So I have poked some significant holes in my once solid convictions that eating vegetarian with whole foods was the most ecological choice. But since no man lives on an island, I would like to continue to delve into the economic and ecologic possibilities of this new (old?) small scale farming. I speak to the economics in this post because an ideal that is not a fiscal reality is just arm chair fodder. I prefer to espouse workable solutions that will help move our country toward a less energy dependant future.
It is possible to make money on a purely vegetable farm, but the farming is amazingly intense making it virtually impossible to be long term sustainable due to the amount of resources removed from the land in produce versus what is given back from imported fertilizers. Much of the land is cultivated every 4-6 weeks for 8 months of the year leaving it exposed to erosion more often than it is covered. Furthermore, small vegetable operations often focus on niche markets like micro greens, herbs, edible flowers, etc and less on rows of spinach, radishes, beans or tomatoes that most vegetarians eat everyday. Even in Organic production the economies of scale favor industrial production of these ‘commodity’ items. And then you get into all the ecological messes inherent in large scale agriculture-massive soil erosion, processed fertilizers (like pelletized chicken manure), and long range transportation. Look at it this way: it takes a lot of radishes at $1.50 bunch to make the rent on a 40 acre farm ($350,000) farm. The fields of radishes at left is no ecologically better than a field of corn. The largest local vegetable operation I have visited was 30 acres, but it took a team of 5-10 workers 6 days a week to harvest the 200 CSA subscriptions and it was not profitable. Mixed vegetable operations for farmers markets are typically from much smaller farms, say 5-10 acres.
Last post I wrote about integrated farms-the kind of operation that virtually all farms were before 1950 and the rise of Industrial Agriculture. The bucolic scenes I painted of waves of different animals going over the vegetable field begged the question of where the heck the cattle, chickens, and hogs were prior to their dance thru the corn and melons. The answer is that the vegetable ‘fields’ are just one or two paddocks in a rotational grazing system as espoused by Allan Nation at the Stockman Grass Farmer, Jo Robinson at Eatwild.com, Gene Logsdon in All Flesh is Grass, and others. These are just a few of hundreds of farmers that are fine tuning the art of grazing to out compete the CAFO’s. I will spare you all the details-which are legion and beyond my expertise and present just a high level overview to give you an idea, if you want to learn more, as I feel any omnivore should, the Eatwild site is fairly user friendly.
In my unhumble opinion Grass Farming is the future of farming. (I love that turn of phrase-the philosophical importance in the shift from calling oneself a Cattle Rancher to a Grass Farmer is immense.) By rotating grazing animals (yes, poultry and hogs graze!) through paddocks you greatly increase the holding capacity of the land. This is done by pulsing the pasture, much as the bison of old did. The farmer ‘mobs’ the field forcing the animals to eat everything, including the weeds, and then moves them to the next paddock before they can do any permanent damage from over grazing, while also keeping them there long enough to not just eat the tasty plants which encourages weed growth. The farmer keeps enough paddocks to rotate the animals while letting paddocks recoup, and this diversity also allows him to keep some paddocks sown with summer tolerant grass, and others with cold hardy varieties. There is even enough surplus in spring that the farmer can cut hay enough to tide them over thru the month or so of deep winter where the pasture may not be available. Other than moving the light electric fencing (easily run on solar) and animals daily the farmer can spend their energy on other areas like the vegetable patch or wood lot while the animals do the weeding, harvesting, and fertilizing for him. This is the animal husbandry equivalent of Masanobu Fukuoka’s “Do Nothing” rice farming: let nature do the work for you.
The reason that Grass Farming seems to me to be the holy grail of ecological eating is this: once the pasture is established, the land is never cultivated, never fertilized, never herbicided, and you can grass farm a small 20-40 acre farm without a tractor because the animals are doing most of the work. The farmer isn’t importing feed, or exporting waste-it is essentially a closed system. It works for beef and dairy operations, for goats, sheep or cattle, as well either broiler chickens or laying hens and with some tweaking I think hogs might work as well.
My main concerns with large scale agriculture are erosion from regular cultivation which also uses massive farm equipment, and the need to import resources-seed, fertilizer, and herbicide supporting a grossly polluting chemical industry. A grass fed animal system can literally grow calories 100% on solar power in a 1) closed system that 2) heals the soil (permanent pasture can make 750-1000lbs of topsoil a year) and actually 3) removes carbon from the atmosphere (some studies have shown that established prairie can capture as much carbon as the same acreage of hardwood forest). These 3 factors are something that growing annual vegetable crops cannot accomplish-even on small scale 2-5 acre farms. The only approximation I have read about would be a Permaculture Garden, which I have never seen presented in a workable commercial system. And frankly, if it isn’t profitable, at least enough to support a modest family income, it will never work in society as a whole.
21st Century Animal Farm
So here is my version of the Utopian Organic Farm-and it is not, nor could it be vegetarian. A 20-100 Acre plot divided into 15-30 paddocks containing everything from traditional pastures of alfalfa, clover and fescue, to fruit orchards, vineyards, brambles and 1-2 paddocks of vegetables grown on a rotating basis in paddocks that need replenishing. The pastures that are being put out of rotation next season would house the hogs which would tear them up sufficiently thru their rooting, while the orchards would be mown by sheep and geese, and the vineyards weeded by chickens. Dual purpose goats or cattle would graze thru the remaining pastures providing a surplus of both milk and meat to help make the mortgage along with the seasonal income of fruits from the perennial orchards and small fruit diversifying the farm’s income enough that a blight in the beans won’t bankrupt them. Costs would be kept down by having no, or a very small, tractor-and possibly just using some oxen (I am not kidding-most tractor use would only be for moving hay and harvest wagons) and no imported fertilizer. Efforts would be made to establish a local market that could meet many needs in one place-meat, dairy, fruit, veggies, eggs, and possibly even fiber from the goats or sheep. Niche markets could be established in artisan cheeses, goat milk soaps or heirloom vegetables for restaurants depending on the inclination of the farmer. A profitable agriculture enterprise is thus created (I realize how idealistic this is…) that is 100% solar driven on a closed system that builds community and cuts food transportation miles from 1500 to about 15. Joel Salatin is doing this on his farm and producing more surplus than I had ever thought imaginable off of 100 acres-so maybe I am not too crazy after all.
I am becoming convinced that Organic 100% Grass Fed meat and eggs, along with perennial fruits are the ecological ideal. And that blows massive logical holes thru my stance on vegetarianism for ecological reasons. In the final post in this series I will wrestle with that.