As a farmer and a writer, I often use this column as a way to work out something I’ve got stuck in my craw. Today that’s the burden of beef.
I recently listened to one of my favorite radio programs, Living on Earth. There was a segment where the host, Steve Kerwood, interviewed one of my favorite young writer/activists, Anna Lappé. Anna and Steve had a very interesting and informative conversation about the environmental impacts of a system that puts steak and burgers atop the American diet.
Their discussion was a good one, and most HOMEGROWN readers could follow along closely. If you’re like me, you understand that we live in a world where resources are constrained. You’re deeply concerned about building ecologically resilient communities and about unequal access to clean water and decent places to live. You’re probably in favor of ethical, humane treatment of livestock and wildlife. You probably believe that giant industrial feedlots are disgusting and problematic on many levels.
I share these concerns and feel strongly about the need to transform the food system. I think Americans eat too much meat and that conventional beef production is a disaster.
But still, here on this farm, beef cattle is the main economic engine that keeps the farm up and running — well, that and my father’s good union job at a power plant. We raise cattle, and so do so many other farmers in our region, because cows are profitable most of the time, they’re relatively easy to keep, and there is an entire infrastructure that supports our production. We can find vets to help us when we encounter illness. We have markets for our calves. We can find hay (we grow our own but can locate more if necessary) and grain to supplement feeding, as needed. We can find people to come out and haul the cattle if we can't do it ourselves.
Beef cows are born on mostly smallish farms. They spend half of their lives here. Yes, they end up in feedlots and in the messy industrial behemoth of the Western Plains. But they are born here, right across the fence from where I'm writing these words.
These beef herds pay the mortgages for the farms all around me. They also share the land with us human animals, as well as with a variety of wildlife. Cattle production is compatible here with the many species I see every day: songbirds, hawks, herons, squirrels, rabbits, deer, woodchuck, mice, wild turkey, raccoons, snakes, coyotes, frogs, and countless varieties of insects. Cows do use resources, but they also leave plenty of room for the other creatures I like to see around the place. (I might be in the minority when I say this, but I’d also welcome bears, elk, wolves, mountain lions, and other species that were native before Europeans arrived in North America. Yes, even the predators.)
At the end of the day, when we consider biodiversity in a working landscape, we have to take into account the reality of economics. Cows pay the bills.
I’m not trying to shill for the beef industry. I don’t think raising cattle is the answer to most questions. I feel strongly that people should eat more veggies and less meat (and less sugar). I make no presumption that the current beef feedlot system is anything other than an enormous mess that taxes human health and the environment, especially when it comes to the problem of greenhouse gasses and a disrupted climate.
But it seems to me that, strictly in terms of a sellable agricultural product, beef is one thing we can raise on a part-time, beginning-farmer basis that doesn’t rapidly and wildly damage the ecology. We already live in a region transformed by human impact. That’s the canvas we have to work with.
This is not so much an argument with Living on Earth or Anna Lappé. Anna might even agree with me that, done right, beef production can be part of a multifunctional landscape populated by diversified family farms. We just have a lot of work to do if we want beef production to improve and to minimize harm.
But if the decision is between corn and soybean monoculture or a herd of herbivores in the pasture just over the fence, I’ll take the beef cow any time. How about you?
Now let's get to work on a system where those aren’t the only options.
Bryce Oates is a farmer, father, writer, and conservationist in West Missouri. He lives and works on his family’s multi-generational farm, tending cattle, sheep, goats, and organic vegetables. His goals in life are simple: to wake up before the sun, catch a couple of fish, turn the compost pile, dig potatoes, and sit by the fire in the evening, watching the fireflies mimic the stars.
Photos by CAFNR/FLICKR CREATIVE COMMONS