Farm Blog

  • Beyond Reason – leaps and gestalts

    There is much more to Kierkegaardian leaps than arguing with vegan absolutists. Our minds make non-rational leaps far more than we might think. Stories circulate about people from primitive societies that initially cannot process what a photograph represents. Having no prior experience with two dimensional objects representing three dimensions in such detail, they initially see random lines and shapes even if the photograph is of completely familiar objects or of their own faces. I had the parallel experience when I first saw the computer-generated 3-D pictures made with dots. It took a good long while before my eyes sort of blurred and suddenly an eagle or a boat or whatever seemed to emerge from the picture. We think nothing of interpreting a photograph, but every time we see a picture our brain has to see the pattern and make the leap from the second dimension to the third. In philosophical circles this is called a gestalt. Gestalt literally means ‘pattern’ but is typically explained by saying the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

    Gestalt patterns and leaps are not solely functions of the mind. I have already written about supersaturated solutions that need a catalyst to provoke the leap from a liquid state to the solid crystallization. Quantum physics understands that electrons leap from one state of energy to another pretty much instantaneously. Biologically, science now understands that our bodies are more pattern than an aggregate of limbs, organs, blood and chemicals. In fact, our bodies are many different patterns interconnected into a larger pattern. I have heard that it takes about 7 years for all our cells to have been completely replaced with new ones. Whether it is the skin exfoliating or the more dramatic case of liver re-growing itself, our DNA holds the patterns of the different parts. We literally are not the same physical person we were as kids. All our cells have been replaced numerous times. What is continuous is the pattern, the gestalt. It is noteworthy that cancer occurs when old or damaged cells that would normally be replaced do not die. They mutate instead. They can also begin trying to change the existing pattern and start reproducing other cells based on their deformed pattern thus creating tumors and such. I believe this is a good reminder for a culture (not just the vegan) that is abnormally fearful of pain and death.

    Understanding the world as intricate and interwoven patterns is in stark contrast to the enlightenment, mechanistic worldview that reduces and fragments everything into individual, atomistic parts. As Wendell Berry says, it is the exploitive mind that divides and conquers. This is the context in which Berry criticizes specialization so harshly. The factory mentality is structured on fragmentation where the work is divided into individual, repetitive, and separate acts. Only such a reductionist mentality could conceive of monocrops and massive feedlots, as if plants and animals grow in a vacuum separate from any pattern or system. This is the worldview that speaks in terms of yield, mechanical efficiency, energy consumption, and waste. The language of gestalts is chiefly concerned with how things are interrelated. And when things relate to each other within their proper niches, suddenly we have language that speaks of synergy and emergence. A creative process where you are never quite sure what will leap or emerge out of the patterns. This is also why diversification is not just an economical strategy of mitigating risk—it is the strength and health of synergistic systems. A multi-species farm recognizes that animal species interact with one another, that interact with many different vegetation species, that interacts with a soil, that, when healthy, is as complex and diversified as anything above ground. The skill and challenge for the farmer is how best to organize these patterns for optimal health and sustainable productivity.

    I want to end with one more everyday example of gestalt that I find very encouraging:

    Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at an Elingsh uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is that the frist and lsat ltteer is at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a  toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae we do not raed ervey lteter by itslef but the wrod as a wlohe.

     

    This is a testimony to the power of gestalt that still works when things are not perfect. If you can get some basic principles right, analogous to the first and last letters, even if you screw up so many of the details in between, good things can still happen. These last thirteen years on the farm have been full of learning curve after learning curve. The complexity and the numerous professional hats we have to don to keep astride the system quickly shines a light on all that we don’t know. We will always be learning and trying to spell out ‘words’ more and more correctly, but it is nice to know we can still do some good even if we don’t get all the details quite right.

  • The Limits of Reason – pt. 2

    A ridiculously prolific writer, Kierkegaard is often considered the father of existentialism. He eschewed the absolutism of broad philosophical explanatory systems and put the onus on the individual to pursue meaning and truth. In an oversimplification of his works, one could say Kierkegaard believed we looked at life through at least three different frameworks; namely the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. For my purposes, I am not interested in the categories, but rather the mechanism of moving from one perspective to the other. This is the context for Kierkegaard’s famous leap of faith. Each stage is broader and truer than the next, but from the perspective of the lower stages, the higher ones look paradoxical and contradictory. Reason cannot be your guide, and Kierkegaard goes as far as to say there has to be a death and denial of your reasoning for the leap to occur into a broader perspective. Once in a higher stage, one can look back in retrospect and see the reason and rationality of what one believes, but this is only after the leap.

    So what is the incentive for the leap? Let me turn to another religious writer who was a mystic at heart. In Orthodoxy G. K. Chesterton writes:

                    “The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason… [His] explanation of a thing is always complete, and often in a purely rational sense satisfactory. Or, to speak more strictly, the insane explanation, if not conclusive, is at least unanswerable… If a man says (for instance) that men have a conspiracy against him, you cannot dispute it except by saying that all the men deny that they are conspirators; which is exactly what conspirators would do. His explanation covers the facts as much as yours…

                    “Nevertheless he is wrong. But if we attempt to trace error in exact terms, we shall not find it quite so easy as had supposed… his mind moves in a perfect but narrow circle. A small circle is quite as infinite as a large circle; but though it is quite as infinite, it is not so large. In the same way the insane explanation is quite as complete as the sane one, but it is not so large… the strongest and most unmistakable mark of madness is this combination between a logical completeness and a spiritual contraction… I mean that if you or I were dealing with a mind that was growing morbid, we should be chiefly concerned not so much to give it arguments as to give it air, to convince it that there was something cleaner and cooler outside the suffocation of a single argument.

                    “In these cases it is not enough that the unhappy man should desire truth; he must desire health… A man cannot think himself out of mental evil; for it is actually the organ of thought that has become diseased, ungovernable, and, as it were, independent. He can only be saved by will or faith. The moment his mere reason moves, it moves in the old circular rut; he will go round and round his logical circle, just as a man in a third-class carriage on the Inner Circle will go round and round the Inner Circle unless he performs the voluntary, vigorous, and mystical act of getting out at Gower Street.”

    These witty passages speak for themselves, but how might this apply to Mr. Kip Andersen? From my perspective, those who are vegans solely on moral grounds of killing animals have shrunk their world to one that no longer fits in the systems of Nature. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that they place themselves in the wrong niche for reasons that Nature has never acknowledged.  The truth is we are not very efficient vegans. Our protein needs as a vegan are met in creative ways, often requiring products like soy that are almost exclusively grown in unsustainable, monocrop systems. Yet even if you managed to eat vegan in the most responsible way, you will never match the efficiency of a ruminant and her four-chambered stomach who feeds off a perennial ecosystem. Even if only at a subconscious level, I imagine there is some sort of discord felt when in the wrong niche. I felt it keenly in the film when Kip was pleased to present a company that was making meat-like products from vegetable bases for much less energy loss than typical meat production. Great! Not doing as much damage… Yet when in the right niche, Nature is not about mitigating damage, but synergistically creating abundance; like the ruminant in her grass-based ecosystem.

    The other obvious discord is a moral standard that is contrary to Nature’s essential mechanisms. As I have said elsewhere, eating is Nature’s currency. As essential as the ruminant is to keep her ecosystem healthy, if her population is allowed to run rampant and grow out of proper proportion to her ecosystem, she becomes the destructive force that we are all so aware of. This is true from areas of desertification to riparian health in areas of high rainfall. Nature keeps this balance by somebody higher up the food chain eating the ruminant that has thrived off of the abundance of the whole system. Yet if the anti-killing vegan remains consistent, eventually the animals they claim to revere will one day come under their judgement, except for (ironically) ruminants perhaps. From the wolf pack, to the beloved whales, down to the lady bug that eats aphids, these predators, by definition are morally inferior to all plant-life and herbivores. Clearly this is an example of Chesterton’s combination of logical completeness and spiritual contraction. Surely there has to be some uncomfortable disconnect when it is argued that eating animals is wrong because it harms animals that eat animals.

    My strategy, in confronting vegans that proclaim people such as me as addicted killers of sentient beings, would be to emphasize that I’m part of a greater system that has been around since the beginning. They have the freedom and the right to believe Nature does not know what she is doing, but is that healthy? Is it enjoyable? Can you even feel connected to this world outside of man-made communities? The Gnosticism that claims we, with our rational minds, are separate and superior to the world of biology and no longer sees ourselves as animals and thus claims to be exempt from Nature’s patterns and rules, has a long history of producing people that feel existentially bankrupt. Is that really a tradition vegans want to embrace and be a part of? Mind you, veganism is not inherently wrong. There may be many localities where it is the least harmful way of life in our screwed up system. Or even simply because you personally don’t like the thought of killing animals—still not a problem. But to claim its moral superiority by placing a moral injunction against killing strikes me as a classic spiritual contraction.

    I don’t want suffocation, I desire synergy. I don’t want simply mitigation, I desire abundance. I’m not looking to assuage my guilt, I desire health. I don’t even have to have the higher moral ground, I desire connection and a sense of belonging to my world around me. That world does not just include my fellow women and men, but the animals, the grass and the soil as well.

  • The Limits of Reason – pt. 1

    “Figures never lie, but liars always figure…”

    I finally watched the ‘documentary’ Cowspiracy.  What a shame as it had such potential to expose how destructive modern agriculture is today.  At first I thought it not worth even critiquing as any high school student could point out its numerous flaws and heavy-handed techniques.  It should not surprise me how something so unprofessional can have such an impact, but I could hardly believe how many claims were made without rigorous fact-checking.  I thought it bad enough when Kip Anderson came up with random statistics (popping up on screen over his thinking head) where he calculated you needed 10 acres per grass-fed cow.  Almost laughed when his ‘back-yard farmer’ was some suburbanite duck hobbyist who wasn’t all too comfortable at killing his flock.  But when he began showing images of animal suffering whenever he talked to or about someone he disagreed with, I got downright pissed.  He wasn’t just using vilification techniques when interviewing someone who defended factory farming, but Alan Savory was dismissed as an elephant killer so that the ‘documentary’ could go on its merry way without addressing significant issues of animal-driven answers to climate change.

    Like I said, hardly worth giving the film enough credit to even engage with it.  But it got me thinking about why so often the baby gets thrown out with the bathwater, and why people who care about important issues can have such myopic vision.  How we approach issues depends on our worldview, and our worldview often is based on a few non-negotiables.  It became quite clear early in the film that a non-negotiable for Kip was the killing of animals.  The poor guy was torn up after watching two ducks get slaughtered with a hatchet.  Can’t imagine how he would feel if he ever watched a pride of lions take down a large animal that puts up a fight for hours before succumbing to its wounds.  And I find this non-negotiable the case for far too many vegans.  Damage to the environment typically feels like a convenient argument to bolster their claim that we should not kill animals.

    The interesting thing about non-negotiables is that we cannot be reasoned out of them.  Check out any discussion of a polarized issue and you will quickly see how impotent reason truly is.  Despite all the arguments made, I think many people subconsciously realize how ineffective reasoning is when engaging their adversary, and consequently most discussions dissolve into name-calling.  Any chink in the armor is quickly patched up by going back to your respective camp and getting affirmation at how right your own worldview is.  This is true whether your non-negotiable is about not killing or if you believe animals are essential to sustainable agriculture.  True whether you believe we have a right to fly any flag, or that the confederate flag is inescapably racist.  True whether you believe abortion is murder or that women’s reproductive rights are essential.  Whether government is solely for infrastructure and military purposes or whether part of its responsibility is caring for the poor.  You get my point.  Not only is our ability to see the world through the eyes of others typically abysmal, but our interaction discussing any of these dynamite issues tends to polarize camps even further.

    This is not to say we shouldn’t strive to make our positions as reasonable as possible and back our claims up with scientific stats etc…  Every one of Kip Andersen’s claims and stats have been refuted and properly nuanced by people much more knowledgeable than me, and it is important to hear those arguments, but such reasoning will not convince many Vegans; certainly not a single soul who holds fast to the creed that we should never kill animals. They will cling to their stats and we will cling to ours.

    So how do we approach someone on the other side of a chasm?  Philosophy has a few things to say about this. To be continued…

  • Are Cow Farts Really the Issue?

    Now and then I run across the question of ruminants contributing to climate change in regards to methane. It’s an odd question at best, and I find it very indicative of our compartmentalizing, reductionist world view. It is ever so common to see people run figures and stats with a very myopic understanding of the issue, connecting dots in only the most simplistic and linear fashion. Enteric fermentation, otherwise known to the normal person as farts from a ruminant, is a classic example of data utterly divorced from the system as a whole. Not surprising in the least, seen as the most guilty ruminant of methane farts, the cow, has itself been completely divorced from her ecosystem, thrown into feedlots or giant milking barns where her essential role in the ecosystem has not only been rendered obsolete, but has been morphed into a detrimental problem with negative consequences. Let me break it down a bit.

    When I go to the EPA website, (http://www3.epa.gov/climatechange/ghgemissions/gases/ch4.html) I find these statistics. Methane accounts for 10% of USA greenhouse gas emissions. That 10% is broken down into a pie chart as follows:

    • 29% Natural Gas & Petroleum Systems
    • 26% Enteric Fermentation
    • 18% Landfills
    • 10% Coal Mining
    • 10% Manure Management
    • 8% Other

    Even though gas and petroleum systems is the largest chunk of the pie, the manure management gets paired with enteric fermentation as the agricultural percentage and suddenly domestic animals are causing 36% of our methane emissions. Manure management is the euphemism for excrement lagoons or other large masses of animal feces that are gathered together as “waste” and the anaerobic conditions allow the methane to build up and emit as gas. In classic reductionist form, the answer to this problem is not to question the system, but to build yet another technologically complicated contraption that gathers the methane, pipes it to some engine that has the capacity to convert the gas into usable energy. (Remember Mad Max and the Thunder Dome anyone?) This is in contrast to a well-managed pasture that has not been subjected to chemical fertilizer, pesticides, or herbicides which all do heavy damage to the essential ecosystem that goes on below ground in the soil. Healthy soil, among a gazillion other things, has methanatrophic bacteria, which (low and behold) breaks down the methane in the manure.

    But that still leaves you with that quarter of a pie piece made from ruminant farts. And this is where you get suggestions ranging from feeding the cows more grain so they ruminate less to denouncing beef and dairy altogether as a pollution source. At this point, I either laugh or cry at the sheer blindness of our whole agricultural worldview. An analogy that comes to mind is of a serious biker that wants to reduce the weight she has to carry and propel. Caught up in the spirit of reducing weight, she sees the chain is made of fairly heavy metal and decides that this heavy thing has gotta go. The ruminant, when in her proper ecological niche, is as essential as the chain to make grass-based ecosystems work. I have argued in an earlier post that our pasture is an unmatched solar panel. Grassland soil is also a phenomenal carbon sequestering system in the form of humus. And the ruminant can keep this whole system healthy without the input of oil-dependent grain. I can’t think of a more beneficial and sustainable animal for the farm.

    Yet when I look at a random guide to eating meat in an environmentally conscious way, I find that beef and lamb are considered the worst choices. (#@!#$^%&*???!!!) Don’t just throw the chain out, I think those wheels are looking kind of heavy as well!! Our biggest expense by far on our farm is feed costs—even with government subsidies of grain. We’re pretty happy if we can get chickens or hogs to get 25% of their feed intake from the pasture. Like getting their green veggies. The pasture intake is vital for the health benefits and taste in pasture-raised meat. But as omnivores without 4-chambered stomachs, poultry and hogs need grain to sustain their high production. Omnivores do not have near the capacity to convert pasture into meat like ruminants. Our sheep, on the other hand, are 100% grass-fed. Green pasture and supplemental hay in the winter from our own pastures is all they get. (Actually to be completely literally true, we do give them mineral supplements for salt and vital trace minerals. So make that 99.9999% grass-fed.) Daily rotations for the sheep are a lot of work, but we cut out literal tons of input, all while ameliorating our carbon-sequestering solar panel. Nature has used ruminants by the millions to be a driving force in creating and maintaining healthy ecosystems. Methane emissions were never a problem until the industrial revolution. My money is on Nature knowing what works best, and I plan on mimicking her as best as I can on our farm.

  • Sustainability – taste

    Continuing with the interweaving nodes of ecology, local, social, health, humane, and taste.

     

    Personally, there is something almost mystical about the fact that built into the fabric of the world around us there is a synergistic interplay between being ecologically and socially responsible, the health we derive from our food, the meaningfulness found in taking care of contented animals, and last but not least, that it would taste so darn good. Too often, socially and environmentally responsible activities give us little more than a cerebral absolution of guilt. While many of us spend the energy to sort out our recycling and make the effort to separate it into the different bins rather than add to the landfills that few of us have ever seen, there is nothing inherently pleasurable about the activity. We are simply mitigating the damage. There is no synergy of pleasure within the system, because the system itself is one of industry and waste. Waste itself is a man-made concept, utterly foreign to Nature. Whether it is animal feces or decomposing bodies, every output of a natural system becomes an input into another intersecting system.

    Other responsible activities often tack an outside reward to help induce action. Send money to an environmental cause and you’ll receive this wonderful tote bag. Carpool to save gas and you can use the special HOV highway lane. Start a green energy business and the government will subsidize you to help you get started. Let me be clear that I am not against these outside motivators. What I wish to point out is that while these may be necessary jump start measures, they aren’t the real thing because they are not inherently part of a truly healthy and responsible system. In other words, it is not a sustainable approach.

    I grew up in a community that preached very strongly against instant gratification. There were many good reasons for such warnings, but unfortunately it created a posture of suspicion towards pleasure itself. No doubt there were echoes of Puritanism and our good ol’ friend Gnosticism. As a young adult I came upon the religious writer C. S. Lewis who turned the whole gnostic attitude towards pleasure on its head. Some of you may recognize his writings that said it wasn’t that pleasure and desire were in anyway bad, but that we didn’t know how to desire deeply enough. Like an ignorant kid who wants to stay in a slum making mud pies because the child couldn’t imagine what an offer to play at a beach meant. For Lewis there was the mercenary reward “which has no natural connection with the things you do to earn it and is quite foreign to the desires that ought to accompany those things.” And in contrast, “the proper rewards are not simply tacked on to the activity for which they are given, but are the activity itself in consummation.”

    Here was a guy who cared deeply about literature and the arts and it drove him crazy when he found himself in circles that pretended to be cultured when they cared much more about the social status of being hip. At one point Lewis writes. “Those who read poetry to improve their minds will never improve their minds by reading poetry. For the true enjoyments must be spontaneous and compulsive and look to no remoter end. The Muses will submit to no marriage of convenience. The desirable habit of mind, if it is to come at all, must come as a by-product, unsought…In the same way, after a certain kind of sherry party, where there have been cataracts of culture but never one word or one glance that suggested a real enjoyment of any art, any person, or any natural object, my heart warms to the schoolboy on the bus who is reading Fantasy and Science Fiction, rapt and oblivious of all the world beside. For here also I should feel that I had met something real and live and unfabricated; genuine literary experience, spontaneous and compulsive, disinterested.”

    At the risk of sounding all too hokey, this is why I feel that the pleasure of taste is the customer’s key to participating in the activity of farming sustainable food. Buying out of some vague environmental duty, or worse, to be hip, does not truly participate in such an activity and is in fact rather unflattering to the farmer. But taking the time to make a delicious, tasty meal from the products of sustainable operations simply because you enjoy it allows your pleasure to participate in the entire system. The customer’s pleasure becomes the farmer’s greatest compliment. Pleasure is the essential consummation of sustainability.

     

    *** quotes taken from Lilies That Fester and The Weight of Glory

  • Sustainability – health and humane

    Continuing with the interweaving nodes of ecology, local, social, health, humane, and taste.

     

    It is quite sad when the typical American diet makes the average consumer unhealthy, and for some downright sick. I believe there are plenty of other people that can speak with a good deal more authority on the issues of health and humane treatment, so I’ll focus on what I might add to the typical discussion. For serious and scientifically documented discussions on Omega-3 fatty acids, conjugated linoleic acid, vitamins and minerals I personally suggest www.eatwild.com. Find your own source for inhumane treatment since I have long stopped looking at related sites or books. I have seen enough and frankly they make me sick to my stomach.

    There is a serious flaw in the government’s approach to food safety. Rather than being about promoting health, USDA or FDA is typically about setting limits on toxins. Much like cancer radiation that must assess the maximum tolerated dose the patient can handle, safety regulations usually are about maximum acceptable toxic concentrations. This creates a binary system where one is choosing between what will definitely be detrimental to your health and what you hope won’t be detrimental to your health. There is not even an acknowledgement of food that doesn’t even hold possibilities of these risks because the medication or chemicals were not part of the equation. Definitely those limits of toxicity must absolutely be there and be strictly enforced to protect us from serious harm, but a mechanistic view of food that sees only calories divided into fats, protein, and carbohydrates can never have a meaningful discussion concerning health.

    This same maximum tolerable mentality applies to both humans and the animals being raised. Luckily most of these toxins do not concentrate up the food chain, so the negatives are being minimalized. But what about the positives? That’s why I breathe this sigh of relief when I read from sites like eatwild about the benefits of healthy food. Ah yes, this food is good for you for x, y, and z. These vegetables have very high anti-toxins. This type of meat keeps your heart healthy and promotes your good cholesterol. Man, what a difference from the advice of don’t-eat-tuna-more-than-once-a-month-or-else… Let’s just leave it at healthy plants and healthy animals make for healthy eating. Phew.

    Part of health for both animal and human is a measure of happiness. This is where the issue of humane is brought to bear. Not only does it strike me as morally unacceptable to treat animals like automated food dispensers, but without letting them express their natural tendencies, they will not be as a happy and inevitably will not be as healthy, and simply will not be as good for you to eat. The contentment of the animals also directly affects the farmer’s approach to his work. If you ever watch a sow, who has farrowed outdoors on a pleasant pasture, lie down and let her piglets suckle, you’ll notice that she is just as content if not more so than her piglets competing for the teats. When you just can’t help but stop for a bit and smile, it does wonders for your motivation to work. I can hardly imagine the converse where you are the worker who has to check on the thousands upon thousands of hogs in a huge building where the sows are kept in metal cages, forced to stay on their side in order for their piglets to suckle. If I was that worker, I think my soul would just shrivel up and die. Humane conditions provides contentment for both animal and farmer, and without some degree of contentment, I wouldn’t be in this business for the long haul.

  • Sustainability – local and social

    Continuing with the interweaving nodes of ecology, local, social, health, humane, and taste.

     

    Nothing highlights the interconnection of local and global quite like the issue of energy. Our American way of life, so dependent on oil, plays its part in the destruction and destabilization rampant in other places in the world. If we don’t own up to our complicity in the violence found in areas such as the Middle East, we cannot truly help to find a solution. It’s one thing to insist it is morally wrong to invade a country for control of its oil, but if our way of life continues as is, foreign policy has little choice but to try and provide for our energy ‘needs’.

    Local food is the simplest and most straight forward way I know of to ensure a drastic cut of energy consumption. To cut out the middle man as well as the transportation to a packaging facility and then on to a distribution center, saves both money and energy. And when the money paid for food actually goes to the farmer, there is more of a chance she or he will remain as a caretaker of the land. According to the National Farmers Union, farmers receive around 16 cents per food dollar spent by consumers. Not only does this make farming financially unfeasible, but it demonstrates what is valued in our culture. The marketing, processing, and distribution get the lion’s share, while the actual food being produced is almost an afterthought.

    Socially, you cannot maintain a community, let alone a living, when your work is not valued. And farming needs community to survive. And I’m not just referring to customers to buy the products. Local farming needs the local infrastructure to help for the inputs it cannot provide from its own land. Whether it is a mill to buy and mix grain, or farmer markets to sell vegetables, or abattoirs to handle the livestock for selling at market, farms are heavily dependent on the community around them. The farms and these infrastructures were at the heart of any vibrant rural community. The annihilation of this social structure has left rural communities impoverished of both wealth and meaning. To buy locally is one way to supersaturate the solution that I referred to in my earlier post, giving the local systems a chance to grow and eventually provide for a demand. I like the idea that we could eat our way back to social health.

  • Sustainability – ecology

    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.

  • Sustainability – what it is not

    Not too long ago, my father-in-law asked me what sustainability meant to me. He was noticing how it has become the byword of the day and wondered if there were any standards in agriculture. I am aware of a number of labels that emphasize different aspects of sustainability for farm products, but by its very nature, it is hard to pin down and categorize. Here’s my take.

    The difficulty of defining sustainability is precisely because the word implies a system that lasts over time. When it comes to duration of a system, we humans have never come close to constructing a system that matches the efficiency and duration of Nature’s ecological webs. The ecosystems around us have been around and working for a very, very, very long time, and to think we can build systems that ignore the principles we see in the ecosystems around us is pure hubris. Thus even if I break up my definition of sustainability into a number of interconnected aspects, the overall structure and mindset must be tied into and reflect the ecosystem around us. For purposes of conceptualizing the web of sustainability, I like to acknowledge at least six interconnecting hubs: Ecology or environment, local, social, health, humane, and taste.

    First to address the failures or lack of these six issues in modern agriculture.

    The ecological negatives are easy enough to identify and renounce. Erosion of soil is the most straightforward. Losing topsoil by the billion metric tons a year needs little imagination to understand how eventually such trends will lead to starvation. But most soils, even if kept from erosion, are being depleted of nutrients (particularly, vital trace minerals) and the food we eat is becoming less and less nutritious. The Senate recognized this fact all the way back in 1936, where in document #264 they acknowledged that sick soil leads to sick plant, sick animals and sick people. Pollution is another negative easily identified. Whether it is the manure lagoons from hogs kept in confinement by the hundreds of thousands that sometimes seep into our waterways, or the fertilizer run off that enters streams and eventually into the ocean, creating massive dead zones where oxygen-loving algae make the water inhabitable for fish, we as a nation have a horrible track record of unprecedented destruction of our land and water.

    Local frameworks are non-existent in modern agriculture. The utter dependence on the non-renewable source of oil, particularly as we have reached peak-oil, is by definition unsustainable. To grow things in one state, then shipped to another to be processed, then shipped to another state (or even country at times) to be packaged, and then shipped to another state to be distributed to just about anywhere accumulates into a gigantic absurd system that should be addressed at every economic summit, every climate change summit, and even every energy summit. I’ve heard all sorts of figures trying to add up food related use of fossil fuels. But whether you estimate it at 20% or all the way past 50%, this strikes me as the proverbial low-hanging fruit.

    Socially, small to medium size farms and farmers have been nearly annihilated.The trend for decades has been to get bigger or get out. To become more and more technologically and fuel dependent, or remain uncompetitive in the market. The social toll on rural communities is evident in their breakdown. Poverty rises and the ensuing social meaninglessness has led to the drug (particularly meth) epidemics of the day.

    The health of the population of the richest country in the world is a national embarrassment. Overfed and under nourished. Obesity and diabetics becoming the norm. Not to mention the disastrous effects of chemicals from pesticides directly on our health. As a meat producer, I also consider the health of the animals. When the average life-span of a milking cow dwindles down to about 4 years, and other livestock is kept on antibiotics to keep them alive in the conditions they live in, this not only is inhumane, but their health effects ours when we eat from this food source.

    Inhumane treatment of both animals and farm workers. Confined and caged animals speak for themselves. Many of us are inundated with the stories or even pictures of animals living in horrible conditions. But what often is overlooked is that some human has to interact with these animals on some level and work in an environment that values neither the animals nor them. On the side of vegetables, the work conditions for the immigrants that tend our crops are often inhumane as well.

    Taste, at first glance, may not seem important enough an issue to be mentioned alongside these others, but as I’ve tried to express in other posts, the enjoyment of the fruits of our labor is essential in its meaning. When customers tell us stories of how they can’t believe how much better our meat tastes than the conventional options, their enjoyment is the best and most encouraging compliment. Enjoyment is the true completion of a meaningful activity, and without it we would not continue to do what we do over a sustained period of time.

     

    Like usual my post has gotten much too long and I will have to address the antidotes and alternatives of sustainable agriculture in another post.