Foresight makes the Profit

Pollan, Michael.  2006.  The Ominivore’s Dilemma.  Pg 186-173.  Penguin Group, United States of America.

I live on a farm, but I’m not a farm person by any stretch.  In fact, many people are shocked to hear that a scraggly academic like myself commutes back and forth from a farming community just outside town.  I guess when people think about what farming is and the people that do it they expect a stocky, slightly eccentric individual.  I may be eccentric, but I definitely don’t look the part otherwise.

Despite living on a farm, I often struggle to accept the ethics of farming.  I live on a small plot of land (5 acres) with horses, dogs, and chickens.  My family raises chickens and dogs, while also running a boarding kennel.  Needless to say, our little farm is pretty packed. Due to this, much of our land is disturbed.  As a plant science enthusiast, I struggle with never seeing succession occur; the constant disruption of our animals facilitates the rampant growth of invasive species, never allowing the communities to mature.  Horses stamp the ground down to uninhabitable anoxic levels, and the chickens release toxic nitrogen (urea, uric acid) into the soils faster than the nitrogen-procession soil microbes can keep up.  In many cases, this results in much of our farm being quite devoid of wild flora.

Pollan discusses his experience with a cattle farmer, named Joel, and how he has recognized that the cornerstone of his profit does not rely on the cows necessarily, but his understanding and maintenance of grass.  His field grass is of course the crux of his operation,providing ample food for his animals.  However, the process is not so simple, as Joel has articulated, where the height and maturity of the grass profoundly impacts the palatability of it.  In particular, grass too short risks permanent damage from grazing, where the apical meristem of the grass could be in jeopardy.  If the grass is too long, it will begin to develop a maturing inflorescence, which lignifies the grass; making it less palatable for the cattle.  In order to properly maintain that “ideal” height where the apical meristem remains unscathed and where the inflorescence has not begun to develop, careful attention must be given to rotating the cattle around fields.  Joel was apparently nearing mastery of this technique, and it benefits the environment too by increasing the carbon fixation of the field before the grass undergoes senescence (after floral maturity).  It’s a technique that exemplifies the importance of foresight in a profession that involves such a close link to nature, but that link is oftentimes severed in favour of convenience.  Pollan talks about this experience with inquiry and detail, explaining the general photosynthetic output of the fields and how this impacts the proper farming techiques.  Pollan writes openly and descriptively, making a clear attempt to persuade those unaware of such details that these factors are indeed important.

I will admit; I have grown to be a little judgemental of farmers that I meet because many of them are fairly oblivious to the environmental impacts they inadvertently apply.  Making such assumptions is not something I want to do, but I suppose I have become fairly bitter when I meet farmers from my community that just want to spray everything in sight, ones that see no problem with not rotating crops and instead pile on the valuable and declining fertilizers, and ones that don’t understand why Sisymbrium loeselii is dominating their hay fields every year, but refuse to seek out the ecological reason.

I have been fortunate enough to meet farmers like Joel, ones that have the foresight and planning to realize that nature will do a lot of work for you.  I have met farmers who will use legumes to restore nitogen to the soil, and ones that rotate root crops to refill available phosphorus.  Farming doesn’t have to be as damaging as it has been, but we often forget how tied we are to nature.

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