Misty West Gay and Jon Gay, along with Jon’s sister Susan and her family, started Freestone Ranch in Freestone back in 2006. More than a decade later, their grass-fed, grass-finished beef operation is the first ranch in Sonoma County to have completed a Carbon Farm Plan in collaboration with Fibershed and Gold Ridge Resource Conservation District. We interviewed Misty West Gay about the journey of turning regenerative land stewardship into a thriving business.
*This interview has been edited for length.
Made Local Magazine: Can you give us a little bit of background and history of Freestone Ranch?
Freestone Ranch: At first, we thought we would start a farm, but the more we dug into the soil, the water demands of farming, the kinds of plants the market expects of farmers, and a systems view of the place itself, our goals changed. We saw that our relatively dry, fog-kissed coastal hills were better suited for grazing. We read everything we could find about holistic management, rotational grazing, restorative agriculture, and no-till farming: Wes Jackson, Joel Salatin, Buffalo Bird Woman, and M. Kat Anderson. Poet Mary Oliver helped a lot, too.
We use ranching to restore relationships with nature, land, and soil. Nature is a great teacher. We like to embrace our smallness and our membership in the community of all species. We want to see the land and the animals, wild and domestic, be healthier and more diverse.
MLM: Why did you decide to complete a Carbon Farm Plan?
FR: We are happy and honored to be the first ranch in Sonoma County to complete a Carbon Farm Plan, in collaboration with Fibershed and the Gold Ridge RCD. We did two, actually. The first one was for Bay Hill Ranch in Bodega Bay, authored by the RCD in collaboration with us. The second one was for our home ranch in Freestone.
We had been talking to Brittany Jensen and Adriana Stagnaro at the Gold Ridge RCD about documenting our carbon capture off and on for years. Last year, Ariel Greenwood and Erin Axelrod were working here at the ranch, helping us build and grow a wholesale business and up our game in holistic grazing. Erin had connections at Fibershed, and she suggested that their new Climate Beneficial Verification Program might be a good fit.
MLM: What are the main components of the plan?
FR: The Bay Hill Ranch CFP consists of:
1. Current land use and ranch history;
2. Identification of goals and objectives;
3. Recommended and planned carbon farming practices including compost application, critical area plantings, prescribed grazing, riparian restoration, wetland creation and the creation of windbreaks;
4. Quantification of current and potential carbon sequestration, and
5. Quantification of potential increases in the soil’s water-holding capacity.
The Freestone Ranch Plan has five main sections: Maps, Grazing Plan, Soil Survey, Additional Soil Tests, and Planting Lists. The Maps section has detailed maps modified to show which carbon sequestration practices are primarily active on which areas of the ranch and what we’d like to keep doing moving forward. The grazing plan describes our rotational grazing practices. The soil survey is a detailed description of the soil types and topographies across the various areas of our land. The plan also includes lists of carbon sequestration practices. Planting lists are just that, and we prefer to use seeds and cuttings from here on the land. Our patches of native meadow foam are setting seed now, and we took half an hour last week to collect them and disperse them directly into another spot on the land. It can be that simple and that profound.
MLM: How will the plan be used going forward?
FR: The CFP will guide us in broadening our practices to build the soil and help us track our successes. The essence of carbon farming is rebuilding the soil since the life in the soil traps carbon and cycles nutrients through plant roots, mycelial networks, and photosynthesis. It gives us a foundation for documenting the fact that this is possible, this is here and happening, and it’s ongoing. Successful carbon capture is part of natural grazing cycles and older than tillage. Grazing is more nuanced than you might realize, and it can genuinely help us care for the land. It’s so important to take responsibility for what we do in this big beautiful world, and we want to show that we are doing it.
MLM: What advice do you have for anyone that is interested in going through the CFP process?
FR: Take stock of what you’re already doing, take a broad view of your short- and long-term goals, and think in terms of integrating your piece of the world with a sense of revitalization. Carbon capture can be a north star toward letting the small things you do contribute to a bigger healing. Fibershed and the RCD are great partners, but it starts with the soil. Spreading compost on tens of hundreds of acres can sound silly until you consider that it’s like a bit of food and water to a struggling system. Hedgerows can sound quaint until you get a profound sense of how powerful they can be as habitat for an incredible diversity of species.
MLM: How does the CFP fit into California’s goals of slashing greenhouse gas emissions almost in half by 2030? Can cows be part of the solution?
FR: CFPs are part of a larger goal to look at what we do every day and evolve. It’s a scary time in many ways, and it’s critical not to get lost in the grief or the drama. We hope it’s an inspiration to others to look at what steps they can take, no matter how big or how small, and take them.
Emphatically yes: Cows can be part of the solution. The elk are in the deep wild, the bison are gone, and we absolutely need grazers to keep the nutrients cycling.
We need untilled grasslands as habitat for an enormous variety of creatures that keep food webs going. We need green belts as havens for songbirds and snakes and rodents. We can’t kid ourselves that chemical fertilizers replace all that’s taken away. Cows are too often a problem, but as with so much in life, do it right, listen before you speak, and new solutions arise.
MLM: Can you talk a little bit about the beef sales at the ranch? What have been the biggest challenges?
FR: We sell quarters and sides to families and networks of friends. Stocking up, buying in bulk locally, keeping your own garden, and eating seasonally are part of a healthy way of life.
The biggest challenges have been working with consumer culture, one-off buying habits, and Big Ag policies that are structured to benefit centralized markets. If people don’t cook, they certainly can’t buy quarters. We hope to inspire people to take their power back, reinvest in their homes, health, and local communities, and to see how that helps revitalize every aspect of life. Buy local! You can do it. We can all do it. Everything counts.