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Want sustainable ag? Don't look back; Look around

Posted Wednesday, August 26, 2009, at 9:39 AM

Enough already.

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.

Showing comments in chronological order
[Show most recent comments first]

Thank you! I have grown up in the agriculture business. I ate beef almost everyday, still do. I would like to think that I am a healthy young lady.

I would encourage anyone that wants to learn more about the truths of American Agriculture to ask a farmer. We love what we do and would be more than glad to talk to you about our passion.

Marcia, I hope you don't mind but I want to include a link to your letter on my blog. I hope you send this out to lots of newspapers. They need to hear this side of the story.

Crystal Young


-- Posted by cdycattle on Wed, Aug 26, 2009, at 1:10 PM

Good job Marcia--glad to read something that makes sence regarding agriculture and our way of farming. We feed most of the world with the best food in the world, produced by farmers who care about our animals, our enviornment, and saving our soils for future generations. I am so tired of being told that we don't handle chemicals and fertilizers well and my reply to that is "if you knew what they cost, you would understand that no one would use more than absolutely necessary"!! Keep up the good work and I hope someone can read your writings that are in areas other than farm country!!

-- Posted by farmerwife on Wed, Aug 26, 2009, at 2:46 PM

Thank you Crystal.

Thank you also farmerwife. You are right about the chemicals and fertilizers. The Time article also erroneously attributed the ocean deadzone to agriculture. While fertilizers and chemicals do end up in the ocean, many studies and many municipalities are now acknowledging that much of that comes from city and suburban lawns. There is now more land in lawns in the U.S. than in use for food production.

There is no doubt that spring flooding mean some chemicals and fertilizers are taken into the river - but that isn't something the farmer wants or can control.

Since farming is a very low margin business, we cannot afford for our fertilizers to be wasted, so we don't use more than the plant can use. If we did, we wouldn't be in business long.


-- Posted by Marcia Gorrell on Wed, Aug 26, 2009, at 3:27 PM

OMG, Marcia did you speak real TRUTH to the reading public. Farm Chemicals are so costly that a friend of my got badly burnt trying to rescue farm chemicals from the family home fire. He did not try to rescue anything else but chemicals. And don't get me started about the pallid sturgeon and the muddy mo. What idiot decided to dump dirt into the Missouri river should be taken behind the woodshed and knock some sense into them. Isn't the goal to stop the dead zone in the gulf???? If suburban lawn and garden shops only sold the fertilizer and pesticides needed for PROPER lawn management they would only sell half of what they do now. People with lawns should be required to grid test their soil for fertility before fertilizer could be purchased and applied. It is not natural to have a lawn looking like a golf course. Golf courses have a specific sporting purpose and should be more like aaaaaa golf course. But a lawn would be healthier if it was more like a meadow than some hedonistic mono-culture of grass too disease prone to survive. I have city friends who think nothing of throwing on some more fertilizer and water if the grass doesn't look like it was freshly painted. It is nonsense. I just shake my head and sigh.

I live on my family farm in which the most recent land purchase is in our 100th year of production. Our family has been farming in the county for 150 years. Yes I'm proud of our agriculture traditions. Those traditions include chemicals for crops and medicines for the livestock when needed and no more. The chemicals we used in the 40's, 50's and 60's were more toxic than we use today. With GMO crops and low toxicity chemicals we have less erosion and more production. AND LESS TOXINS, YEA!

Yes there is room in the big tent for alternative agriculture, truck farming and specialty crops. but if we are to feed, clothe and provide energy for the Billions of people on the planet to prevent hunger, disease and poverty we Americans, Chinese, Russians, Western Europeans, Argentineans, Brazilians and all other areas of the world that provide foodstuffs WE MUST PRODUCE IN THE MOST EFFICIENT WAY WHICH IS MODERN AGRICULTURE.

-- Posted by salinemg on Thu, Aug 27, 2009, at 12:30 AM

Down here we have Bermuda lawns. However we are in a difficult yard zone (Oklahoma City), even for Bermuda.

So most folks absolutely pour on the chemicals, over water,or water too frequently while failing to water deep enough. They also cut their lawns far too short. This despite frequent tips to the contrary on the evening news.

My neighbor next door waters every day, but not enough to cause the roots to go deep to search for water. They lost two Bradford pear trees to winds of only forty miles per hour, because the roots were never challenged to gain any depth.

I seldom put anything on my lawn except for deep watering when absolutely necessary. Of course that creates a "weed" problem because I refuse to use weed killers. Some weeds such as dandelions I find to be delightful, and nutritious. Some others do annoy me for various reasons, so benign neglect may not always the answer.

I pondered the problem, and decided to instead of giving up on my philosophy of benign neglect to take it a step further.

When summer heat, and drought began, I did not water my front yard at all. The weeds gave it up, and were fried. Tough old Bermuda did not thrive, but did continue to grow some, reaching ever deeper for moisture.

At that point I simply took my garden rake, and raked off the surface debris left by my mulching mower. Then I broadcast corn gluten, yup! nasty old corn gluten which has a high nitogen content. Then we were blessed with unusual mid summer rains. The Bermuda absolutely took off. Meanwhile the corn gluten retarded new weed growth.

Now I have a nicer lawn than my neighbors on either side who continue their robotic behavior, with twice weekly near scalpings of their Bermuda, and over the top applications of water, and everything else.

So, thank you Marsha for being an initial source of that nasty old corn gluten.

I know that Bermuda is not a primary lawn grass up there. My point in adding this lengthy post is that we all should consider our practices, and think out side the box now, and then. It can help us be better stewards of our land ,whether it is half a hectare, or thousands of acres.

I enjoyed you column, as always.

-- Posted by Oklahoma Reader on Thu, Aug 27, 2009, at 1:07 PM

Thank you Salinemg - yes, according to statistics we will need double the food production in the next 50 years to keep up with the population growth. It will be a challenge and going backwards won't do that.

Thank you too, OKR. I learned something new today. I first wasn't sure what corn gluten was, and then had no idea it could work as a fertilizer! I looked it up just a few minutes ago! Good for you for doing what you can to be a steward of your land. That is what we do as well. After reading about corn gluten, I am wondering if they are considering using it on farm crops? I didn't find anything - but talk about recycling!


-- Posted by Marcia Gorrell on Thu, Aug 27, 2009, at 5:46 PM

Thanks Marcia!! As always, I really really enjoy your articles!! I will say however that someone else has a sign-in really close to mine (how wierd) and I am the "Farmer Wife" that talked about it at the lake LOL :)

-- Posted by Farmer Wife on Sat, Aug 29, 2009, at 10:24 PM

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