I doubt that the early users of the plough could predict what their new approach to food production would bring. They were simply addressing a problem. How could they get more output of grain along the fertile banks of the Nile?
They were also building on all sorts of other connected innovation that had taken place before. Grass had been bred to have a higher yield. Oxen had been domesticated. Pot making had enabled more storage. The plough was a capstone element that brought all of this together and made it into a system.
It is likely that most of the parts of the new system exist today. They just need to be brought together. Maybe a crisis will do that? The crisis may be driven by an oil crisis.
With expensive oil, we will not longer have the inputs that drive our system such as fertiliser and pesticides. We will not have the equipment such as tractors. We will not be able to use concentration and corn fed confinement as the basis of meat production. We will have much reduced refrigeration. We will not have the fuel to transport food and goods so cheaply.
It may also be a health crisis. For we can no longer tolerate the costs of the illnesses that stem from our making grain and corn in particular the key component in all our food and in what our animals eat.
These are the problems that we will have to solve soon. So what can we see that is going this way.
Meat – New Old/Models - We have bred animals that are designed to be confined, live in barns and eat corn. We have “Poodleized” them and made them weak. But there have always been grazers that can tolerate being outside for most of the year.
The Buffalo herd was 60 million in 1800. We slaughtered them to kill off the plains Indians and the clear the land for cattle. In 1900 there were less than 1,000 left. But in the last 20 years there has been a renaissance. In 2005 the North American Herd was about 500,000 and in Canada 2000 ranchers have a herd of about 250,000. It is even larger today and the issue that confronts the folks in the buffalo world is how to expand the herd.
Why the success and what does this teach is as an element? It is that there are animals that “Fit” our environment. Buffalo are the natural herbivore in North America. They can cope with the worst weather. They build up the grassland. They certainly don’t need a barn.
There are two reasons why the herd is booming and that more people are getting involved. Most importantly, there is demand for the meat. Meat from a true grass grazer is on the top of the health lists now for those that can afford it. On the rancher side, the costs of keeping buffalo are much less that for cattle.
They are not easy to keep. They are to cows as wolves are to dogs. They are a wild animal. So they cannot be confined. They need large areas and really strong fencing.
BUT they offer us a clue I think to the future of meat. Today we set up an entirely artificial environment for the animals that we depend on. What if instead we selected animals like the Highland cattle seen below that fit and thrived where we live instead?
I am NOT saying we have to all be buffalo ranchers – though out west this could be vast. I am saying that our new paradigm might be to favor animals that fit well with local conditions and so need very few inputs and capital to ensure that they thrive.
If we can breed a Holstein to have more milk than could be imagined, we could breed more adapted animals like this Highland Cow that can tolerate cold very well.
In the UK the Blackface Sheep is the Gold Standard meat sheep who can tolerate extreme cold and poor pasture. Their wool is also highly esteemed making it a multipurpose sheep.
The Berkshire pig does well outdoors even in Atlantic Canada.
There are breeds of all our basic domestic animals that can be rescued from history and offer us a low input low cost alternative to the “poodle” breeds we have now.
You do not have to wait years for Organic certification to beging this way of raising animals. You can start next year. There is also a large and fast growing market for this kind of meat now. Maybe not here on PEI yet but there is an export market that will enable us to get up to scale for when we all have to eat locally like this anyway.
If you start small with other your risk is low.
Grass – the opposite of the plough - The plough is all about getting rid of the existing natural system and replacing it with an artificial one. At Polyface Farm, the system is all about keeping and building on grass. Each animal has part of a rotation that uses different parts of the grass and that fits into a larger system.
Chickens come in after the larger animals. All add more back so over time the grass improves and so can carry more load. The opposite of our current system As the years go by the ROI on the farm goes up. the opposite of our current system.
As well as producing meat and eggs that rely on very few extra inputs, this system produces the very healthiest of product. Why? Because the animal fits its environment. Chickens and pigs were designed to live like this and to eat like this. If we go down this road we work WITH nature.
This can all be done locally.
Imagine if we made grass our focus? We have such ingenuity. Polyface Farm is to the future what the crudest early plough is to our modern system.
So what then about crops – what about veggies, fruits and nuts? How might we tie into a grass system a system for this?
I think that the answer is in Permaculture.
This is what Permaculture looks like. Looks chaotic but it is not. Again the principle is “Fit”. We plant to mimic nature and to enhance nature. Most are perennials. As the system ages, it gets more productive. For the parts all reinforce each other as the animals do on a grass farm. Too many slugs = not enough ducks!
This is the DNA of the structure.
The Salatins at Polyface have discovered the importance of linking their woodland to the grass land. Both feed the other.
Both get stronger over time. Both end up needing almost no inputs. Both have an ever increasing ROI and offer the farmer more and more margin and so independence.
This is what working with nature looks like. It’s early days now. But I think that these two related ideas have great potential. Could they not work for you? If they did what would happen to you?
In the next and last post of this series, I will play with what this might do for society. For how we get our food shapes our culture and power. I will play with how this might work in small place like PEI.
I have no idea as of today how this imagining will work out – please join me in speculating.