Picking up from last post. The interweaving nodes of ecology, local, social, health, humane, and taste.
Ecology: One of the most damaging arguments against sustainable agriculture is the idea that modern industrial farms can produce far more than a labor-intensive, diversified, ecologically-minded operation. I have often heard all the criticism of the damage done by industrial farms swept right under the rug simply because of the belief that there is no other way to feed the amount of people existing on the earth today. Forget about the fact that we are insuring that we won’t be able to feed the generations on down the road. Consumption of the resources we have available now is even considered by some the duty of American citizens. The illusion of productivity lies simply in the myopic focus on the output of a single acre for a single product. The output looks impressive mainly because the inputs are both glossed over and are immensely subsidized. Some crops themselves are subsidized, but with an industrial system that is utterly dependent on oil energy from the planting, to the chemicals, to the spraying, to the harvesting, and to the ridiculous amount of transportation, the entire system is dependent on the American machinations that keep oil cheap. I’ve seen statistics range from 10 to even 20 calories of fuel used to get one calorie of food eaten by the consumer. The agricultural industry still has little notion of maximum versus optimum.
The champion of bushel per acre is corn, which is a plant well suited to growing tightly together in row upon row as long as immense amounts of fertilizers are added to support its growth. Between subsidies and its ability to grow well in crowded mono-crop systems, corn average yields of 170 per acre are touted as the answer to world hunger. This is utterly disingenuous as this type of corn is unfit for human consumption. It either goes towards animal feed or it has to be processed in order for humans to consume it in the form of high fructose corn syrup and such. I am guessing that my audience is quite familiar with the myriad of health issues related to our society’s consumption of this form of corn.
I was supposed to be writing about what sustainability is… I wanted to highlight the claim of modern industrial productivity in order to compare it to that of Nature. First to address is that of sheer quantity. Obviously nature does not produce 170 bushels of corn on an acre, but the sheer biomass of the diverse forage on a well-managed pasture can top corn, and without the insane amount of inputs. In the animal realm, when speaking of sheer quantity, I think immediately of the wildebeest and zebra herds, North American bison, or the waterfowl that once thrived in the sounds of the East Coast. Populations of tens of millions that were maintained through centuries, all while strengthening the ecosystems they interacted with.
This highlights several different principles that should never be far from the farmer’s mind. First, the key to quantity with the part of the ecosystem that remains in place, i.e. the plants, is diversity rather than monocrop. And for the animals, it is movement. Migration in the wild is imitated by rotation on the farm. There is nothing wrong with high-density stock of animals, as long as they are kept moving. The grasses and pastures have actually evolved to thrive in such a system. Bison came along by the millions and ate the grass down to nothing. Roots died underneath, providing food and organic material for the entire ecosystem going on below ground. The grass can handle this, even thrives, as long as the herd has moved on and the vegetation has a chance to recover. This is how the Midwestern soils were created; the soils that we are now rapidly depleting.
And when looking at the issue from the angle of energy, depletion of soil is a downright crime and sheer stupidity. From one vantage point, our farm is not primarily a meat producer. Rather we are in the business of solar energy. Nature has her own ‘solar panels’ that outperform anything man has ever produced. One of the most impressive ‘solar panels’ is a well-managed pasture. Through photosynthesis the grass converts energy into an available and usable product. The animals on the pasture are there to convert the ‘solar panel’ into food as well as to maintain the health of the pasture. The system of a feedlot literally tramples and destroys one of the best energy converters in existence. Instead of using the livestock as a form of pressure that promotes the growth of the pasture, as well as returning fertility through their manure and urine, modern agriculture (to loosely quote Wendell Berry) turns a beautiful system into a number of problems.
Rotation is a labor-intensive endeavor, but essential to mimicking the principles found in Nature. Not only does it make us more productive, but we can proudly say that we have made the land healthier than when we first began to use it. And we have done this without any synthetic fertilizer or other energy intensive practices. Between the sun, the rain, the soil, and managing Nature’s currency of eating, our solar panel is healthy and productive. That is both sustainable and meaningful.