July 18, 2011 § 11 Comments
Over the past few weeks, I have received two emails from people asking if I’ve carefully considered my dietary path. Both suggested that perhaps I have not done adequate research into the health, environmental, and ethical impacts of consuming animal products. Both of these emails were perfectly respectful and free of rancor. For this, I am grateful.
I’m loathe to wade into a discussion or defense of my dietary choices, which are rooted in the consumption of critters and the milk they produce. Indeed, I will not. But I would like to discuss a specific subject that I feel is often missing from the debate surrounding the consumption of meat and dairy. It is a subject I’ve become rather fascinated by, and it is one that plays a key role in the day-to-day operation of our farm.
Put bluntly, that subject is shit. Or, if you’d rather, “fertility.”
When we bought our land in ’97, the pasture was thin and patchy and slowly surrendering to the forest. There were no crops being grown; no fruit trees or snaggle-toothed blueberry bushes. At the time, I was no farmer; hell, I didn’t even know enough to fake it. But our neighbor knew plenty. “You need to get some animals on that land,” he told us. “That land needs help.” I nodded my head dumbly, as if I understood exactly what he was talking about.
For the sake of brevity, I’m going to skip about a dozen years and a few dozen tons of manure and note that the last time said neighbor was at our place, he swept his eyes across our pasture and gave a low whistle. “Looks pretty lush,” he said, and damned if he didn’t sound a bit jealous. The gardens were also looking (if I don’t mind saying so) pretty much splendid (clearly I don’t), and our little orchard was coming into its own. Everywhere looked verdant and abundant, in no small part because it was verdant and abundant.
There comes a time in the evolution of a food producer when he or she realizes that growing food is more involved than simply sticking seeds or saplings in the ground, yanking a few weeds, and reveling in the harvest. Because the fact is, even the best soil must be fed, and it must be fed continually. Otherwise, it quickly becomes depleted; yields suffer, as do the nutritional qualities of the food rising from it.
Now, to be sure, there are numerous ways to feed the soil. Some use cover crops (often called “green manure”) which are planted and then worked directly into the soil. We do this on our place, and it helps. But frankly, it’s simply not enough, which is why the vast majority of the fruits and vegetables we eat are grown with the aid of synthetic fertilizers that use massive amounts of natural gas to fix the nitrogen necessary for soil fertility.
There’s something else that’s rich in nitrogen, something that doesn’t require the burning of finite fuels (most often gas, but occasionally coal): Poop. Most often, this manure is produced by farm animals that also provide milk and/or meat. To the readers of this blog, the idea that farm animals have tangible value beyond flesh and dairy probably doesn’t come as a surprise. Still, I am struck by how infrequently the subject of fertility arises in discussions of vegetarianism and particularly, veganism. In a world without farm animals, just where is the fertility to grow the cereal crops these diets are based on supposed to come from? Most of these crops are what is known as “heavy feeders,” which means they demand large quantities of nitrogen and other nutrients. Without manure, the only way these crops will be grown is through massive, large scale applications of fossil fuel-derived fertilizers.
I do not mean to disparage anyone who has chosen an animal-free diet. And I certainly don’t mean to absolve the dominant meat and dairy industries for their crimes against the environment and the animals they exploit, including the two-legged variety who suffer either as employees, or as an unwitting public sickened by the products and bacteria these industries produce. But of course there’s a different way of raising meat and dairy animals, a way that through planned grazing and respect for the critters can actually heal the land. Not inconsequentially, it can provide the fertility necessary to grow the grains, vegetables, and fruit that sustain us all, whether we choose to eat meat or not.
The idea that animals should be an integral part of a healthy farm organism, not just for their meat and milk, but for their manure, seems so obvious to me that sometimes I think I’m totally missing something when I hear intelligent people speak of the sustainability of animal-free diets. So let me ask you: Am I missing something? If we were all to go vegan overnight, vastly increasing the demand for heavy feeders like legumes and grains, where would the fertility come from?