This month, the theme we chose for media content was “Conscious Consumerism.” If you’ve been following along, you’ve seen advice on buying local, greener gifting, and giving experiences rather than things. The theme helps us focus our message and our creativity for the month, and ensures we’re bringing you the best and most timely content possible. We gather inspiration from big events, holidays, and national observance days (ie: Nov 15th is “America Recycles Day”). The upcoming holiday season was the inspiration for “Conscious Consumerism.”
During our brainstorming session, one observance that came up was that November is “World Vegan Month.” A slightly…fiery…discussion ensued. For the Food & Water Security team, food choices are the most important aspect of responsible consumption–not only because we grow food at our “day job,” but also because we are farmers, we support farmers, and we see food sovereignty as the foundation of regional resiliency. Deeply connected with food choices are environmental consequences.
Veganism can be a divisive subject; polite discourse is often impossible when there is so much misunderstanding. Yes, as a culture, Westerners eat too much meat. We should consume less meat overall, and use meat like a condiment to flavor and enhance our vegetables, grains, and legumes. However, from an ecosystem approach, agriculture with properly managed livestock is the most sustainable and environmentally restorative.
Like any pinnacle predator in any food web, we are the sum and total of everything our food has consumed, excreted, nourished and extirpated. There may be different ways of framing these connections–call it karma or moral accounting–but innately, morally, spiritually, we believe these connections matter. Life moves up the food chain and there is always a prey/predator relationship.
At the base of every food web is the living soil. If we aren’t nurturing our soil, we are destroying it. History has shown that civilizations that destroy their soil are doomed to fall.
Contrary to common understanding livestock is not the problem, it’s how livestock is managed. Properly managed livestock is not a detriment to soil, but rather is imperative to soil health. Herbivores are nature’s nutrient recyclers. Manure, urine, hoof disturbance, and saliva enzymes all have a stimulating effect on the soil food web. Keeping animals tightly bunched replicates their instinct to herd and find safety in numbers, and distributes nutrients and disturbances evenly. Then, moving the animals on a regular schedule ensures the plants aren’t overgrazed and that they recover quickly. Allowing the grazed paddocks long rest periods assures plant health and mimics the natural behaviors of migratory ruminant herds that evolved with native landscapes. In doing this, you build the biology and structure of the soil, improving water infiltration and holding capacity, and restore landscape hydrology. Integration of livestock into cropping systems, combined with the utilization of complex cover crop mixes as grazing forage, fuels the soil food web, diversifies the landscape, and builds soil carbon. This method of agricultural production is restorative and healing.
Currently, most row crops, like corn and soybeans and other vegetable proteins, are raised with vast amounts of chemical fertilizers. Even most organic crops are fertilized with manure from animals raised in confinement and fed conventionally grown crops that were grown with chemical fertilizers. Anhydrous ammonia is one of these. It is derived from fossil fuels and is extremely harmful to soil health. Plant-based protein made from soybeans and other grains grown from these fertilizers do not benefit our environment and are less likely to contain many beneficial compounds found in crops grown in biologically diverse soil. Separating crop systems from livestock, and replacing animal disturbances with artificial fertilizers is not sustainable.
Almost all livestock spends part, if not all, of their lives in “confined animal feeding operations” or CAFO. (The term encompasses all confined operations, including dairy, hog, and poultry barns, but the most commonly known CAFO is the cattle feedlot.) They have gotten bigger and more expansive. They are operationally and economically efficient. All the animals are bred to be genetically identical, they are fed a standard, scientifically balanced ration for optimum growth and profitability. The product is
consistent, predictable, and inexpensive. But they separate the animal from nature, taking away their innate behavior and instincts, all the beneficial impacts they have on the land, and those inherent connections to the food web. Their feed comes from somewhere else, their manure is a waste product to dispose of, and the concentration of animals and genetics are all a recipe for illness. Nature doesn’t segregate, and it doesn’t farm without animals.
We have greatly altered and segregated our landscape and agricultural system. We raise crops on the best land and set aside sensitive land for “nature.” Increasingly we are depopulating our rural communities in favor of urban sprawl. As a nation, we have poured billions of dollars into agricultural conservation and still we have degraded landscapes and water quality. By not looking at agriculture in a holistic, ecological way
we have separated nature from production agriculture. Most natural ecosystems evolved with large herds of migratory ruminant animals. Think of the Great Plains and the vast herds of buffalo, or the Serengeti with its wildebeest and gazelle. There were once huge expanses of oak and pine savanna here in the midwest, and even the forested areas had woodland caribou and buffalo. These animals were and are essential to the functioning of these ecosystems. Remove them and it all collapses. These animals moved constantly and migrated long distances, often not returning to the same land for a year or more. Predators kept them tightly bunched for protection. They would heavily impact the land then there would be a long recovery time for the land to heal. The animals played the role of recyclers, turning plant matter into plant food. That system is long gone, but we believe a truly sustainable agricultural model must emulate these natural connections.
As consumers, our only choices are not CAFO meat or no meat. We have another, more positive choice. Livestock raised and grazed with soil health in mind not only has measurable human health benefits over CAFO meat, but has a positive environmental impact. We as farmers, and the farmers we know and support, say that our animals have a lifetime of good days, and only one bad day. As non-profit employees, we talk a lot about impact–what impact are our programs having in the community, where are our efforts best spent for the most meaningful impact. We believe the most important food choices we make are those that involve animals. When it comes to food choices, the most impact you can have is in choosing meat, dairy and eggs from animals that are raised to mimic nature. These foods heal people and the land.
At Happy Dancing Turtle we are actively working to promote holistic livestock management. This year’s keynote speaker for our Back to Basics event is the grazing and cover crop specialist from the Sustainable Farming Association, Kent Solberg. As a farmer and resource consultant Kent has first hand knowledge of how livestock can heal the land, Join us and hear his message. One of our newest initiatives is the Shady Chicken Project, where we will be raising meat birds under hybrid hazelnut bushes as a source of holistic food and as a working example of sustainability. In cooperation with the Crow Wing River Basin Forage Council we are working to educate farmers, ranchers, lake associations and others on grazing management practices and benefits. With the help of the University of MN Regional Sustainable Development Partnership and others we are exploring ways to redevelop the lost infrastructure to process meat and bring it to local tables. We feel this has the potential to make producers more profitable and revitalize our local economy. We advocate soil health as our purpose. Please join us.
How can I do this, you may ask? Minnesota Grown is a great way to find local producers. Search them out and ask about their production practices. Are they using adaptive rotational grazing? What do they find that works? Do their pastures get rest periods of a month or more? Are they open about their practices and are they inspired to share what they do? Become a member of your local food coop and buy from local grass-based farmers who market there. Join a farming organization or attend a farming conference that advocates for regenerative agriculture. Engage with local leaders and elected officials about your concerns and ask that they support farmers and ranchers in enhancing and improving their grazing systems. Finally, consider your eating habits. Could you eat less meat and pay more for what you do buy to support your local farmer? Please keep an open mind to the possibilities properly raised livestock can provide. We can do better.
For more information check out the following links: