Questions by Ryan Sitler
Q: Give the readers a little introduction to you, where you’re from, and what it is you do these days?
Luane: I’m a native born Texan; specifically I grew up on the high plains known as the Panhandle of Texas, in Lubbock, which is about 100 miles east of New Mexico, about 200 miles south of the Panhandle of Oklahoma and a little over 125 miles north of the southern end of the Ogallala aquifer. It is also called the Caprock and it was irrigated cotton country when I was a kid in the 40’s and 50’s. The aquifer was the source of the irrigation water which turned what used to be tall grass prairie country—the grass was so high you couldn’t see over it even on horseback. The Spaniards passing through called it the Llano Estacada—the Staked Plains. I called it Big Sky country because you almost felt like you were under a dome out there and you could see almost 100 miles if the sand wasn’t blowing! It is a low rainfall, low humidity part of the United States. There isn’t much ‘greenery’ in the accepted definition of the word although there is, or can be, abundant growth for the area if you know how to look at it.
After I married in 1963 and started a family we moved to Houston where we lived until 1975 when we moved to Northwest Arkansas, to establish a cattle operation in the Ozarks. I lived on that farm for 25 years until I retired from active farming and moved into the nearest mid sized town in 1998. After a few years of doing not much of anything I decided to get involved in agriculture again as an advocate for those who are working to build a food system different from the industrial model. It seemed to me that there was a need for some of us who support the non industrial, local based food supply concept to be involved in developing a more sustainable way of feeding ourselves and rebuilding the economies of our rural communities.
Q: Describe to me your beginning farming experiences and how they influenced your interest in ecological agriculture.
Luane: It is with humility and respect that I shamelessly borrow the title of Fred Kirschenmann’s latest book – Cultivating an Ecological Conscience – and tweak it to tell my story. Interesting side note: long before I knew him, Fred told a class of graduating high school seniors that, “Education is like a baseball mitt, it extends your reach so you can catch balls you would otherwise miss.” That is a beautiful way to describe how I feel about my life although I would not have thought to use that analogy.
Education, specifically educating myself, has been an important part of my life for as long as I can remember. Lucky for me my parents and my local schools did an excellent job of teaching me how to learn. This has served me well over the years…how to ask the right questions to get useful answers. That skill has opened more doors into worlds to explore than I could have imagined.
About the same time Fred made his baseball mitt analogy I was embarking on a totally new life path, which continues to occupy me today. I had been a typical stay-at-home wife and mother in suburbia. I didn’t even flower garden let alone food garden. I was 35 years old when my husband decided we needed to flee Houston for somewhere less congested and hopefully safer for our two young children. Eventually we wound up on a rundown farm in the Ozarks of Arkansas in 1975. This city bred girl was in a whole new world with a lot to learn in order to live this new life. In some ways I think I am a throwback to the pioneers who left the more or less comfortable life on the Eastern seaboard and headed West into an unknown life in unsettled and somewhat hostile territory. It wasn’t exactly my idea to leave the big city but I said, “Why not!”
I knew nothing about cattle or plants but I am a quick study, which is good because I had to learn on the fly. There was no time for going back to school, but every day was a class in its own way. I used to say it was a good day when I didn’t make many mistakes, I learned more about what worked or didn’t, and nothing died. It is a good thing that I am curious and observant since that was important in the long run.
For the first ten years or so we operated the farm more or less the way the ‘experts’ recommended. The stock got quite a few veterinary type procedures. The land was tilled to establish ‘good’ forages. A lot of fertility and feed was brought in to keep things going. Fortunately my husband had an off-farm income to pay for all this because the operation was negative cash flow. Then in the mid 1980’s the partnership dissolved and the outside cash flow stopped. If I wanted to continue to farm I had to do several things differently.
Let’s be clear about something. I did not start out as a poster child for what you call ecological agriculture…that term was not in use when I started farming, and I didn’t have enough knowledge in the beginning to think about farming in those terms. Like a good number of other people I came to the ecological concept as a way to continue to farm a place I loved but could not afford to maintain the way the traditional experts recommended. I had to find ways to cut my costs while still using the land to provide a cash flow.
In fact, I think we will make more progress attracting new practioners of ‘Nature-mimicking’ agriculture (which is really the way I think about what I was doing; a form of Biomimicry if you will) if we also show that this can make us less dependent on inputs whose price cannot be predicted. In some ways this idea fits into my other attitude. I am a card-carrying member of the Dumpster Divers Club which is another way of saying that I have practiced salvaging things and finding new uses for things most of my life. I think it is fun and it saves money while creating something unique and personal. It is another form of art, and that is also the way I found myself thinking about the end results of my work on my farm. It was a gigantic canvas that Nature painted while I held the brushes and carried the palette.
Q: So how did you learn to do this style of farming and why? Did you have mentors or teachers?
Luane: In a way I had the beginnings of the solution to my problem already available. My stock were Beefmaster cattle, a breed developed by Tom Lasater in South Texas during the hard times of the 1930’s. It was a time when land had almost no resale value, and cattle had very little more. Tom faced a similar situation to the one I found myself in. Necessity forced him to create a herd of cattle selected specifically to live off the land without outside inputs and multiply anyway.
Tom was also one of the first people I actually knew and had talked to about what would come to be known as sustainable, regenerative – essentially organic – food production while developing a land ethic much like what Fred talks about in his book. I still remember Tom saying, “Nature is smarter than all of us. She’ll do all your thinking and most of your work if you’ll just get out of the way”. It is also the least expensive way to run a business based on the fruits of the land. Of course, as Benjamin Franklin might say, “If you can keep it functioning well.” And that is the challenge: you can’t destroy your resource base if you expect to stay in business. In this case the resource base for a livestock operation is the forage on the land. If that base is eroded you can’t keep going.
The Beefmaster people, as an organization, also provided one of the first platforms for Allan Savory in the late 1970’s when he came to the United States after being exiled from Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Charles Probandt, a Beefmaster breeder in San Angelo, TX, introduced Savory to our convention one year as, “That crazy Rhodesian with a hell of a scheme to sell wire.” This was a reference to Savory’s approach to forage management which involved, among other things, tightly controlling where and for how long the stock will be on any given piece of land in order to maintain plant growth and keep the soil covered.
As soon as I started studying Savory’s concept I realized it could be the answer to my need to have the land provide what I needed to continue producing cattle. I believed in Lasater’s hands-off ideas about stock selection, i.e. the stock have to be able to thrive without a lot of veterinary intervention. I also shared his conviction that everything on the land was there for a reason and therefore should not be eliminated without real cause. This means not killing coyotes or prairie dogs or other so-called pests. It also applies to the various ‘weeds’ that so many people try to eliminate. Observation taught me that the cattle took advantage of these unconventional food sources often enough to suggest there was a reason for those plants to be there. A quick search of available literature tells me that many of these weeds contain high amounts of necessary trace minerals not available in the grasses. It would appear the stock know this even if we don’t. I often wondered why the stock didn’t eat as much purchased mineral/vitamin supplement as the salesman said they would. Now I knew. Before supplements the grazers seemed to do quite well eating what the land provided so long as these natural supplements were available. With Savory’s monitored forage management system I believed I had found the only economically sound way to feed the cattle.
It made sense. Both men were letting the ‘nature of your place’ dictate how you managed it. Wendell Berry talks a lot about ‘becoming rooted in your place’, and I think this is how you learn what the nature of your place is — through the power of observation, attention to the details. You were now cooperating with instead of trying to dictate to Nature. More quickly than I could have expected the land and the animals responded to this approach. Almost immediately I was able to feed the stock year round from what grew on the farm. When I stopped trying to create a so called ‘ideal’ environment for the stock and let Nature dictate which ones could live well in spite of the conditions, not because of them, my life got a lot simpler, and the quality of the stock improved noticeably. In the process my life got a whole lot easier. The diversity of plant life over the seasons was amazing. There was always something green and growing no matter the season or weather conditions. And each year things got better.
I remember asking Walt Davis, one of the first producers I had the pleasure of learning from in the early years of my education, if he thought there was a limit on how far you could carry this concept. He said he didn’t think so because you were adding back fertility every season and the land was responding with increased plant growth which meant you needed to increase your harvesting to keep the quality where you wanted it. I can remember thinking, and sometimes saying, that although I knew there was not supposed to be a perpetual motion machine I wasn’t so sure after working with thoughtful, managed forage management using the stock as the tool to harvest and fertilize the plants.
Q: When did you commit yourself to producing agricultural products contrary to the influences of modern chemical agriculture?
Luane: I had used various cattle oriented meetings such as the Arkansas Cattleman’s Association state conventions and a very popular yearly event for cattlemen in a town near me to promote my breeding stock. As I started to get such remarkable results with the land management techniques, I incorporated that information into my displays as well. Once in a while I would also be a presenter at some local cattleman’s meeting. I developed a way of talking about my concepts and results that many producers enjoyed and appreciated. Temple Grandin talks about ‘thinking in pictures’, and I ‘talk in pictures’. It engages the listeners in a way they can remember and relate to. This would be useful later, although I didn’t know it at the time. Always I was promoting the idea of using the resources at hand and reducing input costs in that way. I had come to realize that the only way to stand a chance of making a living on a small scale was to do what Fred calls ‘develop a differentiated product’. I wasn’t big enough to compete in the volume markets. I also knew that my only real control over my business, the same one that exists in almost any other business, was to minimize the input costs. Quit writing checks for things you can do for yourself. By relying on the land to provide the needed soil amendments I could predict what my operating expenses would be from one year to the next without worrying about price increases for input costs, which are very difficult to plan for.
In the early 1990’s I added goats and hair sheep to my livestock inventory. They are compliments to the cattle when it comes to using all the bounty Nature was offering. In many respects this was a way to cooperate with Nature’s plan in that all the animals were grazers but they harvested different plants at different times. It is a substitution of cattle for bison and goats and sheep for deer, antelope, elk, or moose. They work well together. This allowed me to mimic on a small scale what Nature does on a larger scale.
We talk a lot about resistance to implementing this kind of careful management and who is interested or not in what we are doing. Over the years I was surprised that some of the old timers understood exactly what I was suggesting and agreed that it was sound. They would say they wished they had had the ability to do this when they were younger, but the tool that made it economically feasible was the high quality and dependable electric fence which is a relatively new technology. Some of them implemented the ideas. Most did not as they were in the process of retiring.
I don’t remember ever consciously deciding to operate my farm ‘contrary to the influence of modern chemicals’ as a philosophical statement. What I did do was determine what it was costing me out of pocket to use the chemicals and determining that this was something I could change; I could set up a system that didn’t need those costs. Of course over time, as I studied the whole thing in depth, I also realized the adverse effects of the chemicals. But that was later; it was not the initial motivator. Of course one of the more insidious side effects of using chemicals, whether it is in a farming operation or in your own body, is that these interventions reduce the ability of an organism to maintain its own defense system. Sir Albert Howard talked about this back in the 1940’s, but I hadn’t read his book when I first started my farm. I don’t know if Tom Lasater had read Howard when he developed his philosophy of raising cattle but the two men agree about the end result of overriding the built in defense mechanisms of plants and animals. I have to concur. In the end we have to have plants and animals and people that can live in the world as it is, not a world we construct for them.
Q: What were some of the defining characteristics of your farm?
Luane: In the late 1980’s I started writing a monthly column for Stockman/Grass Farmer magazine which was actually a diary of what I had done the previous month as I set up the grazing system. I also included the lessons I thought I had learned. Sometimes I would have to admit that something I tried didn’t work quite as I planned. One of the other writers coming on board for Stockman/Grass Farmer at the same time was Joel Salatin. Another regular contributor was R. L. Dalrymple, the head of the forage program at the Noble Foundation in Oklahoma. While I was implementing Savory’s suggestions and using Lasater’s stock selection criteria, Joel was doing his early work with the chicken tractor and R. L. was working with grass-finished beef from birth to slaughter. We were all working on optimizing the use of Nature’s feed sources while maintaining and enhancing soil health and productivity with minimum to no outside inputs. We were taking advantage of the nutrient cycle that exists when stock harvest then digest and deposit the processed plant materials back where they came from.During those years all of us writing for and reading Stockman/Grass Farmer were also talking about people like Andre Voisin, Sir Albert Howard, even Jan Bonsma, the stockman from South Africa who had influenced Tom Lasater and Allan Savory, plus the work being done in New Zealand on strictly forage production systems. At our conferences in Jackson, MS, there was a lot of learning going on.
In the early 1990’s I put together three other producers here in Arkansas, and we did a research project for the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program to validate the results we were getting using managed grazing. I was conducting regular tours of my farm, which were well attended by people in this area but also from other areas, people who were following my columns in Stockman. I went to Joel’s farm in Virginia one year, and I attended the monthly ‘Talk and Tours” that R. L. conducted at the Noble Foundation in Ardmore as often as I could. As interest in this management technique spread there were quite a few gatherings in Arkansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma as well, some conducted by the traditional information sources such as various extension personnel as well as some NRCS people. Some state agencies were more receptive than others but we learned to take advantage of as much interest as we could.
Several things happened on the farm over the 11 years that I operated it as a grass farm maintained by the stock. Attention to harvesting the grasses at peak quality meant that I was moving them to new forage at least every day. Sometimes, when the cool season grasses were growing very rapidly in the spring, I was moving the stock 2 or 3 times a day because the grasses were trying to make seed and I wanted to slow down reproduction to maintain top quality.
In order to take advantage of this spring flush of growth the cows were also calving at this time and getting in shape to rebreed quickly. A side benefit of all this moving was that the calves got used to the program from the day they were born and they learned to pay attention to their mothers; to go when mother did. This is quite similar to what happens in any wild grazing herd…stragglers are fair game for predators; there is safety in numbers. There must be a latent memory of this, even in domesticated stock. The calves were also very comfortable with humans. Since the calves were the cash crop it was worthwhile to have them calm in the presence of humans as this reduced stress to them from handling. Years ago I read a piece Temple Grandin wrote about her evaluation of the value of a calm disposition in the performance of weaned calves in finishing situations. I know disposition had an economic value that the buyers noticed any time I took calves to market; it added value as a side effect of the management program.
Moving the stock that often made it easier to notice any problems that might develop before they got out of hand; although I had almost no health problems in my herd. Having all the cattle in the same phase of production made feeding them based on nutritional needs much easier as well. In other words, it is difficult to do a really good job of caring for the stock and the land if the whole cycle is not coordinated and matched to need.
Another thing I learned on my own; at least I don’t ever remember anyone talking about this. In Nature the females of the herds are always together no matter what age they are. Using Lasater’s philosophy I expected my heifers to get bred as yearlings and be mothers at or about age two. In the early years I would hold the heifers away from their mothers from weaning until they calved at two which was approximately 18 months. There is a distinct difference in the type of forage available in the growing seasons and the dormant seasons. I finally realized that if I put the heifers back with their mothers a month or so after they were weaned they would learn what a cow was supposed to eat in the winter which would be very helpful as they approached their first calving the next spring. What I didn’t think about until I watched it happen was that the heifers would stay close to their mothers that yearling spring and they would also get to observe a calving season in action before they had to do it themselves. It was an education for me to watch the learning process in action. The following spring it seemed to me that there were almost no bonding problems with the first time calvers. I had not had much of that problem anyway, but now I had none. I was always open to anything that makes things easier for me and the stock. It also made grass management easier and better if all the animals were together, ideally one herd only. You can do a better job of taking care of the grass because your recovery periods are easier to manage and that is the real key to keeping the forages in top shape.
Q: What would you say were the strongest aspects of your operation?
Luane: The change in the land was remarkable. Without any seed applications on my part there was a range of plants that I would not have imagined possible. I estimated that there were somewhere between 15 and 25 different desirable forage plants growing on all 155 acres. Each acre had warm and cool season grasses, several different legume-type plants and a range of forbs (what we call weeds) that the stock ate at different times. Effectively that meant all acres could feed the stock any given season. The most remarkable thing was how many native plants re-emerged once they had a chance to grow without being ‘nipped in the bud’. They had to have been there always but the stock kept them pruned to the point that I had no idea they were there. Every time the stock went into a new area I watched them and they ate the natives first. No wonder I didn’t know I had them!
The native that surprised me the most was Eastern Gamagrass. I looked it up and found that at one time, before we took over management of the grasslands, this was the dominant grass from Canada to the Florida keys and from the Atlantic to about 250 miles west of the Mississippi River. That is a very broad range of soil and weather adaptation. Gamagrass is a grass with the ability to grow 15 to 30 feet tall and put down a root system of equal depth. That makes it very drought resistant. Because it is so deeply rooted it can access nutrients unavailable to shallow rooted tame grasses, much like the forbs. Technically it is a warm season grass but in my latitude it was the first grass to start growing in the spring, usually in late February, and it was still growing in late November and many times into December. For a grass based system this is invaluable because you get 10 to 11 months of very good quality feed on a regular basis. The stock love it, and I didn’t plant it, Nature did. If I had not been tightly controlling the time and frequency that the stock could harvest this grass I would never have known it was on the farm. Over time it became even more widespread on the farm partly because gamagrass could take full advantage of the other technique I used regularly. If I had a grass I wanted to ‘transplant or spread’ to a different piece of ground I would let it make seed, then turn the stock into the area where the grass was. The stock would eat the grass and seeds then 24 hours later I’d move them to where I wanted it planted. It came out in this nice little fertility packet, and the stock didn’t graze it until it no longer tasted like dung which meant it was also nicely established. That is no-till planting simplified!
I let about 30 acres grow up with sometimes only one grazing during the growing season then used the strip grazing technique to have winter feed for the cows that I didn’t have to bale and haul back into the field for them. Underneath the frosted stockpile there was always some green forage for the protein supplement a dry pregnant cow needs in the winter. You don’t get that with baled hay. This technique is also a way to put down even more fertility than I did with the normal grazing schedule since the cows are crossing the strip they grazed yesterday to eat today and they are dunging and urinating on yesterday’s ‘hay’ line which is behind them today. It is a lovely tool for rapidly improving the fertility of a particular piece of land. Each 1000 pound cow deposits about 12 tons of fertilizer a year. That is literally worth its weight in gold, or actually, dollars, when fertilizer is selling for about $1300 per ton these days. It will probably get even more expensive in the not-too-distant future.
By the time I left the farm it was fully capable of taking care of the stock all year with only management of the harvesting routine by me. As a fellow said one time,”Trust your grass,” and that’s exactly what I did. It never let me down.
One last point – this farm was a typical Ozark hill farm. It was very rocky and steep but it could grow grass once it was allowed to.
At the time I was doing this it really never crossed my mind that there was something else I could do to capitalize on the amazing fecundity of the soil. I had put two different groups of 4 young bulls on forage-only grow out programs over the years. One was at the Noble Foundation in the early 90’s and the other was in central Arkansas in the mid 90’s. These tests were conducted using small grains – wheat and/or rye. Both times, but particularly the second time, my bulls grew very well, at the top of their classes. They were a proper slaughter weight at 12 to 14 months of age. This goes against the commonly voiced ‘problem’ of it taking too long to grow out calves on pasture. Most feedlot cattle are at least 18 months old before they are ready to process.
There is a lesson to be learned from the feedlot people about feeding cattle. They are fed smaller amounts of feed 3 or 4 times a day to encourage them to eat more because it is fresh and I think they are bored so something new is interesting. Based on what Gabe Brown is doing in North Dakota – no-tilling grain into permanent pasture then feeding his cattle through the winter and spring on those forages – I could have done something similar on my own farm with my own meat calves in the very few bottomland pastures I had. Utilizing the strip grazing technique I could encourage more consumption by giving the ‘feeder’ calves fresh forage several times a day. That would have been a way to finish beef for the table even faster than the feedlots if I had wanted to do it. It would have allowed me to produce a value-added product to sell to the end user, the family in town buying food for themselves for instance. The only added expense would have been my time.
Q: Also, what was the weakest point of your farm?
Luane: When you are a one-person operation there is a limit on how many different businesses you can realistically operate at one time. I had wanted to expand into direct marketing much like what Joel Salatin was doing. I didn’t have the labor force necessary to do this. My farm was capable of generating more product to sell, but I had a logistics problem. I couldn’t bring in the large stock hauling trucks necessary to move as many animals as I could feed in a cost effective manner. When I (really my husband and I) chose this farm, it never occurred to us this would be a factor, which illustrates how productive the land had become. As I approached my 60th birthday, after 25 years on the farm, I decided it was time to close this chapter of my life. I could not take the next step which was to increase the cash crop (actually change the focus of the farm) due to the logistical problems. I had no one to pass it on to, and I also realized that I was in a rather dangerous business where the mechanical equipment might eventually get me. It is not smart to have no other human close just in case an accident happens. After two scary encounters I was ready to do something else while I still could.
Q: Does anything stand out in your mind as being the biggest shortcoming to being a farmer?
Luane: Some would find it difficult to stay motivated when you are your own boss and make your own schedule. Not everyone is suited to self-motivation and self discipline. To some extent, particularly if you are a single woman, there is the issue of not being taken seriously, but that happens to the men also, especially when dealing with the academics. There seems to be an institutional bias that says the man in the field doesn’t qualify as an expert because his input is not replicated research results; it is only observational. The problem with replicating results for validation purposes is that Nature never exactly replicates conditions from season to season and especially from year to year. So long as Nature is in charge of conditions there can be no absolute replication of conditions.
Fred pointed out in a presentation in 1989 that “organic agriculture is derided by agriculture experts, frowned on by the United States Department of Agriculture and ridiculed by many farmers”. Twenty years later this is still true. As Rodney Dangerfield used to say, “I don’t get no respect.” Many times it feels that way, especially if you are doing something as contrary as what we grass farmers are doing. You are definitely going to get marginalized or ignored. That bothers a lot of people – not being accepted. It can be a downside of choosing to farm as a business. Most of the time I just considered the source and continued doing what I thought was right, but I admit this takes a lot of conviction on the part of the individual. Not everyone is comfortable with rejection or outright ridicule.
When the Schools of Agriculture morphed into Schools of Agribusiness teaching high tech, modern, ‘best management practices’ they became the tool to legitimize the industrial agriculture paradigm. For that reason it will be difficult, but not impossible, to get good information to help you implement non-fossil fuel based agriculture. For the most part you have to find alternate information sources outside of the usual channels and that can be time consuming. Depending on what kind of farming you are active in, time to do this is limited. The vegetable and fruit growers are more time-limited, I think, than the livestock people.
Q: Is there anything specific that you learned along the way that you think is important for people to know or understand that they may not already?
Luane: Anyone planning to do an alternative agriculture system, what I would call conventional agriculture because it is what was practiced before the industrial model we have now, will have to give up the notion so strongly ingrained in the Western, specifically the American, psyche that humans can control Nature. Nature makes the rules – we don’t. We will not be successful with regenerative, lasting, realistic, place based agriculture systems so long as we think we can remake things to suit us. I like Fred’s statement that, “We cannot save the planet in terms of preserving things as they are. At best we can engage the biotic community in ways that enhance its capacity for renewal”.
For a long time I have argued against the notion of saving the planet in part because I think the capacity for life on this planet will go on with or without humans, and it will be the humans who cause themselves to go extinct if they continue to try to override Nature. On the contrary, Fred nicely adds that, “Health is the capacity of the land for self renewal. Conservation is our effort to understand and preserve this capacity.” This should be the real goal of all we try to do – make our decisions about what practices we use based on maintaining the health of the soils, the plants, the animals, and the people. My experience suggests that attention to these things allows Nature to do most if not all the work and do it well. An excellent source of inspiration for how to set up a self-renewing food production system is F. H. King’s Farmers of Forty Centuries. Sir Albert Howard’s An Agricultural Testament is a must read is possibly the main source of inspiration for J. I. Rodale and The One Straw Revolution – also both great resources.
I would also strongly suggest regular ‘community of interest’ fixes. Go where people are congregating to discuss what they are doing to implement these somewhat strange techniques. Spending time, in person, with others who share your attitudes is good for the health of your mind if nothing else. Everyone needs positive reinforcement once in a while and humans are herd animals who benefit from the companionship of likeminded others. Understand that we contrary farmers, to use Gene Logsdon’s definition of himself, are a strange breed, and we will often be lonely in a crowd of farmers. In general it is always a bit lonely when you are the scout because you are usually so far ahead of the herd. But that is what we are – scouts for a way to survive and thrive as things change.
Q: Do you currently have any themes or specific focuses that are motivating factors for the work that you do?
Luane: Because I don’t have the responsibility for a piece of land I can travel more frequently to the places where people are gathering to explore alternatives. I can revisit all the work done by so many pioneers of the ecological solutions for humans and their other-than-human compatriots. There is much to be learned from these pioneers and this knowledge should be part of our deliberations. I can add my voice and experiences to these discussions to show what can be done. Along the way I am meeting and learning from the people who are actively doing these things now. This is a positive, being able to cite current work. With luck I can be a motivator for those still in the ‘thinking about it’ mode.
There is an even larger need as I see it. What I hope to accomplish is to help define the barriers to moving forward with building a complete food system that can be an economic benefit to more people in an area than just the farmers. People need meaningful, productive work and that is in short supply all over the United States. As things stand now, the agribusiness complex has defined the rules of engagement with the customers to exclude competition from smaller, locally based producers, processors and distributors. If you consider all the steps necessary to move food from the farm to whichever table you want to put it on there is quite a lot of work to be done – more than any one person can do alone. Agribusinesses understand that the real monetary reward attached to providing food for people is the retail business. That is the largest part of the cost of food – the processing and distribution segment. If we are to become true players in the provisioning of the public we have to establish a larger presence in this segment.
Sometimes I think our alternative farmers are their own worst enemy in the sense that they resist cooperating with each other for the benefit of their whole production community. They have fallen into the trap laid for them by, “…global corporations who cooperate to force people to compete…” as David Korten said. Again using David’s words“… the willingness to destroy local capital for the sake of indivdual gain” is exactly what I’m talking about. In the case of local agriculture, the community of farmers producing food differently than the industrial model is often at unnecessary odds with each other in ways that allows them not to be a true threat to the agribusiness conglomerates. So long as these farmers see each other as competitors to be bested they will be easy targets for the highly organized, coordinated industrial farming corporations.
In their book Food, Society, and Environment, Charles Harper and Bryan Le Beau ask readers to envision the food production system as an hourglass. On one end are millions of farmers, ranchers, and farm workers raising crops and livestock. In the middle are a small number of companies that carry out the packing, processing, and distribution of food, and on the other end, purchasing food from that small group of processors and distributors, are millions of consumers. That small neck in the middle of the hourglass—the packers and processors—may not be a part of the food chain that we often think about. But packers and processors have an immense amount of power over the shape of our food system. The power that they exercise can have harmful effects on both ends of the hourglass – closing markets to independent producers, affecting the price and safety of all food for consumers. Not to mention the safety and health of the workers these processors employ is often at risk.
We are dealing with a food supply system designed by agribusiness for the benefit of agribusiness. That has become so normal to the average customer that it never occurs to her to question it even as she pays ever higher prices for the food she must have and for the compromised health caused in part by that food. We are outliers in the current system, and we will have to engage in a consumer education program if we want the public to demand what we produce. The customers will have to be the ones demanding change because there are not enough alternative farmers to create a changed policy environment otherwise. As Fred has pointed out about ecological farmers, “There is no one to champion their cause in this squeeze.” I see this statement as increasingly grave because it includes the very entities originally established to serve small scale farmers – the Land Grant Universities. Wendell Berry discussed this corporate capture of the Land Grant system at length in his The Unsettling of America, which was published in 1977. Even in the early 1900’s Sir Albert Howard was observing the beginnings of corporate capture which he viewed a looming problem, particularly as the agriculture information sources were complicit in promoting the industrial model.
We have at least two generations of people who have accepted that the corporate industrial model is the only thing standing between them and starvation. Re-educating our customers about what smaller scale, place sensitive food systems can do for their overall well-being is a full time job that will need the attention of people committed to being spokespeople and advocates. It will also be imperative that many more producers come on board by changing their production practices, or the new system can’t fill the needs of the public. If the public were to refuse tomorrow to buy from the corporate suppliers they would have a hunger problem because there are not enough growers to provide the food that would be needed.
To quote a new (to me) observer of the forces we need to confront, Anuradha Mittal, one of the founders of Food First, has said, “Hunger is a social disease linked to poverty…any discussion of hunger is incomplete without a discussion of economics,” “…people are hungry because there is no money to buy food, not because there is a shortage of food.” As an example she points out that the Punjab region of India, one of the prime agriculture areas in that part of the world, grows abundant food that is mostly converted to dog and cat food for Europe instead of for the people of India who are having to buy imported food as a result of this agribusiness mandate. There are numerous other examples of this kind of insanity in most of the Global South but also in the U.S. where a good portion of the grains produced wind up in gas tanks or confined animal feeding facilities. You can find similar statements in all the published works of people like Sir Albert Howard, Fred Kirschenmann, Wendell Berry and even the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Bank. The last two also direct our attention to the unbelievable amount of waste in the food supply chain. We must address the obstacles of access to food that we can afford and to paying attention to waste because this also speaks to water and fertility issues. Food wasted is also water, soil, and labor wasted. I feel we must confront these issues head on.
As Ms. Mittal says, “I don’t think it’s too much to say that destroying local agriculture infrastructure is a central function of food aid. Once these local farmers have been driven out of business the people of the region are dependent on the West (more specifically agribusinesses) for survival.” Based on my study of American agriculture the same thing has been a feature of our food supply chain for over 100 years, starting in the late 1800’s. As Henry Kissinger said in the mid 1970’s, “…if I control the food I control the people,” and the food companies have put a great deal of effort to making our people dependent on them for survival. The powerful agribusinesses have built an entire economic and governmental structure to support themselves. It will take a concerted effort on our part to correct this situation. We have to rebuild a sense of purpose and respect for the business of growing food, but we also have to undo the regulatory issues that make it so difficult to do what we know how to do. As a Tupac rebel said about Peru, “We want to be able to grow and distribute our own food. We already know how to do that. We merely need to be allowed to do so.” This is the heart of the matter. It is probably worth remembering that the French Revolution wasn’t just about liberty and equality. There was not enough bread in Paris, and Paris has been able to feed herself for a very long time with extra to trade. Hunger is a powerful motivator of unrest.
In order to get the number of producers, processors, and distributors required to serve the public need, several things will have to be changed. At this point most alternative producers have a rather narrow window when they supply fresh produce. That is good but it is insufficient to provide food all year. This is the segment of food supply where the processing and distribution system applies and it is where the agribusinesses have a definite advantage now. We must address the whole range of demand, not just the seasonal demand. It is not enough for alternative producers to opt out of a system they reject. They will have to become actively involved in changing and opening up the operating environment in order to make a place for themselves. This will hopefully allow them to make what they are doing the normal method of supply. I don’t think it matters very much in the long run if we are talking about producers in the U.S. or in the other countries, the ones usually called the Global South. Our methods of production require more people doing the work to promote global change. Even as our producers secure their place in the new normal they must also bring in more help and stop looking at new people in the business as threats to their place.
In a way this is the strength of alternative, small scale, place sensitive food production. At its best it offers a way for many people to care for themselves and their neighbors at a time when industrial America is laying people off due to lack of demand for industrial products. This is an issue overseas as well – people being forced by circumstances beyond their control to grow products for export to satisfy creditors they never signed up to repay while they and their neighbors have malnutrition or outright starvation problems. What other industry do you know of that currently needs more people to step in to do the work? Alternative regional food production needs more farmers than ever. It is a system, by definition, designed to be implemented by many people in many places at the same time – especially more than are currently in the field.
Sir Allbert Howard asserted that, “The real Arsenal of Democracy is a fertile soil, the fresh produce of which is the birthright of nations.” Howard viewed the, “whole problem of health in soil, plant, animal, and man as one great subject.” He further stated about his book The Soil and Health, “ One of the objects of this book is to show the man in the street how this England of ours can be born again. He can help in this task, which depends at least as much on the plain efforts of the plain man in his own farm, garden, or allotment as on all the expensive paraphernalia, apparatus, and elaboration of the modern scientist: more so in all probability, inasmuch as one small example always outweighs a ton of theory. If this sort of effort can be made and the main outline of the problems at stake are grasped, nothing can stop an immense advance in the well-being of this island.”
Howard said, “The man in the street will have to do three things:
- He must create in his own farm, garden, or allotment examples without end of what a fertile soil can do.
- He must insist that the public meals in which he is directly interested, such as those served in boarding schools, in the canteens of day schools and of factories, in popular restaurants and tea shops, and at the seaside resorts at which he takes his holidays are composed of the fresh produce of fertile soil.
- He must use his vote to compel his various representatives — municipal, county, and parliamentary — to see to it:
- that the soil of this island is made fertile and maintained in this condition;
- that the public health system of the future is based on the fresh produce of land in good heart.
A healthy population will be no mean achievement, for our greatest possession is ourselves.”
Anuradha Mittal joins her voice to Sir Howard when she challenges us to “Get involved. If power is not taken back at the local level nothing will change nationally or internationally.”
At first we will be the only ones pushing for this to happen, and we need to select people to speak for us who are us even if they are not active growers. The work of growing the food is a full time job and we will have to put aside our natural reluctance to seek outside help if we want to make the future better than the past. Ours is a powerful new story if we will tell it. Stories change minds, as the advertising industry knows very well.
Q: I am interested to hear how you first got connected with A Growing Culture.
Luane: I met Loren Cardelli at the Prairie Festival in Salinas, KS, in September, 2012. Then I met him and you in Albuquerque, NM, at the Quivira Coalition meeting later in that fall. After much back and forth discussion you both contacted me to see if I wanted to contribute to your publication. I am delighted and honored to be invited to help with your work.
Q: Is there anyone or anything that we haven’t covered today that you would like to specifically mention?
Luane: I’ll end with these thoughts:
When making the decision to be a pioneer in this different way of doing agriculture “…there is no way to know if one is called or deluded. The only way to know is to jump in and find out”. Thank you Fred for that insight…
`Fred also brings up an interesting compilation of thoughts from that paragon of capitalism, Adam Smith. Apart from community and a framework of justice, competition becomes destructive. The ideal market must have community – in our case many small farmers, artisans, buyers and sellers. Entrepreneurs function within a set of commercial rules, sanctioned and protected by the state, that prevent business monopolies. Capital is locally rooted, owners living and working where they do business. Free and open markets must be available, and trade is only “free” when people are free not to trade.
This could be the start of a re-education initiative – discussing the different, democratic trade arrangements we envision.
Below is suggested reading list for perspective – provided by Luane. All these books have a common theme and were written over the past 100+ years:
||FARMERS OF 40 CENTURIES
||Tom Lasater begins working on developing herd that would become Beefmasters
||AN AGRICULTURAL TESTAMENT
||Sir Albert Howard
||SOIL AND HEALTH
||Sir Albert Howard
||SAND COUNTY ALMANAC
||SOIL, GRASS, AND CANCER
||Allan Savory starts the thinking process which leads to Holistic Management concept
||THE LASATER PHILOSOPHY OF CATTLE RAISING
||Tom Lasater with Lawrence Lasater
||MALL IS BEAUTIFUL
||E. F. Schmacher
||THE TIME IT NEVER RAINED
||Elmer Kelton (fictional story of 7 year 1950’s TX drought, based in fact)
||THE ONE-STRAW REVOLUTION
||(Luane Todd started farm in NW Arkansas)
||Wes Jackson starts the Land Institute
||THE UNSETTLING OF AMERICA
||CULTIVATING AN ECOLOGICAL CONSCIENCE
Note: with the exception of The Lasater Philosophy of Cattle Raising, I didn’t read any of these books myself until the late 1990’s and beyond. Would things have gone faster if I had? Probably not. I knew about Savory’s work and talked to people who had studied with him, but his book came out long after I had committed to my way of doing things. I found little to disagree with when I did get the book. The same is true of all the other books.