No, I don’t propose to know definitively “how to save the world.” But, the concept has been on my mind a lot lately. I think that smart (and observant) people out there are very close to real solutions, and I’m feeling really excited and hopeful about our farm’s new direction.
Some of these thoughts may touch a nerve in my readers, because what I’m about to explore is definitely controversial, especially among a certain crowd of people who really want to “do right” with their eating. I appreciate how heated this topic is, so please read this as an honest reflection on Casey and my journey, both with our personal eating choices and our farming.
Conventional wisdom among enlightened and liberal folks over the last few decades has been that eating fewer animal products is a “Good Thing.” This conventional wisdom says that eating fewer animal products (or none at all) is morally superior, more ecologically sound, allows more people in the world to eat, and is healthier.
Casey and I “grew up” as adults in Bellingham, Washington. We were married quite young (we were 19 & 20), and we learned to “keep house” and cook together while living in a liberal community. We walked to our nearby food co-op, carrying our own bags and various containers so we could avoid using disposable plastic. We bought tofu instead of meat, because we had read Diet for a Small Planet and wanted to share the world’s food wealth. We still ate animal products — cheese and milk at home, and meat when served to us elsewhere — but we always had the idea that less was better. After college, I helped run the kitchen at Holden Village, a mostly vegetarian Lutheran retreat center in the mountains of central Washington.
It was only when we moved to McMinnville in 2006 that Casey and I actually started eating meat regularly. At first, it was because it was April and there were no local vegetables in the store (or in our fields yet), but we could find locally grown meats. Preferring local foods, we started buying sausages to eat with the cabbages we’d brought with us from Bellingham. Then we met local farmers who were raising meat animals, and we bought some of their products. The next year, we got a freezer and bought a quarter of a beef animal — finally we were learning the art of cooking meat from various cuts. It was quite an adventure, one we continued over the next few seasons.
But still, we didn’t eat meat every day, savoring it between meals that were heavy in beans and rice. We talked a lot about how we could grow our own animals. We kept a flock of hens for eggs, but we were still buying dairy and meat from off the farm. I’ve talked about this before, but to reiterate we wanted to add animals once we knew we could produce their feed here on the farm — so that the animal products were truly grown in and from this place.
As you know, last year we made that leap, which has been a complex endeavor worth writing about in many newsletters (last week’s and this week’s!). Along with actually adding the animals, we ramped up our personal reading investigations into the feeding and care of animals — especially grazing animals like cows and sheep. We now own piles and heaps of books about grazing (the lessons of which we are in the midst of implementing — farming takes time).
At the same time, we were actually watching real live animals on our land. We were watching how the animals interacted with the plants growing on our land; and we were watching how those plants responded to being grazed; and we were watching the soil itself. Meanwhile, we were employing our usual annual tillage methods to grow vegetables and grains.
Many years ago, we met the spokesman for a regional wheat company who said that “tillage is the elephant in the room” when it comes to organic agriculture. He is from the Palouse region in Washington, where wheat farming on slopes has caused massive topsoil loss over the last century. (Similarly, right now, 30 bushels of topsoil are lost in order to produce every one bushel of corn.) His wheat growing company’s answer is to practice chemical “no till,” where herbicides are used to prep the ground rather than tillage implements. Of course, then the “elephant in the room” becomes the chemicals, which are toxins — and although they may temporarily prevent quick erosion, they have a significant negative affect on the soil life.
Healthy soil is alive — full of bacteria, fungi, insects, and small animals. Healthy soil is an ecosystem of its own. A crucial part of that ecosystem are the roots of plants — ideally perennial plants that won’t be disturbed every year. Even more ideally, perennial plants that “feed” the soil some part of themselves every year as well: grass litter, fallen leaves, etc.
This symbiosis between plants and the soil life is the process by which topsoil is built. From one perspective, this is an extremely slow process — building inches of topsoil can take thousands of years. However, proper care of the soil can create immediate results and improvements, even in just a season or two. There are ways farmers can track these things simply by looking and walking on the soil — an increase in earthworm activity, a feeling of give underneath ones feet, the tell tale white webs of fungal activity throughout the soil …
So, perhaps you’re wondering by now: great, healthy soil ecosystem — what does this matter? Oh, my friends, it matters so so much.
It seems that the two giant questions of our era are: How are we going to prevent global climate change? And, how are we going to feed the world’s growing population? Both of these questions are directly related to how we treat our soil. People throw out all these complicated proposed technological solutions to both, but these pale next to the power of nature’s truths. Here’s a simple truth for you: grasses and trees are powerful carbon “sinks” — they take carbon from the atmosphere and “trap” it, holding onto it is they grow. In contrast, burning grasses and trees AND tilling the ground, release carbon into the atmosphere — vast amounts of it. Unfortunately, right now these latter practices are the primary ways we are trying to feed the world.
You may worry about the exhaust produced by the truck that transported your food from farm to plate, but do you worry about the carbon that was released in its production? Do you worry about the inches of topsoil lost to annual tillage production?
I don’t mean to add more worry to perhaps an already full “worry plate,” but these are things that need to be discussed. When talking about feeding people, we often talk about the number of “arable acres” in the world (of which America has a disproportionate amount). “Arable” land simply means that the land can be tilled in some way in order to produce food — usually this is lighter soil, less likely to be hilly, in a place where there is some kind of water source and favorable climate. I used to think the combination of these factors was a magic one, because how else would we produce food except through annual tillage agriculture? Casey and I sought out our own piece of “very good” arable land on which to grow our vegetables and took its status as “class 1″ soil to be license to till. And, it’s true that the best land will continue to produce for some time under these conditions, especially if farmers are “more gentle” and plant cover crops or add compost so as to increase the organic matter content and avoid erosion or compaction (practices almost universally employed by organic farmers, thank goodness). We ourselves have taken great pains to be gentle with our tillage, using alternative implements and growing cover crops between veggie crops. But, I still didn’t question whether tillage was necessary to feed the world.
It’s useful to know how tillage works to grow crops: “working” the soil (with any kind of implement) stirs it up in a manner that makes it softer for planting but also kills other life — existing plant matter (i.e. “weeds”) and some soil life. There is an associated burst of fertility with the process, as dying plants and soil life release their own energy. Now that competition has been removed, the intended plants can make quick use of this available energy to grow. In organic agriculture, the trick is to find the balance between enough death to release fertility but not so much that soil life is non-existent (because soil life is what makes fertility possible without chemicals). It is a delicate balance, and organic growers usually add quite a bit more off-farm fertility and organic matter in order to keep the system going.
It is only in the last year that I’ve fully realized (and been ok with acknowledging) that this kind of farming is still a form of “extraction.” Any time we bring an input onto our farm (be it feed or fertility or manure), it comes from somewhere else. We bring on fertility, grow the crops, and send them out into the world — it’s a line in one direction, without a full circle.
I still think that intentional, aware organic farming is a very good option for growing crops, but the verdict is still far out on whether it is sustainable over decades or centuries — especially on a large scale as a way to feed everyone. Organic agriculture proponents bristle at the suggestion that they couldn’t “feed the world,” but to my mind it’s still an unproven theory. I’m skeptical given how many of the current necessary inputs come from conventional farm by-products. If you look at the “fertility chain,” most organic farms are still relying (albeit second- or third-hand) on fossil fuels. If we put pelleted chicken manure on our fields for nitrogen, it’s coming from conventionally (and inhumanely) raised factory farmed chickens, who were fed from fossil fuel fed crops. It’s definitely better for soil life than pouring the chemical nitrogen straight on, but is it a sustainable way to feed people?
So, the quandary remains: how do we eat? This question comes first for me, because how we eat determines much about how we farm. Until last year, I still felt that annual tillage was a necessary evil — that we were bound to working the soil. “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread,” “dust to dust,” and all that.
It was also late last year that Casey and I stumbled across (or, more accurately, were finally convinced to try) the “Paleo” or “primal” way of eating: no refined sugars or grains, emphasis on healthy meats, eggs, fats, and vegetables. The health and culinary results of this experiment are their own story, but as farmers eating a diet with no grains or beans was a revelation, especially as we’d been working toward producing a diversity of products for our “Full Diet” CSA. Until last year, grains and beans continued to make up a big chunk of our diet — it never occurred to us that we could be healthy or enjoy our food without them. Suddenly our vision of the farm changed as well — as we ate more lamb, we envisioned more sheep in the fields. In our mental map of our 100 acres, the portions of the farm that would be planted to permanent pastures grew and grew.
We also learned about grass productivity. Acre for acre, pasture beats out every other field crop for productivity and profitability. In Grass, The Forgiveness of Nature, Charles Walters claims that “ten million acres of 40 percent protein grass would be worth twice as much as all the human food now produced on 285 million acres.” In other words, if 3% of America’s farmland were in high quality pasture, it could produce the food value of the other 97%. He goes on in the book to point out that crops from annual tillage usually follow a depreciating pattern — unless fertility and other inputs are continually boosted, yields go down after time. Healthy pasture has the opposite trajectory; its growth is beneficial to its soil environment and thus to itself — meaning that we really can’t even begin to predict the productivity of pasture.
It makes sense that pasture could have this potential when you consider that an established grassland can make use of every drop of sunlight that hits the ground, regardless of whether it’s “dry enough to till and plant” yet. Sun hits the ground before annual crop seeds are even sown. The mature grasses are photosynthesizing constantly, not just during the main growing season. Sunlight is the only truly free input in any ecosystem — everything else must cycle to be sustainable.
Grass is good. Grass is good for the soil, good for the climate, good for animals. (Trees and other perennial plants are also very good, but today I’m talking about grass.)
But, there’s another piece of the symbiosis puzzle. Grass and soil organisms create a beautiful intertwined dance of life, but it’s not a complete one. To be healthy season after season, grass needs to be cut short periodically. We actually learned this years ago and invested in a powerful mower that we used throughout the season to mow down our cover crops (dropping the cut bits to the ground for fertility and stimulating the growth of more green matter). But, mowing several times a season is an expensive proposition in terms of time and fuel and cash. And, it’s also not really want the grass wants. Grass didn’t evolve with tractor-mounted flail mowers.
Grass evolved with animals. Grazing animals.
And, so, the pieces start to fit together for our farm and our personal food journey. It is so absolutely clear to us that growing grass on a very large portion of our farm is by far the best ecological decision we could make. To be honest, we’ve been fighting grass in our fields for years — grasses are one of our main weeds, especially in the fall. We’re ready to stop fighting and embrace those grasses. Cover cropping has always been important to us, so this is simply the next step in that process. But now we realize that grazing animals on that land is not just useful but integral for keeping that grass growing. Animals who will simultaneously water and fertilize the soil. And produce milk and meat.
Just to be absolutely clear, these are not unique conclusions. Grass farmers are a phenomenon in the agriculture world, with practitioners (“graziers”) in every region. We are just now arriving at this ongoing party, happy that it exists so that we too can learn from others as we move our farm in this direction.
We are privileged to have had this choice. Our land is suitable for production of all kinds, which is how we are able to take on a huge endeavor such as growing diverse foods for the Full Diet CSA — thanks to our soil, wells, and climate, we can grow trees, vegetables, grass ……
But, as we all know, the majority of the world doesn’t have all of these factors in place. Much of the world experiences seasonal droughts or has extreme climates. The greatest miracle of grasses is that they are exceptionally well suited to growing in such conditions. In fact, most of the world’s existing (or developing) deserts were once great grasslands, maintained by large roaming herds of animals. In the very places that people are suffering from the most extreme forms of hunger, there were once plentiful wild food supplies via these herds. And, according to brilliant minds like Allan Savory, these same degraded environments can be renovated today by grazing animals — restoring ecosystems and feeding people at once (see TED talk below for more from Savory). To reiterate, grasslands and grazing could allow people to feed themselves on land currently not producing any food at all — and improve water quality, capture carbon, increase wildlife habitat potential, etc.
Our own Midwest is a good cautionary example — we may think of it as “the bread bowl” of the nation (or even the world), but the reality is that it is a vast wasteland of monoculture crops, erosion, and chemical pollution. Walk into a corn field in Iowa, and there is nothing edible visible. The number of species dwelling in those places are reduced to one: the corn planted in the depleted ground (being fed via chemical fertilizers). A marked contrast from its former life as a prairie, home to countless species of birds, small animals, large animals, grasses … By conservative estimates, the American prairie was once home to 50 million bison alone.
As I say this, perhaps some readers are thinking, “darn people should just leave it all alone.” I used to think similarly — only seeing people as part of the problem and never a part of the solution. We have such tunnel vision, capable of only clearly seeing ourselves as we exist in this moment — fossil fuel sucking, wasteland creating abusers of the world. It’s much harder to see our ecological role — we are predators.
Just as herbivores are essential to the health of grasslands, predators are essential to the health of herbivore herds — preventing over-grazing by keeping a balance of many life forms in one ecosystem. Again, a truth that ecologists understand — remove the predators from a system, and their prey suffers, usually from starvation resulting from overpopulation. Predators also keep herds moving onto new lands, keeping the herds and grasses healthy over a range of land. Perhaps a human way to think of this role is to consider the shepherd.
But humans are also planters. For longer than we can ever know, people have played an important role in helping plants increase their own territory and even in diversifying ecosystems. The amazing diversity of edible plants in the Amazon rainforest today is most likely the result of humans planting “crops” over countless generations (Charles Mann’s 1491 is a wonderful eye opening book for the role humanity has played in shaping the ecosystems and geography of the Americas).
Seeing ourselves as part of the natural world, rather than something distinct from it, is perhaps the key to “saving the world,” and ultimately ourselves. As we see in the world, there are cycles, circles of life: the relationship between the soil, grass, herbivores, predators … How do we fit into these cycles? Everything needs to be in circles in order for us to survive, in order to release our way-one relationship with fossil fuels, in order to sustain food production for a growing world population. For us, the real life way to engage these cycles is to grow grass, raise animals, and eat animal products with real intention and gratitude for the nourishment they provide us.
Of course, right now it’s true that the majority of animal products available for American consumption aren’t produced in any kind of beautiful life-affirming cycle at all. Industrial animal production is focused on grain, which is unhealthy for the animal and the land. Rather than being a integral, life sustaining part of the process, manure and urine fill lagoons and create pollution. As a society, we are far away from living these beautiful truths.
But the reality of today’s animal production is no more atrocious than the reality of today’s grain production. Remember the wasteland at the center of our country. If we don’t change how we produce food, our own “bread bowl” will very quickly turn into a desert, along with other grain growing regions around the world. Perhaps last year’s extended drought in the Midwest is just the beginning. Perhaps desertification is already here. If one looked at an Iowa corn field in winter — dead corn stubble on otherwise bare exposed dirt — it would more closely resemble a desert than anything alive or fertile.
Once again, this is a moment when Casey and I feel incredibly privileged to lead the life we do — to have stewardship over land and the ability to make our living by feeding people in the ways we think to be best. I sometimes feel like our life is a big, kind of crazy but fun experiment in existence. But, it’s certainly more profound than that too, because feeding people and tending the soil is some of the most important work. Every choice we make has an impact on health — the health of the place we live and the people we feed. This is big stuff.
I can’t even imagine what kind of sea change would have to occur to shift our modern food production form its current insanity to a healthy system based on natural models (put the animals back on the grass people!), but that doesn’t mean that this answer does not exist. It’s here. Plenty of biologists and farmers understand how it works and are implementing it around the world.
We’re happy to be moving our own farm and personal diet in this direction, and some days this is enough to keep me feeling contented with our work and our life. But, clearly those Big Questions of our era require more than just one 100 acre farm to embrace natural cycles. I’m convinced that individuals can force a sea change, but in order to do so we need to change how we think about our diet. The question is answered on whether modern meat production is atrocious, but just avoiding meat will not change this scenario (and given that grain production is highly problematic, it’s just shifting problems around). When informed, educated, thoughtful people embrace their evolutionary duty as predators and start choosing to eat ecologically raised meat as an important part of their daily food, then the sea change will begin. Farmers will listen — first to the sound of profits, and eventually to the sound of their land and animals thanking them.
I think this has begun of course. As I said, we’re joining an existing party, and we came here first as eaters (purchasers of grass raised beef over many years) and now as farmers. But there is still strongly held conventional wisdom out there about eating animal products, and there are even strong contemporary voices shouting against it for health reasons. The world of nutrition and health is a rabbit hole of “he said, she said” arguments holding up this study versus that study. We think we’ve found some good answers for our family on this count, but it is so much bigger for us than personal health. The farm is part of our core being, and the farm is clearly benefited on every level by the presence of animals and the decrease of annual tillage as a percentage of acres farmed.
For us, this has represented a gradual but profound paradigm shift in how we understand the farm, our bodies, and the world. I’ve included a list of more resources at the end of the post in case others are curious about exploring more of these ideas (which I know are still controversial in many circles — embracing my own inner predator and meat eating took some major soul searching over years!).
And, perhaps you’re wondering where annual vegetables and grains fit into the picture of our farm now? We love growing vegetables. We love selling vegetables. We love eating vegetables! LOVE THEM! Especially greens. They will always be a part of our farm. It really doesn’t take much land to produce quite a lot of vegetables. There will always be a section of our farm that may benefit from transitioning from one kind of pasture to another, and then in between we will grow vegetables for you all, borrowing for one year the fertility from our grass and animal system. We will continue to use the “gentle” tillage techniques we’ve worked on over the years, and then replant to pasture.
And, for now, we still see a place for growing some grains, for Full Diet CSA members who eat them and for animals who benefit from having some in their diets (namely poultry and hogs). Like I said above, trees are also important to ecosystems (and to our farm), and we have many acres planted to nuts and fruits. The fruit trees amaze us, but that’s another newsletter.
Grass. There’s great mystery and beauty in all of this for us. Great, great mystery. Something to ponder this week as you enjoy your vegetables.
Your farmers, Katie & Casey Kulla
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Some more resources on these topics:
Allan Savory’s recent TED talk: How to green the world’s deserts and reverse climate change — this is very hopeful and inspiring! I highly recommend watching this video!!!
The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice, and Sustainability by Lierre Keith — This is a very thoughtful book that recounts a former vegan’s paradigm shift about everything related to eating animal products. My only complaint is that it’s quite pessimistic, but I think that Keith doesn’t realize degraded lands can still be restored to health and food productivity.
Acres USA — A journal that addresses many important issues in sustainable agriculture. The magazine often contains useful articles about grazing, and the website bookstore has some hard-to-find titles about pasture and animal production (as well as soil health, veggie growing, etc).
LocalHarvest.org — A searchable database of farmers — you can look up farmers by region and product (for example, grass raised beef or lamb).
All Flesh is Grass: The Pleasures and Promises of Pasture Farming by Gene Logsdon — The first book we read about grazing, long long long before animals joined our farm. (Among other wonderful titles, Logsdon also has a book called: Holy Shit: Managing Manure To Save Mankind.)
Pretty much anything by Joel Salatin or Wendell Berry.
Mark’s Daily Apple — My favorite food, health and lifestyle blog (in the vein of “paleo,” but Mark Sisson calls it “primal” instead)
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Meet this week’s vegetables:
- Salad mix
- Butternut winter squash