The American Way of agriculture — and an alternative

I went to eastern Oregon last weekend to tour a version of the American Way of Agriculture with a couple dozen Portland citizens. I was impressed – and at a loss how to convey what I had seen about the way conventional food arrives on our tables. I got clear about what I’d seen when I attended a lecture four days later on the idea of returning half the planet to a modified nature, much less affected by our footprint.

The day trip to Morrow County, 180 miles east and banking the Columbia, was organized by a pair of state senators whose intention was to break bread among city and country folk. Republican Bill Hansell, whose district of 124,000 people is bigger than Maryland, invited Democrat Michael Debrow, chair of the Environment and Natural Resources Committee, to bring constituents from Portland to see how the other half lives.

Morrow County is a breadbasket of Oregon. Generations of farmers have grown potatoes, onions, carrots, wheat, corn, fodder – whatever produces maximum value. Our tour included briefings by the local port authority, water association and several farmers.

I got my first tour of a CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation), recently acquired by Cody Easterday (above right), a fourth-generation Washington rancher and farmer who is obtaining permits for 28,000 cattle on 5300 acres. Easterday bought the farm in bankruptcy, after the prior owner began operating without permits and narrowly avoided an ecological disaster before he was shut down. By March, he intends his investment – north of $80 million – to have 8,000 lactating cows and the other 20,000 in feed lots. The rest of the land, Cody told us, will be devoted to raising fodder and spreading the waste generated by the cattle. A compelling speaker, Easterday envisions a self-contained operation amid the rolling hills several miles from the Columbia, with water provided by the local authority.

To his east, Jake Madison (on the left) bought his dad’s 17,500 farm, more than half of which is under cultivation. It is at the far end of an 15-mile pipe that within months will take waste water from potato processing plants in the Port of Morrow to his farm. Like Cody, Jake is a sophisticated operator, looking for margins to match his lands’ production. After picking our fill of organic sweet corn, across a dirt strip from conventional corn, he showed us the office computer system, which tracks the hundred-thousand-dollar irrigation pivots that create big green crop circles so mesmerizing at 35,000 feet. Faults in the system can be repaired on iPhones.

As impressive as these technologies are, especially when matched to the new Tillamook cheese factory and some of the world’s largest French fry plants, something about the system disturbed me. Short films at the SAGE Center (Sustainable Agriculture and Energy) in Boardman posited the food needs of the planet’s 9 billion people by mid-century. The Northeast Oregon Water Association, a non-profit with a board mostly of farmers, is working on water management, balancing rights to depleted aquifers and the Columbia, which is stressed by dams, diminishing snowfalls and increasing population. Based on what I read of conditions around the world, I question whether intensive agriculture is sustainable.

Days later I listened to Isabella Tree describe the conversion of her award-winning, 3500-acre farm to something of a nature preserve over the past 18 years. Her husband, Charles Burrell, inherited Knepp Castle, a 200-year-old manor in the south of England that during the Second World War was planted hedgerow to hedgerow to feed a country on the verge of starvation. Burrell had a highly productive operation – much like Jake Madison’s. And he was going deeper in debt the more intensively managed it became. So in 2001, Burrell sold all the equipment and, as Tree described, took a leap of faith.

Following a model developed in the Oostvaardersplassen nature reserve in the Netherlands, Burrell brought back back big herbivores: Exmoor ponies, longhorn cattle, Tamworth pigs. Together the different animals with different needs broke up the soil, spurring a proliferation of flora and fauna that monoculture and chemicals had driven away. Tree explained the method: Stand back and watch. Two decades later, their experiment in “rewilding” has restored the land, water and air and produced three income streams: ecotourism, pastured meat from culled herds, and rent from former farm buildings, now leased to office workers who used to commute two hours to London.

In a slide show accompanying her talk at Powell’s Books, Tree described the return of sounds to an awakening earth, where birds and insects had been driven nearly to extinction. In Wilding, she writes: “The sound of a single butterfly is imperceptible. But tens of thousands have a breath of their own, like the backdraft of a waterfall or an accumulating weather front. It feels as though the oscillating susurration of their wingbeats, pounding away on their supernatural wavelength, might dissolve the world into atoms.”

Tree, a travel writer, contends that restoring the earth we have despoiled is crucial to surviving global warming. To the belief that we must develop ever more intensive agricultural processes, she contends that we already have enough food to feed 11 billion people, but 40 percent of it goes to waste.

I look at the science and our practices – the latest report that the oceans’ ability to absorb our carbon output is reaching its limit – and get depressed. Tree looks at the same thing and gets busy. She’s now writing a manual on how to rewild.

The farmers I met in Oregon have a faith – that science and better practices will save us. But unless we shift our frame of reference, and understand that our survival depends on more that productivity, we will drive ourselves to extinction. The rewilding movement, with outcrops around the world, points to another way.

 

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