How the Other Half Farms

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 small section of a much larger feedlot that extends for miles in all directions.

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.”

Things over at the dairies are less crowded than the beef feedlots, but the scale is still immense and far from pastoral.

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.

Parting Meal

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.

16 thoughts on “How the Other Half Farms”

  1. 5 stars
    Wonderful blog! There’s so much I love about your farm and how you really are aware of, and work with, the natural relationships, the whole picture – the whole Earth community. And on the plate? There is no comparison. Whether it’s beef, pork (your pork is the best I have ever eaten!), chicken, turkey – and I just had your lamb which was amazing! It’s easy to get that flavorful sear, and when it’s on YOUR meat – it is delightful!

  2. I also find that average, conventionally grown beef has more of a mushy texture and less flavor. It’s disturbing how industrialized farming is damaging already fragile land in Arizona. Greg Judy has an experiment going in the Southwest ( maybe New Mexico?) to see how regenerative ag would look/work in a dry climate. You are a gifted writer!

    1. I agree that cattle can be instrumental in environmental renewals even in very fragile ecosystems. A while back I wrote about mine reclamation work in Mexico where cattle were used to trample grass seed into the ground and to add some fertility to the worn-out soils and about the way that cattle restored biodiversity in California wetlands.
      There’s so much that is possible when people have the creativity to work with cattle (and other animals) in ways that harness their particular strengths and abilities.

  3. Great article this week, Dave! Just this morning I was reading about an explosion and fire on one of those huge farms in Texas that killed 18,000 cows. What a bloody disaster!
    Closer to home, I’ve always thought the Eldon Tweed dairy farm here in Charlton was way too big, and they only (only!!) milk 1500 cows.

    1. Thanks for sharing that story. I hadn’t heard about it. Disasters like that really highlight the way that these concentrated farming operations also concentrate the risk of catastrophic failures.

  4. Hi Dave…never cease to be amazed at how passionate and articulate you are and at the same time a working class farmer who chooses to remain close to his land and everyday endure the manual labor of it…not an elitest for sure. I am so profoundly changed by your farm practices and like you albeit on a smaller scale do what I can do everyday walk the talk and truly take care of the environment!

  5. Jayson Scarborough

    I raise both grass fed and grain fed. There is obviously a huge difference in flavor and texture. It is ultimately a consumer preference at the end of the day. It’s sort of like black licorice. There is people that love it and people that wouldn’t come 10 yards of it. As ranchers and farmers it’s our job to produce what consumers want, not tell consumers what they want.

    1. Hi Jayson,
      I agree that there are differences in consumer preferences for beef, licorice, and everything else. But I’m not convinced that farmers and ranchers can’t also be tastemakers, telling our story in order to explain why we have something extraordinary that consumers need to know about.

      If we’re just sending products into the anonymity of the commodity market, then I suppose all we can do is to produce what the commodity market wants.

      If we’re selling our products directly to consumers, I think that some outreach and education is important, even obligatory. I know that there are pitfalls in this, like being too righteous or too narrow-minded in our proclamations, and I’m sure I can’t possibly write these blog posts every week without transgressing those bounds from time to time. But I do think we have a platform as farmers to talk about real issues, and to explain to consumers why particular choices might be superior to others. We should be tastemakers; we know our products inside and out, and we can help people understand why we think they are so special.

      But even though I’m a grass-fed enthusiast, if we were to meet, I’d gladly sit down at your table to eat whatever grain fed beef you’d be willing to share with me, and I’d love to hear and see what you do in your operation.

      Thanks for writing, Dave

  6. I really enjoy reading your well-written blogs, and I often share them. It also gives me confidence knowing that the person running the farm is smart. Keep up the good work.

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