August 19-25, 2019
This past week scientists from around the country descended on Louisville for the Ecological Society of America Annual Meeting, and we were fortunate to host a small farm tour for those attending who were interested in the farming aspect of ecology. Ecologically speaking, our farm is considered a low-input system of food production. A prominent researcher from the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food, and Environment invited them out to highlight her research conducted over several seasons on our farm along with using data from others for comparison. The group was impressed by our numbers and wanted to see the farm for themselves.
The story of our farm ecology boils down to examining three data points around how many calories of energy it takes to produce a calorie of food. Small acreage intensive organic farmers are running in the low 50s for calories of energy to one calorie of food, which is considered good; chemically inspired operations come in well north of that. Elmwood Stock Farm is a cool 7.7. To figure those numbers, we kept copious volumes of data for over two years considering human labor, machinery, gas and diesel, electric and LP, poultry feed, plastic, packaging, and water. The story is a tale of how your food choices directly impact the environment which in turn we depend on for life itself.
Let’s break this down into bite size pieces. Growing bazillions of acres of GMO corn and soybeans, loading it all on trucks, and hauling it to feedlots full of cattle on bare ground or dairy cows on concrete pads or expansive metal houses full of birds or pigs takes lots of energy. Soil carbon is being mined by the plant and hauled away as grain. With this cycle, land lays bare most of the year without any nutrients going into the soil. The machinery, gas, and diesel along with electric and LP contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. Nationwide and worldwide distribution channels contribute even more.
Cows can contribute to the greenhouse emissions too, but that isn’t the whole story. It is true that cows, or ruminants, release methane as part of the cud chewing and mastication processes. When you cram a bunch of them together in feed lots, there are measurable amounts of methane released. However, when they graze standing forage and move from field to field, pooping and tromping grass into the ground with their sharp hooves, they are putting carbonaceous plant material back into the soil; they are feeding soil microbes, sequestering carbon, and, ultimately, building soil organic matter. A single grazing cow is sequestering three tons of carbon, equal to three times the methane equivalent from rumination. Those are pretty good numbers and a much better story. Frankly, we would have cows just for what they do for the farm, even if they didn’t offer healthy meat.
Every single step to produce a calorie of feedlot beef increases greenhouse gases and burns carbon while every single calorie of grass-fed beef reduces greenhouse gasses and sequesters carbon. Our cattle are far and away the most efficient product we sell. Most of the energy to produce beef comes from each plant’s photosynthetic conversion of solar energy into cellulose, and the cattle do all the work of harvesting it. All we do is run some electric fencing, escort them to and from the abattoir and, finally, deliver them to you.
Simultaneous to measuring energy flows, the UK scientists were monitoring the microbial activity in our soils as a measure of soil health. We wanted to know if our eight year cropping rotation was replenishing the soil, or if we were slowly mining the carbon, slowly depleting its fertility. Interestingly, to evaluate soil health, they track greenhouse gas emissions. The good news is that they found that after three years of vegetable production and five years of beef cattle grazing a field, the soil is fully replenished to permanent, healthy pasture levels. Good farming encourages the soil to provide sustenance for people. Stewardship is taking the bounty in a respectful manner.
Society is not factoring in all the external costs of our nationally accepted cheap food policy. Mass producing food like the feedlots I describe earlier burns carbon at alarming rates, and for what purpose, cheap value meals, while fouling our nest? In a recent conversation, a respected forest ecologist and customer confirmed for me that we know enough already and the time has come for action. She emphatically stated “The earth is on fire!” I could not agree more.
Why have we become so tone deaf to the data and warnings in the 2014 United Nations Report that we only have a few decades before the earth’s soils are degraded by intensive farming practices to the point of fruitless? Yes, it is down now to just 55 years. I’m planning to be here for at least forty of those, and things will be dire by then if we don’t do our part to stave off the seemingly inevitable. The visiting scientists saw for themselves our slow input system of replenishing the soil for future generations. I, for one, plan to make responsible food choices every day, and hopefully give future generations a fair shot at growing more good food at Elmwood Stock Farm. – Mac Stone
In Your Share
- New Potatoes
- Summer Squash
- Surprise Me!
Check out our Pinterest board for this week’s recipes! https://www.pinterest.com/elmwoodstockfar/recipes-2019-summer-csa/