Is a prairie dog smarter than an industrial farmer?
Industrial agriculture likes to pretend it's all about domination and control. Its true motive force, though, is hubris. In farming, as in all things, the most powerful innovation engine is nature, not industry.
REAL GENIUS: Why yes, this little prairie dog can outwit the best minds at Bayer CropScience. (Photo: PhotoMatt28/Flickr)
Forgive me, but I’m going to start with a couple of very Canadian references here, and in stereotypical Canadian fashion, I'm going to be overly polite about it. Sorry. Ahem.
Okay. So this spring – as every spring – Canadians watched the Stanley Cup playoffs by the millions. And this spring – as every spring – Canadian advertisers paid top dollar to air their best new ads. (From an advertiser’s point of view, CBC-TV’s flagship "Hockey Night in Canada" broadcast of the NHL playoffs is basically a Super Bowl drawn out nightly over two months.)
In case it isn’t clear, this is an ad for Bayer CropScience’s Velocity M3, an industrial herbicide used in wheat production. It was odd to find it in such heavy rotation, because although farmers might well watch hockey in disproportionate numbers, there are only about 300,000 Canadians employed in agriculture today, and some much smaller sliver till wheat. The target market for this stuff could barely fill out a Cup winner’s victory parade route.
Anyway, what’s most striking about the ad is how perfectly it distils the sort of core philosophy behind modern industrial agriculture (and, really, our default contemporary attitude toward nature in general). That blustery, almost adolescent assertion at the end in particular: “This is my wheat field. MY wheat field.” Ownership, control, mastery, domination. Growing food is a war, and it requires advanced weaponry. So do your best, untamed nature – Bayer CropScience and its tough-guy customers will kick your butt.
We are truly awesome only in our hubris, of course. Pests learn all too quickly how to dodge our pathetic weapons, and bacteria and viruses routinely scoff at the best efforts of billions of dollars in pharmaceutical and agribusiness R&D. Nature’s an innovation engine powered by a relentless driving force Apple and Google can only dream of.
The impotent wrath of that MY wheat field! line popped back into my head as I was reading Wil S. Hylton’s excellent piece in the July issue of Harper’s on the “looming collapse of agriculture on the Great Plains” (alas, because Harper’s remains semi-officially opposed to the Internet, I can only link to an excerpt).
The story discusses depleted aquifers, mounting debt and encroaching wind turbines, but the most telling scene occurs when Hylton is taken to meet an iconoclastic 74-year-old Kansas rancher named Larry Haverfield, a devotee of the “holistic management” approach to agriculture pioneered by Allan Savory and “the scourge of every neighbor for fifty miles because he refused to exterminate prairie dogs,” instead letting them roam free over 6,000 of his 10,000 acres, “which to most farmers is like giving 60 percent of your kitchen to rats.”
Here’s Hylton on how Haverfield dealt with burrowing prairie dogs:
Centuries ago, dog towns on the plains were kept in check by a host of predators, including hawks, eagles and ferrets. But the systemic extermination of dog towns had gradually wiped out the predators as well. For most of his life, Haverfield said, “I’d never seen an eagle here, and I didn’t know what a ferruginous hawk was.”
Now these predators were back. “About three weeks ago, we saw forty ferruginous in two hours,” he said. “Yesterday, I saw a golden eagle on a highline pole.” To Haverfield, this made the talk of a “prairie-dog problem” shortsighted at best. The problem had never really been the dogs. It was the lack of predators, and the two canceled each other out.
By letting prairie dogs back onto his land, Haverfield had solved his prairie dog problem the old-fashioned way – nature had taken its marvelously efficient course. He also rotated his cattle through his field in conscious imitation of the way buffalo graze on the open prairie, which I’d seen myself firsthand when I was reporting a similar story on Canadian farms in crisis.
As with Haverfield, my featured post-industrial farmer, a dairy farmer named Jan Slomp in central Alberta, had taken a conventional farm, abandoned all petrochemical products on his pasture, and been deemed a kook by his neighbors. Within a few years, the fields had begun to reseed themselves with a mix of native vegetation. His cows were healthier, and he’d done away with an arsenal of expensive inputs. His revenues were lower than his neighbors, but his costs were way down as well. He made more with less; when it was time to expand, Slomp bought neighboring pasture outright and operated free of long-term debt.
In agriculture, as in all things, we do much better when we recognize how little we know, how tenuous our control really is. The nearest we’ve come to real mastery after 10,000 years of civilization is biomimicry, which is a child’s stick-figure model of the natural order. But at least it begins from the proper premise: that our tools are simple and crude and grossly inefficient compared to the planet’s own. It’s not ever our wheat field. We just do our best, for a short time, to borrow its bounty.
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