“Everybody’s talking at me, I can’t hear a word they’re saying, maybe the echoes of my mind.” Harry Nilsson.
There’s been a lot of talk lately about water and dairy farming. There is no question that water, good clean water for just about everything, is becoming scarce worldwide, especially for agriculture.
So lets stop a minute and think about it. Did we really believe that we could continue to pull water out of the aquifers 10 to 15 times faster than it can be replaced, without reaching the point we are at now?
Did we really, seriously think before we moved a large part of our milk production from grasslands, to arid areas?
Did anyone say, well, the capital investment in pivot irrigation is less short term, so what if it geometrically increases the loss of water from the aquifers through evaporation? What are we doing spraying water in places that have less than 15 percent humidity, are we crazy, arrogant or both? Hindsight is 100 percent, and no matter how you skin the banana, we were shortsighted.
Is the rest of the US ready for the water wars that take place like clockwork in California? And talk of marketing, how will the people of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona think of us when and if water rationing begins in earnest? Will they rush out and buy the products of the people who helped usher in their liquid demise?
You can laugh if you want, but remember, it was in these pages, in 2007, in my column, that Gathering Storm, that I foretold the decline of GM.
For years the US has used the industrial model of agriculture, and it has made a handful of millions. It helped fuel an explosion in population growth, while at the same time, regrettably, tearing through and destroying what was once the most fertile soil one could imagine, America’s Heartland.
When the whites arrived in the great plains, after millennia of “where the buffaloes roam” the topsoil was over 100 inches deep. By the time of the dustbowl, it was down to 12, and since then, the heavy machinery used to till it has compacted it until large tracts of the soil are no longer as productive. In fact, I am told, we have had to increase the horsepower of our tractors because the soil is so compacted.
But rarely discussed is its effect on water. Compacted soil and diminishing humus, is the precursor to desertification.
Have a look at northern Mexico. The state of Chihuahua, for instance, was a fertile grassland until the settlers came and cut down all the trees, and trampled the soil with their livestock. The climate was changed, and it is now an arid high plains desert.
Are we headed in this direction in Texas, and the neighboring states? Is there some connection between the loss of humidity in the soil, and diminishing rainfall, on the big time scale, the one where a century is a blink of an eye?
The Sahara they say was fertile until it was overfarmed. Who knows. One thing for sure, on a water planet, it sure seems silly to find ourselves with “water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink” or grow feed.
So what can we do about it? Let’s take our heads out of the sand and look around us. We could have the finest, most productive pastureland in the world. As mentioned, we used to, you know, before the arrival of homo europeus… when the buffalo roamed.
If you look at Wisconsin, for instance, it continues to thrive as a dairy state, in part because its farmers can grow their own feed, keeping their cost of business down. And within the state there are a good number of farmers returning to a pasture based system, so many UW has spent time and money studying them.
For years the US agricultural academic community turned their nose up at New Zealand and their almost socialistic way of thinking group production per acre as opposed to individualistic production per animal. We laughed at their antiquated system of pasture feeding, and said there was no way we could do the same. Even doubted if they were telling the truth as they became the largest milk exporters in the world. (In case you didn’t notice, China can’t produce all the food it needs and it has billions of people, the smart money says we should be looking eastward.) Surely only a crazed Kiwi would allow cows to drop from 100 pounds a day with hormones, to 40 to 60 pounds on grass.
But then, the Kiwis are here, in our heartland, with grass-based farms and their crazy system, and like Southwest Airlines against the big boys, are making land office profit, with a lower cost of production than any of their neighbors.
But even then, business as usual continues. “You have to buy too much land to do pasture compared to corn/soy/silage and concrete confinement farms.” But ag land appreciates in value, while capital expenditures depreciate, and the capital expenditure savings in a pasture mode can offset a great deal of the cost of purchasing land, if not all.
Historically, producers have been given the short end of the stick, and have little control over their destiny, ruled by middlemen: in fact, in agriculture, the closer you get to the source, the more difficult the economics, and the solution: get bigger? Works until the water runs out: the fallacy of short term thinking.
So let’s rephrase this: how can we be having a water shortage when the planet is a water planet? There is no shortage, there is just the wrong things in the wrong places, and that gives us hope. By looking at less extravagant, more harmonious ways to husband our land to produce animals and milk, and return health to the soil. Its ability to hold moisture will increase, and in the places where dairy farming makes sense, a way to put back in what we take out will be found, at least as fast as we take it out.
That implies carbon from the soil as well as water from the aquifers. It never ceases to amaze that dairymen around the US say compost is a losing business. To sell, yes, but why in the heck do you sell it, put it back on your own land and cut your fertilizing expenses. How blind can we be?
If we can dry up the grasslands by cutting down the trees, can we wet ‘em up again by replanting? If we can suck the carbon out of the soil and replace it with oil, we can put the carbon back, and find better uses for oil, like plastic for heart valves?
Can we figure out how to improve the way we use water, through better geographical planning, less wasteful methods of irrigation, diversification of plantings, replanting trees, and bringing back the best of pre-1960’s agriculture and combining it with the best of today? I, for one, believe we can, but only when, like an addict hitting bottom, we realize just how far off base we have become. We are too easily swayed by short term thinking. As I warned in that column four years ago:
“Is the US cheese and dairy industry too much of a sleeping giant of complacency, habit and fear to tap into the opportunities hidden within this gathering storm.”
If the crazy Kiwis realize our country is the best location in the world for pasture based dairy farming, why can’t we?
Dan Strongin is managing partner and owner of Edible Solutions,
a consulting company focused on helping companies making great food
make a profit. He will be writing a monthly column in Cheese Reporter.
Strongin can be reached via phone at (510) 224-0493, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can visit and blog with Dan at www.managenaturally.com.
Strongin Articles written for Cheese Reporter
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