Intersecting Forces

March 7, 2020

These cows stand amid two powerful intersecting forces. 

The first is health. Our culture reels from issues with health, much of which stem from poor quality of food provided by the industrial food system. Such foods are delivered at low cost, at first glance, until externalities of health and pollution are added to the calculus. These cows provide an antidote, in that their meat is derived 100% from grass, producing high-Omega-3 nutrition, which our bodies recognize from our aboriginal era and thrive on. And they produce this golden food while augmenting the environment, not detracting from it, which takes us to the second powerful force.

Cows properly managed stand as an essential partner in the solution to climate change. Climate change is upon us with a vengence, and if you are not convinced, spend time with anybody who makes their living out of doors, and they will attest. In the Midwest it is wetter and warmer; in the Southwest drier and warmer. Droughts and floods are more intense and more frequent.

Counts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere stand at 415 parts per million. Greater than 400 ppm is considered a threshold of high risk, as tipping points and warming-feedback-loops are triggered which may be irreversible. 350 ppm is tolerable for life on the planet, and 280 ppm is the level prior to industrialization to which we need to return. Promising new technologies for renewable energy are reducing emmisions of carbon, but will not draw down surplus carbon still dangerously lurking in the atmosphere. 

So, what will? Tightly bunched, ever migrating, cloven-hoofed ruminants -- cows, sheep, goats, and bison, in North America, and variations of this on other continents. But the Sierra Club tells us cows are bad for the environment and to eat less meat! Yes, cows in feedlots are bad for the environment, and their meat is toxic with Roundup, and is indeed to be avoided; but cows properly managed on pastures and prairie are uniquly beneficial to the environnment and to our bodies. The Sierra Club ought to know the difference. In fact, bovines may be the only "tool" available to us, which properly managed, can draw down surplus carbon and put it into the soil fast enough to save us from the irreversible warming-feedback-loop with which we dangerously flirt.

How does this work?  It works by mimicking one of nature's most elegant cycles of sustainability, which is almost a form of magic it is so carefully orchestrated. But there is no slight of hand in this system, as with feedlots. This cycle of sustainability is based on migration, that primal force reflected in almost all wild animals - fish, birds, and mammals, among others. The point of migration is to maximize nutritional intake for the animal, the grazer. The grazer keeps moving to greener pastures, and doesn't return until grazed plants have fully recovered and regrown. The root system of regrowing grasses reflects the amount of leaf and stem above ground. The taller the plant above ground, the longer the roots below. The more leaves on the plant above ground, the more carbon it photosynthesizes from the atmosphere, with each leaf serving as a solar panel. When the recovered plant is then grazed by the returning grazer, roots are sloughed off below ground into the soil. These roots are rich with carbon photosynthesized by the plant. This sloughing builds organic matter in the soil and feeds microbes which then transfer enhanced nutrients back to plants. This is how organic matter is developed in soils.

Each percentage point increase in organic matter sequesters 10,000 lbs. or 5 tons of carbon from the atmosphere. Organic matter on tilled soils is typically around 2-3%; that of original prairie is around 6%. If we could double organic matter on millions of acres of Midwestern soils, currently in row crops, what would be the effect on all that carbon lurking in the atmosphere? Much would be pulled out and transferred to the soil. We can do this with properly managed bovines. 

But the Sierra Club reminds us cows emit methane, and therefore we should "eat less meat". They do emit methane, but migrating bovines grazing fully-recovered plants sequester more methane and carbon into the soil than they emit, and so generate a net benefit to the environment. In 1492 there were 30 million buffalo grazing on the North American continent, emiting methane daily, but sequestering more than emitting, and carbon dioxide parts per million stood at a cool 280. The ecological system was in perfect balance.

Forty million beeves are fed grain in feedlots today, emitting methane daily but sequestering none of it. That is the problem. What is the solution? It is, in part, to close down feedlots, replant much of the Midwest to grasses, and move beef production back onto land, up to the land's carrying capacity of 30 million bovines, and manage them like migrating buffalo. We and others are doing that on a small scale; it can be done on a large scale.

I am reading a gripping and hopeful book addressing the climate crisis: Grassroots Rising: A Call to Action on Climate, Farming, Food, and A Green New Deal, by Ronnie Cummins. He writes very well and comprehensively summarizes how we arrived where we are and what we can do to solve the existential problem before us. The solution lies in two developments: technological innovation in renewable energy and accelerated regeneration of the environment. The former is steadily being addressed by capitalistic innovation. The latter will require some governmental stimulus, redirecting of private capital, and enrollment of skilled land managers. Regeneration involves: massive planting of trees, extensive redevelopment of wetlands, and rebuilding of soil organic matter around the world. All of this can be done. The challenge is it needs to be done in the next ten years, not the next thirty or fifty. We face an urgent issue, with a clear path out, but we do need to act.

So, what can each of us do? Make your next purchase of a car a hybrid, volunteer to help plant trees, and support local, craft-based farmers in winter as well as summer. Actively recruit friends to do the same. That would make a great difference to the local farm economy that builds soil. You thereby become a soil-builder yourself.

On our end, we are looking for row-crop ground which we can renovate, turn into pasture, and double organic matter on over the next ten years, from which to produce clean, nutrient-dense food your bodies will recognize. We can't do this alone, however, and seek private capital to secure farmland and hold it as an investment, that historically appreciates at 3-5 % per year. Graziers like us would partner with such foresighted investors. Graziers provide management, livestock, and equipment; investors provide land, and would count externalities like carbon sequestered, healthy-food produced, and rural-employment provided as part of their annual return. 

I agree with Mr. Cummins. If skilled land managers, redirected private capital, and supporting governmental policy coalesce, we can indeed regenerate forests, grasslands, and wetlands to sequester necessary carbon and save the world for our trusting children and grandchildren. But we must act. 

Most of Susan's soulful recipes take a long time to materialize, which is a challenge to those rushing to save the world. But Susan is most particular and, like the turtle, will not compromise the process. For instance, in the past ten days, we sampled again a great rendition of beef stew that was delicious from most standpoints. But it was decided the gravy needed to be just a little more concentrated and that onions should be cut in wedges rather than slices, so they would be easier to remove at the end. Thus we will sample another version. Similarly, a taco recipe is brewing, and perhaps it would benefit from a little less tomato sauce and a little less chicken stock. I look forward to being the guinea pig for both in weeks ahead. These products are coming your way, but every so carefully, like the turtle.

Clark and Beth will be at the market tomorrow in Hyde Park, serving chili.

It is humbling and promising to stand at the intersection of two such powerful forces -- health and climate. In partnership with you, we embrace both.

In the embrace,

Drausin & Susan

Drausin Wulsin

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