Sallie Calhoun

Founder, #NoRegrets Initiative, Cienega Capital, Globetrotter Foundation and Paicines Ranch

What is Sallie doing to have No Regrets?

I believe that we really can sequester carbon to mitigate climate change, increase diversity, and produce more nutritious food, while supporting thriving human communities.  It is the work I can’t NOT do.

The story of the #NoRegrets Initiative begins in February, 2001, when my husband and I did the craziest thing we had ever done – we bought the Paicines Ranch in central California.  My husband fell in love with the land the first time he saw it from the road.  When the housing development slated for the ranch failed to get approval in August, 2000, and we sold our tech company in the same month, we decided it was meant to be.  Neither of us had any knowledge of ranching or land management.

My only qualification was that of an urban environmentalistI immediately began to suspect that most of what I “knew” about ranching might be not entirely correct.  A few months later, I was introduced to Allan Savory’s decision making framework, Holistic Management.  The idea I took from that was that, maybe, by changing the way we managed livestock on CA grasslands, we could bring back the native perennial grasses.  It all made sense to me as a long-time organic gardener and grower of native perennial grasses in my garden.  That was the hook that lodged in my brain and was the start of this amazing journey that I have been on since then.

It was an adventure in learning.  I am an engineer, and the best way for me to learn something is to try it myself.  Since buying the ranch I have raised and marketed grass fed beef, run seasonal stockers, tried to build a packing plant on-site, run a packing plant in the central valley, created an event center, served on various boards, attended lots of conferences, hosted numerous convenings and learned a phenomenal amount.  The biggest thing I learned was that hanging out with farmers and ranchers and learning about soil and plants and ecosystems was what I wanted to do.

Starting about ten years ago, I began to meet people who talked about knowing where your money is in the world and what it is up to.  You may be saving the world with one hand, but your money may be off nicely undoing everything that you are working on.  I was intrigued by this idea, but really resisted it.  I didn’t want this particular hook in my brain because I wanted to hang out on the land with farmers and ranchers.  I did not want to spend a moment sitting in meeting rooms under fluorescent lights with men in suits.

It took several years and a good deal of angst, but I came up with an idea.  Maybe, I could use what I was learning in my everyday work on the ranch and in agricultural circles to invest my money in ways that would make a positive difference.  I started slowly with a few loans.  I kept at it, and in 2015, we formed an investment company, Cienega Capital, to move money more effectively and quickly.  It was only natural, given where I was hanging out, that I would encounter philanthropic opportunities in the ag space.  I began grant making on a very small scale.  In 2013 we started a small family foundation which enabled me not only to make grants, but also to do convening and programming.

Over the last 5 years or so the focus of all of this work has crystallized around the importance of healthy soil.  The science is advancing quickly and so is the innovation by farmers and ranchers.  I am totally intrigued by the possibility that we can grow food, fuel, and fiber in a way that regenerates the ecosystems where they are grown.  To me, the idea of sustainable agriculture where we work not to make things worse never resonated.  The challenge of working with nature and human communities to farm in a way that provides for us and makes the earth healthier is totally compelling.  I believe that we really can sequester carbon to mitigate climate change, increase diversity, and produce more nutritious food, while supporting thriving human communities.  It is the work I can’t NOT do.

We call the combined work that is happening on the ground in Paicines, through our investments at Cienega Capital, and through our grant making and programming at the Globetrotter Foundation, the No Regrets Initiative.  Carbon sequestration in soil has been called a No Regrets Negative Emissions Technology because returning carbon in the form of abundant, diverse life to our soil would be one of the most important jobs of the 21st century, even if it had no impact on climate change.  I also want to be able to tell my grandchildren that I did everything I could think of to address climate change.

Our mission is to improve the health of agricultural soils in North America.  I chose to work only in North America because it is the cultural context I understand the best, and I don’t want to fly around the world.  Plus, we really are the big promoters of industrial agriculture.  We should fix what is happening here and stop exporting it.  We invest in producers, their customers, and their vendors using whatever form of capital is appropriate to the situation, and we work alongside innovative farmers and scientists on the ground every day.  It is pure joy to think of all of my assets working together to make the change I want to see in the world – and I still get to spend my time talking about cows, sheep, cover crops, and soil biology with a group of amazing people.