Monday, November 2, 2009

A Wisconsin Farmer's Response to Michael Pollan, Part III

Monocultural Monopoly

Mr. Pollan decries the “rise of industrial agriculture, which yields a vast monoculture of a tiny group of plants.” The realities of modern American agriculture are thus: In the 1950’s, about 25% of America’s population lived and earned their income on farms engaged in production agriculture. Since then, three trends have emerged and continue to evolve: fewer farms, larger farms, and greater production per farm. This has resulted in efficiencies and economies of scale that currently enable less than 2% of this country’s population to feed the rest of us and then some. Would Mr. Pollan have 1 in 4 Americans now living quit their day jobs and return to production agriculture to earn an income capable of supporting themselves and a family? Would he?

‘Monoculture’ need not be misconstrued as a negative concept. Mr. Pollan’s vegetable garden is, after all, a monoculture of vegetables. Drive through any municipality in America and you will observe a vast monoculture of clipped, fertilized, weeded and watered lawns, medians and parks. Are all these urban monocultures soil tested, scouted for pests, and subject to environmental regulation similar to production agriculture?

Specialization in non-agricultural businesses are accepted. Why not in production agriculture also? Would Mr. Pollan be as successful a writer in his chosen genre’ if he were simultaneously working to produce biographies, cook books, or fiction?

It was interesting to read of Mr. Pollan’s enthusiasm for lambsquarters as a food ingredient representing a desireable form of nutrition. I would challenge him to develop a lucrative commercial market for this plant. I guarantee that American farmers would rise to the occasion and produce lambsquarters in abundance! (Probably in a monoculture).

How Now Contented Cow

Another of Mr. Pollan’s assertions is that only cattle who graze get “leaves” instead of “seeds” in their diets. Some clarification is needed here. Rations fed to ruminant animals, such as cattle, need to be primarily composed of forages. Forages are leafy plants such as alfalfa or grass hay, and corn silage, which is the entire corn plant chopped into pieces. These animals have a marvelous and complex digestive system (four compartments; reticulum, rumen, omasum, abomasum) that allow them to eat and digest feedstuffs humans cannot.

Most of us enjoy the idyllic scene of cattle grazing outdoors in a green field. The reality is that this practice is limited to certain times of the year, especially in Wisconsin and similar climates. Good grazing areas (pastures) require intensive management not unlike fields producing alfalfa. Feeding cattle during times of limited or non-existent pastures (like winter) means farmers need to store feed. While pasturing works for some farmers, the majority continue to harvest feed mechanically, store it in a variety of structures, and then bring it to the cattle.

Dairy and livestock farmers routinely test forages to determine if their animals are getting all the nutrition they need for optimal growth, reproduction, and production. It is not unusual to supplement forages with concentrates (these are the “seeds” like corn or oat kernels, soybeans, linseed, etc., sometimes mixed with minerals). This supplementation is fed only as necessary to ‘balance’ the animal’s rations, enabling a level of production to give farmers a return on their investment while keeping animals healthy. Even grazing animals may require supplementation due to geographic location or soil conditions.

When ‘finishing’ for market, meat producing animals such as beef cattle, the ration is adjusted to include more concentrate as this produces a product in demand by consumers. These rations are seldom, if ever, totally devoid of some forage. Grandpa frequently lectured how the cows needed a ‘scratch’ (fiber) factor in their ration to stay healthy.

Another reality of modern agriculture is that the animals we keep are production units, not pets. I would also argue that the majority of animals kept for production agriculture probably eat more correctly for their species than the majority of people in America.

Moderator's Note: This is page 3 of 5. Read the rest: A Wisconsin Farmer 2010-25-09.pdf

The discussion generated by Mr. Pollan's book has certainly been an opportunity to explore some issues pertaining to food and food production. The opinions I have ventured here are my own, but are probably shared by others in production agriculture. Here is my own variation on the Pollan Theme:

Eat responsibly. Eat together. Be grateful for abundance. Thank a farmer.
On, Wisconsin!
George H. Roemer
UW-CALS Class of '70

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I will only pick out the MOST obvious error in your analysis: "Mr. Pollan's vegetable garden is, after all, a monoculture of vegetables."

The term monoculture is defined as: "the agricultural practice of producing or growing ONE SINGLE crop over a wide area." Therefore, a monoculture of "vegetableS" is completely contradictory and wrong. You should stick to the facts, and not to a personal attack of Mr. Pollan.

November 10, 2009 at 11:49 AM  
Anonymous ADK Farmer Dan said...

I have a deep appreciation from where you are coming from, but I am one of those 1 in 4 Americans who has quit his day job to start a small farm to feed my community organic, pasture-based foods by marketing directly. From this perspective, I see Mr. Pollan's views somewhat differently. Small farms are just like small businesses. They can help rural economies survive and help to build local resilience and regional self-sufficiency.

July 2, 2014 at 3:22 PM  
Anonymous Graham Smith said...

I definitely agree on most of Mr Pollan's view, for a normal American going back to the farm and putting a small farm then focusing on production combined with keeping animals are a form of small business. It is not unique from other forms of business be it online ventures. Agriculture is a crucial part of the economy and ultimately when all is said and done people must eat. Very impressive piece

September 19, 2014 at 6:24 AM  

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