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Process Over Profits

November 29, 2010

I was enjoying a brisk but nice winter day this Saturday, unrolling temporary electric fence for a new pasture paddock, when I had what alcoholics call a moment of clarity. It hit me in the way that only a revelation can, that we as farmers and agriculturalists, often choose the process over profits. It will take me a bit to get there, but I’ll be back, I promise.
I’ve embarked on a new practice this last couple of years, and this winter in particular. Instead of feeding hay to my cattle for nearly six months out of the year, I’m grazing my main herd on stockpiled forage for as long as I can before breaking into the hay pile. As it stands I’m thinking that I can get into January without feeding a single round bale. That will be quite an achievement in this area, since most ranchers have been feeding hay for near two months, even though the growing season just ended. Now if your unfamiliar with wintering cattle, you may ask, “why wouldn’t you want to feed hay, isn’t that what farmers do?”
Hay ain’t free, hay equipment ain’t cheap, and hay making is a time consuming, repetitive process. Not only will you spend long hours in the summer making hay to feed cattle in the winter, you’ll spend long cold hours doling that hay out to the cattle in question, and you’re no farmer worth his salt unless you do it in an expensive feed that burns expensive fuel.
In comes Management Intensive Grazing (MiG), under which you do your best to restrict the herd’s access to the entire pasture, doling out small but lush paddocks of fresh forage, ideally on a daily basis. By restricting access you build up stockpiles of forage, you let the grass reach it’s full maturity instead of being constantly grazed to the point of submission, not to mention other side effects like being in constant control of the herd, which makes them docile, easy to catch and work, putting them through less stress. Since the cattle are eating fresh forage, and then moving away from their own manure every day, you can cut down on chemical wormers and antibiotics, which are of course expensive (seeing a trend?) and a necessary component of confining animals along with their own waste, no matter if it’s in a pasture or a feedlot.
So anyways, back to the initial point, putting the process over profits. It was another nice day last spring when I was putting a new roof on our old one room schoolhouse (future winery) when my father and I were discussing how he had had a rough winter and was planning on doubling down on his hay production that next season. It was then that I confided that I was planning on making dramatically less hay that same season, with only one cutting reserved for the depths of winter. He was a bit surprised, and when I stated that it would be far cheaper to stockpile then ration forage, his reply surprised me, “Well, yeah!” as if he saying, “Duh!”
That stuck with me, I mean, if you know the right answer all along, why spend your life spending more time and money than necessary? Why scoff at less costly methods, and keep tens of thousands of dollars of expensive and constantly depreciating hay machinery on hand? Well, he’s my dad, and far brighter than I’ll ever be, so I didn’t push the point, just went ahead with the plan.
On to the present, I’ve gotten back into Twitter lately, and have made it a point to follow some of the self appointed spokespeople for my line of work. What I find are two definitive camps, though one side seems to think that they speak for all of agriculture. I have no doubt they’re all nice folk, but how they can hand wring over the low profits and brain drain happening on modern American farms, all while proudly touting the unprofitable practices that have are leading to such, I’ll never know. I mean what good is “feeding the world (!)” when you can barely make enough to feed your family? What sort of mindset willingly bears that burden? I have my thoughts, but I’ll save those for another post.
I’m an admitted smartass and contrarian, so when I see blind support of conventional wisdom, I can’t help but voice an opposing opinion. It is NOT PERSONAL, but I do wonder what keeps ag people so tied to unprofitable systems. Are we so enamored with the process, with the emotional investment in tractors, trucks and inputs that we’ll defend our own impending bankruptcy? Non-conventional ag folk have become all the rage of late, but for all the wrong reasons. One constant exists on every non-conventional, non-commodity farm I’ve visited, they’re making money. Usually hand over fist. Yet we won’t listen to those folk. Joel Salatin makes millions selling food, and wants all farmers to do the same, yet he’s labelled as an enemy by the American Farm Bureau.
Does our loyalty to corporate/industry spokesmen stem from the fact that it can seem that they’re only people who seem to support us, or is it just the free hats they hand out? That chemical rep that just charged me thousands of dollars for wheat herbicide is there to support me, yet I’m the one who writes him a check. Then I’m left with a commodity product that is subject to the same price everyone else gets, but hey I’ve got a hat. Is it just emotional, manifested in the affinity we have for the lifestyle we grew up with, and we see any criticism as condemnation?
Personally I think it is emotion, coupled with the fact that we farmers often willingly wear blinders that keep us aiming at the wrong goals. If all you read are the glossy farm magazines and listen to most of our land grant universities, you’ll never even see other options. That’s the problem, it’s not that farmers are dumb, or necessarily sheep, it’s just that there is such a hurdle to over come just to start listening, to start processing new information sources. It’s so comfortable to keep following that proverbial bucket of oats, right into the corral. Then you’ll easily fall for the line that not raising commodities and raw materials will lead to worldwide starvation, or that people who want to buy products direct from farmers somehow hate farmers. Given that paradigm, being asked to read a book by Michael Pollan for an ag class would seem like an undue burden, when all you really want to do is read another John Deere brochure.

From → Food Policy, Personal

  1. Some very valid points to think about. I have always been interested in intensive grazing management, seeing as it is what my family practiced as a kid, and it is something I got to practice more intensively during my stint in Wyoming.

  2. There are a lot of “grass farmers” here in New York State that use stockpiling. Troy, our resident “grass whisperer”, is our most prominent.
    Hope to hear more of your insights. Love how you share how farming is an intellectual exercise.

  3. It’s tradition!

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