I learned a new word recently – monoculture. I love to learn new things even when they can be a little frightening. Monoculture is the practice of growing a single crop over large areas for many years. I was watching a movie called Fresh when I learned my new vocabulary word. I strongly recommend the movie if you have not seen it. The message of the movie is that sustainable agriculture is not only a sacred and moral decision, it is profitable. In addition to my new vocabulary word I have two new heroes Joel Salantin of Polyface Farms and Will Allen of Growing Power. Joel believes in following mother earth’s lead and farming in harmony with nature and not only is he farming in harmony with mother earth he is reaping the financial rewards of his labor. While Joel Salatin is working his magic in rural Virginia, Will Allen is working a similar brand of magic smack dab in the middle of an urban area in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Will has a very compelling model of turning a small plot of urban desert into a real food-producing oasis. Cheers to Joel and Will!!!
Ok so back to my new word monoculture, over the past 100 years we have drastically changed farming and animal husbandry methods. In the olden days – as I used to say to my mom, farmers could not successfully grow the same crops over and over in large areas because disease, nutrient depletion and pests would reduce yields. Therefore, they had to grow a greater variety of plants over smaller areas.
Similarly with cattle if they had a concentration of animals; disease would strike the herd and waste would compromise the land, so the number of animals had to be kept to a manageable number. However, over the years we have become clever and developed new technologies that kill pests, artificially pump the nutrients back into the soil, and antibiotics for our animals to keep disease at bay, so we have crossed these hurdles. So what is the big deal, we have a lot of people to feed, we need to farm in this manner right??? It’s the old story of supply and demand. Actually it’s not the old story of supply and demand it’s the story of subsidized supply and demand. And this model has created a new host of problems like strains of antibiotic resistant bacteria, toxic waste polluting our water and soil systems, food borne illness and are you ready for this, approximately 75% of the corn grown in the US is used for animal feed or ethanol, not food for people. So the system, while amazingly efficient in some respects is not sustainable and has very serious long-term consequences.
I adore farmers and ranchers many of the great people who I grew up around lived on farms, small family farms, I was never exposed to the big corporate operations. The farmers I knew were all hard-working, rough around the edges and opinionated but mainly they all had a reverence for the earth and their animals that I admired. Yes they were meat eaters they butchered their cows and hogs, but they took very good care of them knowing what would happen in the end. I remember the first calf I watched being born I was in 3rd grade and my friend Barbie and I named him Charlie because he was a Charolais breed, a beef cow. I remember how upset I was when Charlie was butchered. I was inconsolable and my grandpa told me that I needed to know that’s where the hamburgers I like so well comes from, Charlie was a beef cow, that’s what happens to them.
I did not become a vegetarian as a result of that experience but I did develop a great appreciation and understanding of where my food comes from. In college one of my roommates lived on a hog farm we helped load hogs to go to slaughter. Her dad pointed out one hog that he would butcher for us while we were loading them so we could have meat for the school year. I felt grateful to have the food but recognized the sacrifice the animal was making. I look back and see the life that hog lived up to slaughter was very different from the conditions the animals that sacrifice for us now must endure to provide us food. My college hog was allowed to forage in an open air pen attached to a shelter with approximately 25 other hogs.
Today, more than 80% of hogs raised for slaughter come from farms where more than 1,000 animals are housed. Traditional family farms, which my college hog came from, had to be sustainable and was what I consider a humane animal husbandry and land stewardship operation. That has now been replaced by large-scale confinement facilities. These factory farms are all about more animals in the smallest space allowed to reap the greatest profit. These animals have a miserable existence, the neighbors of these farms have a miserable existence, this method of agriculture I feel has demoralized our farmers, disrespected our land and bankrupted our souls. One hog produces as much waste as an adult person, and one hog is allowed legally to be housed in a 5 square foot area meaning a 10,000 hog confinement could be on one-quarter of an acre. The concentrated waste from these operations is so toxic it cannot be directly treated at conventional wastewater treatment facilities and are typically held in large open air lagoons. Chickens are also raised in similar high capacity confinement conditions.
I find it very interesting that many of our great industries; agriculture, financial, medical, and education are all suffering from the same affliction. They have all lost their purpose. The original purpose of agriculture was to feed your family or your community, the financial system was created to bring investors and people needing capital together to create products or services with intrinsic value, the medical system was to provide care to the sick, and our education system’s purpose was to teach people knowledge. I have noticed a trend that all these systems are all suffering from a crisis created by straying from their original purpose.
If you think about it every single one of these industries have all gone from a sustainable model, because in every case the purpose is now maximizing profit, which is fine if considered in concert with sustainability, but not so much when profit is the only consideration.
It’s interesting corporate America has learned that in their board rooms a monoculture is not good for business. If you surround yourself by clones of yourself or mini-me’s it does not cultivate an idea-rich environment, so boards actually try to balance points of view and personalities to maximize their potential. It is ironic that in their own boardrooms they have created a polyculture, and why? Because they want to sustain their company. And yet these same corporations ask our farmers to engage in the very model they avoid in their own corporate boardrooms – monoculture animal husbandry and monoculture crop production.
“How much evil throughout history could have been avoided had people exercised their moral acuity with convictional courage and said to the powers that be, ‘No, I will not. This is wrong, and I don’t care if you fire me, shoot me, pass me over for promotion, or call my mother, I will not participate in this unsavory activity.’ Wouldn’t world history be rewritten if just a few people had actually acted like individual free agents rather than mindless lemmings?” – Joel Salatin
Posted on May 27, 2012, in Spiritual Journey and tagged agriculture, crop, crops, Fresh, Growing Power, joel salantin, monoculture, polyface farms, sustainability, Will Allen. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.