A vision for agriculture

We know how to replace toxic, intensive livestock raising with beautiful, efficient grasslands. Do we have the will?

This story was written by Randy Jackson and was originally published by Aeon in March 2020 and has been republished here.

With each step, Zeke’s boot disappears from sight, swallowed by a lush canopy of grasses and clovers. He jabs his walking stick through the foliage to gauge its height. ‘’Bout ready for turn in,’ he thinks, taking a minute to soak up the scene – buzzing bees, chirping birds, a babbling brook full of trout. At the end of the valley, he sees his neighbour in chest-high waders flicking his fishing rod in a slow back-and-forth rhythm, and wonders how the new cattle-crossing is holding up in the creek.

Opening the thin wire gate to yesterday’s paddock, the farmer invites 50 impatient milk cows to today’s abundant feed. He’ll repeat this three times more to allow the rest of his herd onto fresh pasture – all 200 are grazing fresh grassland every day now since he opened the barn door last fall.

It hit him about 1:30 on a Sunday morning last September, as he hurried to combine the last of the corn and beat the building thunderstorms: ‘Why am I killing myself to feed these cows? Why am I scraping and hauling their manure to the fields, milking three times a day – for a check that doesn’t cover the bills?’ Chatting at the local coffee shop, Zeke and his buddies discussed the pros and cons of managed grazing as an alternative. Most of them dismissed it as ‘old-fashioned’ or ‘good for the hippies but not real farmers’. But Zeke had heard stories of it saving a farm or two, so he figured: ‘What do I have to lose? I’m not payin’ the bills this way!’

Progress has manifested itself in odd ways in agriculture. Grass farmers say: ‘Animals have legs, and plants have roots, for a reason.’ Allowing cows out to harvest their own feed and spread their own manure is the most profitable means of producing meat and milk. But, somehow, agricultural science has encouraged farmers to mount a treadmill of increasing yields of milk or meat by increasing the amount of production per unit input. This means reliance on three intensive practices: first, genetic alteration for higher plant feed and animal yields; second, the application of synthetic fertilisers, pesticides and growth compounds; and third, concentrating livestock in barns and feedlots where they can be fed a carefully balanced, high-priced diet, and their excreta is collected and redistributed elsewhere. These strategies were wildly successful with respect to increasing yields. But they have come with two general downsides that are inescapable: first, the profits of the system accrue mainly to the suppliers of seed, pesticides, fertilisers and genetics; and second, the costs of the system accrue to all of society in the form of devastating environmental degradation.

Back at the house, Zeke’s daughter Amy brings up the mail from the road. She’s back on the farm now: home. Like many farmers, Zeke discouraged his children from coming back to the farm – ‘too hard a life … never get ahead’. But now it’s different. Having fledged to college and done time in a cubicle, Amy is now home to help move and milk cows. ‘Doesn’t feel as suffocating since dad switched to grazing,’ she says. Amy is keen to inherit and build the operation from here, even looking to hire folks to help with the milking and other chores in the coming years. She’s proud of her father for opening up to change. This family farm has a future.

This farm transformation is part of a movement toward agriculture that produces for our needs and wants, while simultaneously building the capacity of future generations to do the same. This is agriculture that is regenerative rather than extractive. It is agriculture founded on the principle that we cannot squeeze every possible harvestable unit from the land. Part of what we grow must go back into the soil, the savings account whose interest will accrue to our future selves. A small but growing group of farmers has adopted this vision, but growing the movement is not easy.

Transitioning to this type of agriculture requires us to re-envision what we want and expect from our working lands, from the people who manage them, and from the landscapes in which they are embedded. It begs us to recalibrate our expectations about the role of farming and food in our lives, from one where we allow markets to drive the system towards the least expensive and most uniform products, to one where we pay for more than just calories. In this version of agriculture, farmers are compensated for building and storing carbon and nutrients in soils, providing habitat for wildlife, contributing to bucolic landscapes, and perhaps, reducing their yields. Our agriculture should cultivate thriving communities and a nurturing environment for all, not just a few.

Farmers and eaters alike know what our agricultural system needs to do for us, so why can’t we make it happen? In the United States, many of the worst excesses of intensive agriculture are apparent, and most of us are suffering in a system that provides calories mainly for confined livestock doused with antibiotics, processed foods with empty calories, and transportation ethanol whose energy-conversion efficiency is about zero. At its most cynical, our current agriculture and food system is a wasteful solution to the problem of what to do with abundant post-Second World War industrial products – steel, aluminium, oil, heavy machinery, pesticides and fertiliser. The cheap food and energy that emerged from this solution have become albatrosses around our necks – driving climate change, fouling our waters, and undermining food security and sovereignty around the world. US agriculture shows us how bad intensive livestock-raising is for people, animals and the environment. This should be a warning sign as global demand for livestock products increases and, along with it, the drive to intensify the inputs into what have been traditional mixed agricultural systems.

In regions where rain-fed agriculture is possible, concentrated livestock operations have driven amazing production gains, but these require calories far in excess of what the land itself can locally provide. So, livestock feed is imported from distant places (mostly from high-yielding annual grain crops) to feed animals whose excreta is stored in millions-of-gallon manure lagoons to be spread on nearby land in one or two large pulses between crop harvest and foul weather. Nutrients and faeces accumulate on crop land until they run off with rains to surface water, percolate through soils to groundwater, or are transformed to greenhouse gases by soil microbes, whose composition and function are being altered and compromised by the antibiotics riding along in the manure.

The devastation wrought by and inflicted upon today’s agriculture is massive and growing. We can’t ignore the daily reports of traumatic flooding, undrinkable water, collapsed fisheries, farm bankruptcies, rural exodus, plummeting biodiversity and, of course, erratic and changing climate. At the local level here in Wisconsin, where most of this essay’s authors live and work, drinking water tainted by agricultural nitrate was implicated in an infant’s death. The Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District is in a tight spot with the US Environmental Protection Agency to reduce phosphorus loading to waterways of the Yahara River watershed in an effort to remove these waterbodies from ‘impaired’ status over a 20-year period.

The lakes and rivers that have been the ‘crown jewels’ of the city of Madison are now so compromised by algal blooms that their recreational uses for swimming, fishing and boating are disappearing. Phosphorus and nitrogen leaking from saturated and highly disturbed agricultural soils find waterways leading to the lakes, and drive massive growth of toxic blue-green algae that has made people sick, and killed fish and pets, resulting in beach-closings during much of the summer. Meanwhile, the agriculture in this watershed contributes massive amounts of phosphorus each year to the waterbodies. The surrounding cities and counties have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in largely ineffective manure digesters, manure-injection systems, untargeted cover crops, and other approaches meant to allow grain-crop production and manure-spreading to continue undiminished.

In Kewaunee County, Wisconsin, where dairy cows outnumber people nearly five to one, more than 60 per cent of drinking water wells are contaminated. A region in northeastern Wisconsin with shallow soils and fractured bedrock just a foot or two below the surface has become a centre for large-herd confinement dairy farming, and it is not uncommon for liquid manure to enter the groundwater and end up in tap water in rural homes. In response, a local dairy farmer association offers free bottled water to local residents.

This is not a solution.

Similar scenarios play out across the US landscape and accrue to continental scales. Each year, an oxygen-depleted ‘dead zone’ occurs in the Gulf of Mexico because of the nutrient-leaky nature of Midwestern grain-based livestock agriculture in the Mississippi River watershed. Shrimping and fishing industries in the dead zone of the Gulf of Mexico are decimated so that we can continue our concentrated livestock and grain production. And these are horror stories only about water quality, to say nothing about the certain role of annual grain crops in plummeting numbers of birds, bees and other wildlife, as well as loss of soil at the level of centimetres per year. This environmental tragedy is heaped on top of our growing obesity epidemic, which has been linked to our dependence on the processed foods that help to drive skyrocketing healthcare costs and reduced life expectancy. We must plan and implement transformative systemic change.

Our vision for this transformation is Grassland 2.0 – agriculture that replaces confinement livestock operations and most annual grain-cropping systems with one where livestock feed themselves on well-managed grasslands, like the system Zeke and his family are running. Other uses of grain, mainly for ethanol production in the US, can also be replaced by grassland biomass harvested and densified for so-called ‘second-generation’ bioenergy production. Moreover, recent breakthroughs show that the precursor molecules for paper and plastic replacement technologies, so-called bioproducts, are at hand.

With proper management, cows, sheep, goats, chickens, pigs and other grazers can be raised on healthy grasses whose root growth and perennial cover protect and regenerate soils. In fact, this type of agriculture is dominant in much of New Zealand, Ireland and Great Britain, as well as in more humid parts of Australia, South Africa, South America and Asia. While a small proportion, about 20 per cent of Wisconsin dairy farms, use grazed pasture to feed milk cows and heifers, the vast majority of cattle in Wisconsin are confined and fed on rations coming from a landscape dominated by annual grains. If managed well, grass-fed systems can promote and support biodiversity, climate stability, water purification and flood mitigation when practised in existing and former grassland areas, provided the surrounding habitat is also well managed.

Globally, grasslands occur in landscapes characterised by low or seasonally variable rainfall, and have evolved with frequent disturbance by fire and/or grazing by ruminant animals. Grasslands emerged on six continents only after the cataclysmic celestial impact 66 million years ago that killed off the dinosaurs and coincided with dramatic tectonic shifts that altered global biogeochemical cycles and drove continental-scale rain shadows. Depending on the continent and the period, grasslands and grazers co-evolved over millions of years, but human management of domesticated livestock can degrade grasslands if the principles of managed grazing are ignored. The early 20th century was notorious for overgrazing and poor management that degraded rangelands on almost every continent.

Decades of research has shown that, in all grasslands, proper stocking and grazing management can build healthy soils, protect water quality, provide wildlife habitat and promote future yields of nutritious feed for livestock. But it requires deliberate management, with livestock being released into pastures where they graze for a short time, then get moved on to other pastures while the grazed landscapes undergo long rest and recovery periods. Critically, livestock must be distributed uniformly in grazing paddocks to minimise their ability to selectively consume some plants but not others. Managing livestock in this way reproduces as closely as possible the long co-evolved relationship between wild herbivores and grasslands.

Whether in the Serengeti shortgrass plains, the Eurasian steppe or the tallgrass prairie of North America, grasslands developed under intense but brief defoliation via grazing and/or fire. These principles apply to all grasslands but must be scaled and tuned to each place based on its inherent productivity. In places with lower productivity, where little or no seasonal plant regrowth occurs after defoliation, grazing paddocks are many hectares in size, and careful attention to stocking rate is more important. In richer landscapes, livestock might be rotated among many small paddocks within one season where plant regrowth is essential to maintaining a healthy sward. But irrespective of the underlying productivity of the ecosystem, this always means extracting less in livestock yield than is actually possible in any one season. It requires expectations of optimal yields for a sustainable system, rather than maximal yields all the time.

In the US context, Grassland 2.0 would restore much of the structure and function of the once-dominant tallgrass prairie to most of the land that fell to the plough as grain-based agriculture was established. Less than half of 1 per cent of the tallgrass prairie remains, and that mainly on less productive sites that were not amenable to the plough, so it is difficult for us to imagine the truly vast sea of diverse grassland that once tickled and scratched a rider on horseback. Impenetrable because of its height and density, the prairie was frequently burned by indigenous people to open up hunting grounds and draw grazing bison and elk to the new growth for ease of capture. These burning and grazing cycles served to stimulate grassland productivity by removing thatch accumulating at the surface, warming soils and stoking new growth. But the main action went on below ground.

Prairie plants invested heavily in roots and this, coupled with cold winters, resulted in the banking of massive amounts of organic matter creating the highly productive soils we now call Mollisols (from mollic for ‘soft’ and sols for ‘soils’). Mollisols have an immense capacity to hold water and nutrients. When early colonists cracked open these soils for the first time with the plough, they released much of their organic matter as carbon into the atmosphere. Subsequent grain-farming practices of tillage and synthetic inputs have continued to wear away their organic matter making them less able to absorb rainfall, retain nutrients and support microbes (for example, bacteria and fungi), mesofauna (for example, mites and beetles) and macrofauna (for example, shrews and voles). These belowground critters play key roles not only in ecosystem functions such as soil aggregation, nutrient availability and carbon accrual, but also provide much of the energy consumed by larger mammals and birds.

Restoring these important elements of ecosystem structure and function would be best served by restoring the original prairie flora, which certainly can be grazed and hayed profitably. But agricultural grasslands comprised of naturalised grassland species imported from Europe and Asia have come to dominate North America and, especially in formerly disturbed and fertilised soils, are competitively superior when being grazed by livestock. Fortunately, these perennial grasslands include dense, fibrous rooting systems that can support key ecosystem functions such as soil, carbon, water and nutrient retention, so they provide an imperfect, but more than adequate, proxy for the original prairie.

For Grassland 2.0 to transform our agriculture and food system, a literal and figurative grassroots movement must be ignited and spread from local, place-based centres. Because this is about place. It is about the unique landscape and community of a place, and about empowering the people of that place to transform their livelihoods. Grassland 2.0 envisions local learning hubs where farmers, agency personnel, scientists, processors, distributors, retailers and citizens-at-large come together to re-imagine a landscape where innovative food enterprises and diverse, grassland-based agriculture become dominant. Wisconsin, for all its profound challenges, has a long history of such local movements. Local grazing networks bring together small groups of like-minded livestock farmers to participate in ‘pasture walks’ on their own farms. In the words of one grass farmer, his peers ‘serve as constructive critics, extra sets of observing eyes, fellow commiserators, question-raisers – and, most importantly, these people are genuinely interested and dedicated to making grazing work even better on everyone’s farms.’

Well-managed, properly grazed grasslands are healthier for animals and more profitable to farmers than operations in which livestock are confined and fed intensively. They also result in milk and meat qualities that are increasingly sought-after, including unique and more variable flavours and possibly healthier products. Take, for example, Pleasant Ridge Reserve cheese, arguably one of the most famous cheese brands in the US, which won ‘Best of Show’ at the American Cheese Society Convention in 2001 as a first-time entry from Mike Gingrich and Dan Patenaude, grazing farmers and self-taught cheesemakers from Dodgeville in Wisconsin.

‘When cheese factories became the norm and most cows were kept in confinement and fed machine-harvested feeds, the knowledge of the relationship of pasture quality to cheese flavour was lost,’ says Gingrich. ‘Cows’ natural … selectivity yields milk with flavour properties that, when expressed in finished cheeses, has exceptional flavour complexity and intensity.’ Gingrich and Patenaude have since transferred the business and farm to Andy Hatch and Scott Mericka, the next generation. Other projects include multiple farms and involve development of values-based supply chains where consumers are willing to pay more for products because they share the values embedded in the raising of the livestock and the processing and distribution of products. The Wisconsin Meadows brand of grass-fed beef is produced by a cooperative of beef graziers and processed by Lorentz Meats, a boutique meat-processor that caters to local and organic meat producers.

To make Grassland 2.0 spread, however, we must create policy tools that will go beyond the boutique and encourage more farmers to make this change, while simultaneously enabling the ordinary person to afford these healthier foods. It is wrong to attack these sustainable practices as ‘uneconomic’ when we consider the ways in which government props up current extractive farming practices. The elephant in the room is the US Farm Bill and its programmes that direct more than 90 per cent of taxpayer support for farmers toward annual crop-production and confinement-livestock systems, and the food industry they support. But state and local incentives can have an impact. The state’s ‘Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin’ grant programme helped to support the establishment of the Wisconsin Grassfed Beef Coop, which encourages local and regional collaboration to build supply chains that feed local food into hospitals, schools and other institutions. Other innovative practices, such as Wisconsin’s Farmers’ Market FoodShare programme, allow folks to use their federal food subsidy dollars at the farmers’ market. In the UK, now free of EU policies and re-thinking its system, reports indicate that farmers will be paid not only for their products, but also for their stewardship of the environment.

Despite these innovative programmes, the idea that efficiently producing more and more is the solution to our deteriorating food system continues to dominate mainstream agricultural practice and policy in the US. Repeatedly, the proposed solution to low prices for agricultural products is to promote policies that will stimulate export markets and consumer demand, which signals to farmers that mining their land resources by extracting as much as possible and sending it to the rest of the world is sustainable. It is hard for people to let go of these productivist ideals, especially when the negative externalities of an enterprise are not built into the costs of production. This paradigm is reified by those vested in maintaining the current broken agricultural system – suppliers of seed, fertiliser, pesticides, equipment and debt. Their arguments against transformative change will be based on discredited tropes about ‘attacking family farmers’, ‘feeding the world’ and ‘efficiencies of modernisation’, while fear-mongering about the scourge of socialism and governmental overreach.

But farmers are stewards, not miners.

Farming is not just another sector of our free-market economy, and continually increasing productivity is not an effective paradigm for a sustainable system to feed humanity and safeguard our planet. Instead of watching farm numbers plummet, surpluses grow, communities hollow out, the environment haemorrhage and billions of dollars in governmental subsidies go to support a broken system, we must provide farmers with the resources to do something different. We must encourage more farmers such as Zeke, who take care of the land – indeed, who take care of us.

To support farmers such as Zeke, and to encourage more to join him, we must combine creative and courageous policymaking, financing and leadership to catalyse an active citizenry that demands change. Policies must reject and discourage the ideal of maximising production, which drives farmers to squeeze every ounce of yield possible from their land and livestock. We should eliminate crop-specific subsidies and insurance in favour of incentives for perennial grassland, healthy products and healthy practices. We must also manage the supply of agricultural products to match demand. Moreover, the short-term focus of the financial sector is misaligned with the need to build long-term social and natural capital. Lenders must aggressively develop loan programmes that provide opportunities for young and diverse farmers and reward healthy practices and outcomes. And we must plan for opportunities and education for those who will be displaced by Grassland 2.0, which includes the salespeople, consultants and retailers that supply the current failing system. This will not be easy.

Glimmers of hope are evident in grass-based grazing farms. We’ve seen many farmers such as Zeke save their farms and their futures by turning to grassland, but it’s not happening at a high enough rate to save family farming. Old ways die hard and external pressures make change a risky proposition for many. We must reduce the risks of this proposition with stories and data and models that light the path. We must soften the blow of a transformed agricultural economy with training and opportunities in grassland management, supply-chain development, and landscape design. We have the knowledge and the tools we need to fix agriculture. We can imagine and point to examples of an agriculture that fosters healthy people, communities and ecosystems. What’s been lacking is courageous leadership at all levels of government to create, support and fund programmes that catalyse transformative change to perennial grassland agriculture. We call this transformation, and the agriculture itself, Grassland 2.0 – a system where farmers are rewarded for taking care of the land, which is to say, taking care of us. Can we muster the social and political will to make it real – to make it spread? We must.