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A cattle rancher asks: "How do we eat to make home?"

 
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I myself eat a mostly plant-based diet, for health-not-ethical reasons, willpower permitting.  (I live with a meat eater who is squeamish about leftovers, and I was raised to abhor food waste; I can't always tolerate letting her scraps go to the dogs.)  I'm not here to argue about this, but I'm 100% convinced that my vascular deficiency went away when I mostly stopped eating animal foods; for me, plant-based eating is a necessity.

Onward.  We inhabit landscapes.  There are ethical implications.  This is a powerfully-written essay about those implications, from a cattle-raising person: Other Lands


You should read the whole thing; I'm just going to quote some select paragraphs.  Namely, these:

What’s often left out of the discussion is the opportunity cost of abstaining from meat. Unless one is starving themselves of essential nutrients, one who does not obtain their protein and nutrition from the fruits of an individual’s life and death—say, pastured protein or wild game—must be finding it elsewhere: in what the plow furnishes, in what straight lines and long rows have to offer, in the canopy of almond monocultures towering over bare ground. Home gardeners and those who manage to grow or acquire their sustenance from non-animal sources from ways that nurture soil should be commended, but also must recognize that this is not the metabolic reality for the majority.



It is not!  But I think we can be proud to say that it's the goal here at Permies.  Onward:

It’s no big direct death. The blood of field mice, of coyote pup, and gopher snake and grasshopper sparrow are spilled in ounces in these systems that depend on cultivation, and the crop is a canvas for a pointillist picture of a trophic system gone awry because it goes unseen. Only when we zoom out sufficiently and see not just the lives lost, but the lives that are absent, do we begin to get the picture. And only when we sidle up close enough do we feel the loss.

...

I wonder about these other lands—the ones from which people build their bodies of plant-based proteins when they stave off meat. When a land is kept in the simple state of a two or three crop rotation, a lot of animals just give up and move on. The little ones may remain—the ones whose blood we spill ounce by ounce, and who are disked into the soil in shallow graves. The big ones, the ones who bleed in gushing liters, mostly learn to stay away and in time their populations diminish.

It’s this cost that really gets to me the most. Not the deaths, but the lives not lived. Because in a time when we are losing species in large part because they simply lack a place to live, it seems logical to consider habitat lost to agriculture as a direct threat to our shared survival. Maybe it’s time for land kept in a state of arrested development through annual cropping to grow up a little. So how do we eat to make home?



Emphasis added -- by me.  And I know the answer -- for me.  I live on forty acres, a little wilderness.  Call it mitigation, if you will.  I buy most of my calories from "those cultivated lands" where nothing makes a home, but we, here, have land that makes home for quite a few critters in compensation.  And in the littlest bit closest to our house, I do a friendly permaculture growing routine, making space for as many living things as will tolerate our human presence and our huge galumphing canine companions.

But I still think this author asks a very good question.  How DO we eat to make home for critters?  Ariel's answer includes a lot of grasslands with ruminants on them.  I'm fine with that in the abstract, but it doesn't work for my health needs, and I think there are a lot of people like me.  It's good writing.  Thought-provoking.  Poetic.  Worth your time.  Recommended.

 
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Some excellent points that I had not considered, Dan, and I would guess many people have not considered. Anyone who has ever been to the Central Valley in California will instantly get the reference to almond mono cultures towering over bare ground. And yet, not all beef cattle are raised in bucolic meadows with meandering streams, just like not all veggies are raised in a disked and sterilized monocrop. Not to pick on California, but I was shocked and appalled to see the dairies in the Central Valley after growing up in New England and watching the “happy cow” ad campaigns touting the milk and cheese from California cows, frolicking in green pastures with wildflowers and butterflies. I wondered about the ads even as a kid, for I thought it was the norm - that was how dairy cows lived where I grew up, so what was the big deal?  The reality is mile after mile of thousands upon thousands of dairy cows standing in muck halfway up their legs in intense summer heat, waiting for the hay to come so they can eat.  Some of it no doubt sold as “organic.”

I am sorta rambling here, but I guess my point is, as an omnivore, I can choose my meat based on how and where it was raised and slaughtered, just as I can choose my vegetables using the same criteria (or better still, grow my own).  It seems to me that the author is extracting value from the cows in the worst possible way - taking advantage of the benefits they offer to his land, and then shipping them off to a CAFO to be stuffed with grain in a feedlot and then slaughtered. Is that really the price to be paid for diverse ecosystems?  What about the monocropped land required to grow the grain the cattle were fed in the feedlot?  He wants to have his cake and eat it too - we know there is a better way.
 
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It`s a good conversation and maybe something that not many people think about, no matter which "side" they're on.

I was vegan for 10 years (religious/environmental reasons, kind of weird but no regrets). During that time I participated in a forum that made a huge community. These questions arose regularly as "things jerky people say to vegans", particularly at that time questions about deforestation related to soy (which at that time was going to livestock, and deforestation at least in my neck of the woods is more related to cattle production).
But the question is really valid, and while it may make people feel uncomfortable it doesn`t make it any less real- quinoa is a really good example of what the author talks about in terms of producing commodities and depriving local communities of their traditional ways of life in order to please some faraway market.
My mantra back in those days as a vegan was "don`t let perfect be the enemy of good", and I think it works just as well here (and with pretty much everything else). No matter what you do, there is going to be loss. Like anything else in life, we can try to minimize it, and make small improvements here and there instead of despairing about the inability to Fix/Save/Preserve It All, otherwise life becomes too miserable to face. Not to say we should just stick our heads in the sand all pollyanna-like, but be honest about it.
 
Dan Boone
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Artie, the author’s name (Ariel) is gender-ambiguous, but something about the writing codes female for me. Not sure, but not comfortable assuming male pronouns.

Anyway, I think it’s uncharitable to accuse this author of WANTING to have their cake and eating it too, though they freely admit to TAKING and eating it “in the world as it is”:

And they’ll finish their lives in a feed yard, eating a grain and forage ration that came from other lands, with little lives ended or interrupted with each seasonal pull of the plow, and big lives that have long moved on.



They know what they’re doing, and their argument seems to be that we all need to be able to see clearly the cost in other animal lives of raising beef that way versus growing crops — high either way! — before we can start working to better solutions. (I think they, like many permies, would probably be happiest with intensively managed grazing with less or no grain finishing.). That’s all in the policy weeds of a fight I don’t care about anyway, except abstractly. What’s interesting to me is the eloquent exposition of the death ethics of row agriculture (used for feeding vegans and meat animal alike in our current food systems).  I, too, am interested in the question of how can we make home? How can we make sure ten or twelve billion people get enough to eat while making home for all the critters without whom, in the long run, it all falls apart?
 
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Yeah but that rancher is forgetting how much hay they have to haul in. When Texas was in deep drought all the hay in my state was shipped to them. That's thousands of gallons of irrigated alfalfa. Crap loads of sprayed prairie grass. Never mind the oil and gas required for transportation.


I do know quite a lot of cattle ranchers and they manage their lands well. Some of them even bale their own hay. I agree with everything the article writer said but just pointing out that cattle ranching isn't all sustainable either.
 
Artie Scott
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No offense intended, Dan, the author writes very well and makes some really great points.  I am not a vegan or vegetarian, I just found myself profoundly disappointed at the end of the article that the author’s obviously well-cared for cattle end up in a feedlot.

I guess what I am trying to say is it seemed like more of a poke at vegans/vegetarians (you are just as bad as us) than an opening for a constructive dialogue between the competing viewpoints.  I completely agree with your points about working toward better solutions, and perhaps I am being too hard on an author who wrote with great candor and honesty and understanding about their own impact.  

Brothers and friends forever, Dan!  
 
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elle sagenev wrote:Yeah but that rancher is forgetting how much hay they have to haul in.



It’s a pretty thoughtful essay; I don’t know if it’s a charitable assumption to claim that the writer has “forgotten” about hay hauling. It’s not really the sort of endeavor one forgets!

Perhaps, in the one season that was within the scope of the essay, they did not have to haul hay. Perhaps they did not condider it germane to the point that they were making.  It seems from the picture caption accompanying their post, and from other text in the post that I did not quote, that they are in Montana, not Texas, running yearlings on grass before sending them to feedlots; I know nothing about the cattle business but it may be that buying in hay isn't part of their business model.  Perhaps the land that they are on has reliable grass.  I don't know.  But it doesn't feel fair or plausible to accuse them of poor memory on the matter when we don't know their full situation.
 
Dan Boone
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Artie Scott wrote:No offense intended, Dan, the author writes very well and makes some really great points.  I am not a vegan or vegetarian, I just found myself profoundly disappointed at the end of the article that the author’s obviously well-cared for cattle end up in a feedlot.

I guess what I am trying to say is it seemed like more of a poke at vegans/vegetarians (you are just as bad as us) than an opening for a constructive dialogue between the competing viewpoints.  I completely agree with your points about working toward better solutions, and perhaps I am being too hard on an author who wrote with great candor and honesty and understanding about their own impact.  

Brothers and friends forever, Dan!  



I appreciate this more than I can say.  I think since I was never a vegan, I have been slow to appreciate just how wounded so many people have gotten in the vegan/carnivore wars.  Or, even just being bystanders like yourself, have come to parse everything in terms of those wars, which I still mostly do not. It leads people to look for punches when nobody is swinging, or so it seems to me.  Because I didn't see the essay as being any kind of poke at anyone, or even about competing viewpoints.  It was just somebody thinking deeply about landscapes and how to make room on them for a whole ecosystem while still feeding people.  Certainly the author struck me as being fully cognizant that raising cattle to send to a feedlot was just moving the problem off the land that they were managing to another place, and very conflicted/unhappy about that "solution."  I don't sense them being any happier about that than we are.  Do they think it's maybe a little better than growing nothing but row crops and eating imports hacked and burned out of the tropical rain forest? I get a sense that maybe they do.  But they aren't smug about having achieved perfection.  They'd like a better solution than sending cows off to "finish their lives in a feed yard, eating a grain and forage ration that came from other lands, with little lives ended or interrupted with each seasonal pull of the plow, and big lives that have long moved on."
 
Artie Scott
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I did read the whole article before my initial response.
 
Dan Boone
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Artie Scott wrote:I did read the whole article before my initial response.



My apologies, Artie; of course that was obvious from what you wrote.  And once I realized that, I edited my post to remove the query.  But apparently it wasn't fast enough to forestall this response.  I'm so sorry!
 
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Dan Boone wrote:

elle sagenev wrote:Yeah but that rancher is forgetting how much hay they have to haul in.



It’s a pretty thoughtful essay; I don’t know if it’s a charitable assumption to claim that the writer has “forgotten” about hay hauling. It’s not really the sort of endeavor one forgets!

Perhaps, in the one season that was within the scope of the essay, they did not have to haul hay. Perhaps they did not condider it germane to the point that they were making.  It seems from the picture caption accompanying their post, and from other text in the post that I did not quote, that they are in Montana, not Texas, running yearlings on grass before sending them to feedlots; I know nothing about the cattle business but it may be that buying in hay isn't part of their business model.  Perhaps the land that they are on has reliable grass.  I don't know.  But it doesn't feel fair or plausible to accuse them of poor memory on the matter when we don't know their full situation.



I do actually know something about ranching as it's big business in our area. We are personal friends with several ranchers. They are trucking in hay right now and they also simply raise babies up to be sold. You have to feed the bulls and heifers through the winter and that requires hay. Like I did say, one of ours at least does bale their own hay when they can. All areas suffer drought though. Montana, WY, Texas, Etc. Texas was just my example as I was personally trying to get hay at the time it was all pre-sold to Texas. I couldn't get any hay locally that year.

Since my hubs grew up besties with a hay farmers son I know something about that too. He's gone organic and it's great. I get hay from him when I can. We talk growing things. He thinks I'm nuts. lol Alfalfa has to be irrigated here and alfalfa hay is choice hay as far as I'm aware around here. Water also being a huge thing in my area I always look at what water it takes to grow something. What we irrigate and sell does not come back to us and as far as I can tell from my own property life, I don't think Wyoming can afford to be giving so much away.

But I also have section after section of organic wheat around my house. Something we enjoy as I'd much rather have sections of wheat around me than 5 acre ranchettes. That's a Wyoming statement for sure. lol And yeah, nothing growing there. Though they do have a fair amount of food going to the wildlife. They just harvested the winter wheat and we've got a million ground squirrels scurrying over the road to steal dropped wheat and bring it back to their homes on our property. We wander the fields getting rocks and have seen animals that were killed on tilling. There are no ant hills anywhere on the wheat sections like there are on ours. Life is as tilled in and destroyed as the writer says, but there is some.

Anyway I'm not saying I disagree with her statements Just that it's way complicated, all of it. Lots of different aspects. And if she's pointing out coyote pups as a victim of commercial farming I can tell ya that coyotes do kill calves and the ranchers we know allow people on their property to hunt coyotes. I'm not against that. We get coyotes and if they started killing my pigs I'd be hunting them too. Pigs tend to be tough guys though. No one bothering them. In fact since getting pigs we haven't even lost poultry.
 
Dan Boone
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I see from Twitter that Ariel is in fact a woman, resolving that ambiguity; and she explicitly eschews the title of rancher.  She doesn't own the land where she grazes her cows, and she uses words like "operator", "grazier", and (jokingly) "grass peasant."
 
Seriously? That's what you're going with? I prefer this tiny ad:
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