Building Community At America's Table

Meal Four: A Rural Perspective, For Some Perspective

– written by Grant

Living in a big city sometimes makes your opinions on agriculture suspect. What do you know about farming?

Enter Darryl Coates, keeper of bees, skinner of rabbits and wildlife biologist for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

Meal Four with Darryl was in Gibson City, Illinois – pop. 3300 ish. To underscore that we were city folk in the country, as we walked in to meet Darryl at the Country Kettle, Ellen joked to me: “Bet you’re the only man with a purse here.” (Yes, I carry a small shoulder bag!)

Which is all to say, Darryl brings a rural viewpoint to the conversation.

And he brings the perspective of someone who’s spent over 17 years working to manage Illinois wildlife and tree populations. He has a field scientist’s perspective on natural systems and applies that thinking to his analysis of agriculture. As he puts it, his science is “adaptive management”.

He notes that wild animal populations live outside, they have exposure to a varied diet of their choosing and they are exposed to the elements and illness. Barring unregulated hunting pressure, this creates a resilient system and healthy animals. Of course farming and agriculture is an artificial system man creates, but in Darryl’s mind, we would be better served learning from and more closely imitating nature’s systems.

It’s interesting that as we learned from Kris Travis at Spence Farm, everyone has their own definition of sustainable. For Darryl, it includes:

  • Control amount of waste.
  • Use waste in positive manner.
  • The herd is not kept all together (and sick animals are separated).
  • You don’t need hormones and inoculations.

When these get out of balance, in nature or on farms, you have population corrections of animals, plants or soil through disease, pollution and starvation.

Speaking of balance, one of nature’s pillars of success that Darryl fears we are most ignoring, is diversity.

Large scale agriculture often purports to offer us “choice”, but Darryl doesn’t see it. We grow one corn type in this country: “yellow dent #2”. How is that choice? How is that diversity? To the naturalist’s mind, this is life on a knife edge because we are only fostering one crop, one species. If blight or drought or a yellow-dent-#2-loving pest hits that crop, we may be sorry to have all our eggs in one basket.

And Darryl recalled the steak taste-test we did together at Spence Farm chef camp (see Meal Two posts for more on Spence Farm). We grilled six steaks, some pastured, some grain-fed, some grain finished and also from a variety of species, Angus, Holstein and more, including an anonymous commodity steak from the grocery store. Did they taste different? Oh YES! Does agriculture foster that sort of choice? No, it raises one beef cattle, feeds it the same across the country and it tastes the same everywhere. Is that consumer choice? Is that an environmentally safe move from the perspective of a wildlife biologist who values diversity? No.

I read a terrific essay recently by Seth Teter that compared monoculture farming to monoculture thinking. He essentially challenges us to be broad thinkers and avoid the dogma that is monoculture ideology. If you are a proponent of biological diversity, he says, you should also be a proponent of thought diversity. I fully agree. I think Darryl brings us some diversity thinking. He acknowledges that agriculture, all agriculture, is a better steward of the land than it’s ever been. But he fears the monoculture planting, the monoculture thinking that ag is chasing now too. In economics terms, you could see on his face and read in his tone that he fears a “correction”.

When the correction hits, will we see it as nature’s response to our widespread use of single crops and single species?

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6 responses

  1. Darryl sounds like my soulmate! My biggest concern with the “standard” approach to agriculture is the loss of diversity and the lack of respect for natural processes. If you’ve noticed a pattern in my comments, this is it. It seems that we humans can “win” against natural forces for only a short period of time, and then — surprise! — we get thrown a curveball. This is my issue with GMOs, with extreme dependence on pesticides and petroleum-based fertilizers, and with monoculture. We have to leave room for variation in our agricultural approaches.

    The article you link to is a good read, Grant. I think that’s the spirit of this effort for 100 Meals, correct? Thank you for bringing us along with you as you talk to people outside our normal realm of experience.

    August 15, 2012 at 10:34 am

  2. Is it still a monoculture when a farm is planted into one crop one year and another crop the next year as the farmer follows a rotation plan?

    August 16, 2012 at 10:14 am

    • Susie, I think it is, but think about it this way perhaps. We have only one environment and we all need to share and care for it. You can look at this environment from a macro or micro level. Break it down to one county in the middle of Illinois, for example. Suppose (and I am admittedly ball parking here) that county is 75% farmland. The lion’s share is corn and soy – I totally understand why: it’s profitable.

      If all those farmers are on an annual rotation basis like you describe, the BEST you could hope for at any given time is that 37% of the county is corn and 37% is beans. (and adjacent counties are the same) For the sake of the environment – bees, toads, streams, air, soil – is that enough diversity? Are two crops in that county diversity enough? What do you think?

      Lest you think I only beat up on corn and soy, please watch Queen of the Sun and you’ll understand why I’m not fond of almond farming either.

      I think I’m leading toward the idea that perhaps we need something like “ag zoning” so as to take a big picture view of how, what and where we plant. You can say that is too much oversight, too much regulation, too much government, but take the drought as an example. Is industry and profit-motive going to reverse our impact on climate? Hasn’t yet.

      Darryl suggests diversity. Even more types of corn and soy would be a step in that direction.

      August 16, 2012 at 12:39 pm

      • To bring a new crop into an area involves more than just seed in the ground. There has to be an enitre infrastructure to handle that crop. Here, cotton gins and cotton warehouses are all within reach of the cotton fields. Building a new cotton gin somewhere for an area to diversify would cost millions. Building an infrastructure for us to handle a new crop say, soybeans, would be millions and millions. To farm those other crops take new equipment. The same planter that plants cotton may not be usable for another new crop. My planter may plant milo as well as cotton, but now you need a harvester, because a cotton harvester won’t harvest milo. Many crops can’t be planted behind certain crops. In some areas, you can only plant canola on a farm one year then something else has to be planted.

        I am simply looking at it from my seat, having grown up around large agriculture operations. Someone on a very small operation that grows things that are for example hand harvested may have the ability to diversify easier since no additional costly equipment would be needed. It’s always hard for me to see much in the way of diversification since other things don’t grow out here. Even my beloved cotton is not doing much again this year.

        You asked if two crops in a county is enough diversification. I couldn’t even pretend to know the answer. We plant four crops, cotton 65%, wheat 20%, milo 10% and a tiny bit of corn 5%. Is that enough?

        August 16, 2012 at 2:48 pm

  3. Alan

    Monocultures of the Great Plains of the United States, the Sahara desert in Africa, and rain forests all over the world appear to have been sufficient for thousands of years. Is it monocultures we decry or only man managed ones?

    February 17, 2013 at 5:15 pm

    • Thanks Alan, it is an interesting question you pose. If I could rephrase it a little, “Does nature abhor a monoculture?”

      I’m not certain of the answer to that, but given my conversation with Darryl whose job and training is to understand nature’s systems, our monocropping is a far cry from emulating nature’s systems.

      Regarding the makeup of the Great Plains, I confess I’d have to do some research first before commenting. I do picture a lot of grass, but imagine there must be other growth mixed in and a large variety of animals and insects living there. Regarding the Sahara, well, yes, it is stable, but it is also a desert. And as for rain forests, I believe they are extremely biodiverse environments. I don’t see how 10 acres of rainforest compares at all to 10 acres of fence row to fence row of corn.

      February 17, 2013 at 6:00 pm

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