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Want sustainable ag? Don't look back; Look aroundPosted Wednesday, August 26, 2009, at 9:39 AM
I am so tired of the national media using often-repeated stereotypes to tear down modern agriculture. They want us to step back in time and raise food like the "good old days."
The most recent article was in Time Magazine. It repeated the new "sustainable agriculture" line, which states that the soil is being stripped, animals are being abused and the Midwest is a virtual wasteland of manure and smell.
The truth is here on my farm, I can look up and see blue skies, smell fresh air (if you like the smell of cattle) and even see the stars at night.
It's not until I approach Kansas City, that I see the gray "smog" over the city. There is also an unpleasant odor, especially when I cross the Missouri River, near North Kansas City. And it has been that way my whole life.
I've been to New York City and I've been to California. I've seen the thousand of miles of concrete, strip malls, urban blight, trash, smog and the crowds. I found myself in the middle of NYC laughing at the people who seem to think the hustle, bustle, concrete and constant horns honking is somehow "normal."
I thought of my nice, clean, quiet life, with my cows and crops and felt sorry for those who have never seen our life.
So when I read these articles it becomes painfully obvious that many of the authors have never driven outside of the East or West Coast. They have no idea what fresh air and open space looks like. Many of them don't realize that selling locally wouldn't be feasible for a farmer in Montana or North Dakota, where there are more animals than people. They don't realize that 85 percent of the farmland left can't grow fruit, vegetables or corn for that matter.
And it is doubtful they have ever talked to a farmer who makes his entire living by raising food, fiber and animals.
One of the myths I often see repeated is about grass-fed beef. You've heard the story -- that cattle used to be grass-fed back in the day. It goes on to say that since corn became subsidized and cheap, people started feeding corn, making cattle sick. The myth usually blames corn and meat for the reason we are fat in America.
These stories follow the lead of Michael Pollan, ("Omnivore's Dilemna") a University of California-Berkeley journalism professor whose ideas on food production include mandatory composting of food and yard waste in the U.S. -- then sending the natural "fertilizer" out to farmers to use on crops. (Driving trash from the coasts, where the people are, to the Midwest where the crops are, doesn't seem "sustainable" to me.)
After talking to a large number of Century Farm owners and farmers, I have yet to find one who ever raised grass-fed beef. Instead, over and over, they have told me that they finished their cattle with corn, just like we do today.
Properly fed cattle do not become "sick" from corn, but instead line up to get their favorite daily treat. I feed that meat to my family, just like farmers always have. Corn-fed beef has no more hormones in it than so-called organic or grass fed beef. Consumers overwhelmingly think it tastes better as well.
Another myth has to do with soil erosion. It implies that modern farming is eroding soil when the truth is just the opposite.
Today, we till less and lose less soil than ever before. We also use fewer chemicals and pesticides than we did even 25 years ago. Recently, the Missouri River wasn't deemed "muddy" enough to sustain the ancient pallid sturgeon.
The truth is, organic farming of the "good old days" was responsible at least in part for The Dust Bowl of the 1930s. During that time, a combination of inappropriate farming techniques, drought and depression created the conditions for strong winds to strip large areas of topsoil. We still work today to build up topsoil lost from past farming techniques.
The truth is, I have no problem with people who want and can afford grass-fed, organic, locally grown or any of the other food alternatives out there. I don't even have a problem with those who choose to be vegetarians. I believe there is room for all of us.
What I do have a problem with is that proponents of these alternative methods seem to think the only way to promote those types of foods is to tear down a system that is working for 90 percent of us.
By talking to long-time farmers, I have learned that those left are the brightest and the best. The ones still farming do the job, not out of necessity, but because they love it.
The methods of modern agriculture are based on years of actual experience -- not reading Internet horror stories.
Perhaps the anti-agriculture writers should try the experience method, they might find a whole different story.
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