Thursday, August 27, 2009

What to Keep and What to Change: More Searching for Solutions

a shot of the lake at dawn. There is often mist on August mornings

How do we begin to transform prairie agriculture to foster a healthy relationship between grassland ecosystems and the human economies that depend on them?

Deciding what to keep and what to change as you try to improve any human structure or system is never easy. On the old farm we share with two other families, the keep or change question comes up every time we try to fix something in the cookhouse, plant a tree, or salvage posts from a fence no longer useful.

Last weekend I was prying some weathered pine boards off the old corral to use them in a wood shed I am making to store firewood for our cabin. It was a good corral, probably held cattle for fifty winters or more, and I found myself wondering if it was a mistake to be taking it apart. We don’t keep cattle and work with a neighbour to graze our pasture, but, you never know, some day I might want to have a way to corral animals. Still, I wanted to finish my woodshed so I kept tearing the pine slabs off. Alternately swearing and marvelling at the small nails that seemed to grip the boards better than their larger counterparts, I started to think about the other man who nailed it together a long time ago to shelter his cattle, feeding them with hay from our east fields.

When he wanted to sell his cattle, did they go to a feedlot for several months of fattening before being slaughtered and processed at a meat packer? The facilities might have been smaller and nearer to home back then, and perhaps the cattle received no hormones and fewer antibiotics, but they were likely finished on a diet of grain the way most market cattle are today. Fifty years ago, this model was relatively new but today it is in full control of the grazing economy that to a great degree determines how we treat grassland ecosystems.

When you go to a supermarket for ground beef or buy a burger at a fast food joint, your purchasing power connects you to a massive processing and marketing system that is run by a handful of corporations for the benefit of shareholders. On the other side of that meat industry mountain there are the men and women trying to make a living raising cattle on the pastures that host the remaining populations of North America’s grassland birds. Most of these people are on the land because they love it; they do their best to make a decent income without compromising the natural ecosystems and species at risk on their holdings. But the multi-national corporations that ultimately bring products from their animals to market do not share those interests. They do all they can to make sure that they price they pay to cattlemen is as low as possible, without considering the consequences on farm families, farm communities, and the natural ecosystems they depend upon.

A year after we bought our farm we found out that the previous owners had been forced to sell because of debt that became unserviceable in the face of the BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalitis)crisis driving cattle prices even lower than usual. As sad and disconcerting as it was to learn that we had in a sense gained from their misfortune, I know too that in a larger sense the system that produced the BSE crisis and then used it as another way to keep beef prices low has had us all—producers and consumers alike—snared in its net for a long time.

a flight of cormorants heading to the lake

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