Traditionally, almost every farm utilized “mixed” production, meaning the farmer managed crops and animals alike. A lack of animals on a farm was (and in many places still is) an indication of poverty. Today, the tractor has supplanted this traditional status symbol.
An “integrated crop-livestock system” is a form of mixed production that utilizes crops and livestock in a way that they can complement one another through space and time. The backbone of an integrated system is the herd of ruminants (animals like sheep, goats or cattle), which graze a pasture to build up the soil. Eventually, sufficient soil organic matter builds up to the point where crops can be supported.
Years after a pasture is converted to crops, yields eventually decrease and the plot is reseeded with grasses and legumes and the cycle begins anew. The system was widely used by the Romans and much of Europe during the Middle ages, where the landscape surrounding every settlement was dominated by pasture which would convert back and forth between crop and livestock production.
Picture it: a landscape dominated by lush green pastures, with a significant minority of the land covered by grain and vegetable crops. Our modern day system is a bizarre mirror image of that system. Most of the landscape is covered in continuous corn or wheat production, with a much smaller percentage covered by concentrated animal feeding operations. The principal results of this flip are that meat is “cheap,” our streams polluted, and there is a hypoxic zone the size of Indiana in the Gulf of Mexico.
Some might argue that the old system could not feed the world. Our current system is so efficient, they say! I would argue that most of the efficiencies provided by our current system are economic, and were most important during the era of rapid growth in which the Baby Boomer generation came of age. Advances in our transportation system enabled us to centralize agriculture and ship its products all over the country. The entire system is based on the availability of cheap fuel, which is no longer a guarantee.
Also, the supposed efficiency of our system has enormous costs. By cutting out the need for land to graze cattle, we are forced to feed cattle antibiotics simply so they can eat so much corn instead. The large-scale environmental and health damage caused by our system is by no measure “efficient.”
Reintegrated systems do exist on some farms in the central plains. They provide multiple cash streams and build a more resilient ecosystem, better able to withstand environmental and economic pressures. Integrated systems can function within current distribution models, although less centralized animal production would mean we might have to hire a few cattle hands (job creation!).
In closing, I’d like to excerpt from an earlier blog post quoting Wendell Berry: “The genius of American farm experts … is to take a solution and divide it neatly into two problems.” Few farmers and citizens have ever heard about “integrated crop-livestock systems” and even fewer have a clue as to why it is important.
Some related topics that I hope to discuss later on (perhaps after I finish my thesis!):
- History: Integrated Systems in New England vs. extractive agribusiness in the South.
- Mobile slaughterhouses: Innovative solutions to market barriers faced by smallholder livestock operations.
In the meantime, here’s a couple short blog posts about other innovative ideas in agriculture:
- Composting human wastes: Lessons from Athens, Georgia
- Innovative markets: building up demand through marketing cooperatives
Stay tuned! Follow me on twitter!