Park City restaurateur and farmer Bill White uses holistic land management techniques in attempt to save the soil
Riders on Park City’s Electric Xpress coming from Kimball Junction who glance out the window about halfway through the trip might catch sight of the iconic McPolin Barn that serves as a welcome to visitors and a nod to the area’s agricultural past.
If it’s summertime, they might also see clumps of cattle gathered together in a pen on the property, munching and ruminating. It’s a relatively new sight for modern Parkites but was for decades a regular occurrence when the land was operated as a dairy farm by the McPolin and Osguthorpe families.
The 1- to 3-acre pens are part of a regenerative agriculture technique that land manager Bill White says is part of a plan to restore soil health.
Running cattle on city-owned land has drawn outcry from some environmentally conscious locals who point to stark statistics about methane production and watershed degradation that accompany cattle farming.
White, however, sees cattle as another land-management tool in an ever-increasing arsenal of sometimes fantastic techniques he’s using to try to restore natural balance. Cows are one of more than 30 different plants and animals White’s nonprofit farm cultivates.
“I mean, we grow tomatoes, too,” he said.
He’s investing in intensive, local initiatives like at the McPolin farmland to serve as proof of a larger concept, one he hopes can be scaled up and exported to other mountain towns.
Rather than treating symptoms, White is attempting to address root causes at the center of our unbalanced natural systems. And he thinks fixing the soil is the first step.
“In anything and everything – talking about water quality, crop quality – you can’t do anything without healthy soil,” White said.
The Bill White Agriculture, Education and Sustainability Center manages about 1,200 acres in the area; the McPolin farmland that is subject to the rotational grazing covers about 50. It’s distinct from his restaurant group that has grown to employ about 600 people across eight local restaurants. White describes the nonprofit’s enterprise as holistic land management.
White drew an analogy between the cattle outcry to the city’s electric buses, with batteries that take more energy to produce than they end up saving and that are made with rare earth minerals that are damaging to extract from the earth.
In both cases, despite the issues, White suggested that progress is good.
“Electric buses — they’re an imperfect solution to a big problem,” he said. “(But) if anybody’s doing anything, it’s better than nothing. Right now, it’s the best solution we have.”
Conversations about big problems with Bill White often return to solutions incorporating self-regulating closed-loop systems that, once they’re up and running, do not require much human input.
“Everything is a closed-loop system within nature until a human intervenes,” White said.
One example is the photosynthesis cycle in which a plant grows using the energy of the sun and replaces nutrients in the soil, aiding future plant growth.
There’s a more elaborate example in a farm building off Old Ranch Road, in which White is attempting to fine-tune a system to use fish to add nutrients to water that is then used to grow animal fodder. Eventually, the system converts fish food into cows.
White tends to take the long view of problems and brushes aside symptoms in search of root causes.
Some critics of running cattle on the Park City-owned McPolin farmland have suggested planting more trees to capture carbon from the air.
While trees do sequester carbon, White said, that carbon is released back into the atmosphere when the trees die, offering a temporary solution, albeit one that may last decades.
Soil can store more carbon for longer, and White says for a long time on Earth, it did. When the soil is healthy and an ecosystem is functioning properly, he contends, it retains more carbon. But that balance has been harmed by decades of extractive land management techniques, including industrial-scale monoculture farming.
White is working to regenerate the capacity of the soil on the farmland he manages to bear carbon, but he’s working on a lot more than that.
He wants to create scalable systems that can be used in other places to tackle some of the biggest problems of our time.
That’s a goal that would apparently need to be taken incrementally, and he’s identified the first step is to fix the soil.
“Soil is a dynamic thing everybody takes for granted,” White said. “There’s only a little bit on top of the planet, but it’s the main function that we need to address — to fix global warming, to fix nutrition.”
He claims a carrot grown in 1950 was fully 50% more nutritious than one grown today, as monoculture farming has extracted trace chemicals out of the soil that were once prevalent like boron and magnesium.
Industrial farming, White said, also contributes to climate change by releasing the carbon captured in the soil into the atmosphere when it’s tilled.
He uses a no-till seed drill to minimize soil disturbance and a 40-seed mixture for cover crops to encourage biodiversity. He also uses compost and manure on the fields and each field is planned to have a buffer of pollinator gardens for bees.
White talks about well-established soil that is largely self-regulating with fungal networks that pass nutrients back and forth on a sort of fungi-assisted underground stock market.
To White, weeds aren’t a problem in themselves, but merely a symptom of an underlying soil imbalance.
“Every weed is communicating (something like) there’s a calcium deficiency, a magnesium deficiency,” White said.
A cluster of farm buildings off Old Ranch Road houses what Bill White referred to as “the laboratory,” home to some of White’s indoor-farming experiments. There are hundreds of chickens pecking at piles of restaurant scraps, including, incongruously orange peels.
The chickens’ eggs go to the bakery, and the unsold bakery items come back to the chickens, one more example of the closed loop systems White prefers.
Perhaps the grandest example of that type of thinking is the fish farm and fodder system in one of the farm buildings.
A 100,000-gallon tank holds hundreds of goldfish that naturally excrete ammonia, a potent plant food. The water is circulated through a system where it feeds germinated seeds of animal fodder like oats and rye, which can then be fed to livestock throughout the winter. It creates sod-like mats that White envisions rolling up and throwing on the back of a four-wheeler to take to the animals.
A 50-pound bag of seed will yield 250 pounds of food, and the growing time is only seven days. Each day, White predicts, the system could yield 3,000-5,000 pounds of animal feed, with the major inputs being fish food, water, sunlight, time and labor to germinate the seeds.
It’s also grown inside a relatively small building and is not beholden to changing seasons, which White said will become increasingly important as more farmland is developed.
The goldfish are “canaries in the coal mine” White said. Once he gets the ammonia cycle dialed in, he said, he envisions using rainbow trout and selling them as food.
On the McPolin farmland, White is aiming to use rotational grazing to restore nutrients to the soil by adding manure to the system, which he said offers immediately available nutrients to plant life after cows have broken plant material down with their teeth and the microbes in their stomachs. And the cattle’s hooves physically break down the layer of thatch that built up after years of haying operations ceased, allowing nutrients to get into the soil.
He’s also reforming the land’s water infrastructure by dredging streams and adding culverts.
Critics have debated whether the idea has merit — and whether flatulent cows are worthy of a debate at all — but White doesn’t seem bothered. He’s confident in the technique but more confident in the science he and his team are planning to do using the land by taking detailed soil borings to measure carbon uptake year over year and keeping a patch of land untouched as a control sample.
Cheryl Fox is the executive director of the Summit Land Conservancy, which holds the conservation easement on the McPolin farmland. She said the first year’s numbers looked very strong, but they’re waiting for more data to draw conclusions.
“(The initial results are) way better than we thought,” Fox said. “We need to make sure they’re right.”
White said the soil samples test for a couple dozen variables, including carbon, organic material, phosphorous and others.
She added they’re planning to do studies over the next three years.
Fox is a believer in stewarding land to try to achieve pre-Columbian levels of naturalness and biodiversity, a goal she allows is made challenging by the conveniences of modern life, like roads.
Still, she said, “we’ve gotta get back to balance.”
Fox explained that rotational grazing mimics the movements of early herd animals like bison and elk that would pause in an area to eat and then be chased away by apex predators, forest fires or other types of potential calamity.
Fox said visiting land where White’s land management style has taken hold has a palpable effect.
“The wildlife that has come back to other properties that Bill is working on in the area as result of regenerative agriculture — from the bees to the microorganisms all the way up to elk,” Fox said. “You go out in these fields with the cover crops, the different watering systems — it’s unbelievable. It’s cooler, it’s lush — again, the biodiversity is so apparent. These are important things if we’re going to figure out how we’re going to fit however many billions of us on this planet.”
White refers back to a hand-drawn chart that shows concentric and overlapping circles of what he sees as the goals of the Bill White Agriculture, Education and Sustainability Center. As the circles get larger, they show how the work is in conversation with other aspects of the foundation’s mission, including supporting the community and education. Smaller circles denote individual projects, like composting, biochar and intentional grazing.
At the middle is the goal to reconnect our human spirit to the natural earth and to each other.
White said the food grown at Bill White Farms goes first to frequent charity dinners to raise money for other nonprofits, then to the food bank and then to his eight restaurants. According to the director of the Christian Center of Park City, White donates about 400 pounds of food each month to the nonprofit, where he also serves on the board.
After years in the restaurant industry, White said land management takes the majority of his focus these days.
He said it rankles him to have so many projects unfinished, but there are seemingly infinite challenges to take on and solutions to find, like mycelial remediation that uses mushrooms to take heavy metals out of soils, sequestering the carbon from deadfall and landscaping debris using techniques like biochar and heading off the disastrous trend of bee colony collapse.
Only two of his 15 hives survived last year, and he’s redesigning the structures.
“I think it’s something to do with the condensation,” he said.
For now, though, White is concentrating on holistic land management. He recently agreed to manage 700 acres near Woodland that will be the winter home for the cows, saving the stress on the animals and the carbon impact of shipping them to Skull Valley in Tooele County.
Eventually, he’d like to breed a heartier strain that can better survive winters here.
When White was working on the fish-to-fodder system, he bought a pre-fabricated piece of equipment that cost thousands of dollars to serve as the structure of the irrigation system.
The flimsy trays are now in a loft in the barn, and he uses a system he designed with parts from a home improvement store.
That sort of incremental improvement — learning from a lackluster solution and improving it through trial and error — is at the heart of White’s land management enterprises.
“It’s an ongoing process, not like you’re finished. Once you fix it, you’re not done, that’s just how you do it (from now on),” White said. “Once you start dallying with nature, it’s a commitment.”
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