For the 27th year since year 0 of my life, I am spending a week at “The Farm”. In 1815, a Swiss Mennonite pioneer named Abraham Buchwalter bought several hundred acres of farmland in Ross County Ohio and settled there. He was my great * 5 -grandfather. Eight generations later, it remains an important cornerstone of the family, though no one in the family has been a serious farmer since my great-grandfather. Nowadays, it is a place to vacation, connect with family, and contemplate the universe while watching the corn grow without a single distraction. As a kid, visiting the farm was pure bliss. The possibilities seemed endless amidst the open terrain, creeks, ponds and wildlife; fishing, hunting for arrowheads, bringing milk to newborn kittens in the haystacks. It is a truly beautiful place that appears “unspoiled” by modernity. However, looks can be deceiving.
In the old days (turn of the century until WWII), the farm grew some corn, but also vegetables, and raised pigs, chickens, and Hereford cows on grass prairieland. My great-grandfather seasonally employed over 20 “farm hands” from the surrounding towns. Since that time, industrialized meat production (concentrated populations of a single species living indoors and eating mainly corn and soybean) made pasture farming cost-ineffective. Essentially, people wouldn’t pay more for the grass-fed beef. Furthermore, vertical integration between the livestock producers and the meat packers resulted in the virtual exclusion of alternative products from the mass market. As a result, the family farmer was forced to abandon raising livestock.
This year there is a new development on the farm. The government is paying to have land set aside and planted with prairie grass to provide habitat for bird populations. The prairie-land on the farm is composed of dozens of species of grass and wildflower. Besides the appealing looks, the grassland has revived the health of fish and amphibian populations in the pond it surrounds, pheasants are nesting in it, and the field requires neither fertilizer, nor pesticide, nor tilling.
I recently watched the documentary film “Fresh”.
Joel Salatin, a Virginia farmer, whose farm is on relatively poor land, with one-third as many arable acres as ours, is grossing anywhere from 1500 – 3000 dollars per acre. A typical corn or soybean field will generate 400 – 500 gross dollars per acre. Granted, Salatin has to hire people, and works daily on the farm himself, but from an economic standpoint, earning 3 – 10 times more revenue per acre than conventional farming on relatively poor land should raise anyone’s eyebrows. The way I see it, America is facing two huge problems. One is a public health crisis that is mostly dietary. The other is an unemployment crisis that is largely structural – the loss of manufacturing jobs means that unskilled labor opportunities are lacking.
There are 25.4 kg/bushel of corn (this is weighed after removing the kernels from the cob). One kg of corn kernels contains ~4000 Calories (kcal). One person needs about 730,000 Calories (kcal) per year. Therefore, one person needs roughly 7 bushels of corn per year. One acre produces 180 bushels of corn a year, so an acre of corn can supply food for 25 people annually. With 150 million acres of land in production of corn and soybean, the United States could easily feed over 4 billion people. I make this point because the argument is frequently made that pasture farming cannot “feed the world”. Well, as it turns out, natural grassland is at least as productive in terms of Net Primary Production (grams of carbon / square meter) as fertilized corn, if not more.
Furthermore, when you consider that the vast majority of the corn goes into livestock feed and ethanol production, switching row crops in the USA to pasture-grazed livestock should not reduce the overall amount of grain-foodstuffs available to the world.
In addition, there are the following added benefits: Added fertilizer is unnecessary because the animals do that work with their droppings. When factoring in below-ground-primary-production, grasses are an order of magnitude more productive than corn (see source above) due to their extensive root systems. In essence, grasses and herbivores build-up the soil matter over time rather than reduce it as tilled row crops do. Essentially, the reason corn is so productive is because it is depleting the soil. Pesticide is unnecessary because the diverse prairie ecosystem is resistant to pest and disease.
Besides the soil, the animals are benefited too. The concentration of many of the same species in confined spaces results in sick animals and these operations are simply inhumane in general.
Some of the diseases are new – such as H1N1. Others are becoming resistant to antibiotics, because, as a result of having sick animals all the time, they just feed them antibiotics as a matter of “good” practice. With grass-fed livestock, the animals are healthier (cows aren’t even supposed to eat corn) and require less health maintenance. Last, and certainly not the least, the consumer gets a more nutritious product.
Once again, this requires more labor costs than the industrialized operations, but fewer material inputs. So, even if a pound of ground beef (or for that matter a BigMac) costs more, is that really such a bad thing? The argument that by doing so you take food off of the plates of lower-income Americans is…hogwash. Americans will be able to afford and eat just as many calories, albeit less meat. In any case, the subsidizing of corn is largely to reduce the cost of feed for livestock, but has also resulted in corn syrup – too much of which is a leading cause of type II diabetes – being added to just about everything. Why not subsidize vegetable production instead? Furthermore, assuming that pasture farming employs many more people than industrial farming, the benefit of having this employment boost would be a great boon for the general economy.
Several factors stand in the way of large-scale implementation of the grass-fed economy. One is that there isn’t anyone left who actually knows how to care for livestock. However, if we spent even one-tenth of what we do on incarcerating people to train people to farm, I think that the labor problem would be largely solved. Another is that the big agribusinesses that do the industrial farming are vertically integrated with the food distribution system and restrict access of alternative products to the mass market. This can be solved with one act of anti-trust legislation, or just enforcing the laws on the books which guarantee individual farmers equal access to markets. Last but not least, those of us who are in the know, and have access to alternative products, particularly those that are locally produced should buy them! One of the best ways to give local farmers a customer base is to join a CSA. I hope you will try to find one in your area today.