My heart goes out to my fellow farmers who live within the drought stricken region that now stretches almost nationwide. As you can see from the map, my own farm hasn’t been immune to the lack of rainfall (most of Virginia is currently experiencing ‘abnormally dry’ to ‘moderate drought’ conditions), but my region is in vastly better shape than most of the country. Having suffered through an agonizing two year drought in the 1990s, I can truly empathize with my peers. Nothing is quite as demoralizing as waking day after day to a parched, withered landscape, knowing that if only Mother Nature would send some refreshing storm clouds our way, everything might change in a matter of days.
The good news is, droughts always end. Rain will eventually fall, and the crops will turn green again… if not this year, then in the future. Fifteen years ago, I suffered through hopeless months of brittle grass crackling beneath my boots, and small puffs of dust billowing with each step I took. I was forced to feed hay to our cattle nearly all summer long, food normally reserved for the depths of winter. Our farm survived through sheer force of will, and faith that the drought would eventually break. If I can offer one wish to my brother and sister farmers out there, it is this: ‘Hang on.’ It will get better.
Those brutally dry years taught me many valuable lessons as I began my farming career. I not only learned the importance (and unpredictability) of rainfall, but of intentionally managing my fields to soak up and retain as much moisture as possible whenever it does happen to rain. Mechanical irrigation isn’t a sensible solution for a farm like mine; I manage roughly 500 acres of pasture and free-range livestock, and it’s nearly impossible to economically water that much land. If the rain doesn’t fall, my soil must be as prepared as possible to endure the drought conditions while they last. By promoting perennial (year round) grasses and clovers in my pastures, and by carefully managing how my animals graze, I can do a lot to control moisture, temperature and fertility levels on my farm. Growing grass might not seem very exciting, but it sure beats planting a field of corn, only to watch it wither away.
As I read the national headlines and watch the news reports, I frequently find myself shaking my head at the reporting. A tremendous amount of common sense is either being ignored or overlooked as to what we can all learn from this devastating event. Much of the focus is being inappropriately placed on food price concerns, as though corn and soybeans—the two major crops suffering beneath the drought—are major staples of human food. Journalists, please note: they are not… at least not directly. Nearly all the corn and soybeans grown in America, around 90%, are destined for confinement livestock feedlots (cattle, pigs and chickens raised on concrete, without any access to grass), and ethanol for gasoline. Although food prices will almost certainly rise (estimates are currently around 3-5%), this will result from increased costs of transportation, and the shrinking profits associated with raising factory farmed animals.
A major national magazine (which shall go unnamed) recently suggested that “corn on the cob” will suddenly be more expensive at the grocery stores. Not to sound patronizing, but does this writer realize that 99.9% of corn grown in the U.S. isn’t the delicious ‘sweet corn’ enjoyed at summer picnics, but unpalatable ‘field corn’ grown for animal feed and ethanol? Another report insists that because agriculture only accounts for 1.2% of our total GDP, the drought won’t have a major effect one way or another on our economy. Seriously? Only 1.2%? Does this number include the trucking and shipping companies that rely on abundant harvests to fill their box cars and barges (see an article on this topic here), or the billion dollar agricultural machinery companies that need farmers to purchase their products? And what about those grocery stores and restaurants that like to sell food to their customers? Did I forget the ethanol refineries? I could easily go on. Sure, agriculture may technically only account for 1.2% of our economy, but its impact is enormous and wide reaching. This drought will certainly impact us all in some way, either through our jobs, or in the checkout line.
Going back to the news for just a second, I experienced a jaw-dropping “are you serious?” reaction when I read this (article here):
Richard Volpe, an economist with the USDA’s Economic Research Service told CNN “Corn is a major input for retail food,” he said. “Corn is used to make feed for all the animals in our food supply chain. As this drought reduces the harvest of corn, that would drive up the price of feed for animals and then in turn meat products.”
With all due respect, not all animals in our food supply chain are raised on corn. In fact, some animals are raised without a single kernel of grain, and instead live their lives eating natural, perennial pasture. My cattle never so much as sniff an ear of corn, much less ogle a bag of soybeans. By focusing in on these journalistic sound bites and misleading statistics, it’s easy to lose track of the greater picture, and the greater opportunity. As farmers and conscientious, connected consumers, we are faced with the difficult task of tuning out voices that insist there’s only one correct path, and that all other options are unworthy of our consideration. But this drought has revealed how deeply connected we all are to our food system, and how truly vulnerable the system is.
Of course, I can already hear the self-proclaimed ‘realists’ raising their chant: “Organic farming and sustainable agriculture is a pipe dream, you hippy! If we don’t raise millions of acres of corn and soybeans, the world will starve to death. Enjoy your high-priced steaks and fancy heirloom tomatoes; as for me, I’ll be the one not starving, thanks to all this cheap, abundant food.”
For these ‘realists,’ I encourage them to take a look at these statistics from the USDA. In 2012, it’s estimated that farmers will plant over 200 million acres of corn, soybeans and wheat combined. While that’s a tremendous amount of grain, there’s also a flip side to this number: the U.S. also supports over 600 million acres of pasture, range and hay fields in addition to these crop fields. Let me repeat his number for effect: 600 MILLION ACRES OF GRASS. Do you see where I’m going, here? Above and beyond all the corn, soybeans and wheat (which are currently being planted at all-time historic highs), there remains over 3 TIMES as much available pasture for animals to be grazing. America clearly has the ability to raise its cattle without ever feeding them a single handful of grain.
So how do pasture, grain, and livestock fit together with the recent weather? In light of the terrible drought, its more important than ever consider these diverse statistics, and understand what they mean for our mutual well being. To me, the numbers suggest that we don’t need to be funneling the majority of our drought-stricken grain towards animal feed. Our underutilized pastures and grass lands could be carrying much higher numbers of free-range, grass fed cattle and sheep if we only focused our manpower and burgeoning experience to manage these underutilized resources.
Furthermore, as farmers nationwide are now realizing, grasslands are far better suited to endure a drought. Well-tended pastures can capture and retain elusive rainfall better than a field planted with crops. Pastures rarely, if ever, need to be planted, sprayed or chemically fertilized. Of course, pastures will eventually fail without rainfall, but the point is that they endure far longer, and with much less expense, than fields of grain currently experiencing drought conditions. Intensively managed pasture may not be a one-size-fits-all solution, but it is an emerging and compelling component in our sustainable food future.
Despite our individual opinions about food policy and production, we’re all deeply connected to our food supply. As terrible as this drought is for thousands of farming families, it’s an opportunity for us to closely examine sustainable practices and alternative methodologies as we move forward. There will always be a naysayer or two in the crowd; let’s patiently indulge them with a nod of the head, but move steadily forward. As the drought breaks, and rain falls anew, a verdant season awaits us with inspiring possibilities.