Friday, April 13, 2012

farming unicorns - no input farms

My input pile - discarded fruits and vegetables

A term that is used online to mean "something that is very, very difficult to find" is sometimes called a "unicorn".  

There's a popular theory on farming that I consider a unicorn -- that is, a farm that requires no outside resources.

Sometimes this means just that they raise their own animals; sometimes it means that not only do their raise their own animals, they also grow their own feed.  Taking it one step further, not only do they raise their own animals and feed, but they take the manure or other stuff that they produce (whey, waste vegetables, anything that the farm produces) and use that to create more fertility, closing the cycle.

People who talk about this sort of unicorn do so with a sort of reverence.  The closer you get to the complete cycle, apparently, the most holy your farm.  The more correct.  The more ecologically sound.

Low input is a source of pride for some farmers.  You see this a lot on folks who raise grass fed livestock;  grass grows, animals eat it, manure is produced, which goes back into grass and the cycle repeats.

The problem with this idea is when you remove the grazing animal and eat it, or sell it, you're removing a big bunch of fertility from your farm.

Cutting hay off your fields and selling it removes nutrients.  Raising a crop of lettuce and selling it does, too.  In fact, if you sell anything off your farm you're breaking the cycle.

Farms cope with this sort of slow leak in a variety of ways.  On the larger farms, fossil resources are used to put nutrients back in.  Petroleum based fertilizers; mined potash from ancient deposits, manure from a variety of sources.

 On a small farm, like mine, I take great pains to collect and compost as much organic material as I can, and I'm very successful at producing great soil.

Human societies are interdependent.  Trade has been a way of life for hundreds of thousands of years.  Modern farming is a form of that ancient trading.  I buy hay from them, they buy pigs from me.

The disconnect in our modern society is that our waste products no longer go back to the farm.   2,000 years ago when someone ate a pig, I'm pretty sure that most of the time the nutrients from that pig stayed pretty close to where the pig was raised.

Now those waste products go into the sewer, and out, and away.  My farm will never see them again.  And isn't that a little bit sad?   

And truth be told, I'd be a little afraid of modern sewer sludge.  Drugs, hormones, pollutants... yucky.

So I don't know how to fix the big picture, but I do know what I'm doing.  For the vegetables and fruits and other food that I feed my pigs, I'm closing the cycle as much as I can.  I'm taking those good nutrients and putting them to good use, and building the fertility of my land. 

I think about the rice paddies in asia that are fertilized with human manure, which sounds bad, right?  But it's the perfect cycle.  It's what worked for tens of thousands of years.  And we can do that again.    And we probably should.

One other point that all of these "no input farms" seem to miss is that, well, there are all sorts of inputs to their farm.  Start with their shoes.  Unless you grow rubber trees, the latex in them is probably an input.  The house they live in -- did they grow the trees, too?  Mill them on site?  And if they did so, did they use energy that they made themselves to run that sawmill?  And how about the saw blade itself?   The driveway gravel?  The doornobs on their house?  All inputs. 

No input is popular speaking point, a politically correct point of view.  And a unicorn. 

Here's an editorial in the ny times, "The myth of sustainable meat", which basically complains that unicorns don't exist.


Bruce King said...

Brent comments via email (blogger hates him, i guess: )

You’re implying that a farm loses fertility via animal sales and doesn’t gain any except for purchase of outside fertility. That’s wrong, soil isn’t as simple as that. It’s a machine that involves plants, animals, bacteria and fungi to get material from rocks and air.

Our farm is based on limestone and the soils are calcium clay from the broken down limestone. You can see the holes in the rocks that you dig out where the plant acids/animals/fungi/whatever are eating away to convert hard rock into available mineral.

Bringing in outside material is great, if you can afford it. Take someone else’s fertility and add it to your farm. If hay wasn’t so expensive I’d buy plenty for the fertility but we’re talking 150€ or more for a ton of alfalfa hay. Your case is especially good since your produce-feed would likely go to some city dump otherwise. But you can still sell meat and gain fertility so long as your soils put in more than your meat sales take out.

And what a fun article: “Grass-grazing cows emit considerably more methane than grain-fed cows.” You look at one part of a system you find all sorts of odd things. You can’t look at grass-grazing cows without looking at the soil building of the pasture which they stand on. You can’t look at grain-feeding cattle without the fertility loss of a typical cereal farm. The truth is complex and I don’t know it, but I do know that when you cherry pick your stat you can prove pretty much whatever you want.

10 acres per cow! I couldn’t hope to keep the grass under control with a ratio like that. Maybe out in the rangeland it works for him. Similarly, Salatin runs chickens and feeds them grain so rotational grazing is unsustainable? Maybe you could say that about Salatin’s beef/chicken farm but he’s generalizing to all rotational grazing.

This is fancy rhetoric. He isn’t trying to communicate any truth about farming, he’s trying to kill the thought that cow farms can work well with the environment because it is a thorn in his argument to convince you to become a vegan.

There are cow farms that don’t bring in outside inputs that do run rotational grazing that do build up soil fertility and get better results each year. These are interesting and we can learn from them and maybe steal a few ideas. Check out agmantoo’s thread on the homesteader alias or Greg Judy’s work. Agmantoo’s threadzilla is here:

Jeff said...

Agree with Brent for the most part. With something as wishy washy as "sustainability" there is no way to quantitatively argue that something is or isn't. The author of the NY Times article should consider everything that goes into making his soy dogs before writing off grass-fed beef.

Bruce King said...

I'd agree with both of you that the author is really pushing a vegan agenda, and trying very hard to say that no form of meat is ok, but as Jeff said, even vegetables as they're currently produced require inputs.

My interest is in having more farms complete the whole circle. I'd like to see our byproducts become a bigger part of our farms.

I don't think that you can have a no-input farm. Grass fed operations offer trace minerals, for instance. That's an input. I think it's a unicorn; sounds great in theory, but in practice it's impossible for most modern livestock and plants.

Walter Jeffries said...

Uhm... Bruce, Unicorns do exist. I am one. I literally have a horn growing out of the center of my forehead. See:

As to sustainability, I'm not sure why someone would define it as no-inputs. There are inputs. The farm is part of the planet. Rain, sun, CO2, 02, Nitrogen being sucked out of the air by legumes, hay (we buy winter hay from another farm - a wonderful input), whey (brings in lots of nutrients).

Sustainability isn't no-inputs. That's a bad definition and James is a shill. I would suggest ignoring him as much as possible. If you don't know what I'm referring to, look up his other writings. It is a pity the NYTimes gives him a soap box.

Sustainability is making the system so it can continue to function for generations and even thousands of years without depleting the soil, ect. Our soil is gradually improving every year because we planted legumes, because the animals deposit most of what they eat and drink right back onto the pastures that grow most of their food. It is a long term cycle.

When I hear people talk about sustainability they're referring to systems which maintain or enhance the soil and such without using up some resource. The primary concern cited is petroleum since that is perceived (leave the argument of infinite petro alone) as a limited resource.

James is just a shill for Big Ag. He writes articles to make small farms and such look bad by distorting facts and twisting words. Ignore him.

Bruce King said...

Brent, via email:
This no-input thing is useful in gross terms, but looking at things like mineral licks is a little low-level. I mean, the batteries in my walkie-talkie have minerals that aren’t from my farm. The engine in my tractor comes from another country. My wife (The Agricultrix) came from California. The no-input thing is more useful when looking at the flow of things measuring in the tons, and my wife certainly doesn’t have a tonnage.

Why is a farm low-input, since no-input is impossible in literal terms? More than likely it is keeping costs down rather than any ethical thing, but if it helps sell the meat then they use it in their advertising.

I visited a Salers cow farm in the Cantal that had half its operation making Salers cheese. At the end of the day’s cheese making the farmer dumped the whey out in the field. I asked her about feeding it to pigs, the traditional thing to do, and she told me that they used to keep pigs but ended that because it wasn’t worth it. Cheap grain has made feeding large numbers of pigs a great way to produce high quality protein to feed people.

In the old days before cheap road and rail transport you’d see more use of byproducts. Things like cheese and pigs are ways to concentrate bulk foods (milk, grain) into something more dense, easier to transport and further up the value chain.

Bruce, it seems a little mismatched that you are interested in completing the circle on farm products yet you have pigs, which require large amounts of food to be brought in. Do you want to grow cereal? Switch to ruminants?

Bruce King said...

The circle i'm completing is to take waste products and put them back into the farm. In my case I'm taking food that would otherwise be mixed with inedible stuff and composted and putting it through pigs and then composting it. When that's done it stays on my farm and is used to grow things. I mostly cultivate and grow grass, which is a cereal of sorts; it does produce seed.

Bruce King said...

Walter: I haven't read other stuff he's written, but the article I link to is pretty critical of food in general but offers no fix -- other than "become a vegetarian", and does ignore the costs and inputs of vegetables.

Walter Jeffries said...

Bruce, what you're doing is good - keeping materials from sliding down the chaos slope. the higher up on the energy slope they can be kept (human consumption, left overs, pig food, compost, etc) instead of dumping in the land fill (really long term) the better. That is what, to a large part, pigs were traditionally fed because they were so good good at turning 'wastes', really left overs, into high quality protein and lipids. that with their ability to forage is really good. Cows, sheep and goats also don't have to be factory raised as there is so much 'free' food for them in the form of pasture. I put 'free' in quotes as one pays taxes on the land to feed all of these animals but it is cheaper than buying grain. The grain feeding came about as a way of transporting the grain from the high grain producing places to the cities, improving its value and storing it.

Bruce King said...

Thanks Walter. You're in the recycling business, too. I'd love it if more people took notice and started doing what you and I are; which is absolutely keeping materials high on the chaos slope.

Lee Johnson said...

Wow, that NYTimes editorial was heavy on emotional appeals and short on rational arguments. There's a certain irony to the author criticizing organic livestock production as being insufficiently "natural", while himself being a member of an omnivorous species (Homo sapiens) who not only refuses to be omnivorous but derives most of his protein from petroleum (by way of soy beans).

I also like how he mocks the idea of grazing livestock on vast stretches of established (and environmentally friendly) grassland. Apparently the American Bison were unsustainable.

I think low input farming appeals strongly to people who start off as gardeners. (I know I was certainly an advocate at one point.) Raising your own vegetables is so much cheaper than buying equivalent ones that there is a certain consistency in taking this do-it-yourself approach to the extreme. Gardeners are also much less likely to count their time as a cost.

I don't entirely agree with Brent via e-mail though. Everything I've read suggests that the conversion of rocks into usable soil nutrients is a very slow process. Anyone who claims they can significantly build soil nutrition without bringing in outside resources better have the soil tests to prove it. Selling grass-fed meat doesn't strip mine the soil nearly as fast as selling hay, but it's still a net loss. It also depend on climate. In Oregon, the winter rains leach away calcium and several other elements, and the resultant drop in pH further ties up the soil nutrition.

The situation is even worse if you grow vegetables instead of pasture. Most cultivated vegetable crops require high level of soil fertility, while being grown in vast monocultures which destroy organic matter and fertility. said...

This might be my favorite topic of discussion! There's so much to learn and so much to watch out in the fields.

Soils are lossy. Rainfall always takes stuff away. It rains every year, stuff is always washed away into the ocean. Even in pristine American wilderness rain washed stuff away. Old soils (like in Australia) have had a lot of stuff leached away and suffer shortages. Newer soils (like here in France) are much richer than their Australian counterparts.

So we have a process that constantly loses material via the water supply. Yet soils have built up in these conditions. So the soil building is faster than the loss via water.

There are so many questions that vary between farms and paddocks. What is the loss of minerals in that runoff and ground water? I bet thick permanent pastures do better than corn fields. How much more of the minerals become available to plants when the soils get deeper from having longer-rooted plants? What effect does healthier mycorrhizal fungi have on the functioning of the soil? Worm life? Cow hoofs? Drought?

I'm curious as to the numbers for the impact of beef farming so here's some back-of-the-envelope maths which could be outrageously wrong but hey, gotta try it out. Steady-state we might sell one animal per two hectares. Mostly it is carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and free from the air but the various minerals are where the issues would lie.

Let’s pick a tough one like K which runs at 3g per kg in cows from a couple of research papers I found. Or about 1500g in a 500kg cow.

That’s 750g a hectare of loss. [Compare that to wheat, say, which pulls out 16kg a hectare for a low 2t yield.] Or 0.075g per square meter.

The most depleted hay paddock here is around 200mg/kg of available K or 40g of available K this moment in the top 20cm of the soil. [Assumes soils has same density as water.] So the impact of the cow leaving the farm would be about 1/500th of the available soil K. In that year the soils would have to process another 0.075g of K to replace it.