An honest embrace of the world: Byron Palmer walks the walk
The view from Sonoma Mountain ripples with layers. Up close, there are rolling hills of grass, mostly in shades of brown this early in the fall. A few green shoots peek through in response to the first true rain of the season. Stands of mature oak trees are dotted about, with younger upstarts sprinkled among occasional clumps of speckled gray boulders that appear almost curated in their pleasing placement.
Roads and fences are evident but unobtrusive, hugging the rolling landscape in patterns that mimic nature’s curves. As one’s gaze moves to the middle distance and the great beyond, drinking in the vista soothes the soul and quiets the mind. A turkey vulture wheels and dips through the air, its vast wingspan and outstretched primary feathers spread like fingertips.
“I love this landscape,” says Byron Palmer ‘03 (BBA), squinting as he leans against the tailgate of his work truck. “That’s Mount Tam, that little peak there.” He glances up at the soaring bird above our heads. “There are a lot of turkey vultures, hawks and harriers, which have a white strip on their tail. Voles too, they’re sort of like skinny gophers.”
Palmer is passionate about a lot of things: Restorative agriculture. Henry David Thoreau. His wife and baby. Finding a way to make a real difference. But for him, it always comes back to nature.
“When you look across this landscape out at the hills, historically — let’s say 15,000, 20,000 years ago — before the Native Americans even got here, there would be crazy amounts of herbivores grazing through those agricultural bottoms shoulder-to-shoulder. They’d all be moving in this amazing symbiosis of basically animals eating, predators chasing them, the animals moving off, and the grass regrowing.
“That is literally the definition of the relationships that equal ecological health; that is the context in which the ecology that we live evolved. The reason we see this land as beautiful — with trees that are kind of cropped and grass that seems almost manicured — is because that means there’s a lot of food there. When we look to manage the environment, to improve biodiversity, we’re attempting to mimic those relationships that existed before.”
For Palmer, the road to Sonoma and his work in restorative agriculture was a bit like riding up the mountain in his pickup truck — bumpy enough to rattle teeth, filled with switchbacks and entry-coded gates. Getting here did not resemble a straight shot.
His family moved to the San Francisco Bay Area when Palmer was just a baby. He recalls his childhood with the affectionate hindsight of someone who appreciates his own good fortune.
“I really enjoyed growing up in Alameda,” he says. “Junior high, high school, it was great.”
He ended up at the University of San Diego thanks to a few different factors.
“My dad did his Navy training in San Diego, so he was partial to the area,” he recalls. “He told me, ‘San Diego is a great place to go to school. It’s got beaches, it’s beautiful.’” It didn’t hurt that Palmer received a substantial academic scholarship and was offered a spot on the football team.
Outspoken, blunt and more than occasionally profane, Palmer is particularly clear-eyed, even when (perhaps especially when) he talks about himself.
“My decision-making matrix was very unsophisticated,” he says with a rueful laugh. “I took the influence of my dad pretty heavily. USD is a gorgeous campus, aesthetically, and that certainly played a role.”
His football career as a tight-end was cut short by a harrowing career-ending back injury at a practice his first year. “I got de-cleated, was about four feet horizontal in the air and landed on my lower back,” he recalls. “I could barely feel my legs for a few minutes.” While football receded in his rear-view mirror, his scholarship carried through all four years, and Palmer looks back on his academic experience with genuine affection. He sees a clear through-line from classroom to what has become his life’s work.
“Dennis Clausen was my English professor during the first semester of sophomore year. That led to my classic collegiate awakening: He exposed us to a breadth of different books, but we read excerpts from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, and that just blew my mind wide open,” he recalls.
“I’d never really read anything like that. It started a cascade of reading and exploration that caused me to want to actually move away from my business degree, but my dad talked me out of it. He said, ‘Look, business degrees can be really practical.’ So, I picked up a philosophy minor to deal with the existential angst that I had.”
Professor Clausen, who’s still teaching literature at USD, remembers Palmer with remarkable clarity, considering it’s been well over 15 years since that particular class. “Learning for him went so deep inside of him,” he recalls. “He didn’t learn on a superficial level. It was a joy to watch him delve into the deepest part of himself. I have a lot of students that I remember fondly, but a few stand out as unique. Byron is definitely one of them.”
Palmer took advantage of USD’s flexibility by building a curriculum in conjunction with faculty. “I was reading books that combined evolutionary biology and ecology and business ethics, to basically put together a program that I was interested in within the context of the business degree program.”
Of particular interest to him were organizational development, design and theory. “Just how people come together to accomplish projects.”
Another aha moment came in a sociology/criminology class with then-professor A. Rafik Mohamed.
“He was extremely impactful in me understanding the role that class and privilege plays in America, as well as all the benefits that it bestowed upon me that I just took for granted,” Palmer says. “The world is, for lack of a better term, designed for me. It’s designed for white male people that are six feet tall and loud.”
He laughs his booming laugh and continues. “So, I had some pretty formative experiences there, and it basically began a deep searching for me in how I wanted to participate in trying to make the world a better place.”
“Aim above morality. Be not simply good; be good for something.” — Henry David Thoreau
After college, Palmer worked jobs to make money to travel.
“I got the sense that I was going to find my calling by wandering around backpacking in Europe,” he says. It took a while, but it worked. Over the course of the six months he was bouncing around the continent, he met some guys who were interested in documentary filmmaking and thought that might be a way to help save the planet.
“I thought, ‘That’s the problem, people just don’t know that the world is [messed] up. What we need to do is tell them and then everyone will behave!’”
That booming laugh reappears. “It didn’t work out well. The occupation worked out great but there was a hubris of youth — an important thing to have and an important stage to go through — the idea that what the world was missing was my effort or strategic capacity.”
He wound up getting a job in Marin at Habitat Media working on documentaries about nature and politics. While working on a film about building community and political support around agriculture, Palmer tripped over what would ultimately become his career.
“I ended up on a lot of farms, working on farm stuff. During that time, I was struggling with the idea of telling stories about stuff that was happening, but I wanted to actually do the physical work of making the changes that I was documenting.”
He knew he needed to make the political personal.
“I decided I wanted to get into farming and be part of the actual tending of the land in an ecologically nurturing way — myself, directly, instead of just documenting those efforts.”
So, he got to work, quite literally. “I started by doing some lightweight stuff like growing a vegetable garden in my own backyard. I sold my car and started riding my bike everywhere, which is hard to do in the Bay Area.”
That’s no understatement.
“I was living in Marin and biking out to the 101 and taking the bus to the East Bay.” It was practically a full-time job.
Now in his mid-20s, Palmer started taking workshops and visiting and interning at farms.
His next stop seems made for its own documentary: “I did an organic farming apprenticeship at The Farm in Tennessee,” which was co-founded by iconic countercultural hippie Stephen Gaskin who worked alongside a few hundred spiritual seekers from the Haight Ashbury district.
While Palmer was still searching, he was getting closer to what he was looking for. After some more traveling, he wound up as an apprentice in Bolinas at the Regenerative Design Institute (RDI), whose tagline is “cultivating skills and deepening awareness of our place on Earth.”
“They had a nine-month educational program that I was pretty excited about. It was essentially focused on three components: Permaculture (a sustainable landscape design methodology), leadership, and nature awareness, which is essentially animal tracking, primitive skills and naturalist skills. So, it was basically a special forces hippie camp.”
For Palmer, it all comes back to Thoreau.
“There’s something to be gained from sitting still in the natural world and observing what’s happening. The fundamental core routine of the nature awareness component of that education is literally ‘sit spots,’ sitting in nature day after day, at the same place, same time, and observing the patterns on the landscape of deer, bobcats, birds, coyotes, those types of things.”
It’s really about paying attention.
“When it comes to environmental change, a lot of people, just based on the way society is structured, don’t have a direct relationship with a natural place,” he explains. “They have a relationship with different natural places that they’ve visited or been, or parks that they go to. But it’s kind of like the difference between something happening to someone else’s mother and something happening to your mother.”
Palmer was exactly where he needed to be to get to the next stage.
“That program was really meaningful to me, and it also happens to be where I met my wife. Apparently, RDI is a great place to meet your partner. It’s kind of like a church; you meet people that are based in your faith, whether it’s politics or work-wise, or whatever. That really
narrows down the dating pool.”
Palmer smiles as he thinks back on one pivotal moment. “The first gift she ever got me was a scat identification card. I thought, ‘I knew this woman was special.’ Here she is, she’s beautiful and buying me a card to help me identify mammal excrement.”
“And so the seasons went rolling on into summer, as one rambles into higher and higher grass.” — Thoreau
Figuring out how to actually make a living while making a difference is a tricky business, something that Palmer knew from day one.
“When you’re trying to do work in the do-gooder world, figuring out the economic and lifestyle calculus is hard,” Palmer says. “It’s all well and good when you’re in your 20s, but if you choose to go the route of having grown-up bills and kids and all that, then you’ve got to have a different sort of livelihood. So, I was like, ‘Man, climate change is going to be a problem. Anybody that’s doing work that can help mitigate that is probably going to have job security.’”
Palmer got busy and cold-called every ranch in Marin and Sonoma counties trying to get hired. The response? Crickets.
“Why should they hire me? I had very little to offer.”
But eventually he got picked up for a job doing permaculture design on a Marin ranch and then got hired on at Terra Firma Farms, which delivers weekly organic produce and products to “those who care about what they eat.”
“I managed the ranch operation,” Palmer recalls. “I was pretty green, but I had a capacity for managing projects which came from my time at USD.“
Fast-forward to today, and Palmer finds himself wearing two professional hats. He’s the grassland and cattle manager for the Sonoma Mountain Institute (SMI), a nonprofit that “works to support human beings’ relationship with nature.” He oversees 4,500 acres and about 750 head of strategically placed grazing cattle. It all translates to using integrated methods of soil-building, replanting grasses and trees, water management and providing space for people to get a firsthand experience with nature.
“At one of the ranches we manage, we’ve seen a 162 percent relative increase in species. For us, having more biodiversity is an indicator that the health of the land is moving in the right direction.”
Another big push is soil monitoring, work related to a Healthy Soils Initiative grant that SMI received from the State of California. “We work with the local resource conservation district to measure to see if the compost we use along with grazing are improving the soil carbon.”
In fact, SMI is a demonstration site for the program, which promotes the development of healthy soils, seeking out “innovative farm and land management practices (that) contribute to building adequate soil organic matter that can increase carbon sequestration and reduce overall greenhouse gases.”
Palmer has nothing but good things to say about SMI. “They’re a great organization to work for,” he says with sincerity. “They care about the earth, they care about their people, they value peace and calmness, and those things are rare, I find, in a work reality.”
Calmness is key, particularly in Palmer’s other job, which is as CEO and co-founder of Grounded Grassfed, which “builds biodiversity, nurtures healthy animals and puts healthy food on your table through evolutionary grazing.”
Palmer is adamant that this work is important.
“When you look at the beef that we at Grassfed produce and how it’s raised and you look across this landscape, it doesn’t come at the exclusion of other biodiversity. It actually encourages it. This is a community of which the cattle are just a part. When you look around and see who else gets to live here, guess what? You’ve got mountain lions and bobcats and coyotes and voles and snakes and eagles. It’s amazing.”
Palmer is sensitive to the intricacies involved in agricultural philosophies. “Most folks are doing the best they can,” he says. “But in row crop agriculture, often you’re keeping other life off the land that’s in competition with the plants. In grassland, pasture-based systems, herbivores coexist with so much life. Walk into a soybean field, then walk onto an oak-studded savannah landscape and tell me: Which one do you want to have a picnic at? People say beef is bad without understanding the nuance and ecological context of these production systems.”
And for those meat eaters who want to feel like they’re making an ethical choice with their dining dollar, Grounded Grassfed aims to let customers make an educated choice about what they feed their family.
“It’s super important to be as open and transparent about our process as possible,” he says. “I want folks to be able to make an informed decision.” His customers can buy anywhere from an eighth share of a cow to a whole cow, and come to the ranch to pick up their meat once a year — after cattle are harvested in their prime, typically in late spring.
It’s a full day for customers that includes a ranch tour, an opportunity to meet ranchers, ask questions, and “eat, play, hide and cause trouble in general.”
The end result? “Your freezer ends up filled with things that you feel good about. You don’t have to stare at the grocery store meat case and try to figure out, ‘What lines up with my values and pocketbook?’”
All this talking makes a person hungry, which is not a problem, as it’s lunchtime. After bouncing along yet another bumpy road, we pull up to the house, where Palmer’s wife, Alessa, is dressing a salad while baby Emma scoots along under the watchful eye of her grandpa and the family’s two dogs.
Steaks and burgers are, naturally, part of the family-style lunch buffet.
It all smells and tastes, delicious. As a bonus, it comes without a side-order of guilt. — Julene Snyder
Photographs by Byron Palmer and Chris Parks.