Archive for the 'farming' Category


the redundancy of roosters

Yesterday I came upon two roosters tangled in electric netting. I never turn it on anymore–a good thing–but the situation was grisly even so.

They had been fighting, that leaping and kicking thing. One bird kicked the other into the netting. The attacker got his legs tangled, the attackee somehow got his head through a hole in the grid. There was a good deal of blood around the neck and head of both birds. They kept fighting for some time by the look of it!

By the time I came on the scene they were both spent, panting and bleeding. I tried untangling the wire, but their struggles to free themselves had tightened the tourniquet to an impossible place. I was loathe to cut the fence to free them. It was a hundred dollar fence, and the roosters themselves were worth less than nothing. No value, no function, save entertainment. (And they ARE fun to watch. Our friends Zoe and Mike coined it: “Chicken TV.” Really. You’d be surprised.)

I imagine a real farmer would have taken a tin snips to the birds, not the fence. But I am soft.

This is not one of those stories about how the worst things happen to me. Rather I think the motto should be, when it comes to farming, at least the halfassed way I do it, is “Dang, I didn’t see that coming.”

My agrarian woes have been bothersome, but in the scheme of things not catastrophic. No rain for 10 weeks? Just part of the deal. Plan for it. Beehives decimated by small hive beetles, until this year a bit player in the cast of pest players? It happens. Farming is hard.

Today the weather is changing. The wind’s howling would have meant a serious storm on its way just a few weeks ago. Now it’s just a typical autumn breeze. The washing is flapping hard on the clothesline. The sun is still warm, but as of today no longer quite balances the cool of the wind.  I think of the twins, who are having a pumpkin patch excursion at school today. Did I dress them warmly enough?

Just took a walk among the cows, checking udders, hooves, and reproductive equipment. They are mostly all big and healthy, and I think I am more prepared than I have  been for winter. But that is not saying much.

Today my New York friends will arrive for their annual Kentucky golf outing.

For seven years now, I have picked up my guests at the Lexington airport, usually on the late Friday flight. Dennis, Dave, and Richard appearing feet first at the top of the arrivals stairs. Always grinning and laughing about something, usually some crazy Campbell riff. This year, of course, will be different, as Campbell will not be there. I really can’t imagine what that will be like.


Baby steps in the right direction

This week, the FDA issued a “draft guidance” that in effect asks industrial meat producers to pretty please, at least think about limiting the practice of pumping massive quantities of antibiotics into factory animals meat machines.

The big lobbying groups, predictably, were outraged by this intrusion of mere science into their god-given right to make a bundle at the expense of the world’s health (both animal and human).

Tom Scocca at Slate sums up just how late this is in coming:

Forty-one years after the United Kingdom concluded that feeding antibiotics to healthy animals to make them gain weight could promote drug resistance in bacteria, 12 years after the European Union banned the use of medically important antibiotics in livestock for weight gain, nine years after researchers found widespread antibiotic-resistant salmonella in American ground beef, and four years after the EU banned all feeding of antibiotics to healthy animals, the Food and Drug Administration today issued a “draft guidance” urging “judicious use of medically important antimicrobial drugs” in the American livestock industry.

At Grist Tom Laskawy some excellent background on the issue as well as a slightly more optimistic view. “While this may sound like so much bureaucratese, it represents a strong statement by the FDA and suggests further action is forthcoming.”

This draft, though clearly preliminary and subject to industry feedback, also gives Congress a reason to move forward on legal restrictions knowing that a scientific consensus is forming — though in reality it’s unlikely a law could be passed much before November, if at all.

The question remains just how hard Big Meat will fight this guidance. The FDA wants to bend over backwards to limit problems for livestock producers by phasing in restrictions and taking their concerns into account. But will groups like the Pork Board — which denied the very existence of the problem to CBS News anchor Katie Couric in her blockbuster report on the subject — take the hand the FDA has offered? Or will they bite it?

Or will CAFO operators simply seek to bypass any regulation altogether, by claiming that routine doses of antibiotics are medically necessary to prevent disease in close quarters? I’m contacting an expert on this topic to find out if the FDA’s draft guidance indicates such loopholes will exist, and whether industry will head for them.

We know that subtherapeutic use of antibiotics in livestock is unnecessary. The Danes have, somewhat famously, proved it by banning the practice and significantly reduced the threat of antibiotic resistance with no long-term effects on livestock health or productivity. The American Society of Microbiologists knows it. The FDA does, too. Even over a hundred House members and 17 senators (that being the number of cosponsors attached to the pending legislation) know it. With any luck, the industry will finally get the message.


Futureless farming?

I imagine there must be a proverb or several somewhere about the farmer who travels in springtime, when a huge chunk of the year’s work has to get done.

This year, I had to travel not once but three times in the crucial spring months, and since returning have been scrambling to rescue my little farmstead from total chaos. Calves still coming in, new chickens to tend to, the beehives thriving but needing a lot of attention, weeds galore in the garden. Weeds. Weeds. Weeds. WEEDS! (Did I mention weeds?)

But I think I’m getting there.

Which raises the question of “where is there”?

In general I’ve downplayed my farmerly ambitions by claiming only that I’m trying to feed my family better, and perhaps create a better sense of self-reliance. I do hold out a hope, not often expressed, that someday this farm will be our livelihood. Slowed food revolution, in this month’s American Prospect, makes me wonder how realistic that dream is.

The author, Heather Rogers,  offers a thorough look at the state of the American organic or alternative or sustainable farmer, seen from a policy perspective as well as through the eyes of Morse Pitts, who farms in the Hudson Valley and can charge what for me is a jaw-dropping price of $14 for a dozen eggs at the Union Square Greenmarket in Manhattan. In spite of this, and the fact that he is hard-working and resourceful, he still has had enough with a life that promises (and delivers) so many rewards, save one—the ability to earn a steady and decent living.

… despite having no mortgage debt (he inherited the place), a ready market, and loyal customers, Pitts wants to leave his farm. His town recently rezoned the area as industrial, and if he wants to cultivate soil that’s not surrounded by industry and its attendant potential for water and air pollution, he has to move. The problem is, he can’t afford to.

Aside from the standard instability farmers must endure — bad weather, pests, disease, and the vagaries of the market — holistic and organic growers face great but often overlooked economic hardship. They must shoulder far higher production costs than their conventional counterparts when it comes to everything from laborers to land. Without meaningful support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, their longevity hangs in the balance. In the meantime, the USDA showers billions on industrial agriculture. Growers who’ve gone the chemical, mechanized route have ready access to reasonable loans, direct subsidy payments to get through tough years, and crop insurance, plus robust research, marketing, and distribution resources. Whether organic and holistic growers raise crops, like Pitts does, or grass-fed, free-range livestock, they must contend with circumstances made harder by a USDA rigged to favor industrial agriculture and factory food.

As he has done in so many other areas, the president raised hopes for progressive farmers to the sky, and then sent them crashing. An organic garden at the White House! Beehives! But not a heck of a lot of tangible things have been delivered to folks like us. And even modest things like the Know Your Farmer campaign have met with angry resistance. “In an April letter to the new agriculture secretary, agribusiness-friendly senators Saxby Chambliss, John McCain, and Pat Roberts opposed even the meager support the USDA is giving small unconventional growers. ‘American families and rural farmers are hurting in today’s economy, and it’s unclear to us how propping up the urban locavore markets addresses their needs.'” Which of course is a hugely disingenuous piece of cow dung. And then there’s the “urban locavore” dig—a “trendy food choice” by well-to-do foodie snobs doing their evil mischief again. You know, if it weren’t for Alice Waters, America could be made whole again.

It’s a really good article, if not particularly encouraging for me, or for any of the other kooks out there who want to eat real food that isn’t farmed in ways that are killing the earth. I recommend you read the whole thing….


Lions and tigers and superweeds … oh, my!

florence in the garden

Florence scours our overgrown garden for callaloo

Who could have seen THIS coming?

A recent New York Times article on the rapid growth of “superweeds” notices that some species have done exactly what Darwin noticed living things do: under herbicidal assault, they adapted.

Now Roundup, Monsanto’s crack for farmers, is having trouble killing pigweed, and the expensive herbicide/seed program  isn’t looking like such a good deal anymore. But the large-scale farmers have a lot invested in industrial farming,  so many are just layering new poisons onto the Roundup, and are even encouraged to do so by Monsanto, which, the Times reports, “is it is taking the extraordinary step of subsidizing cotton farmers’ purchases of competing herbicides to supplement Roundup.”

Michael Pollan, one of the Room for Debate voices in a Times discussion on the subject, points out that this should come as a surprise to exactly no one.  “A product like Roundup Ready soy is not, as Monsanto likes to claim, ‘sustainable.’ Like any such industrial approach to an agronomic problem — like any pesticide or herbicide — this one is only temporary, and destroys the conditions on which it depends. Lucky for Monsanto, the effectiveness of Roundup lasted almost exactly as long as its patent protection.”

The Times parrots without comment the claim that no-till agriculture with “Roundup Ready” seeds is “environmentally friendly.” True, it reduces erosion and lessens runoff, but I don’t think everyone really understands what really goes on in this kind of agriculture. (Interested in the details of how glyphosate works? Check  out this fact sheet from (pdf). “Environmentally friendly”? I’m not so sure.)

And here is where I would like to make a rather bold suggestion: Why not just call the superweed callaloo and eat it?

Pigweed is amaranth, after all, and amaranth is edible and nutritious, both as  leaves and seeds. When we first moved to Kentucky, Florence, our friend and one-time babysitter (from a past life when we were both had jobs and 401ks and benefits in New York), came to visit us. She looked into a field of what we called pigweed, and saw callaloo, a delicious green from her youth near Ocho Rios, Jamaica. She waded in, harvested a few large bags, trimmed it and cooked it up with lots of garlic and hot peppers and it was delicious.

I wouldn’t encourage anyone to eat the pigweed laced through with Roundup of course. And I’m not sure the resistant palmer amaranth is the same variety of amaranth that we enjoyed. But if there are varieties of a “superweed” that are edible and nutritious, a smart farmer might take the hint from mother nature and grow the native plant that doesn’t need massive doses of chemicals to thrive.

Or not. Even if that farmer is dead-set on continuing with the commodity crop (and of course that’s where the (subsidy) money is), The redoubtable Rodale Institute has been  doing some great work with organic no-till methods.



Nature is weird and wonderful, and to my city-boy eyes nothing is quite as weird/wonderful as a broody hen.

Two years ago, I took advantage of two broody hens and stuck a bunch of eggs under each of them, and we got about 10 new chicks that year.

Last year, I tried the same with one hen, but she turned out to be stark raving mad. From my limited observation, broodiness has an at least tangential relationship to full-on insanity. The hen kept pecking her eggs, for reasons still unclear to me, and at the same time insisted on staying on the nest, which in short order became a sticky rotting mess. Only one baby chick survived, and that one was blind in one eye. I think because of that messy nest situation.

This subject of this year’s experiment seems tidy and calm, though frighteningly and obsessively focused, as are all broody hens. She seems capable of starving herself in her dedication to her compulsion. I have to remind myself to yank her off the nest once a day.

I hope in three weeks time we get a bunch of baby chicks out of her.

Now, really I am no expert on broody hens, having only had a few years to observe what is an ever rarer phenomenon in nature, as it has been deemed wise to breed broodiness out of nearly every variety of chicken you’ll see, because a broody hen is not a laying hen. That strikes me as a little shortsighted, and it also strikes Harvey Ussery the same way. Mr. Ussery, a contrary farmer in the best sense of the term, , has written an interesting article on the benefits of using, not fighting, broodiness.


Crusade for better foods … and get stomped

That episode of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution where he showed kids all the nastiness that goes into chicken nuggets—and they wanted to eat them anyway? As upsetting as it was,  it did save me the bother of showing it to my nugget-inhaling son, as it will probably achieve the same (opposite of intended) result.Vodpod videos no longer available.I don’t for a moment doubt Jamie Oliver’s good intentions in this food crusade of his. But he is a wealthy celebrity chef, and he  will get over it. He is probably already home in Britain, regaling his like-minded friends with tales of the benighted colonials over some delightful meal he’s just whipped up, along with a number of impeccably complementary bottles of tasty plonk.

Meanwhile, there is growing evidence that speaking out about the garbage served to kids in schools can have career-threatening consequences. From La Vida Locavore, here is an excerpt from the  woeful saga of what happened to a school teacher who became concerned about what her students were eating. (Writing in haste today, so apologies for the extensive cut-and-pastiness).

Mendy Heaps, a stellar English teacher for years, had never given much thought to the food her seventh-graders were eating. Then her husband, after years of eating junk food, was diagnosed with cancer, diabetes and high blood pressure and suddenly the french fries, pizza and ice cream being served in the cafeteria at rural Elizabeth Middle School outside Denver, Col., took on a whole new meaning.

Heaps was roused to action. She started teaching nutrition in her language arts classes. She bombarded colleagues, administrators and the local school board with e-mails and news clippings urging them to overhaul the school menu. She even took up selling fresh fruits and healthy snacks to the students on her own, wheeling alternative foods from classroom to classroom on a makeshift “fruit cart,” doling out apples for a quarter.

Finally, the school’s principal, Robert McMullen, could abide Heaps’ food crusade no longer. Under threat of being fired, Heaps says she was forced to sign a personnel memorandum agreeing to cease and desist. She was ordered to undergo a kind of cafeteria re-education program, wherein she was told to meet with the school’s food services director, spend part of each day on lunch duty recording what foods the students ate, and compile data showing the potential economic impact of removing from the menu the “grab and go” foods Heaps found so objectionable. … The case of Mendy Heaps is a stark reminder that at least one voice is largely missing from the debate over school food that’s getting so much attention lately: the voice of teachers. Teachers see what kids eat every day. They have opinions about the the food and how it impacts children’s health and school performance. Yet they are almost universally silent.

… “When I got the memo, everyone became afraid,” said Heaps. “If I tried to talk about the memo, no one wanted to listen. I got a little support from a couple of teachers, but not very much. Everyone wanted to forget about it and they wanted me to forget about it too…The only thing I still do is write letters and try to get someone interested! I’m working on one for Michelle Obama right now.”


Sitting down with criminals to make laws about crime

Updated below.

I have not seen the first episodes of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution but I plan to watch them all. While I enjoyed this summation from the Washington Post, I found it awfully snarky, and maybe more than a little dishonest.

“‘Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution’ regurgitates the worst of reality TV pap”? Here we go again. A writer for a reputable mainstream media player purports to speak for the common man by defending (or getting defensive about) what really is a tragic obesity epidemic because he doesn’t like being talked down to by “a foreigner with meticulously rumpled hair and a funny accent telling them to hand over the fries.”

Or, as the morning deejays at Morgantown’s “The Dawg” put it to Oliver: “We don’t want to sit around and eat lettuce all day. Who made you king?”

I’ve written about this before. Point out that Americans’ diets are killing them, and you can count on being shouted down and characterized as elitists, snobs, and–the lowest blow of all–foodies! These attacks on locavores seem to come with great regularity from highly esteemed conventional media sources such as the Washington Post, the Atlantic Monthly, the New York Times and Slate. Their faux-populist message sows the seeds of doubt about the message of food activists, and gives cover to continuing business as usual.

In a sad, not unrelated development, and in case you thought steps were being taken to improve this situation, Jill Richardson’s great La Vida Locavore blog reports that the USDA had substantial input from … makers of junk food in the drafting of new nutrition standards for American schools.

Why is the junk food lobby at the table to make rules about nutrition? Would you have a criminal at the table to make laws about crime? The American Beverage Association, Coca Cola, Mars, Nestle, and PepsiCo were all included in negotiations for the new school lunch nutrition standards in [Senator Blanche] Lincoln’s child nutrition bill. Under the bill, the USDA will set one set of nutrition standards for all food sold in schools during the school day (including vending machines). This is a change from current laws, which forbid the USDA from setting rules over most food sold in schools outside of the federally-reimbursable school lunch (i.e. the meal served to kids who receive free lunch).

So here’s the question: What did public health groups give up by negotiating with the junk food lobby? What do public health experts think the school nutrition standards should be, and how far apart is that from the actual language of the bill?

Hmm. Cutting a deal with the very industries that are the engines for a national health catastrophe. Where have I seen this before?

Update: In a Firedoglake diary titled Lousy School Lunch Bill, One Step Closer to Passage Richardson wonders why “Democrats put their least loyal Senator in charge of one of their highest profile issues.” That Senator would be Ms. Blanche Lincoln, who somehow got to be the author of the child nutrition bill inspired by Mrs. Obama herself:

And Blanche Lincoln is no Michelle Obama. She’s not even as progressive as Barack Obama, who called for $10 billion in new money over 10 years for child nutrition, a number Lincoln reduced by more than half.

To put that in easier to understand terms, Obama’s proposal would have given up to $.18 in addition funds to each child’s school lunch. Lincoln’s bill gives each lunch $.06. Compare that to the School Nutrition Association’s request to raise the current $2.68 “reimbursement rate” (the amount the federal government reimburses schools for each free lunch served to a low income child) by $.35 just to keep the quality of the lunches the same and make up for schools’ current budgetary shortfall. School lunch reformer Ann Cooper calls for an extra $1 per lunch to actually make lunches healthy. So any amount under $.35 is no reform at all, and Lincoln gave us $.06.

Richardson goes on to put the awful facts of this matter in context:

Unfortunately, the only real way to improve the quality of school lunch is money. Schools need money for better food but they also need money for labor, training, and equipment. And the equipment needed is sometimes as simple as knives and cutting boards, essential tools for preparing fresh fruits and vegetables that all too many schools lack. And it’s money that this bill does not provide.

In the case of school lunch in particular, where the most vulnerable members of our society – low income children who cannot afford to bring a healthy lunch from home – are affected, the government’s failure to provide healthy food is utterly unconscionable. It’s also stupid, since an estimated 1 out of every 3 children born in 2000 will suffer from Type II Diabetes during their lifetime, and diabetes is one of the most expensive health problems to treat. Every penny we don’t pay now for school lunches is money we will spend later on Medicaid and Medicare for children who grow up to suffer from diabetes. But, as a House staffer put it to me when I raised that point, “the CBO [Congressional Budget Office] doesn’t score that way.” When the government tabulates whether or not a program is saving money, future expenditures on predictable, preventable health conditions aren’t added in.


Not especially profound musings on farming

The thing about farming is this. You never really know if you’re doing it right.

I found both of my donkeys dead in the trees yesterday. My guess is that they grazed something poisonous, most likely poison hemlock, which is everywhere in the early spring.

After finding them, I took to Googling around on the subject of poisonous plants and livestock. And yeah, maybe I should have been alert to the possibility that my donkeys or cows would try some new forage, especially as the grass has not really taken off yet.

I might have realized that the donkeys always tend to eat last. They get shoved out of the prime grazing areas and kept away from the round bales by the cows. Still,  they looked in great health, even after a hard winter.

Being a good farmer takes time. And lots of observation. And the conclusions he draws from those observations can be useful, or they can be dead ends. They can involve seeing something insignificant as important.

When donkeys up and die, or a cow dies, or has a stillborn calf, or when I find a dead beehive filled with honey, I have to interpret some maddeningly ambiguous signs. I might take action based on these signs, but are they the correct actions? Am I grazing the cows efficiently?  I judge by how the pasture looks the following year. But is that nice clover growth a result of my clever grazing management, or just because we had an exceptionally wet spring? It’ll be years before I really know, and then will I know what I know any more than I do now?

A line from a senior year contemporary American poetry seminar has stuck with me: experience prepares you for what will never happen again. That used to haunt me. Now, not so much.


Locovores, locavores, See these people can’t even agree on how to spell their own damn movement!

A handsome and not at all smelly locovore family

In the unlikely forum of Foreign Policy magazine, Felix Salmon, the financial blogger for Reuters, has crafted a love letter to locovorism, a movement that’s getting sneered at a lot lately as being a fantasy of snobbish foodies and manure-spattered alternative farmers reeking of dirt and garlic.  (After a while, though, you find that smell sexy).

Don’t have much time, so will quote a couple snippets, and encourage all to read the whole thing.

There are three big problems with monoculture, all of which can be addressed with a more sensitive, bottom-up, heterogeneous, small-scale agricultural model.

First, monocultures are, by their nature, prone to disastrous bouts of disease. Ireland’s population was decimated by the potato famine; France’s vines were wiped out by phylloxera; a disease called huanglongbing now threatens all of California’s citrus crop. If you only grow one crop, the downside of losing it all to an outbreak is catastrophe. In rural Iowa it might mean financial ruin; in Niger, it could mean starvation.

Big agriculture companies like DuPont and Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), of course, have an answer to this problem: genetically engineered crops that are resistant to disease. But that answer is the agricultural equivalent of creating triple-A-rated mortgage bonds, fabricated precisely to prevent the problem of credit risk. It doesn’t make the problem go away: It just makes the problem rarer and much more dangerous when it does occur because no one is — or even can be — prepared for such a high-impact, low-probability event.

A more natural and heterogeneous system, by contrast, is inherently much more resistant to disease because few (if any) diseases can successfully wipe out a wide range of crops. Natural resistance is also much more likely to be found where there are a wide range of native varieties growing in the same place. Nature abhors a monoculture, and a system of smaller farms growing a large number of crops will be able to resist any disease in a way that no single crop can. If one or two of them gets hit, the damage done is manageable rather than devastating. It doesn’t have the same economies of scale, of course, and it might not have magical flood-resistant properties. But it works, all the same.

This is a hugely important issue to consider, especially as a few opportunistic spores of Ug99 blowing on a kind wind might lead in fairly short order to a worldwide shortage of wheat-based foodstuffs.

The second problem with monoculture is that new, high-tech, disease-resistant crops tend to come with something that is just as unwelcome as disease: patents. Many of these high-tech crops can’t reproduce organically and need to be bought afresh each season from the patent holder. And all of them come with layers of intellectual-property laws too complex for most non-lawyers to decode. So how do we expect impoverished and often illiterate populations in some of the most remote areas of the world to take advantage of them? Non-engineered crops, the natural ones that replicate themselves, are patent-free.

Finally, monoculture is based on the principles of trade and comparative advantage. It’s supposed to work like this: Enormous areas specialize in growing, say, corn and soy; they then sell those crops and use the cash they get in return to buy a wide variety of foods.

This works in the United States, but it doesn’t work well in the rest of the world, where trade barriers are often high, and selling crops for money and then exchanging that money for food is a complex and fraught process. Farmers growing cash crops in remote areas are often taken advantage of by middlemen, who take a cut of the profit and pay the growers much less than the market rate.

….It’s also worth bearing in mind that there’s already more than enough food being grown to feed every person on the planet. Right now, when we grow more food, the main consequence is more obesity and waste in rich countries. In fact, we have reached such a level of excess food that powerful agricultural lobbies — supported by big businesses like ADM — have been pushing for food crops to be turned into biofuels, especially in the United States and Brazil. It simply isn’t the case that we are at risk of shortages without these monoculture crops.

The hunger that persists is a question of distribution; calories don’t just magically trickle down to the people who really need it. Locavorism gets right to the root of this problem. By growing multiple crops close to home, less is likely to spoil and more will reach the table.


The Green Revolution’s bitter fruit: a Biblical plague?

There’s an interesting and frightening story in Wired this month about the potential catastrophe represented by puccinia graminis, or Ug99, a fungus that causes stem rust in wheat. Writes Brendan I. Koerner:

Stem rust is the polio of agriculture, a plague that was brought under control nearly half a century ago as part of the celebrated Green Revolution. After years of trial and error, scientists managed to breed wheat that contained genes capable of repelling the assaults of Puccinia graminis, the formal name of the fungus.

But now it’s clear: The triumph didn’t last. While languishing in the Ugandan highlands, a small population of P. graminis evolved the means to overcome mankind’s most ingenious genetic defenses. This distinct new race of P. graminis, dubbed Ug99 after its country of origin (Uganda) and year of christening (1999), is storming east, working its way through Africa and the Middle East and threatening India and China. More than a billion lives are at stake. “It’s an absolute game-changer,” says Brian Steffenson, a cereal-disease expert at the University of Minnesota who travels to Njoro regularly to observe the enemy in the wild. “The pathogen takes out pretty much everything we have.”

This is a thorough look at what could develop into something truly awful. Massive starvation is a not implausible result, if a few opportunistic spores blow into the wrong spots. (Some scholars apparently believe stem rust was one of the Biblical plagues, FWIW.)

But I have to voice my objection to a basic premise of the article, the characterization of the Green Revolution as a “lifesaving agricultural movement.” Koerner asserts  that the Norman Borlaug-led Revolution “produced multiple disease-proof, high-yielding crops capable of feeding once-hungry populations.”

Which is pretty much a spot-on reflection of the consensus on Borlaug as a selfless, indefatigable Man of Science who fed the world’s starving populations. The consensus, however, glosses over the fact that the Green Revolution created many more problems than it solved. More than a half century after Borlaug’s Rockefeller Foundation-funded trip to Mexico, the state of affairs in the nations saved by the gift of Western agriculture are at best parlous.

Writing in Grist just after Borlaug’s death last Fall at the age of 95, Tom Philpott offered a dissenting take on Borlaug’s achievement:

In Mexico, to be sure, yields of corn and wheat rose dramatically in the areas where Borlaug’s techniques took hold. But while [Borlaug biographers] Thurow and Kilman convincingly argue that Borlaug’s main intent was to “help poor farmers,” Mexico’s smallholders have been in a state of severe crisis for more than a generation. The so-called “immigrant crisis” here in the United States is better viewed as an agrarian crisis in Mexico. Since the the advent of NAFTA alone, more than 1.5 million Mexican farmers have been forced off of their land. Since the Mexican manufacturing economy has been nowhere near robust enough to absorb them, a huge portion of one-time Mexican farmers now wash our dishes and harvest our crops.

While the factors contributing to Mexico’s agrarian disaster are multiple and complex—including neoliberal trade policy and U.S. crop subsidies—the zeal to increase yield certainly factors in. In Borlaug’s Green Revolution paradigm, farmers are urged to specialize in one or two commodity crops—say, corn or wheat. To grow them, they were to buy hybridized seeds and ample doses of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation.

Philpott is careful to point out that he’s not demonizing Borlaug:

For me, the point isn’t that Borlaug is a villain and that crop yields don’t matter; rather, it’s that boosting yield alone can’t solve hunger problems in any but the most fleeting way. Farmers’ economic well-being; biodiversity; ecology; local knowledge, buy-in, and food traditions—all of these things matter, too.

Koerner paints a vivid picture of scientists working with great urgency to develop new seed varieties that are immune to Ug99. I wonder how much, if any, of the big scientific push is taking into account Philpott’s “other” things that matter, especially the biodiversity consideration. My Googling has turned up no answers to this question up until now.

I admit I am laboring in the dark here. This may be an ignorant question, but what about OLD varieties? In past outbreaks, did stem rust afflict EVERY strain of wheat in ALL conditions? I really don’t know. I do hope some of these scientists are working on re-diversifying the seed stock, instead of trying to engineer one or a couple varieties so the monocrop paradigm can continue uninterrupted.


GMO vaporware in Africa

african corn farmer

In the conventional wisdom, Billl Gates has gone from geek, to megalomaniac software mogul bent on world domination, to a man so rich he can SAVE THE WORLD WITH HIS MONEY!

I cannot argue with his decision to dedicate his life to making things better through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, but sometimes trying to make things better makes things worse. And that’s if your intentions are pure to start with. Mix in a partner who might have other motives, and well, you see where this is going….

This Grist article by Tom Laskawy discusses a recent venture by the Gates Foundation that sounds great on its face. The goal: to feed Africa. The method: GMO seed technology from DuPont’s biotechnology arm, Pioneer Hi-Bred.

Laskawy quotes a DesMoines Register news item, which mentions that DuPont rival Monsanto is involved in a simliar venture:

Pioneer Hi-Bred is joining with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to help scientists in Africa develop genetically engineered corn varieties that would allow poor farmers increase their yields with less fertilizer.

The aim of the project is to increase corn yields by 50 percent over the average now reached by African varieties, said Paul Schickler, president of Pioneer, a Johnston-based unit of DuPont.

… Pioneer’s arch-rival Monsanto Co. is two years into a similar project with the Gates foundation to develop drought-tolerant corn that is to be made available to small-scale farmers in eastern and southern Africa.

Both Pioneer and Monsanto have agreed to make the seeds available royalty-free to small-scale farmers.

Lawkawy is skeptical.  And the not-so-fine print shows he has reason to be:

As for Pioneer, they will first use advanced conventional breeding techniques to improve yields, and then add their genetically engineered genes later. The conventional version should be ready by 2014. The transgenic version? Eventually.

From his years as CEO of Microsoft, Bill Gates knows well the name for this kind of product: vaporware. It’s hard not to think that Monsanto, Dupont and their ilk are turning into the Bernie Madoff of agriculture. Convince gullible foundations along with the federal government to send billions in research dollars their way based on a promise of magically awesome results. Sometime down the road, of course.

And of course the irony here is that a non-GMO solution exists, the development of seed varieties by local, African researchers such as the Nigeria National Variety Release Committee, who “developed the [improved] varieties through conventional plant breeding by tapping naturally-available traits.”

Wouldn’t it be simpler, and cheaper, wonders Laskawy, to just spend some foundation money (most likely a fraction of what goes to DuPont) on getting locally adapted seeds into local farmers’ hands?


Note: You can find a good summary of objections to Gates’ faith in GMO technology here.


more on “cows the climate solution?”

cow image

I feel terrible that Seth Itzkan’s articulate response to a post of mine has languished in the WordPress spam queue for 6 weeks now.

The post in question, Cows the climate solution?, discussed Adam Sacks’ bold claim that well managed cattle grazing could solve all of our climate problems by the middle of the century! Seth’s very persuasive comment makes me think, Well, just maybe….

Thanks for your post which I found because I monitor Google Alerts for “Holistic Management”.  Actually, Adam Sacks is a colleague / friend of mine, and we’ve discussed these topics at length.  It’s nice to see that the word is getting out.

You are correct that Adam and George’s comments are not mutually exclusive because they are discussing different things.  As Adam states in his follow up, the issue isn’t about “cows” (although that’s the catch – I guess it worked!), the issue is about restoring grassland ecosystems – which are by far the largest stores of terrestrial carbon on the earth. Grasslands co-evolved with grazing mammals that moved in concentrated herds.  This herding action was caused by predation (wolves, lions and such).  The devastation of the world’s grasslands and is due largely to the removal of large mammals – not over grazing.  Too little grazing is as bad as too much.  Either way the grass dies.  This is the discovery of Alan Savory and the findings of the process of “Holistic Management”.  Please see  The more large animals are removed from their natural grassland ecosystems, the faster the grassland dies. Imagine that?  They actually need each other.

The problem today is that we have no sense of what a natural grassland ecosystem is.  When Louis and Clarke traveled across the Midwest they were walking over thousands of square miles of the riches soils on the planet, in many place over 10 feet deep with grasses just as high. Those soils, of course, are organic matter, which is, largely carbon, sequestered by plants that were kept alive by the “pulsed” animal impact. There were billions of tons carbon stored in those soils, most of which has run off into the oceans as topsoil loss.  The rest has been oxidized and become CO2 through burning and tilling.  At the time, there were 100 million buffalo, 100 million elk, and billions of prairie dogs, all eating, aerating, and recycling nutrients.  Gee, how did the grasslands survive with all that chomping? Heaven forbid. To restore those soils requires animal impact of the nature they evolved in – herd action, intense and short spurts or “pulses”.  The idyllic grazing that we see of a
few cows lounging around in short grass and mud is a modern, unnatural and unsustainable solution.  That’s *not* what we’re talking.

Environmentalist are correct in citing the damage that cattle do in their artificially maintained and poorly managed environments.  Of course.  No one is arguing for more of that. What Savory, and Adam are talking about is a new method of managing cows in a fashion that simulates the natural herd behavior that the grassland evolved this.  This takes the form of tightly packed groups of cows called “paddacks” that are moved frequently.  The process is known as Holistic Management.  The results are unequivocal.  Tens of millions of degraded soils have been restored this way, and small scales herders are viable now because of it.  It cost far less than traditional herding and greater “stocking levels” can be sustaining while improving the ecosystem.  In fact, as Savory says, this is the only method that will restore grassland soil.  No other method will work.  Grassland soils will not return without the animal impact that they evolved in.  It won’t happen.  The grassland will turn to
desert and their carbon sequestering potential will be lost.  The good news is that this process can be reversed.

Again, it isn’t about “cows”.  It’s about grazing mammals.  Cows can be managed in a way that mimics behavior that is beneficial to the soil.  We don’t give a flying hoot if it’s cows or bison, or elk, or giraffes, or elephants.  The action is similar.  Each is a grazing mammal that evolved in a grassland / savanna ecosystem.  When the animals are removed, the grassland ecosystem dies. We need millions more grazing animals moving about as natural herds, or in managed paddacks that replicate the herd behavior.  Seeing as so many people depend on cows, they may as well be managed in a fashion that is environmentally restorative – doing this sequesters, carbon, replenishes water tables, and creates viable enterprise for small rangers and herders.

Regarding methane.  Here is another case where the anti-cow environmentalists are missing the point. Miracle of miracle, the methane levels were less in the atmosphere when there were 100s of millions more grazing mammals on the earth than there are now – all of them eating grass and flatulating. How was that possible?  Because the animals were part of an ecosystem that was sequestering far more methane than they could ever produce.  It doesn’t matter how much gas the cows emit.  What matter is whether the soil ecosystem is being restored.  If it is, then methane is being sequestered at factors that are orders of magnitude greater than what the cow emits.  Cows are not an island.  We have a fragmented view of the problem.  Yes, grass fed cows in a feedlot may fart more than grain fed cows in a feedlot.  But, what’s the point of the comparison?  Both are unsustainable and deadly.

The more germane question is if the cows are part of a system that is environmentally restorative.  If they are being managed properly, they will be restoring the soil which will be sequestering methane, as well as CO2.  Cows (and all grazing mammals), are just a part of the system.  Recent studies have shown that a healthy grassland ecosystem will sequester 1000 times the methane produced by a cow on a space of soil adequate for that’s cows sustenance – repeat, 1000 times.  This is possible because of the methane eating microbes that are in the soil far outnumber the methane producing microbes in the cows stomach.  Methane digestion is an aerobic process. In a healthy soil (i.e. aerated), the methane eating microbes will dominate.  Where the soils are many feet deep, you are talking about thousands of cubic meters of methane eating soils compared to a few square feet of a cows stomach that is an anaerobic environment – thus produces methane.  In healthy soils, the methane eating
potential will always exceed the methane producing potential of the animals on it.  Again, it’s not about the cows.  It’s about the ecosystem. An aerated ecosystem will sequester methane.  Get the cows on the land, moving in a fashion that natures expects them to, and the methane problem will work itself out.

Restoring grassland soils is one of our most powerful tools in the fight against climate change.  Animal impact is essential to this process.  We need a deeper understanding of this process and it’s potential.  Thank you again for further considering it on your blog.


Chicken litter. It’s what’s for dinner!

cow face

Nope, not eatin' THAT!

In a typically enlightening and frightening Grist article, Tom Philpott notices a few nasty ingredients that are now going into your “conventional” hamburgers.  Poultry litter, for one, thing, or in plain English, “feces mixed with bedding, feathers, and uneaten feed.”

A Missouri Extension publication blithely describes this gross practice as “provid[ing] opportunities for both the poultry producer and the beef cattle producer.” The Consumers Union sees it a little differently:

It can contain disease-causing bacteria, antibiotics, toxic heavy metals, restricted feed ingredients including meat and bone meal from dead cattle, and even foreign objects such as dead rodents, rocks, nails and glass. Few of these hazards are eliminated by any processing that might occur before use as feed. The resulting health threats include the spread of mad cow disease and related human neurological diseases, the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria, and the potential for exposure to toxic metals, drug residues, and disease-causing bacteria.

Philpott also points out that crude (i.e. unpurified) glycerin, a biodiesel byproduct which goes into cosmetics (in purified form)  is now finding its way into feedlot food, as well as distillers grains, even though, as Philpott notes, “regulators acknowledge that the [latter] practice seems to encourage the growth of the deadly-to-humans pathogen E coli 0157. Distillers grains are also loaded with antibiotic residues and various industrial chemicals.”

And finally, because you might have missed it, the massive Huntington Meat Packing recall of beef tainted with  e. coli 0157 was not a mere 866,000 pounds of ground beef (enough for 3.56 million Quarter Pounders).  It was five times that amount!

As per the USDA

Huntington Meat Packing Inc., a Montebello, Calif., establishment, is expanding its recall of January 18 to include approximately 4.9 million additional pounds of beef and veal products that were not produced in accordance with the company’s food safety plan.

The USDA release also notes that the Huntington “recall was expanded based on evidence collected in an ongoing criminal investigation being conducted by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) with assistance from FSIS.”

Are you lovin’ it yet?


The useless farmer in winter

I know. Winter on a farm is much worse in Minnesota, my home state, where temperatures can stay below zero for weeks on end. But by Kentucky standards, this has been a hard winter. And for me, that’s plenty hard.  Sub-freezing temperatures and howling winds make taking care of farm beasts stressful–for the beasts, and (especially) for the farmer. I spend most of my time fretting about water, hay, wind, ice, and mud.

I’m against keeping cows in barns. I don’t have a totally sound basis for this stance, but I feel strongly about it, for some reason. My 13 cows are outside all winter. That wasn’t a problem last year, but last year was a milder winter, the ice storm notwithstanding.

The hay I’ve put out for my seven pregnant cows is of pretty poor quality. It comes from my neighbor, who loaned me a bull for breeding in August. It only took the bull a few weeks to finish his business, but he has been with us ever since, eating as much hay as three cows. My neighbor and I have a strange relationship.

Last week I weaned four calves off their mamas, and my timing couldn’t have been worse. The pen where I’ve put the calves is totally exposed to the wind, which gusted to 40-some mph and  brought the wind chill into negative numbers the night before last.

I have nice hay for the calves, in square bales. The mamas much prefer the square bales to the big round ones I’ve set out for them, to the point where they pretty much ignore their hay, and fight over every scrap of the calves’ hay that happens to blow out of the pen.

Generally speaking, it’s a good thing that I spend a lot of time among my cows. They are all extremely tame and calm because I’m familar to them. But I cannot lie: they are BOSSY BITCHES. It’s always crystal clear if they’re unhappy with a state of affairs. And they are unhappy.

My chickens, in contrast, are wonderful winter animals. They are laying lots of eggs and seem to have no problem roosting in a frigid hen house. I feed them well, but they can’t supplement what I give them with foraging in the ice and snow, so they too are always hungry, and follow me around in a pack whenever I am outside. They even swarm around me when I am up with the cows, and fearlessly peck around beneath the legs of the big beasts, who are not terribly bothered by their presence.

I have a pair of donkeys I’ve grown attached to, but have always been a little ambivalent about having, since they came as the result of an executive decision by my wife, who thought it would be nice to have them.  They are funny, skittish beasts, and the cows try to run them off at every opportunity. When it comes to defending the coffee can of sweet feed I give them every day,  they stand their ground quite nicely,  fending off the cows with sharp rearward kicks while they eat.

And then there’s the bees, who should be able to overwinter by themselves with no extra help from me. And yet the first cold snap killed one of my three hives. Weirdly, it was the one with the most honey in it. Why did they die? I really don’t know. Perhaps there weren’t enough bees to make a warm cluster. Perhaps they were weakened by disease or parasites. Dead bees tell no tales.  Or it might have  been the wind.

I determined that the bees also needed a wind break, but I could not find anything close at hand, so I parked my rusting 1988 Chevy Cheyenne  across the path of the wind. Which was a good idea, but with an unforeseen consequence. My spot in front of the hive is situated on a slight downslope, and is up against a fence.  The Cheyenne’s traction is negligible in the best of times, so as soon as I stopped I realized there was little hope of my backing out of that patch of icy snow, and the fence kept me from going forward. Unwilling to go without the truck til the ground thaws and then dries out (which could be as late as May), I had to snip a hole in a woven wire fence to drive the truck through.  It was just the latest in a series of clumsy desecrations of the farmstead to make up for a poorly thought out decision.

But so far everyone is surviving. All the animals are alive and on the property.  I am not a good farmer, but I’m better than I was.


Cows the climate solution?

sacred cow

In “The Climate Solution: Got Cows?”, Adam Sacks says well managed cattle grazing could solve all our climate problems by the middle of the century.

With proper care of ruined grasslands, variously called managed grazing, holistic management, or carbon farming, we can restore billions of acres of the world’s soils.  Along the way we can pull all the excess carbon out of the atmosphere and put it back into the ground where it belongs – in forty years or less.  We can return to our long-gone preindustrial atmospheric concentrations of 280 ppm, the atmosphere that made the climate that made the planet very friendly to humans and many other creatures.  It’s a climate strategy where we have the world to benefit, at minimal cost and very low risk

Wow. That’s an optimistic and bold claim.

The particulars are as follows:

* We can begin doing it right away (in fact, we already are), with or without government and/or corporate support.
* It costs nothing or less in the scheme of things. For your local third-world family farmer, for your 100,000-acre rancher, and for everyone in between it will probably turn a profit.
* It requires no expensive and toxic fossil fuel inputs – fertilizers, pesticides – in fact, they will ruin it.
* It is so low-tech that it is mostly pre-tech (but a little bit of low tech can make it easier in some circumstances). As a result, the risks of unintended consequences are minimal.
* While there’s still a lot to learn, as always, we already know how to do this very well.
* Children will love it (they love animals and nature).
* It will feed millions or more people on sustainably harvested animal protein, animals that have been treated humanely throughout their lives, and it will maybe even put an end to the despicable practice of factory farming.
* It will heal billions of acres of land that industrial humans have ravaged and destroyed, restoring vital soil flora and fauna, and re-establish plant and animal diversity as well crucial hydrological cycles including groundwater replenishment, flood control, and patterns of rainfall.
* We don’t have to waste resources on nonsensical and dangerous geo-engineering schemes, nor do we have to keep hoping for miracles.

Not surprisingly, there are objections to this scenario. George Werthner’s recent Counterpunch article, Why grass-fed beef won’t save the planet attempts to throw a wet blanket over Sacks’ claims, stating that “cattle production of any kind is not environmentally friendly.” That is probably true of the cattle business as currently constituted. But I think Werthner and Sacks might be talking about two different things. One, cattle production as it is, the other cattle production as it might be. Or maybe I’m just being optimistic, given that I am at present one of these holistic managers of my pastures.

There are a lot of competing claims floating around right now. The anti-grassfed argument has many components, but the one that has attracted the most attention is a recent study showing that grass-fed cows actually produce more methane than feedlot cows. It is indeed a counterintuitive finding, but I think it’s incredible that this one factoid gets ripped out of context and paraded around in major media outlets. See? Those crazy grass-fed hippies don’t know what they’re talking about. Leave raising cows to the professionals!

Dare I suggest that PR firms retained by the powerful beef lobby have helped to nudge this story along?

To me, this is another faux-contrarian argument emerging from the FUD-osphere (FUD standing for Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt), which has been described as a “network of Sith-lord scientists and unrepentant PR flacks who have no compunctions about tweaking their research methodologies … to generate results both favorable to industry and confusing to those trying to understand the truth.”

Because really, it’s only one part of the big picture. And the big picture, no matter what your perspective, is that the feedlot model of raising cattle is an absolute abomination, and it has to change.

From the Discovery News article I quoted above:

“There’s a lot of range of what the [methane] emissions are from beef, and that is real variability,” agreed Rita Schenck, Executive Director of the Institute for Environmental Research & Education in Vashon, Wash., who has also studied this question.

“It is different in different places. It is different in different growing regimes. It’s just different. I think the numbers are really close,” she said, so the scales can tip one way or another depending on the specific circumstances.

“To some extent, all of this bickering about carbon footprint is missing the forest for the trees,” Weber [Christopher Weber of Carnegie Mellon University], is that accurately quantifying how much soil carbon contributes is difficult, and it can vary dramatically from place to place — even in locations just a few feet away said. “”In terms of air pollution, water pollution and odor, concentrated feedlots are a disaster. In terms of other environmental impact, there is no question that grass fed is better. My problem is that people really play on the carbon footprint angle, when it’s really not clear. “

Ineffable beauty, unspeakable evil, and all sorts of crap in between

Twitter Updates

wordpress analytics