part of my past, embarrassed of my thrifty, make-do upbringing. During my first year of college, I cringed when my grandmother sent me a quilt made from feed sack fabric and a pair of mittens knitted in vibrant colors. Then one night at a potluck party in Billings, Montana, someone showed up with a duck — a freshly shot, raw one. Perhaps the beer left me feeling uninhibited. I took over the kitchen, and commenced to dress and then pluck the bird, ultimately roasting it with bacon draped over its knobby breast. Since then, I’ve accepted that subsistence-based ways are a family tradition I’m proud of. Yet the issue is complex: Subsistence doesn’t mean sustainable, and sustainable isn’t necessarily regenerative, a word I’ve been pondering this spring.

  • A daily staple.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • Corn syrup-free pecan pie made with maple syrup.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • Granola bars cooling.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • Homemade pizza with pickled onions.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • Quinoa and black bean tacos.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • Raw pickles.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • Salad with feta cheese I made from the Jersey cow.

    Laura Jean Schneider

Here on the ranch, I like to think I’m doing a pretty good job with the sustainable part. We refill our 55-gallon water reservoir every three or four days. We eat beef we raised right here and pork from the neighbor ten miles away. I try to buy in bulk and I cook pretty much everything from scratch. I plan to have a larger garden this year. That seems pretty sustainable, and sometimes I get a little cocky about it.

But here’s where I have my work cut out for me: adding “regenerative” to “sustainable.” Regeneration means to “bring new and more vigorous life” to something. Am I doing that now? Can I stop getting hung up on the availability of natural or organic foods, and find a way to create healthy soil here so I can grow my own instead? Can I find a way to give back to the land if I take from it? Grazing can do this, if done with care. Perhaps I can find a fruit tree to plant once we move into the house, something the birds and I can both enjoy. Instead of lamenting that it’s a three-hour drive to find my favorite clothing brands, I can be content wearing second-hand more, while making conscious, intentional decisions about what I do purchase.  

Browsing a popular magazine recently, I was surprised by a clothing ad that claimed, “Clothes are an agricultural act.” Until recently, I hadn’t considered apparel agricultural, or considered its regenerative capacities. After hearing a talk by Rebecca Burgess of Fibershed last fall, I’ve changed my mind. I recently selected three colors of hand-spun, plant-dyed wool for my mother-in-law to knit into a sweater for me. Wearing something made completely by hand — from grazing sheep for land health to eliminating the effects of toxic dyes on the environment — can be regenerative, and something I feel I can spend my money on with a clear conscience.

In trading sustainable for regenerative, there’s a shift from a “this works” mentality, to “this thrives.” I eagerly await pictures of the sweater in progress. As I make my small changes, whether it has to do with being in my thirties now, being more self-aware, or a result of my struggle to reconcile my values with actuality, I’m feeling more grounded than ever before. 

My grandmother’s quilt is on my bed as I write, and the mittens are nestled among my winter clothes.

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