An Introduction to the US Food System, Week 5: Alternative Approaches to Food Production

Here are my notes from Week 5, the penultimate week of the free, online course I’m taking on US Food Systems from Johns Hopkins. This week we got to the topics of most interest to me, and to this blog: alternatives to industrial animal farming, and the importance of local food systems. If you’ve heard or read Joel Salatin, most of the points below will be familiar. Read previous weeks’ notes here: Week 1, Week 2, Week 3, Week 4.

Lecture: The Sustainable Agriculture Imperative

Michael Heller conducts a sustainable farming practice on Clagett Farm in Maryland, which is owned by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Clagett Farm is 300 acres, and produces vegetables, grass-fed beef, and native nursery plants.

Avg distance the food on your plate travels: 1600-1800 mi = excessive use of fossil fuels. Buy local!

Ag is the #1 source of pollution hurting the Chesapeake Bay: >40% of the water is a dead zone

Clagett Farm
Vegetables
Need to plan for:

  • Weed control
  • Pest control
  • Fertility

Sustainable practices:

  • Crop rotation: 5 or 7 year cycles, changing crop each year to restore nutrients to the soil, optimizing for available nutrients, keeping pests under control
  • Cover crops: Helps prevent erosion, improve soil, build fertility, control pests. Just as important as food crops. Fields should never be left bare.
  • Mulching: Weed control, coverage when cover crops can’t be used–cover crops compete with food crops for moisture. Straw provides nutrients to soil, controls weeds by shading sun, controls pests that don’t like to walk across it.

Grass-fed beef

  • Soil rebuilding, naturally: Soils rebuilt by grass and cattle on steep land, or soil “mined” by corn and soy
  • Disease control without antibiotics: Keep cows happy and comfortable -> low stress -> low disease. Closed herd: all cows were raised on farm, except a bull who is quarantined before being introduced to herd. So no antibiotics needed, few health problems.
  • Grass management through rotational grazing: Put cows on a plot, let them eat grass all the way down, then move them to fresh grass. Short grass allows clover to grow. Cows manage grass, so little seeding required.
  • Compost for soil improvement: Winter hay includes manure. Bacteria break down manure, straw, woodchips. Keep pile aerated, warm, dry. Weed seeds in pile killed by heat of bacteria working. Used as fertilizer, rebuilds soil, provides nutrients

Decision-making criteria for sustainability

Adopting new technology, deciding what to offer CSA members, whether to cut hay or let cows eat the grass, etc. Criteria are:

  • Community
    • Interactions with community via marketing; includes farm workers, farm animals, wildlife
  • Economics
    • Don’t let it become the domineering criterion.
  • Control for farmer
    • Does it give the farmer more or less control over what he’s doing? Ex: raising poultry for a corporation, which dictates amount of food, water, light, etc.
  • Control for consumer
    • More or fewer choices for consumer?
  • Energy
    • Let the cows harvest their food and spread their manure
  • Ecology
    • Soil building, water quality. Are we working with or against environmental processes?

Local food systems

Cheap food good for consumer, hard for farmer, leads to consolidation into big corporate farms, less and less % of $ going back to farmer

To bring community to farm:

CSA
Buy a share of farm output. Each week shareholders weigh their veggies and bag them themselves.

Grass-fed beef
Buy a quarter steer.

Annual festival
Entertainment, farm tour

To take food to people who can’t get to the farm:
Farmers’ Market, Food Bank, Farmers’ Market coupons for low-income consumers


Video: Out to Pasture: The Future of Farming?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MrRqi8-Y8ak

  • Industrial ag degrades, erodes soil, pollutes environment -> can’t support future generations
  • Chickens
    • 8B animals raised and consumed in US each year. Over 7B are poultry, mostly chickens
    • Multinational corps control operations on individual farms
    • Manure biggest problem. Full of nitrogen, phosphorus, heavy metals, antibiotics. Put on soil, runs into waterways.
  • Cows
    • Preserve biodiversity rather than limit it
    • Use animal waste to restore fertility to soil
    • Animals recycle plant materials
    • Cows are not built to eat grain
    • Smaller farms need to move to pasture-based system to stay in business
  • Hogs
    • Produce 5x the waste of a human, with no treatment plants
    • Held in lagoons, sprayed on crop fields
    • Dust causes respiratory problems, liquid gets into watertable
    • Contract producers have to buy facilities, deal with waste, have no control, and are only guaranteed contract for a single flock/herd
    • Easier to keep hogs healthy outdoors: get minerals from ground, nutrients from trees, plants, they’re happier
    • Better meat when they’re kept outdoors
    • Humane treatment: no shockers, can’t kick or mistreat them, no antibiotics or hormones or steroids, have to give them forage, minimum space requirements
    • Hogs have personalities
  • Animals connect us to the earth
  • It’s not (or shouldn’t be) all about the money
  • Need to educate consumers
  • Need to vote with dollars
  • Transform the food system one consumer at a time

Video: The Future of Agriculture, Parts I and II

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8TDjIOsWtcA
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8_LNWDPwY0g

The Future of Agriculture
Being organic does not necessarily mean you are sustainable.

Think of sustainability as a concept of resilience, rather than steady-state, in the face of the challenges we will be facing in the future:

  1. Energy. Era of easily-obtained carbon-based energy is coming to a close. Oil produces corn that produces ethanol–still petroleum based. Think about energy/profit ratio–there’s not going to be a technological rescuer; we have to redesign systems instead.
  2. Water. Current economy enormously water-consuming. Agriculture draining water reserves at terrifying rate. Most crop production globally relies on irrigation. We need 4L of water a day to live, but we consume 2000L a day through all the food we eat!
  3. Climate Change. Current ag systems highly monocultured and specialized–require consistent climate to maintain productivity.
  4. Ecological degradation. Ecological resources are foundation of any ag system, but ag systems are destroying ecological diversity, most importantly: soils. Can no longer absorb and hold water as well, no longer the has nutrient capacity as when it was biologically active.

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