Joel Huesby in Washington's Walla Walla Valley is among a handful of well-meaning, idealistic farmers throughout the U.S. who eschew conventional cattle farming practices.
The pastures of Huesby's Thundering Hooves ranch function without fertilizers. “Vegetarian” cattle and poultry roam freely on hundreds of acres. The cattle, fed on grasses and hay, remain free of antibiotics and hormones.
What does he have to show for it? Like most alternative cattle farmers, very little in terms of profit — which explains why there are so few Joel Huesbys in the business.
Huesby was profiled by MSNBC.com in an early March series of stories on alternative agriculture called “How We Eat: Who's Behind The Food?” Of the operation's profitability, writer John Bonne' reported: “Their farm provides food and shelter, but the Huesbys' income in 2002 put them below the state poverty level.”
Is there a lesson here? I think so.
Since the only U.S. case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy was detected in December, conventional cattle farming has been treated a lot like the weather: Everyone complains about it, but nobody does anything.
One of the most persistent complainers is New York Times editorial observer Verlyn Klikenborg, who even accuses conventional cattle farming of “agri-forming” the earth, much as science-fiction movies portray the terra-forming of alien worlds through human colonization.
Rainforests, she says, aren't the only resources that suffer as more land is cleared for cattle production. As industrial agriculture is exported to Earth's far-flung corners, “every island of genetic difference in farm animals and crops and every traditional relationship between humans and the soil are threatened,” she writes.
Even democracy is imperiled, she argues, because of so-called “factory farming's” effect on agricultural downsizing and rural depopulation.
What the world needs now, she contends, are far fewer such farms and far more operations built on the grass-fed philosophy of Thundering Hooves.
It's a passionate, well-stated argument for sure, but practical? Hardly.
Try as they might, governors of depopulated farming states have had very little luck attracting city slickers back to rural areas. Truth is, most urban dwellers are happy where they are and don't find the low pay and long, unpredictable hours associated with farming very appealing.
This alone speaks volumes about American farming, a profession that, despite recent bad press, has created one of the most efficient distribution systems in human history. In the U.S., a mere 2% of the population feeds the other 98%, with enough left over to sustain much of the rest of the world.
True, there are alternatives to conventional practices but only because of what conventional farming has provided. Were it not for wealthy consumers willing to pay higher prices, there would be no alternative farming in the first place.
And the reason there are so many wealthy people is because efficient, high-yield farming methods made it possible decades ago for millions of Americans to leave the farm and pursue more lucrative opportunities in the big city.
Besides, for the millions of Americans living at or near the poverty level, paying 20-30% more for an organically grown product simply isn't an option.
Another reason why so few U.S. farmers are practicing alternative cattle farming methods is land. Supporting a national herd of grass-fed cattle requires lots of land — far more than that required by conventional farms. Thanks to unrelenting urban sprawl, farmland is fast becoming a scarce resource.
There's also the perennial challenge of fickle, petulant Mother Nature. What's a producer to do with all his grass-fed livestock when Mother Nature refuses to cooperate, such as during prolonged drought?
Finally, there's the consumer. Grass-fed beef may offer plenty of nutritional attributes, but as food processors have learned time and again, convenience often trumps nutritional value. Grass-fed beef requires careful cooking. Otherwise, you end up with a plate of dry, chewy meat. Are consumers, even those with advanced cooking skills, willing to tolerate this extra inconvenience?
The answer is undoubtedly, no. And, that's one of many reasons why idealistic, well-meaning farmers are likely to be rare exceptions for a long time.
Lisa Kriese-Anderson, PhD, is an Alabama Cooperative Extension System animal scientist and Auburn University associate professor of animal science.