Garrison Keillor tells a story about a vegan wood tick who abandons his normal food because all the people around him don’t eat meat and appear to live longer than wood ticks. They seem smarter too. The tick resolves to take brisk walks and subsist on tomato juice instead of blood. Eventually the intellectually ambitious tick fades to nearly nothing. Sad but starving, he sucks up a serving of O positive in order to survive. Lessons learned from our tick hero: some people in some places could die trying to eat a politically correct, hypothetically life-lengthening vegetable diet.
Take a look at the land elevation, soil types, and precipitation maps of the earth in an atlas. I used Goode’s 22nd Edition. Note the areas colored brown, tan, or yellow. That’s the part of the planet that is above 2000 feet, has aridisol (salty) soils and receives less than 20 inches of rainfall a year. All of Mongolia, a generous amount of China, most of the countries ending in “stan,” and a big swath of the U.S. including New Mexico, show as various shades of ochre. Now turn to the wind map. Most of the ochre places see moderate to high summer winds. Two basic agricultural rules of thumb apply here: 1. Never plow land that receives less than twenty inches of rain a year. 2. Abstain from cultivating loess, a lightweight soil common to many steppes. Loess will blow away in even a moderate breeze unless perennial plant roots hold it down. Rogers and Hammerstein spoke of typical plains weather when they wrote “Oklahoma, where the wind comes sweeping down the plains” They could just as easily, though not as lyrically, have referred to “Kazakhstan.” Or Tucumcari.
The eastern one-third of New Mexico, plus a lot of Colorado, Kansas, and Oklahoma cannot safely be plowed. Remember the Dust Bowl? The same holds true for a huge amount of the acreage in Asia. Only one reliable, ecologically sensible crop suits these places. That’s grass, preferably the native perennial bunch grasses. Plains grasses survive on unreliable amounts of rainfall—that’s why they root deeply—and can cope with wild temperature swings. Unfortunately, like our wood tick friend trying to make it on tomato juice, we humans don’t do well on grass, even if we cook it.
Arid grasslands make up nearly 13% of the earth. If you add to that total the areas that for other reasons cannot be cultivated, (too cold, too steep,too rocky, too risky—think malaria and crocodiles) that’s a lot of places where vegetables that people can consume directly are either imported or done without. Furthermore, people already cultivate more land than they can keep in production. If you must draw water from deep aquifers in order to grow crops, you are not farming, you are mining. The water you pump up took thousands of years to accumulate. It will take the same number of years to collect again. Ditto clearing the jungle for agriculture. Thin jungle topsoils disappear within a few crop cycles. An entirely vegetarian diet is a luxury for many of us. A diet for a small planet actually describes a diet dependent on a land area much smaller than the entire planet. Not all of us live in the good parts.
If you live in the dry parts instead, how you survive? As they say on the Bell Ranch, you go into the grass business.Successfully nurturing animals for meat, milk, pellage, eggs, and offspring is just as much agriculture as raising commodity soybeans or an organic truck garden. Under all is the land. Plains agriculture means stewarding the perennial grasses on that land. It also means water management for grass and beast. It’s as intricate a dance as erecting hoop houses to protect your microgreens or outsmarting the caterpillars that are eating your corn despite Monsanto’s assurances to the contrary.
Exactly how you raise the grass and the animals is where you separate enduring pastorialism from corporate feedlots. I’ll talk about the different practices, and perhaps the morality, as well as the sustainability, of the two approaches to the business next time.
And while I’m at it, has anybody come up with a descriptor other than “sustainability” for farm practices that leave the land in better shape than when you found it? The word is turning into jargon, e.g. “sustainable oilfield management.”