Between Green and Gray

I have just finished my 2nd stint on a large dairy farm (well, 450 cows is large to me!) and I’m not sure exactly how to feel about this way of farming. On the one hand I really should applaud the fact that these dairy cows are 100% grass fed. They are rotationally grazed and moved to fresh ground once if not twice a day. It is staggering how much grass they eat, about 2 hectares a day or roughly 4-5 acres. But, there are problems with this model. Problems that I can only think are the result of a business model applied to a natural enterprise; they are problems resulting from scale and stock density. Cows are milked twice per day on a concrete slab and before being milked (hooked up to the milking machines) , they wait their turn in a noisy, crowded (by design) and progressively shit covered pen on top of the concrete. The “effluent” from the cows is hosed off of the concrete and stored in tanks before being pumped out and taken to effluent disposal sites. The milk from these cows is pastuerized and homogenized and sold who knows how many million miles away (the majority of the dairy is New Zealand is exported because they produce so much they simply can’t consume it all).

But, the cows are eating grass….This tug-of-war on my moral compass serves as a reminder that our world is not black and white and neither are farming practices. No matter how desperately we want it to, farming cannot be labeled with absolutes. The supposed dichotomy of commercial/conventional agriculture vs. organic agriculture is a false one. Farms and farming practices come in all shades of gray: from huge organic producers using input/output methods, to commercial growers who spray only when necessary to preserve thier crop and livelihood, to permaculture-inspired growers managing integrated systems of animals, crops, and environments. Wendell Berry, very much the agrarian, champions the idea that the best form of environmentalism is a participatory one. Like it or not, humans are players in nature as much as the plants and animals that we call, “natives.” Our task, Berry says, is to participate responsibly as stewards of our environments and their resources. A nice idealogy, and one I tend to agree with, but there’s not exactly a rule book of how to proceed. How do we interact with nature without depleting resources and upsetting ecosystems?

I’m not entirely sure, but for me there is something pretty intuitive about finding systems that don’t fight nature too hard. It just makes me cringe to hear about “problems” that arise in certain agritultural systems. Take the propogation of wine grapes for example. As my laconic host Frances puts it, “with the grape vine–all it wants to do is be a bush, but we say ‘no, be a tree!'” The grapes are pruned to a main cane with 2-4 branching laterals, laterals trellised along wires, and leaves cut to expose the grapes to sun for ripening. It’s literally a battle to get the plants to conform to this system. But that is just the first step. Where we are, in the Marlborough area of New Zealand, when low temperatures threaten frost growers will pay helicopters to fly through the fields and agitate the air to prevent damage. Let me repeat: helicopters are flying around these vineyards merely so the grapes don’t freeze! One resident told me that they will pay upwards of $30,000 (NZ $) for this service in a 24 hour period. That is bloody crazy!

The crazier thing is that driving through this region green rows of grape vines is almost all you will see. The thing is Marlborough is known for it’s wine, grapes are ubiquitous here. It is really quite a sight with all the perfectly arranged rows of green blanketing almost every hillside. I’ve caught myself saying what a beautiful sight it is but afterwards upon further consideration, I’m not so sure. Driving up highway 1 through Marlborough, all you can see is miles and miles…er…kilometers and kilometers of grapes. Bright green, perfectly manicured rows against a backdrop of brown grass, it is summer after all. There is something very wrong about all that green. Kind of like a lush, lawn of green grass in Albuquerque, NM–very wrong. But, then again, who am I to judge? The kind of farming that I support (small, organic, soil building, CSA farming) exists in a weird sort of self-righteous space with it’s own brand of hypocrisy. Yes irrigation is necessary, often lots of it, in the middle of summer. Most farmers use blood and bone meal for fertility and don’t use their own compost exclusively. This gem of a fertilizer comes from, oh yeah, commercial chicken houses. Like I said, there are many shades of gray.

On the positive side, thought, this means that we don’t have to make 180 degree changes (360 degrees if you’re a Jason Kidd fan, He famously said, “we’re going to turn this team around 360 degrees”), we can improve by degrees. The large dairy I spoke of is not likely to solve its density/scale issues by reducing its herd, but it could do something more productive with all the effluent. Talk about a gold mine for someone into compostiong…and there are people growing food with some great ideas for introducing more natural soil ammendments. Like the guy I met North of Auckland who collected oyster shells from a local restaurant and burned them so he could crumble them and apply them to his garden for the calcium. I have come across many people with different “organic” or “green” solutions to pests. Diluted raw milk as a foliar spray, and boiled rhubarb leaves to use as a pesticide in fruit orchards and of course mechanical detterents like fencing and netting. As I see these different models of farming, I’m learning more about growing food, but I’m also learning that there is not a correct way to do it. I’m also starting to feel more proud and less like an imposter when I call myself a farmer. The question I”m now constantly evaluating is what kind of farmer I want to be. It won’t be perfect, but how do I want to farm? I can’t answer that question just yet, but I’ll borrow the title of my favorite Nickel Creek song and say I’ll likely end up somewhere between green and gray.



2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Ange
    Mar 01, 2012 @ 05:28:09

    Great song, love Nickel Creek. I thought Marlbourough was known for cowboys and tobacco… just kidding. Excited to see you soon and talk some Wendell Berry!



  2. Don Dufresne
    Mar 01, 2012 @ 22:38:10

    You’re aware of the issues and gaining knowledge everyday about your obvious passion, Leda. I prefer the small-scale enterprise, as you, with minimum external inputs. Enjoying your posts.



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