As the problems of industrial meat production — CAFOs, excessive waste and pollution, worker safety, and the overuse of antibiotics, among many others — become more evident and more dangerous to public health, consumers are turning in greater numbers to local and/or organic meats and poultry, especially those from grass-fed animals.
Small-scale farmers have begun to respond to this shift in consumption, making more grass-fed meats available to the public. But many others remain to be convinced of the profitability of pasture-based farming (though economic conditions may convert more farmers sooner rather than later). According to Gene Logsdon, author of "All Flesh Is Grass: The Pleasures and Promises of Pasture Farming," even small landowners with an acre or two of lawn can raise animals for their families' food consumption in a way that won't bankrupt them but will contribute to their stewardship of the land.
For nearly four decades, Logsdon has written numerous books on agricultural topics, from how-to manuals on gardening and grain-raising and orchard management to collections of essays exploring his "Contrary Farmer" ideas. Throughout this time, he has implemented his "experimental" ideas on his own modest farm in northwest Ohio, and he has gathered enough proof to stand behind his seemingly bold statements about better agricultural methods.
Yet Logsdon tempers his audacity with a willingness to reveal his own fallibility. With a twinkle in his eye, he uses humor to reveal both his own ideas and the conflicting absurdities of agriculture today.
A grazing place, how sweet the ground
Logsdon's general premise appears on page one in a simple, stunning statement: "With modern grazing methods, farm animals can get their food mostly from grazing forages, thus avoiding the current crippling expense of annual cultivation and grain harvest." The meat of the book, if you like, comes from his deft unpacking of that sentence. What are "modern" grazing methods? What animals? What forages? And what does that humble hurdle "mostly" mean for the pasture farmer?
Lest the reader be discouraged by that loaded statement, though, Logsdon reassures us all that "Anyone who knows how to establish and maintain a lawn has already learned the basics of how to establish and maintain a pasture." Those practices include selecting the appropriate plants for the climate and topography, fertilizing, and utilizing the "crops" through haymaking and rotational grazing. They also require that the farmer work with nature and adapt practices accordingly, choosing what grasses and forages work best with which animals or with which fields.
"Grass farming is brain farming," he declares, explaining that such farming practices require more big-picture thinking and less brute mechanical force to make the work successful. Because of this, he claims that pasture farming is "easier and simpler on very small acreages with very small numbers of animals" and thus suits the small-scale or "garden" farmer very well.
Everything you herd is true
After outlining the basics of pasture farming and sharing the examples of some farmers who are already finding success (including veteran Ohio farmer and founder of the restaurant chain that bears his name, Bob Evans), Logsdon distills his practical experience on every aspect of animal husbandry. What kind of fencing works best for which animals? How does one best provide water to pastured animals? What are the feed and maintenance requirements for different animals raised on grass and forages? What potential health problems arise for which animals on which kinds of pasture, and how can they be avoided or remedied?
He offers an honest assessment of pasture farming and the reaction to it, fully aware that while many farmers can accept grazing their animals at certain times of year, they still hold fast to the desire to rely on grain crops for winter feed. He suggests raising or buying less grain and using more pasture as a way to ease farmers and their herds toward more pasture farming, but he also points out that money and effort can also be saved by allowing the animals to graze the grains in the fields. Better yet, he adds (note that knowing twinkle in the eye), send the herds into the fields in rotation — sheep, then pigs, then cows, then draft horses or dry cows — to clean up the crops with less waste than would result from mechanical harvesting.
Since Logsdon raises a variety of livestock on his farm, he knows that these different herds pair up well in the use and maintenance of the pastures, too. Chickens sent into a pasture after cattle can peck apart cow pies to eat the grubs and eggs of parasites, thus breaking a cycle of infection for the cattle. Goats can clean up pesky greenery like multiflora rose, while sheep will munch away happily on poison ivy. And pigs, while unable to thrive solely on grasses as easily as other livestock, will root around for worms or tubers — not only cleaning up the garden, but plowing it for the next year.
Understanding these differences between species — and even accounting for "different personalities" within a herd or flock — reminds the farmer of the point that Logsdon "is most criticized for in agribusiness circles," which is that the "biological world, not the economic world, rules the way we produce food." Small-scale farming, when considered in competition with factory farms, does not appear profitable, but his point is that it makes more sense in broader economic and ecological terms. He skewers the altruistic expressions of food conglomerates by declaring, "America can't feed the world; only the world can feed the world... We backyarders could do it as well as agribusiness can."
To each according to his feed
Beyond outlining the advantages and disadvantages of each category of farm animal, Logsdon presents information on the different types of grasses, legumes, and grains used to feed livestock and poultry and offers suggestions for the optimal combinations based on geography, soil fertility, grazing needs, and maintenance. For example, he prefers a balance of bluegrass and white clover largely because of his success with it on his own farm but also, says the Contrary Farmer, because "seed companies can't make any money from them" since they are ever-present in nature.
Though he believes that pasture farming can work year-round, he also plants a variety of grain crops himself, including his "cover-your-ass crop" of corn, "just in case I'm wrong." Depending on the rapidity of growth in pastures and the pattern of rotation, hay may need to be cut and stored, either in haystacks in the fields or in bales tucked into the barn. And weeds? Even those have a place in his pastures, whether wanted or not, because the animals will eat various weeds (just as loony humans like myself do on occasion) for additional nutritional needs. "The first most nutritious weed, get this, is lambsquarters," he marvels. "Read it and weep."
Living in the pasture
With all these factors to consider, the novice pasture farmer might be daunted. But as Logsdon repeats throughout the book, there's always room to learn more, to experiment, to improve from year to year. "Pasture farming is luck first, then an art, and then a science," he says, recognizing that simple truth in the results on his own farm.
He makes a convincing argument for the advantages of pasture farming: less need for heavy investment in machinery or additional feed, less dependence on seed companies or off-farm grain storage, less use of fuel, and less cost. He also points out the positive effect of maintaining a more holistic approach to farming and the security found in raising animals from birth to harvest all in one place (unlike factory farming, which may ship larger animals from facility to facility before they end up in the abattoir).
Not to sound overly dramatic, but I have a vision of an agriculture that could produce good food and plenty of it from biological power alone. I am not going to reach that goal in my lifetime, but having it as a possibility inspires me to find ways to use less and less fuel and heavy machinery.
Since this attitude meshes neatly with my approach to my own most attempts at gardening, I felt privileged to meet Gene Logsdon — along with his wife Carol, his equally knowledgeable and gracious partner in farming — at the Buckeye Book Fair earlier this month. Over the past few years, Logsdon has become one of my major literary farming heroes (occupying that heady firmament with the likes of Wendell Berry) as I have devoured his essays and, more recently, his how-to books with avid interest. The first few pages of this book alone convinced me to make my way to the book fair for an autographed copy, and after a few moments of mild gushing on my part, I enjoyed a brief but satisfying conversation with both Gene and Carol about the "pleasures and promises" of farming mentioned in the book.
Will we see an immediate conversion to pasture farming throughout the country? Sadly, no, not when subsidies and market demands still favor the corporate hold on industrial meat production. But small-scale farmers, homesteaders, and hungry diners alike can take heart and learn a great deal from Logsdon's book.