I was in Arizona for a few days this week, and I’m sure it surprises no one that my sightseeing was more focused on agriculture than on landscapes. Wherever I travel, my head is always on a swivel, looking to see what’s growing, as I attempt to pick up on all the details of how farming and ranching work in different places. I normally am on the hunt for other farms like mine, but for this trip I wanted to give my kids a closer look at industrial farming. They have grown up with our farm as their main frame of reference, so other than what they may have picked up from their internet browsing or what they might have seen in documentaries, their exposure to the wider world of ag is quite limited.
This week we visited beef feedlot complexes with capacities over 150,000 cattle and several dairy farms that each milk 10,000 to 15,000 cows. The experience simultaneously both impressed and depressed. The scale alone is overwhelming. The alleys stretch to the vanishing point, with each pen sorted by class of calves, steers, developing heifers, dry and wet cows, row on row. Heavy silage trucks drive in and out, dropping loads of chopped alfalfa into bunks. Irrigation supervisors park their pickup trucks along ditches, opening water valves so big I could pass through the pipes. Tractors with boom sprayers cruise the fields misting herbicide across the forage crops. Manure haulers step their way up through the gear ranges as they coax their brim-full trailers to highway speeds. And everywhere, for mile after mile, we pass fields tilled and textured to powder, watching as the wind swirls the topsoil away in gritty dust clouds.
A Different System
The inevitable impression from agriculture at this scale is that it depends entirely on the ability to exert control over everything. It departs from the old concepts of husbandry and craft, instead favoring an absolutist approach to productivity. Humans only touch the soil when they are dismounting from a tractor or crawling under a piece of machinery to adjust it. The distances to be traveled and the acreage to be covered shift the job description toward “equipment operator.” Each of the farms were bustling with people, but all of them were ensconced in the cab of a motorized vehicle.
Exploitative. That’s the word that comes to mind when I give my impression of the relationship toward the land on these industrial farms. Tractors plow and laser-level each field, removing the natural topography, flora, and fauna, substituting a Cartesian grid, convenient for ponderous vehicles and efficient for irrigation, effacing what used to be. All the unique places are homogenized and standardized, graded and backfilled, arriving at a planar uniformity of dust. Beleaguered by cultivators and chemicals, deprived of the stability of living roots and unprotected by the shade of plants, the soil loses its aggregation and then its microbiological communities die. No longer a living organism, the crusty topsoil can only exist as an inert planting medium, kept staggering along in some approximation of fertility by the dubious graces of synthetic nitrogen and glyphosate.
Instead of the cattle integrating into the landscape, feedlots focus on the animals as products and the rest of the farm becomes the factory for those products. Machines till, plant, fertilize, and spray crops in the field. Machines harvest the feed, blend it with other ingredients, and actually pre-chew it into optimally-digestible shreds. Machines carry the feed into the feedlot and spread it along the bunk line for the meals. Machines scrape up and haul out the manure. The cattle stand in place while machines cruise every which way in their service. Forget the distinction between grass-fed and grain-fed, we could just as easily call these cattle “diesel-fed.”
I cannot say with certainty that I know how all agriculture in Arizona should function. There’s a huge population in the desert, and all those people need to eat somehow. My knowledge of farming has grown within a very different biome, one with its own set of goods and bads, so I’m not qualified to prescribe something for the Southwest. But I think I have the right to come away from this experience more sure that pasture-based, perennial-based, integrational farming is the only place where I would want to spend my life. There’s nothing like experiencing the contentment of a herd of cattle moved into a fresh paddock, or enjoying turkeys losing their (admittedly small) minds chasing a grasshopper through the pasture. Being with the animals in a context that is appropriate for their biological needs and managing their movement across the land to fit within the seasonal flux of the farm, that is a delight. Standing here, right on the cusp of a new grazing season, we’ve been reminded of why we do what we do, and why we love what we do.
On our last night together, we gathered around a table at a nice steakhouse. We sampled a wide variety of beef cuts, an indulgence far beyond anything we’ve done before. After spending time with feedlot cattle, it was time to eat feedlot beef. Unaccustomed as we were to eating out, everyone loved the presentation and atmosphere, the attention of the waiters, and the delightful contrasting textures of the seared outer edges and the rare centers. But as hedonically pleasing as it all was, we remarked among ourselves that the beef itself didn’t really taste like much. All the taste was on the surface, in the sizzle and seasonings, but the meat tasted only mildly beefy and the fat was bland. By the end of the evening, I was imagining a scenario in which I could bring those same cuts from my cattle to the chef, allowing us to sample back and forth. I suppose that’s one of the liabilities in eating truly grass-finished beef; it spoils us for all the rest of the feedlot beef that’s out there.