Such words of truth. I have been chewing on these words, rolling them around in my mouth... and trying to figure out where I stand.
Here's the deal. John and I have been brainstorming, throwing around ideas for how a small farm (micro-farm, if you will -we have 3 acres) like ours can best support itself by selling products. Produce? Honey? Hogs? Goats? Meat chickens? Eggs? All of the above?
We have been researching, planning, scrapping ideas, going back to the drawing board... and each time we find ourselves letting perfect get in the way of good. Inevitably, we keep finding ourselves drawn back to chickens and hogs, 2 creatures we have come to enjoy immensely.
But here's the problem. Chickens and hogs, in order to grow to the size that people expect and in order to be financially viable, must eat corn or soybeans or both (well, I guess "must" is a strong word. Hogs can be raised on pasture, vegetable/table scraps and milk. Dairy farms and cheesemaking operations are the perfect candidates for raising hogs - the hogs will eagerly gobble up the leftover milk or whey from making cheese, and the proteins in the milk/whey will make them grow quickly). This dependence on corn and soy creates a huge set of problems, along with moral, spiritual and ethical issues for John and I. We want to be responsible stewards of God's creation, but things are far from simple. Let me explain.
First, almost all corn and soybeans grown in the US for animal feed are Genetically Modified. We called around to the feed mills in our area and they told us all their animals feeds are GM (except Organic feed, which cost nearly twice as much). Many GM seed patents belong to a giant corporations, such as Monsanto, Syngenta, DuPont and Dow Chemical Company. These companies personally go against everything I believe to good, pure and trustworthy. In my humble opinion, GMO seeds are an abomination against nature - these are organisms that could never occur in naturally - they have to be created in a lab. As Joel Salatin says, "Folks, this ain't normal." However, if they want to develop GM seed and sell it, fine. I hate it, but I can't stop them. But one of the major issues comes when one farmers GM plants pollinate another farmers non-GMO plants. The farmer with the non-GMO plants can and often is accused of "stealing" patented seed. These farmers end up being sued by giant corporations and losing their farms... for no reason other than happening to be downwind from another farmer's GMO plants. I have a big problem with this. If we buy conventional animal feed, we will be padding the pockets of this despicable system that preys on anyone who doesn't join their "club". And yes, every time you buy non-organic pork, chicken or grain-fed beef, you are also supporting this system.
Second, even if we do decide to give Monsanto and the like companies the finger and purchase organic feed instead (the only way to avoid GMOs), we still cannot escape the fact that we are directly causing massive amount of fossil fuels to be burned. Organic systems are far from perfect. Contrary to popular belief, simply "buying organic" is not going to save the world. Fields still have to be tilled, planted, fertilized, and then harvested by diesel guzzling tractors. Then the crop is transported to a grain elevator and ground up. From there, it's packaged and sent to a feed store. More fossil fuel, more pollution, more destruction. We don't have enough land to grow our own crops, so we're stuck supporting this system.
Third, the way America farms commodity crops (such as corn and soybeans) is not sustainable. It's a broken system reliant on exhaustible fossil fuels. When oil prices spike (when, not if), the system will slowly collapse and food prices will skyrocket. Animal feed will become ridiculously expensive and farmers who raise hogs, chickens and grain-fed cattle will find themselves underwater. With limited oil to run the tractors, there will be smaller harvests. There will be less animal feed. There will be less conventionally-raised chicken, pork and grain-fed beef. America will be in an uproar over food prices and lack of availability. We're already worried about being able to afford the cost of animal feed this year, due to the crippling droughts of 2012.
John and I are considering these facts and don't know where to go from here. In our opinion, the only sustainable meat option today is grass-fed beef. Unlike hogs and chickens, which are omnivores, cattle are herbivores and thrive on a grass-only diet. Grass is a perennial that regrows each year by itself, unlike the annual crops of corn and soybeans that need to be planted each year (and fertilized and sprayed with herbicides). Grass keeps growing and the cows harvest it themselves by grazing. Yes, we will still need to use tractors to cut hay for the cows to eat in the winter, for those of us living in northern states, but southern states could graze cows all year long.
Unfortunately, we only own 3 acres, which is barely enough land to support 1-2 cows and we would have to buy hay because we don't own enough land to grow our own. So, do we pursue raising hogs and chickens, these animals that are almost completely dependant on a broken, unsustainable system? Do we overlook our moral and ethical objections to these problems? Or, if we choose to feed our animals organic feed, will we be able to find any buyers willing to pay the higher price? Is this what it's like to be a farmer? Wishing you could do what your heart feels is the right thing, but finding it nearly impossible to do it, because the very people that say you should farm the "right" way will start complaining the minute their food prices increase?
Friends, WE the consumers are the problem. We have been living in a world full of illusions, carefully constructed by the food industry. We demanded more and farmers delivered. These are intelligent, resourceful and hardworking people. But in doing so, we forced the farmers to do things that make all of us uncomfortable. We demanded cheap food, but it comes with great hidden costs.... and when these true costs are finally revealed, they will shake our foundations and change the world as we know it. Now many of us are asking for "clean" food, but then complain when it costs more than conventionally grown food. What is a farmer to do? Grow clean food, but not be able to sell it because people say it's too expensive OR grow cheap food with toxic synthetic chemicals and then have people blame them for using them? Geesh. They're damned if they do, and damned if they don't.
I wish I didn't have to think about these issues. Many people dismiss me, and say that I'm being a pessimist, that I should just not think about these things so much. But I'm here to say that we don't have the luxury of NOT thinking about rising fuel costs, our broken food systems and it's effect on human, animal and environmental health. We need to pull our heads out of the sand and admit there is a problem. A huge problem. And it won't resolve itself. I look into my children's faces and sometimes want to weep thinking about the enormous debacle we have created for them to deal with. We have selfishly sacrificed our children's future so that we could maintain our greedy, self-indulgent lifestyles. This fact fills me with such shame, such regret that I live so carelessly, so flippantly.
"We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children."
- Native American Proverb
I keep hearing these food experts (most likely working for Big Ag) saying that in order to keep "living life as we know it", we need to blah, blah, blah... (insert plug for how GM crops will save the world here). And I want to scream at them "But we SHOULDN'T continue living life as we know it! We are on a path to destruction and it will only get worse until we admit that "life as we know it" cannot continue. We must change." Life as we know it is bad. Very bad, but most of us don't care to enough to pay attention - it's easier and much more fun to ignore the problem. We're torturing animals, polluting the waterways, pumping the soil full of toxins, throwing away half of the food we produce because of lack of distribution systems and resulting spoilage, filling our bodies with genetically-engineered food, toxic synthetic chemicals and other modern food "inventions", mindlessly filling the earth with trash (there is not such thing are throwing things "away" - away is just a place where someone else - our children - will have to deal with it later). We're sick, animals are sick, the earth is sick. Why in the world would we want to continue living this way?
So where do we start? Boy, I wish I had the answer for that. I suppose the first step to any sort of change is simply recognition- admitting there is a problem. Asking questions and truthfully evaluating ourselves comes next. Sometimes the truth is painful.
Now, to get back to the point. What do John and I do? How are we to farm? Do we stick to our moral, ethical and spiritual values? Or do we end up having to sacrifice those values in order to make a profit? How do we keep perfect from being the enemy of good?
As Jen Hatmaker says in her life-altering book "7: An Experimental Mutiny of Excess", " Do the best with what you know. When you know more, adjust the trajectory." Even though we will not be able to raise our hogs and chickens "perfectly", we can at least comfort ourselves with the knowledge that we are providing a humane, comfortable existence for the animals in our care. Our animals will be raised outdoors, with room to roam and engage in the very activities for which God created them. We may not be able to solve the world's problems, and perhaps some of our choices will exacerbate those problems. We are imperfect people living in an imperfect world. We are doing the best we can with the skills, knowledge and resources that we have available at this time. And that will have to be good enough.