by Gilles Stockton | March 15, 2019
In 1968, when I was just twenty-two and recently out of college, I, along with a dozen guys of my same age and circumstances, was sent to Somalia to teach Somali farmers the benefits of modern agriculture. We were in the Peace Corps and tasked to promote enhanced production of sorghum. The main technology that we were to impart was the use of oxen to plow the fields. The practice in that part of Somalia was to do all tillage by hand using a short hoe.
Our mission was a total failure. We did not convince one Somali farmer to adopt animal traction. It took me a number of years—including more formal education and much more practical education, both as a rancher and as a “so-called” agricultural development expert—to understand why. In the highlands of Ethiopia, not all that far from the fields of southern Somalia, farmers have been using oxen to till their fields for centuries, if not millennia. But the practice did not filter down to the fields bordered by the Shabelle and Juba rivers of Somalia for the simple reason that the cattle in southern Somalia were subject to an infection carried by tsetse flies. The skinny, spotted, horned cattle common in that part of Somalia were partially immune to this disease but not robust enough for the serious efforts required to pull a plow.
One bright spot in American culture and agriculture is the growing movement that is looking for home-grown quality food. This movement, by no means a mass movement, consists primarily of elites and so-called “foodies”. The bulk of agriculture still produces crops for an industrialized, vertically integrated market system which provides abundant, inexpensive, but not necessarily high-quality food to the consuming public. The American farmers that survived the farm policies designed to weed them out individually till more land than ever before possible, with incredibly advanced technology and machines that are impossibly large. But the economics of this industrialized agricultural system keep these farmers in perpetual debt. They are essentially serfs on their own land.
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, particularly when it is coupled by a lot of hubris. That unfortunately has been the dominant theme in the advice given to African farmers by European and American agricultural experts. But this essay is not to discuss this failure in Africa, but to explore another failure—namely, the growing political chasm between those who grow food in America and those who consume it.
The dilemma is, however, that farmers who are being systematically exploited by big banks and multi-national agri-business hate environmentalists more than they hate the people who keep them in economic thrall. This essay will explore why.
As you can imagine, vegetarians are a perplexing group for people who raise livestock for a living. No one really challenges vegetarians as it is a little like non-mainstream religion: If that is what you want to believe, then that is your business. But privately, non-vegetarians think that vegetarians not only eat nuts, but also are nuts. And one should not overlook that little smug aura of moral condescension that one gets from vegetarians. That grates.
So let us explore the main reasons people give for not eating meat. I have heard four main themes: it is an ancient cultural practice, it is more healthful, it is cruel to kill and eat animals, and it is not only better for the environment but also makes food available to the world’s hungry.
It is an ancient cultural practice. Not much to argue about there. If you grow up in a culture that is vegetarian or primarily vegetarian, your ideas about the proper food you eat are pretty well fixed.
It is more healthful. This seems to me to be the strongest argument in favor of non-cultural vegetarianism. It is undoubtedly more healthful to eat a balanced vegetarian diet than to eat a standard, high-calorie diet of Big Mac’s, French fries, pizzas, potato chips, and Mountain Dew. But then again, most any diet is better than that.
One has a stereotype of vegetarians as people who are also serious about exercise and fitness. But when a friend was in the hospital, although a vegetarian diet had kept him lean and fit, I got to wondering if it was really the best diet to promote healing? Red meat, after all, has the essential micronutrients that our bodies need. A non-vegan vegetarian diet probably comes up with all these micro-nutrients, but not in one food. Just an observation. However, if someone wants to be a vegetarian, that is their right, even though I don’t worship at the same altar.
It is cruel to kill and eat animals. When one invokes the image of Mother Nature, one envisions green meadows, flowers, and butterflies. However, when it comes to protecting the life that Mother Nature so generously provides, she is a totally callous, indifferent bitch. Nothing living on earth ceases to live except in pain and trauma—and that includes us. We do what we can to protect our final minute from physical or psychic pain, but rarely succeed.
Mother Nature is lavish with life. Thousands of baby turtles hatch on a beach, lusting for survival in a mad dash for the sea, but only hundreds make it to the surf where they still face a whole new array of predators. Out of that whole hatch, only a handful ever make it to maturity to return to that beach and lay eggs for the next massacre. The mammals have it no better. On the Serengeti plains, no wildebeest ever dies of a peaceful old age. But the lions have their own troubles. A wound from a buffalo’s horn festers, and that lion can no longer keep up with the pride. She dies, lying under a bush from starvation. Every lion, unless killed outright, ultimately dies of starvation.
So does not killing a cow, butchering it, and then cooking its flesh over a barbecue somehow protect that cow from not dying a violent death? I don’t think so. One could counter and say that, if that cow was not born in the first place, then it would not be alive to be killed in a gigantic factory designed to disassemble hundreds of cows per hour.
But one needs to consider what we first learned from Charles Darwin. One of his insights was that, if there exists a food source, some kind of living organism will adapt to exploit it. If that cow, described in the paragraph above, was not born on the plains of Montana to consume grass, something else would be born and consume that grass. Maybe small things like rodents and rabbits, maybe larger things like deer, elk, and buffalo. But each one of those lives, great or small, would only survive by constant vigilance against predators. And if, somehow, they survive the predators and also survive drought, fire, and winter, at the end of their natural lives, they would die from infirmity and starvation.
In the scheme of things, not killing and eating that cow has not protected anything from violence and trauma. What is more moral—the death of one cow or the death of 300 rabbits? Is a big life more important than a small life or a number of small lives? No real answer to that one, although I suspect that a mouse is just as traumatized at his demise in the jaws of a cat as an elephant at the wrong end of a poacher’s bullet.
Then, too, we should consider how vegetarians are essentially disrespectful to their ancestry. We can all look back 200,000 years to our common mother. If she and her mate and their children had not evolved the ability to run down and spear their prey, none of us would be here today. Ultimately, we are that predator species. No matter how sanitized we have made the process of raising, killing, and processing animals—so that, as a consumer, we can purchase a pretty package and be completely divorced from the savagery that Mother Nature initially devised—we are still a predator.
That does not mean cruelty does not matter. It is neither moral nor good animal husbandry to be cruel to animals. Animals rights advocates have been right in their efforts to give more space and better living conditions to chickens, hogs, and veal calves in the factory farms where they are raised.
It is not only better for the environment but also makes food available to the world’s hungry. The argument is made by vegetarians and others that it takes a number of pounds of corn (better known as maize in the rest of the world) to produce a pound of chicken, pork, or beef. Cattle are the least efficient in converting corn to beef. Therefore, if that corn was not fed to livestock, it could feed the world’s hungry.
Yes, it could, but the cause of hunger is political and economic. There is, currently, enough food in the world; it is the distribution and access to that food that is insufficient. A big reason that there is enough food in the world is the geographical accident that is Iowa. Iowa has the perfect climate and soil to grow corn and soybeans in rotation. Farmers in Iowa, and the states adjoining Iowa, grow so much corn and soybeans that it cannot all be sold. It actually creates a worldwide surplus.
This is why U.S. farm policy for the entire last half of the 20th century discouraged farmers from raising corn and soybeans. At times, farmers were paid not to plant but just to keep their fields in fallow. Now in the 21st century, that problem has been temporarily solved by turning corn into ethanol to fuel our cars. We call that bio-fuels, and there is an ongoing debate about whether ethanol is actually as environmentally friendly as claimed. Whether it is or not, the key reason we convert a sizable portion of each year’s corn crop to ethanol is economics, not environmental. Without that annual diversion, corn prices would collapse, which in turn would collapse the prices for every other thing that farmers raise. The resulting economic depression would be felt worldwide.
Raising chickens, pigs, and cattle and feeding them “surplus” grains and kitchen scraps have a long history that most certainly dates back to when people first started settled agriculture in Mesopotamia. In more modern times, it is a practice by which farm families could market some cream, eggs, chickens, or pigs for cash with which to buy necessities, such as new shoes for the children at the beginning of winter. There is a Loretta Lynn song “Coal Miner’s Daughter” that talks about just that.
But in Iowa, following World War II, corn production abundance resulted in corn prices less than the cost of planting, raising, and harvesting it. Iowa farmers began to calculate that, if they fed their corn to pigs or beef cattle, they could possibly net a profit rather than a certain loss. You might wonder, if raising corn was unprofitable, why did farmers plant the corn in the first place? The reason is that the cost of buying the land is a “sunk” cost. Planting a crop at a net loss is still less of an economic loss than not planting at all or, for that matter, planting something else that would not yield as much as corn or have as much of a market demand. So, in the fall after harvest, a farmer would calculate the probable market price for the corn and decide whether buying a bunch of weaner pigs or young calves and feeding them out was a better bet than selling the corn outright.
It was not long before agribusiness saw what farmers were doing and started to wonder if they could cash in, too. From this beginning developed the factory chicken and hog systems and the cattle feedlots that feed hundreds of thousands of steers at a time. Now we have chickens, pigs, and cattle genetically selected to work in this industrial animal raising system. But the entire system would fall apart if the price of corn and soybeans rises too much. Agribusiness, in cahoots with the big banks, therefore carefully controls farm policy to guarantee that corn and soybeans never become profitable. It is a money-making machine that extracts profits by keeping farmers in perpetual debt.
That was a long-winded explanation to explain that not eating chicken, pork, or beef does not help feed the world’s poor or somehow benefit the environment. In one sense, the factory farming system is highly efficient. On the streets in any third world city are chicken rotisseries. Roast chicken is available to, if not the world’s poorest poor, at least the world’s less poor.
It is true that the world’s population is continuing to grow, and uncertainty has been injected in our food production systems by global warming. There will probably come a time when the price of corn will be higher than the cost of feeding it to livestock. When that time comes, the amount of animal protein available on the market will decrease, and the price for fried chicken or a ham sandwich will be higher than what the masses can afford. When that time comes, vegetarianism will no longer be a lifestyle choice for many.
Biodiversity and Agriculture
Somehow in the intervening decades since I graduated from a university, the concept of biodiversity has come to dominate thinking about biology and biological systems. This term has entered the popular consciousness as a dogma—religious in nature, an end in and to itself. Biodiversity is an attractive, easy-to-grasp concept, but, seemingly, little consideration is given to the contradictions. The biggest, the one that is right there like the nose on your face, is agriculture. The whole point of agriculture is to minimize biodiversity in order to maximize productivity.
Ten thousand years ago, before human beings began to alter the world through agriculture and herding, biodiversity was what happened; it was the only system, and Mother Nature was ruthlessly in charge. But the number of people existing in the world very slowly began to multiply until suddenly we have had an explosion of human beings. Maybe some want to deny the facts, but realistically, how could it not be possible that seven or eight billion human beings not significantly affect the natural world and the world’s weather patterns? And in so doing, the diversity of nature is increasingly compromised.
This domination of human beings might be lamentable to one’s notions of the natural world, but it is the reality with which we must live. In another, younger time of my life, I met a remarkable man, who had, during the early and mid-sixties, helped organize the civil rights struggle in the Mississippi delta. His academic background was in Physics, and he used a laboratory concept about how one should think about affecting change in a complex cultural context. “Normalize from reality” was his succinct advice—a vision on how things can be better is vital, but start with reality.
Mother Nature’s method of regulation is not benign. There is no equilibrium that balances the natural system. It is, instead, an endless series of booms and busts. Good weather and good rains result in lush pastures. Life that consumes vegetation proliferates. Life that consumes that vegetarian life, in turn, increases. Rains fail, winter is unrelenting, life dies—first the consumers of vegetation, followed by the predators. The next year, or the next decade, or even after scores of decades, good weather and good rains result again in lush pastures, and the cycle recommences.
Animals adapt to the booms and the inevitable collapses as best they can. Some develop patterns of migration; others, habits of hibernation. But no matter how resilient they become, they still cannot beat the system. But we human beings have elected to try to control Mother Nature herself. The point of agriculture is to minimize the effects of the climatic fluctuations. Plant varieties are carefully selected to maximize production in the specific micro-climate that one is attempting to cultivate. Livestock are chosen and carefully managed to provide maximum production, given the environment available to the herder. Farmers wage a continuous battle against weeds, insects, and pathogens. Herders guard against predators and vaccinate against diseases.
Does that mean that biodiversity has no place in agriculture? Not at all. Soils contain a complex mixture of micro and larger organisms. We have little scientific understanding of their roles and interactions, but it is important in soil fertility. Pastures and hay fields benefit from a mixture of grasses that respond differently to different climatic fluctuations. Cool, wet springs favor certain grasses, while in warm, drier springs, other grasses dominate. However, there are other plants—such as introduced invaders or hardy native plants with little nutritional value or which may even be poisonous—that we don’t want. It depends—diversity has its place and its limits.
But biodiversity is seemingly being used to justify everyone’s notion of land management. A recent news spot featured a Utah man concerned about the lack of rejuvenation of Quaking Aspen groves caused, in his estimation, by excess numbers of deer and elk. His solution is more wolves and lions. No doubt that would work, but at what cost and to whom?
There is a very different mindset between people who sees themselves as environmentalists and/or conservationists and those who practice agriculture. The environmental/conservation perspective is from the external looking inwards towards the particular. The agricultural point of observation is from the specific looking outward. It is the same landscape that is being considered, but what each one sees is very different. From a farmer/herder point of view, what is important is a very specific, often generational, detailed knowledge of the land that is under his/her care. What are its limitations and how can that particular piece of land be coaxed to provide maximum productivity?
An environmentalist’s or conservationist’s motivation is more complex. Depending upon the person’s particular inclinations, he/she can be concerned about certain plant or animal species, overall soil health, watershed protection, or recreational potential. It is possible that these motivational factors even contradict each other.
Modern technological industrialized agriculture has incrementally increased plant and animal productivity. Each crop, each animal species raised, rests upon an incredible body of scientific knowledge. Each crop, each animal species raised, is produced under a complex economic system which provides specific timely inputs and the resulting product is sold into controlled markets that aggregates, transforms, and ultimately distributes those products to the consuming public.
Modern farmers are not technological idiots. It takes both a good education and a lot of practical experience to bring in a crop and still survive economically to plant again in the coming spring. But farming and herding have never been the occupations of technological idiots, no matter what one read about the country mouse and the sophisticated city mouse. To survive from year to year always required careful observation and a willingness to learn, which includes learning from the advice of one’s elders.
While modern technological, industrialized agriculture has succeeded in providing abundant harvests and the supermarket shelves overflow with a dizzying variety of food choices, there is a dark side. Industrialized agriculture is the capitalist version of communism. A handful of chain oligopolies controls inputs and outputs for all major crops. The government and the banks enforce the rules. It is a top down system similar in many ways to that which, in the days of the old Soviet Union, destroyed the agricultural productivity in the USSR. This capitalist-communist hybrid works only because it allows farmers the illusion of independence. Their culture and work ethic motivate them to exploit their own and their families’ labor.
But vast monocultures of corn, soybeans, and wheat and huge factory-size barns full of chickens, pigs, and milk cows are highly vulnerable to adverse climatic fluctuations and introduced pathogens. Global warming is increasing the incidences of bad weather, and globalism is spreading diseases and disease vectors around the world faster than authorities can respond. We may very well be approaching the time for a reckoning. This industrialized system of agriculture, like so many of the industries upon which modern industrialized society relies, is complex, interconnected, and brittle.
Wildlife, Recreation, and Agriculture
Earlier in this 21st century, I had the opportunity to watch elephants coming into water at the springs in Kenya’s Amboseli Park at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro. It seems that all of my anecdotes for this essay happen in Africa, but this is a pretty good story and should be made to fit in. We were sitting in our Land Rover, watching a group of 20 or so elephants approach the springs. At first, it looked as though the big bull elephant, a truly huge and magnificent animal, was carrying a stick in his trunk. But when he got close, we saw that it was a spear that pierced his trunk and that he was doing his best to support the spear with the tip of his trunk. It was obviously painful.
We informed the rangers that one of their elephants was wounded. Presumably, they tranquilized the beast, removed the spear, and administered a huge dose of antibiotics. At least, that is what I like to believe happened. However, I got to wondering about the rest of the story. How did the spear get in the elephant’s trunk? What motivated someone to stand in front of a bull elephant and fling a spear at it? Did that person even survive that encounter?
My presumption is that this elephant was raiding some poor farmer’s field, and he was defending his crop the only way available to him. The interface between wildlife and agriculture is getting more and more complicated, and an elephant or two in your corn patch is a huge problem when that is all there is to feed one’s family.
On the TV nature shows, we see how elephants are being slaughtered by poachers for their ivory. There is a fierce worldwide debate about whether any ivory at all should be legally sold, even from places acknowledged to have a surplus of elephants. And, of course, there are appeals for donations to save the elephants. But somehow, the farmer who has to co-exist with the elephant gets little consideration, either on TV or in the debate on how to save elephants, and the farmers certainly receive none of the money sent for the elephants’ benefit.
I did not have to go so far afield for an example of the interface between wildlife, their defenders, and those who make a living through agriculture. My home state of Montana abounds in those conflicts and controversies. Every wild animal appears to have its own army of partisans. Coyotes, eagles, wolves, and grizzly bears among the predator species; bison, feral horses, elk, deer, antelope, prairie dogs, and sage hens among the grass eaters—all have their own band of crusaders, complete with armor, lances, and a battle flag flying an image of their favored animal superimposed upon a holy red cross. And just like that Kenyan spear-chucking farmer, Montana’s farmers and ranchers are expected to welcome and feed these animals. And when they object, it is the farmers and ranchers who are the perceived villains.
The issue is compounded, both in Africa and in Montana, by the lack of land tenure. In Kenya, the state owns the land in the name of the people. Some parcels in cities and valuable farms claimed by elites can be privately registered, but most land adjacent to national parks is open to customary tribal usage. This means that the farmers and herders have no permanent legal right to use that land and, therefore, no incentive to construct wildlife proof fences, even if they could afford to do so.
In Montana, 37.5 percent of the land is owned by either the Federal government or the State. Except for the land designated as National Parks, Wildlife Refuges, and Wilderness, that land has historically been managed for logging, mining, oil extraction, grazing, and hunting. The conflict comes when wildlife and recreational advocates desire to change the designation to exclude logging, mining, oil wells, and in particular grazing in order to make more room for their favorite wild animal. Since it is government land, i.e. public land, and a portion of the public, namely themselves, feels passionately that wolves, for instance, are needed for a healthy environment, the privately-owned cows should be required to go. That, of course, does not make the rancher with a lease to graze public lands happy. If the wolves would stay on the public land, perhaps an accommodation could be made, but wolves, like elephants, don’t respect fences.
And here is the crux of the resentment felt by rural residents against the perceived urban environmentalists. Farmers and ranchers, like most any of us, don’t clearly understand the intricacies of the macro-economic and global market system in which we all operate and in which, they as farmers, must sell the harvest. Like the weather, the political/economic system is something to worry about, and one does what one can to protect oneself, but it will rain or it will not rain. It is out of our hands. Likewise, prices will be good or they will be bad, and that, too, is out of our hands.
However, wolves killing calves is personal. Being informed that this is natural and that biodiversity is a sign of a healthy ecosystem is insulting and an existential threat—like being mugged. Sure, it is money right out of your pocket, but it is more. Your personal space has been violated. It is disrespect and an insult of what a farmer or rancher is most proud. Remember, an environmentalist is looking from the general towards the particular. Farmers and ranchers are most concerned about this acre right here under their feet. It is their inheritance, the spot on earth where he/she has been put in charge. It is their personal responsibility to protect that piece of land and make it as productive as possible. No snot-nosed kid—with the ink still wet on his wildlife management degree from an elite university—is going to tell a farmer what to do on his own land.
In this essay I have focused on wolves, but this is only for brevity’s sake. Farmers and ranchers across this nation all have local issues that polarizes their thinking. Grizzly bears have become a frightening reality for families living just east of the Rocky Mountains in northern Montana. They dare not let their children play outdoors and do not venture about in their work without being armed. The entire drama of the Bundy family protests in Nevada and Oregon, and the ultimate gunning down of one of their supporters, was triggered by a desert tortoise. My brother in Arkansas has a new neighbor from who knows where that calls the sheriff every time he moves his cattle on the county road fronting her property. It all adds up to a sense of us versus them.
Food Production System Under Threat
After the leaders of the new Soviet Union consolidated their hold on urban areas and factories, they turned their attention to rural Russia. It was a feudal system, rife with inequality. The policy they came up with was simple—kill or exile all the farmers. The next step was to consolidate the farm workers into collective farms with politically reliable bureaucrats in charge. Unsurprisingly, the result was famine. Under the centrally directed, scientifically modern collective farm system, the USSR was never able to fully feed itself, even though Russia has some of the best farm land in Europe.
The course of farming in America took a very different route. Coming out of World War I and while the Russian farmers were being murdered, rural America went into an economic depression. The ‘20s roared in the cities, but in the country, people groaned. Conditions got even worse in the ‘30s when everyone, the cities included, were depressed. In Montana, as in many parts of the West, farms were simply abandoned, and the land reverted back to the government.
It took World War II to put farmers back onto their feet. Agriculture was designated an essential industry for the war effort, and farmers were exempted from the draft. Most young men enlisted anyway, and running the farm was left to the older men and the women. Guaranteed prices boosted production, and the American food production system and associated rural communities came out of World War II in the best shape ever.
Following the war, agrotechnology also came into its own. The university research stations went to work selecting plant and animal varieties for local conditions. Herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers came onto the market. Farm machinery made a big leap forward. In 1950, there was just over five million farms, averaging 216 acres in size. Twelve percent of the population lived and worked on these farms.
The average farm of 1950 was just what one would expect. Old MacDonald’s farm was diversified. The main crop would be determined by where the farm was located: cotton in Mississippi, wheat in the great plains, and corn in Iowa. But almost every farm had a few beef cows and a couple of milk cows, some pigs, a few chickens, and a large garden. The main cash crop paid, or didn’t pay as the case might be, the mortgage and bought the new machinery. The family, however, lived off the side crops—eggs, cream, tomatoes, etc.—sold for basic needs. The market for these home-grown products was local while the main crop went into a regional market.
But the agrotechnology resulted in surpluses, particularly corn. Market prices crashed. The government responded with subsidies, but that only resulted in more surpluses. The government then required acreage set-asides in order to qualify for the subsidy. But farmers aren’t stupid—they set aside their least fertile land, and agrotechnology continued to result in ever greater harvests. The government then responded with an insane solution; they concluded, like the commissars in the USSR had already decided, that the problem was the farmers themselves.
If the smaller farms could be forced to go out of business, so called dynamic efficient farmers would consolidate the land into efficient units. Since these “efficient” farmers, as USDA and the ag-economists reasoned, would have economies of scale, the problem of ever more expensive subsidies would disappear. Successive Secretaries of Agriculture made no bones about it: “We must eliminate some of the human resources from agriculture,” was what one Secretary of Ag openly said.
This policy was effective in one respect—they succeeded in eliminating much of the human resources from agriculture. However, the profitability part never materialized, and the cost to the government never went down. In recent years, all they have managed to do was hide the subsidies under another name, crop insurance. But without these non-subsidy subsidies, the modern “efficient” farmer cannot stumble on from one planting season to the next.
The other effect of the “eliminate the farmer policy” was to hollow out rural America: no farmers, no businesses, no jobs, no children, no schools. Today, USDA tells us that there are just over two million farms with an average farm size of 444 acres. But this hides a different reality. 210,000 farms produce 80% of the total production. A full half of what are called farms are simply houses sitting on enough acres to qualify for a lower agricultural property tax assessment. Less than one percent of the U.S. population is actively engaged in farming.
Among the 210,000 largest farms are farms that do not resemble a farm in any manner. They are, instead, animal production factories. And this American system is directed, not by a central committee of commissars, but by the board of directors of a rather small number of firms that dominate the manufacture and distribution of inputs and the purchasing and processing of the resulting harvests. Too big to fail banks and hedge funds provide the capital, and government enforces the rules.
This system is predicated on uniformity and mono-culture. Without a dependable supply of corn and soybeans, the factories of chickens, pigs, and cows falter. The system is brittle, as is any system where control and decision making are excessively concentrated. Most consumers never think about any of this, but they should because this is their food that we are talking about.
There are worrisome indicators that all might not be rosy for the future of industrialized agricultural production. The big one, of course, is the weather. It has gotten highly unpredictable. Farming and livestock production depend upon a certain level of climatic consistency. It is easy to speculate that, if the world gets warmer, the corn belt would shift to the north. Wheat would shift even further north, and cotton and sorghum would shift where corn used to be. But that is if the weather changes in a consistent and predictable manner. But if one year, it is hot as blazes such that the corn crop can’t pollinate properly, and the next year is cold and wet and the tractors can’t get into the fields until it is too late, we have a problem.
Other things are also happening that are also problematic. One of the firms that controls the supply of critical inputs is Monsanto (now owned by Bayer), who developed the herbicide Roundup (glyphosate) and the genetically-modified seed technology that makes its proprietary seeds immune to the effects of Roundup. Corn, soybeans, and weeds are becoming resistant to Roundup. In the case of corn and soybeans, that initially was the point, but now farmers are getting feral corn in their soybean fields and feral soybeans in their corn fields and weeds in both.
The thing about Roundup is that it is the essential ingredient in no-till agriculture. Tilling—plowing—was, of course, one of the big breakthroughs in agriculture in the first place. That is how one minimizes weeds in one’s crop. But plowing makes the soil vulnerable to wind and water erosion. It also accelerates the process of oxidation of soil carbon, the little bits of plant material that makes soil soil. No-till farming, using Roundup to eliminate weeds, is common in just about every major crop, even those not using genetically-modified seeds.
Roundup was/is the magic ingredient, even if it is losing its effectiveness as weeds increasingly become resistant to its lethal effects. More worrisome, it is now looking highly likely that Monsanto hid the fact from the world that glyphosate is also poisonous to humans. That little tidbit is currently working its way through the legal system. Scientists are finally getting access to the raw data because the courts are allowing plaintiffs access to information previously considered proprietary and, therefore, hidden from independent verification. If glyphosate is pulled from the market, the effects on agriculture would be severe.
The third issue that is increasing the vulnerability of modern agriculture is a side effect of globalization. With the increasing international flow of people and food products comes disease. Chicken and hog factories must maintain sterile procedures, just like a hospital isolation unit. Bird Flu, Swine Flu, African Swine Fever, and Foot and Mouth Disease are just a few of the diseases that could eliminate millions of chickens and pigs overnight. Plants, too, have their pathogens and insects that are spreading around the world.
So, between the uncertain and increasingly frightening changes in climate, the unraveling of the agro-technology that has made mono-culture and factory farms workable, and the increasing threat of introduced diseases, what we have come to take for granted in our food production system could come tumbling down like a house of cards.
Myth and Half Truths
There seems to be a growing business opportunity for rich people who are unfulfilled by making money. They buy property in the country. They notice that something is not right, such as the land has been overgrazed, there has been a lot of erosion, or that weeds and brush have proliferated over previously productive fields and pastures. They consult experts, read up on the solutions, spend a bunch of money putting their fields and pastures as they should be, write a book about what they did, and then go on a speaking tour about how “they,” this pair of city kids, found the path to environmental sustainability in agriculture.
One problem that they face in converting the ignorant is that there are really not enough actual farmers to make up an audience. So, much of their time is preaching to a choir of people concerned about the health of the environment. In this way, a body of half notions penetrate the public consciousness. These half notions are not meant to be malicious, but agriculture is complicated. What works, or may even work brilliantly, in one micro-climate may not be the least bit appropriate in another. In short, there is no panacea.
Soil Carbon Farming
One idea that is currently making its way among concerned consumers and organic/natural farmers is soil carbon sequestration, sometimes called restorative farming. The central idea is that soils around the world have become depleted of soil carbon and with it, soil’s fertility and ability to hold rain water. If agricultural methods were more sensitive to this problem, soils could hold a lot more carbon, perhaps enough to even stop global warming. This is obviously an exciting possibility if it is realistic.
The big enemy of soil carbon is the sun. In tropical areas, the soil, even in the middle of a rainforest, has nearly no soil carbon. It gets eaten by insects and digested by microorganisms. At the other end of the world, a lot of carbon becomes incorporated into the soil in the band just below the arctic. The peat bogs of Ireland and Scotland are accumulated soil carbon. It stays there, sequestered for as long as the peat is not disturbed. If the world is getting warmer, which seems to be the case, that obviously works against the sequestration of carbon in soils.
One way to promote carbon sequestration in farm ground is to not plow very often. No-till farming is what is needed. There are not many ways to practice no-till farming. We have already talked about chemical no-till. Another, natural way is to convert farm land to hay and livestock pasture—in other words, raise more cattle and sheep.
In Montana, that happened about fifty years ago, before anyone was particularly concerned about carbon sequestration. The homestead era that started in this part of Montana just before the beginning of the 20th century resulted in a lot of native grassland plowed under to raise wheat, barley, and oats. That era and its associated farming practices collapsed in the dust bowl and depression of the ‘30s. The surviving farmers consolidated the best land and continued farming, in part because government farm policy gave them subsidies to farm. But when government policy changed, requiring a certain percentage of each farm to be kept fallow, the less productive fields were converted to hay or pasture.
There is still a lot of crops raised in Montana on the better soils and where irrigation allows for intensive farming. All the rest is now either native range or improved pasture. The improved pasture, the previously less productive grain fields, is now planted in a mixture of alfalfa and grass. There is not much one can do to improve the sequestration of soil carbon in these fields and in the adjacent rangelands, as this is already the formula.
The rest, the good farm land, is mostly in some form of no-till farming. But as we have previously discussed, no-till farming is dependent upon the herbicide Roundup, and Roundup is getting less effective in killing weeds. In addition, Roundup is being scrutinized as to its effect on human health. So far, an alternative for Roundup does not seem to be in the pipeline.
There are, however, areas of this nation, other than Montana, where annual rainfall is enough to allow for year-round cover crops and where carefully targeted farming practices can minimize the proliferation of weeds without resorting to herbicides or plowing. But it is not easy, and it does not come without costs. Certainly, soil-friendly restorative farming is worth doing where feasible, but expecting soil-friendly farming to seamlessly replace Roundup-dependent industrialized farming, and still maintain the high yields and low prices, is not realistic.
Holistic Resource Management
Another concept that has become “mainstream,” so to speak, in the public imagination is Holistic Resource Management (HRM). The man who developed the concept, Alan Savory, made an important insight on the interaction of grazing animal and grasslands—namely that they have co-evolved. Grass depends upon grazing animals just as much as the animals depend upon grass. Another of his insights, although certainly not his alone, is that it is better for the health of the grass if it is grazed only once late in its growing phase. His model is how large groups of wildebeest move across the plains of East Africa, consume what is before them in a day or two, and then move on.
One corollary that particularly caught the attention of livestock people is that, if you manage this grazing system properly, you can potentially feed more animals than is feasible under a continuous grazing system. In fact, Savory insists that greater grazing density is an absolute requirement. Personally, I have observed that this is true in certain micro-climates, not particularly true in others, and not true at all in some. What works on the southern plains of Texas—where there is a long growing season and rains that rejuvenate the regrowth of grass periodically—has limited application on the eastern plains of Montana where there is only one short period of growth for the native grasses. Then consider even more arid places where the rains are so episodic that you really don’t know when grass will be available to livestock, and once that is gone, it is gone, not to reappear until it rains again.
The big practical problem, say in the last example of an arid micro-climate, is where do you store your livestock in the periods between the rains? You can’t just put them on a shelf. In Montana, many ranchers have looked at Holistic Resource Management, and a good number have made it work, but even more ranchers have concluded that it is not practical in their circumstances. For instance, the notion that one should increase the number of grazing animals during times of good rains and decrease them when there is a threat of drought is problematic.
First, you have to have money in your bank account in order to buy cows back in good years. If you are relying on the good will of a banker to lend you money, that is a problem as they tend not to like what looks to them as speculation. Then, too, it takes many years of breeding and selection to get the right cows for your operation. If you sell them on the bad year and expect to buy back the same quality on the good, well, you can forget about it. Finally, if you are leasing land, especially from the government, the lessor will never authorize more cows than what has been calculated as the standard stocking rate.
Many Montana ranchers have looked at the Holistic Resource Management system and concluded that it just was not practical for them. The standard wisdom of range management in Montana—use half and leave half—works pretty good. HRM might be better, but not better enough to warrant the time and investment. But non-ranchers, having heard about the wonders of HRM, might conclude that these ranchers are hopelessly ignorant and uneducated. Remember the opening section where I, with my Peace Corps buddies, was unable to convince Somali farmers to employ animal traction. They were the ones who were right.
Cattle and Green House Gases
There is a corollary issue to that of HRM and livestock. The notion has entered the popular culture that cattle are somehow particularly guilty in the emission of methane gas. This points to a profound misunderstanding about the basic biology of grass-eating animals. It seems that a lot of people were sleeping through Biology 101. Animals like cattle, other ruminants, horses, rabbits, geese, rodents, grasshoppers, and termites—all ingest grass, but microorganisms do the actual digestion. A side effect of microbial digestion of cellulose is a 5% to 9% energy loss in the form of methane.
Since 42% of the terrestrial part of the world is covered in grasses, it does not seem possible to mitigate the emissions of methane caused by animals and insects ingesting grass. If a cow does not eat that grass, some other thing will, and methane will be emitted.
Wetlands and rice paddies also produce considerable amounts of methane, possibly more than that produced by animals. Methane is also a side effect of the microbial digestion of manure, including human waste. It is possible, however, to capture the methane from sewage and manure lagoons and use it to heat and run facilities. Promoting, or subsidizing, the building of methane capture facilities is something the public, i.e. the government, should be doing as a normal course. But since many in government are against renewable energy in any form, it would be hard to get government to also fund methane collectors.
Mother Nature, again in her indifferent wisdom, has created a system that exacerbates global warming, and there is nothing much that we can do about that. Perhaps, as in her system for culling baby turtles, this is her way to cut back on human beings.
Industrialized Agriculture Versus Organic, Natural, and Regenerative Farming.
It is a good question: can organic and/or soil-friendly farming serve as a model to replace industrialized agriculture? This is where statistics are needed to understand the scale of the problem:
- According to USDA, there are 711.7 million acres currently being farmed or grazed in the USA.
- 372.5 million acres are in grasslands or not being immediately used. That is 52% of the total.
- 305 million acres are planted in major commodity crops, such as corn, soybeans, sorghum, wheat, barley, oats, or cotton. That is 43% of the total.
- That leaves us with just 34.2 million acres, or 5% of the total used for vegetable and fruit production.
It is that 34.2 million acres that many people associate as real agriculture, the agriculture which supplies fruits and vegetables to the supermarkets. These fields are, for the most part, the best land, with the best rainfall, and the best access to irrigation. This is also the land where carbon-rich soils make the greatest difference. It is also the most labor-intensive form of agriculture.
Out of that 34.2 million acres, less than 4 million is devoted to organic fruit and vegetable farming. It is a little hard to get precise because a big percentage of the 4 million organic farmed acres are in wheat, corn, beans, or other field crops. Then, too, we have farms that use different levels of what are considered sustainable agricultural practices. These cannot be easily counted by USDA so it is hard to fix the actual number of acres.
It is from this mix of farms from which we get the seasonally-appropriate fruits and vegetables sold at farmer’s markets across the nation. The point, however, is to consider the scale of the problem. Organic fruits, vegetables, and free-range chickens are perhaps the “best” products coming from agriculture, but they are just a tiny part of what is a gigantic industry.
It is not that many farmers would oppose adopting a more eco-friendly form of agriculture; rather, it is that there is no easy way to get off the industrialized agro-technological merry-go-round. Consider this: plant selection and other agro-technology have more than doubled the yield of an acre of corn in the last fifty years. Today an acre of corn can yield two hundred bushels of corn. That is twelve thousand pounds of corn—six tons an acre. This is a very big pile of corn. For that six tons of corn, a farmer in a good year, a very good year, will gross eight hundred dollars ($800).
Believe me, most farmers would love to get off that merry-go-round. But if you are in debt, there is no easy way to dismount. It is like riding a run-away horse—you just hang on tight and hope for the best. The current market price for a bushel of corn is somewhat less than four dollars, and the cost of raising the corn is about four dollars. A thousand acres of corn land cost at least seven million dollars and another million dollars for the machinery. That is a crushing debt load which has to be paid for by a gross income of less than $800,000.
It is not any better raising cattle. The current price for feeder calves is around a dollar fifty a pound ($1.50), and the cost of raising them, a dollar seventy-five a pound ($1.75). A ranch large enough to raise two hundred cows costs up to five million dollars and another half a million to stock and equip it. It is a fair question as to why anyone would pay that kind of money just to lose money year after year? One reason is that farming and ranching is just as much a cultural identity as it is an economic endeavor. People do not stop identifying with their heritage, even when it is inconvenient. As a result, farmers and ranchers have historically been willing to sacrifice to stay on the land because that is part of who they are, what has been passed down through their families.
A nice ranch with timber and water goes at a premium because out-of-state multi-millionaires bid up the price of land just so they can have the bragging rights of a place to entertain their hunting buddies. We even subsidize multi-millionaires by allowing special tax deductions for putting a conservation easement on the land. One needs a sizable income to be able to use that particular tax dodge. It is a form of tax write-off not available to a young beginning ranch couple.
Putting a farm or ranch together that has survived the rigorous culling imposed by agribusiness, banks, and the federal government is a multi-generational effort. Those families that have survived with intact farms owe that to hard work, skill, and luck, going back, sometimes, four or five generations. You don’t just cash in and walk away from that legacy—even though most children of farm and ranch families have been forced to do just that. The problem comes at the moment the land changes from one generation to the next. The young farmers need to buy out their siblings. In this manner, the land stays perpetually in debt, allowing banks to collect interest forever.
Usually the only way for a young farm or ranch family to make a go of it is to have core property inherited from their parents, the land they are buying from their siblings, and land they rent from absentee landlords. This way they have an economy of scale, which is often more land than they can easily manage. But since they are still young, they can work very hard. It also helps if one spouse, usually the wife, has a good job in town with health insurance.
About 40% of the total land in agriculture is owned either by rich outsiders or retired farmers and their families. Commonly the lease is based on a share of the crops raised – share cropping. The non-farming landowners’ profits are calculated to be the eventual increase in land value when it is finally sold. Leasing might be beneficial for the starting farmer but less beneficial for the health of the land—the natural tendency is to look after what is yours better than what you rent.
Local food farmers actually can have a somewhat better economic outlook. First off, one needs less land in order to raise market-fresh vegetables for a farmer’s market; this makes the initial debt load not as daunting. The crunch comes in scale and the work required to meet that scale. Most farmers that I know who supply farmer’s markets do nothing but work.
Part of that work is accessing the market. This is a major expense, particularly an expense of time. In most areas of the United States, there is no market structure that connects the farmer to the demand. As a farmer, you have to take your produce to the farmer’s market and sell it yourself. There are high-end restaurants that are happy to buy what you have raised for a premium price. But how can the chef know what you have and how does the farmer know which chef would like what they have just harvested? Personal contact and communication are the only way to do it, and that takes time away from planting, weeding, and picking.
We must also not forget that, ultimately, the prices farmers get in the farmer’s markets are capped by the prices paid by industrialized agriculture. An organic farmer deserves a premium for a freshly picked delicious tomato, but there is a limit as to what the market will bear because the consumer can always decide that the tomatoes in the supermarket are good enough. The reality is that the economics are no better for the organic vegetable farmer than they are for the mono-culture corn farmers or the poultry contract farmer raising millions of chickens for a company that carefully keeps them in perpetual debt.
Reality, Magic, and Magical Thinking
It would be most magical to see a line of woolly mammoth coming down from the hills across from where my house now stands to water in the creek. Perhaps, there would be a saber tooth tiger waiting to catch some unwary prey. Not that long ago, certainly in the time of the first Native Americans, that would have been a common occurrence, and as I said, it would be a magical thing to witness. Yet, although we can no longer see woolly mammoth or even saber tooth tigers, we are doing just fine. The world, its people, and nature are going on just fine without them.
Here in Montana, we were doing just fine without wolves before they were introduced in 1995 into Yellowstone Park. Those wolves have certainly reproduced. There is a growing population of over one thousand in Montana, with similar numbers in Wyoming and Idaho. Just in Montana, as a result of the numbers of livestock killed by wolves, predator control agents kill about two hundred annually at considerable public expense. Hunters and trappers get another two hundred and fifty. An additional unknown number are killed on the sly—shoot, shovel, and shut-up, acts that make otherwise innocent people technically felons. Yet the number of wolves keeps increasing, and the extent of their range continues to expand.
Seeing wild wolves in Yellowstone Park is a thrill, an aesthetic experience, probably not quite as good as it would be to see an actual live woolly mammoth. Aesthetics, however, are cheap when it is other people who pay the band. Isn’t that a definition of selfishness! Interestingly, there seems to be only enough food in Yellowstone Park to sustain about one hundred wolves.
The deluge of propaganda that demanded the introduction of wolves spoke glowingly of the need for wolves to balance the Yellowstone Park ecosystem. To some degree, they have done that. As a result of wolf predation, the park’s elk population has deceased. Park rangers now regale visitors about the regrowth of brush along the Lamar River and the reappearance of beavers, all because the elk no longer strip the river banks free of willows. If it was really just about restoring willows and beavers, the elk could have been culled through hunting.
But has the cost for getting willows and beavers into the Lamar River been tabulated by those who advocate in favor of wolves? Those one hundred wolves have alienated the entire rural population of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. It certainly isn’t the whole story, but the reintroduction of wolves has resulted in ten U.S. Senators and Representatives (from the states of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming) nine of whom deny global warming, and oppose a rational renewable energy policy, clean air and water regulations, and corporate funded mining reclamation—all issues high on the priority list of most environmental organizations.
Then, too, the point of this essay: what about the future of food production? Industrialized mono-culture agricultural probably will not just collapse overnight. Multi-national corporate control of agricultural markets is nearly total. They have the money and power to use government to prop up agriculture when things turn sour. This is probably for the good, considering we are not very well prepared with a working alternative model. Organic and sustainable natural agriculture has been growing over the last half a century, but it would take magical thinking to believe that it can be a realistic substitute for industrial agriculture.
But industrialized agriculture is still vulnerable, and it may not require a complete collapse to throw our nation’s food system into turmoil. Successive bad corn harvests, resulting from unpredictable weather, could send the market into a tail spin. Higher corn prices might be good for the corn farmers, at least those with a crop to sell, but there are downstream economic consequences to livestock feeders, ethanol factories, users of corn oil, the fructose industry, and the buyers of the more esoteric corn-derived additives that are the key ingredients in many, many products. Higher corn prices would have broad repercussions.
Agrotechnology is working on refinements to keep industrialized farming going. Satellites, drones, and smart computers, they tell us, can monitor the fields so that a technician somewhere far from the actual field can warn farmers that there is the beginning of insect damage. Early warning and early intervention—a stitch in time saves nine.
I am skeptical. Agro-technology has made pronouncements before about the next great thing, which turns out to be more hype than help. The help part generally goes to the industrialized agri-business rather than to the farmer. I suspect the real use of surveillance technology will be to inform investors and speculators about the size of the harvest so that agri-business corporations can be positioned correctly in the market. It would be typical that the farmers will pay for the surveillance technology while the market speculators siphon off the actual valuable information.
However surveillance technology ends up, it does not mean that other new technologies would never be useful. Self-driving tractors and robotized farm machinery could take much of the hard labor, long hours, and drudgery out of farming. Advanced calibrated fertilizer application, machinery with flexible seeding capabilities that match seed densities to variations in soil quality, sprayers that apply pesticides only where infestations occur—these could all provide good financial returns and protect the downstream environment from agricultural pollution. However, the technology that could be a real game changer is genetic modifications of corn and wheat to make them perennials instead of annuals. Add the ability to fix nitrogen, and we would really have something. Assuming that the yields from perennial corn and wheat are decent, the reduced need to plow will certainly result in better soils and more soil carbon.
Most of these coming technologies are just as applicable on moderately-sized operations as on mega-huge farms. It is just a matter of scaling the machinery to the size of the need. The sixty-four-thousand-dollar question is how do we get there from here? My personal preference would be for America’s farm system to devolve back to something that more resembles farming as it was in 1950—family farmers tilling moderately-sized, diversified farms. An anonymous quote says that “the best fertilizer is the footprints of the farmer.” Farms resembling those of 1950 just seem more humane to me. But who am I to say that this is the proper scale for the farm of the future?
It is market competition that should decide. There is a very different reality between a vineyard producing fine wine and a farm raising corn to feed chickens. The economies of scale are completely different, and the only way to know what is correct is to let the market decide. But the market cannot decide if market competition is perverted. To some, it might seem that advocating for market competition is a perplexing way to create an agriculture resistant enough to survive the coming climatic uncertainties. But what else could do it? Government commissars would certainly mess things up, and corporate executives will not, in any imaginable future, volunteer to give up control of the money tree.
Industrialized agricultural is the way it is because monopolistic corporations control inputs and outputs and only allow the illusion of market competition. This is what global capitalism has created for us in a number of industries—the illusion of market competition. Walmart is cheaper than Sears, but Amazon is cheaper than both. At the retail level, we may have market competition, but cheaper is not always best, and it is almost impossible in today’s retail market to distinguish quality from junk. Banking, airlines, petroleum, internet, cell phone service, health insurance, and pharmaceuticals, just to name a few, are all industries where competition is compromised. And behind that, at the level of global finance and decision making and at the level of who pays taxes and who does not, competition is smoke and mirrors. The exceedingly rich get richer, while the rest of the world gets poorer. It does not have to be that way; that things are as they are is a matter of the choices that we have collectively made.
It is normal for people to want their cake and eat it too, along with the icing and all of the little candy decorations. People want good food, but naturally want to pay as little as possible. What does it matter if the cost for food is less than the cost to raise it? American consumers pay the least amount for their food as ever in history, and a lot of that food comes pre-prepared in delis or restaurants. Farmers receive less for their work as ever in the last half a century. So why shouldn’t American consumers want their cake and eat it too? No one has ever told them that this was not possible or that it was not their birthright. But sometime, there may come a time when the realities become irreconcilable.
So now we have an agricultural system controlled by a chain oligopoly. They oversee an industrialized farming system that is dependent upon exploitation of everything it touches: the farmers, the farm workers, the animals, the water, the soil, and the food itself. The tradeoff is that food is cheap. When I first began to manage the family ranch in 1975, Americans spent twenty percent of their income on food. Today they spend just under ten percent (9.8%). As already mentioned, much of that is spent on prepared foods from delis or restaurants.
Yet even in a land of plenty, there are people who are hungry, prompting some to be concerned about how much food Americans waste. But why would you not waste food if it is so cheap as to be nearly valueless? Consider this—a bag of corn is cheaper than a bag of wood pellets to burn in a wood pellet-burning furnace. One is food, and the other is sawdust. Doesn’t that suggest that something is out of kilter?
People also want recreational experiences that are as magnificent as possible, but if it comes free, all the better. The issue of wildlife and places where wildlife can conduct their lives as Mother Nature first dictated is, in this 21st century, rife with conflicting emotions. None of us, not even hard-bitten old ranchers, are immune to the spell of watching a coyote, or mountain lion, or even the common everyday progressions of deer. We don’t just shoot them at every opportunity. Perhaps the fascination is built in, like the cat that ignores TV until a mouse scampers across the screen.
But where should that wildlife be allowed to do their thing? To my knowledge, no one proposed to re-introduce wolves to New York’s Central Park where they could subsist on rats, pigeons, and dogs off their leashes. No, instead they thought that Yellowstone Park would be the perfect place. It is large and surrounded by even more National Forest. If the wolves were to venture beyond these borders, what harm could they do? Besides, farmers and ranchers already host a number of wild animals, and what is one more in their role as stewards of the land? You might say, it is their civic duty to participate in biodiversity.
That is the problem—the underlying selfishness. My question, to myself in this essay, is where are the natural limits to this selfishness? I do not see the current system of industrialized farming as sustainable. I say this while acknowledging that American farmers, under the yoke of multi-national agribusiness, are producing food at a volume and price never before experienced. I also do not see that the “so called” sustainable methodologies of farming are capable of the same level of productivity.
But the system is being stressed. Will it break? Maybe – maybe not! But should it break, the only model that I can see as workable is to devolve our farming system to that which more resembles that of the 1950s—more farmers, smaller farms, more flexibility in crops raised, and most important of all, markets that are truly competitive. Ideally, just as with curbing the production of greenhouse gases, we should begin early. It would be better to have a planned evolution than a forced revolution. But we will not get anywhere at all if environmentalists and farmers are at each other’s throats.