Healthy Land, Happy Families and Profitable Businesses: Stan Parsons’ Legacy
Hazel Parsons emailed me last Wednesday that her husband, Stan, died earlier that day from Covid-19 related pneumonia. I sat staring at the email, absorbing the news and trying to imagine what my life would have been like had I not met Stan.
I first heard of Stan Parsons when I was an undergrad at U.C. Davis studying range management. My professors described Stan and his former partner, Allan Savory, as heretics and snake oil salesmen. “They tell people to move their cows around in circles,” they said. My first reaction was, “I want to meet these guys.”
Years later, as a Range & Livestock Advisor with UC Cooperative Extension, I went to hear Stan and Allan. By then they’d gone their separate ways. Allan started the center for Holistic Management and Stan founded Ranch Management Consultants and the Ranching For Profit School. What I heard didn’t sound like snake oil, and neither said anything about moving cows around in circles. What they did talk about was a new way to think about animals, grass, money and people.
They were espousing regenerative agriculture over 30 years before anyone ever heard the term, and to this day, Stan is the only one who paid more than lip service to profit as an essential part of a sustainable farm or ranch. In fact, Stan’s first book was Putting Profit Into Ranching.
A year after taking Savory’s Holistic Management course I attended my first Ranching For Profit School. I was blown away. Stan simplified complex concepts without dumbing them down. He said, “There’s nothing more useful than a practical theory.” The three secrets for increasing profit, the five cell grazing principles, and ten commandments of drought, proved his point. What resonated even more was Stan’s message that we are not victims of our circumstances. “It’s not the situation, but your response that counts,” he said. He delivered, “Hit problems head on or avoid them entirely,” as a lesson on grazing cell design, but the principle had even bigger implications when applied to your business and your life.
I don’t think most people appreciate how much resistance there was to these concepts when Stan introduced them. People saw his principles and philosophies as threats to the status quo. Producers doing things the “right” way excelled as long as results were measured by animal productivity, not profit. Stan insisted, the target should be profit, and found that the most productive ranches were often among the least profitable. He’d say, “It doesn’t matter if you hit a bull’s-eye if you are aiming at the wrong target.”
He said that a ranch isn’t a business if it isn’t profitable and called farms and ranches that were subsidized with off-ranch income, unpaid family labor and inherited wealth, “hobbies.” That alienated some people. But those who came to RFP found that Stan would work with them tirelessly until they found a pathway to a healthier, more profitable ranch and a happier life.
Stan was the best teacher I’ve ever known. Part of his magic was that he had the class working in teams teaching one another. He explained the concept, then facilitated the group, drawing on everyone’s experiences to explore the implications and applications. For me it meant reinventing my research program at the University. I wanted to see how the Ranching For Profit production and grazing concepts could be applied in California’s annual grasslands.
As good as Stan was in the classroom, he was even better in small groups and one-on-one. I’ve never met anyone who could cut to the heart of a problem as effectively as Stan. He taught me that it was more important to know the right questions than have the right answers. In fact, Stan would often say, “The answer is in the team.” Focusing a team on the right question unleashes tremendous synergy and he always seemed to know exactly the right question.
At my first Ranching For Profit School, Stan asked me if I’d be interested in teaching with him. I thought this was like Garth Brooks asking me to come up on stage and sing with him. I didn’t take him seriously. Several years later he told me that he hadn’t been joking. Within a year I was teaching the school.
The first Ranching For Profit School I taught was in Australia in 1992. Stan probably figured the further away I went from home, the more people would think I knew. I remember teaching day 3 of the school where we dig into the economic model. Stan was standing in the back of the room.
To say I was nervous doesn’t begin to describe how I felt. It wasn’t enough to know the material, I had to know how to teach it. I knew everyone in that class had invested good money and a week of their time to be there. They had high expectations for help dealing with challenges they faced that could determine if they’d keep or lose the ranch. As if that wasn’t enough pressure, there was Stan. Watching someone else teach HIS school must have been like watching his youngest daughter hop on a Harley with a Hell’s Angel.
I froze. I forgot what a trading account was. Gross product? It was like I’d never heard the term before. Stan stepped in and bailed me out.
That evening Stan met with me in the pub for a debriefing. He started the conversation by asking, “David,” (He always called me David) “do you even know what this school is for?”
Coming to my own defense I said, “Sure. It’s to help ranchers build sustainable businesses.” I thought it was a good answer.
Stan just shook his head. “David, the purpose of this school is to change the way people think. It’s to challenge their paradigms.”
At the time I didn’t understand what he was talking about. I’ve since come to learn that challenging paradigms is the key to any meaningful change, and no one was better than Stan at challenging paradigms. The positive impact of those challenges benefited thousands of farm and ranch families and helped them improve the millions of acres they managed.
Eight years after teaching my first Ranching For Profit School, Stan sold RMC to Kathy and me. The twenty years that followed were amazing. Because of Stan, the impact I had professionally increased 1,000-fold. I’ve had the privilege of teaching the school on three continents and working in the most beautiful places with people I admire and love. My association with Stan led to adventures with my family in Australia, Africa, Canada and New Zealand.
Today, when someone has a great experience at an RFP School, or makes a breakthrough in Executive Link, there’s a part of me that thinks, There’s another one you helped, Stan. Stan may be gone, but as long as there’s a Ranching For Profit School, a Grazing For Profit School (Australia) and an Executive Link program, his legacy will grow.
Stan is survived by his wife Hazel, his son David and his daughters, Deana and Ashleigh. Due to the hospital’s Covid-19 restrictions, Hazel was unable to be with him in his room in his last days. While no one was allowed in the building, Hazel was able to visit him through the outside window and he knew she was there, as she always has been for him. She concluded her note encouraging us all to, “Take care of yourselves with this dreadful virus.” If you’d like to send condolences you can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org