|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.