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A look at unattainable bovine body image in the age of social media, the difference between muck and filth, and having a refined clientele that would rather not see or smell you.
Pasture-based farming isn’t all green grass and pretty pictures.
Did you know that a life lived outside is sometimes miserable? Today it is somehow 30 degrees and raining… I am not clear on the physics at play here. The air is below freezing but the precipitation is unfrozen, just close to it. The drops of rain are viscous, they don’t run down the tree limbs and fence posts so much as cling to them. Water pools on the muddy, unfrozen earth, eventually forming a skin of slick ice. These weather conditions would be uncomfortable and gross even out in the pristine winter prairie, but on days like this I must spend some considerable time in our barnyards and loafing sheds, where sleet, mud, mulch and excreta combine to form muck.
I don’t mean to give the wrong impression here, but I’m prone to it, may as well continue. Muck is not filth. Filth is a result of human neglect. Keeping a filthy barn, coop, stall or sty is neglectful. Filth can be compensated for with applications of carbonaceous bedding and/or some shoveling and forking of manure. I’d define muck as the natural and expected result of livestock trampling and sodden soil within a finite space. Muck happens, filth is your fault. The difference may seem subtle to the uninitiated, but give it time and you’ll know what I mean.
Pasture-based growers in temperate climates must contend with muck now and then. We often refer to mucked over areas as “sacrifice zones”, where we can strategically contain disturbance, so as to allow for rest and renewal of spring pastures. No matter how we term it, muck is one of the many unpleasantries of rearing livestock in places where it rains. And I’d rather it rain than not.
When pasture based farming is showcased in marketing and media, everyone from small-timers like myself to mainstream corporations with products in big box stores are quick to share images of contented cows grazing in verdant fields, goats and sheep frolicking in dense stands of grass, or bright, healthy chickens picking through golf-course grade forage. It is not like that every day, or year round. I instinctively know that the Holstein cow models for Organic Valley are literally having their asses shampooed and being run through filters. They are antiseptic, phony, mythologized. I can understand not portraying muck season when you’re trying to sell milk to an urban/suburban demographic, but just know that if there isn’t muck, it’s either bone cold or it’s fly season. Sometimes you get muck and flies at the same time. It’s awesome. Luckily, livestock cannot consume visual media easily, because these bovine influencers create unattainable standards of beauty.
Am I eager to share images from the farm today? As a person actively attempting to market to an urban/suburban demographic, not really. Bellowing cows in the sleet, their udders streaked with mud, these things are real, acceptable and natural, but they are difficult for the uninitiated to grasp. They don’t exactly shout “regenerative”, which is fine because most people shouting that word these days don’t care to define it anyhow. But that’s another piece for another day.
In whatever stage of capitalist decline we’re in right now, where small farmers are often yolked with the burden of being their own marketers, it’s hard for us to trust that our audience and customer base has the attention span to understand the realities of growing and raising food, in regards to muck as well as many of the other less photogenic aspects of farm life. If you’ve made it this far, you might be different, so I’m going to break it down for you as best as I can.
Livestock can be one of the best tools in the stewardship toolbox for regenerating healthy soils and ecosystems, or they can wreck total havoc, leading to degradation, desertification, or total ecosystem failure. The keys are site-appropriate species and effective management. Specifically, effective management that accounts for more than economic yield. In order to account for stewarding ecosystem goals and providing a humane and full-featured existence for livestock, the farmer must employ observation, logic, and intuition (Intuition being nothing more than observation and logic applied repeatedly over time). The responsible pasture-based farmer ultimately develops a sort of calculus informed by animal behavior, stocking density, botanical knowledge, precipitation and climate trends and often, the experience of failure. We try to estimate the impact of our activities and make decisions about what level of land disturbance is appropriate for our ecosystem goals, hold that in relationship to what our animals need to thrive and live a life that provides for their full range of natural behaviors, and adjust accordingly. When the balance between ecosystem goals and humane animal husbandry do not align, the responsible action is to not raise that animal anymore. Pigs cannot thrive in a dry climate. Cows can compact and tear up wet soils. Chickens are capable of creating significant negative disturbance in sloping or otherwise fragile sites. Goats can quickly denude wooded areas. There may be management hacks related to how quickly we move these animals, or where and when we do, and this is the additional labor factor.
Sadie and piglets cooling down in a waller in the dead of summer.
So this is all to say that during the winter time, when grasses are dormant and the weather is brutal, we bring our livestock off the pastures. We concentrate disturbance. We “sacrifice” a smaller space for the integrity of our larger ecosystem, and on days like today, it more or less looks like shit. And some of it is shit. Eaters say they want to know where their food comes from, and have relationships with their farmers. From my end, I want that too. Transparency and connection are important to me. But there is sometimes a gap in understanding about food and farming that is hard to bridge. There will always be compromise in food systems that can actually feed people. And that compromise isn’t the sort of pretty picture you’d like on the front of your milk carton. Seeing as though we are on the precipice of total ecological peril, I’d prefer that we, as a civilization (don’t tell me you’re feral if you’re reading this), make the judgment call of what is an acceptable compromise in an informed way, unclouded by the emotionally marketed appeals of consumption-oriented media.
I don’t think we’re going to consumer choice our way to a more sustainable agriculture, but if you do, I have a very ethical product line for you to browse.
And so I cannot pretty up the sow currently dragging her teats in the mire for you. What I can do is use the destructive powers of swine to create a solution. Winter, spring, summer, and fall, pigs, when allowed their full range of behaviors, will cause some disturbance to soils. Unchecked, quite a bit of disturbance. They do this work for their own benefit, and with some direction, we can harness their industrious rooting, digging and stomping to meet our environmental, ecological and production goals. A pig has at least two goals in rooting soil: cooling off and finding food like roots, tubers and insect life. Most of the pastured pork that is widely available comes from hogs who have had their noses ringed to discourage this natural behavior, and so a significant source of nutrition and comfort must be imported or artificially induced. Ringing is painful and restricts the pig from doing pig things. I instead prefer to direct pig disturbance to meet other management goals.
There are three separate yards that my pigs are currently working over. At the moment they are mucky, sodden, full of squelching, sticky mud, but unlike the soggy pastures surrounding these areas, they have a rich, fertile aroma and deep black hue. These areas are weekly bedded down with old hay, straw, leaves, wood chips, shavings and/or home produced charcoal. Flocks of chickens descend on the material and scatter it in search of seeds and tidbits, and the hogs eventually use this blanket of carbon to rest upon when the sun comes to dry the muck. When snow, rain and sleet inundate this area, the pigs trample the organic matter deep into the muck, sequestering carbon and providing bountiful stratified soils that can be planted with feed crops in the spring when the hogs are put back out to graze and forage field and wood.
By producing our own charcoal using a crude biochar kiln, we can produce non-labile, recalcitrant carbon that will hold onto soil nutrients that would otherwise dissipate into the atmosphere or run downstream, and we can sequester more carbon for longer (millennia vs. decades) than would otherwise occur had the charcoal feedstock merely been allowed to decompose and release methane during composting. Come late spring, we skim off the hog shit, work the enriched muck with a broad fork, and plant fodder crops like cushaw squash alongside some above ground vegetables and grains for personal use, the space having been perfectly scoured for overwintering pests and weed seeds. It’s a nice and tidy cycle for organically managed field crops, except the USDA won’t let you do it. That’s also something for another time.
Out on pasture, the swine will continue to create disturbance, albeit less severely and depending on weather conditions. Earlier in the growing season we can direct this disturbance to impact less desireable species, and reseed these areas to promote the growth of something more desireable. In repairing neglected prairie that hasn’t received the benefit of fire or grazing, we can direct pigs to eliminate thatch between clumps of native, warm season praire grasses, encouraging more sunlight and seed to reach the soil surface and revitalize these important, deep-rooted plants. We can manage brambles, poison ivy, multiflora rose and honeysuckle in our woodland understory with the one-two punch of pig and goat disturbance. We can loosen soil and break ground for annual or perennial plantings. It doesn’t look good in advertising, but muck, overgrazing, and soil disturbance can all find a place in regenerating healthy soils and ecosystems, when wielded appropriately.
But without being able to smell it, a healthy poultry yard, pig sty, or loafing area can be difficult to distinguish from an inhumane hell-hole barnyard. Behold your muck as I do, like a connoisseur. If you do not feed the muck carbon, it will go foul and sour. If you do not provide livestock with a clean, dry shelter separate from their muck, you are not raising livestock humanely. There’s an expression: happy as a pig in shit. Bit of a misnomer. Happy as a pig in mud, or muck, sure. But a pig is a fastidious beast and no more wants to wallow in its own feces than you do. Chickens and turkeys need dry environs year-round, but enjoy kicking through muck so long as it’s loose. Ducks are perverted in their appreciation of it. Goats, sheep, and other stock from arid regions do not appreciate muck, fail to thrive in it, and can only be suitably over-wintered in a dry, well-drained barn or shelter. Cows don’t mind traipsing in muck now and then but similarly benefit from dry space and cover in inclement weather. And they make a whole lot of cowpies, which require regular pitching this time of year. This is the base level of responsibility in what we provide to our livestock in muck season.
It might be sloppy and mucky outside, but all livestock needs adequately bedded, clean, dry shelter.
Now hygeine, well that’s what you’d call a spectrum. We all have our standards, and they vary. And I’m talking about humans now, but this might hold true for barnyards too. I once had a girlfriend who said, “You’re not going to save the world by being dirty.” I disagree, but I suppose I see her perspective. If we’re trying to convince others to join us en masse in the work of redefining our relationship to the natural and material world (aka saving the planet from rapacious human consumption) then we have to reach the folks who consume the most, affluent Westerners. And they are by and large, a tidy lot. Back when I engaged in the sucker’s game of selling eggs at the farmer’s market, I had a fellow marketer discreetly approach me to inform me that my authentic eau d’farm was noticed. That’s right, I smelled, apparently to all but me. As a person who prefers to blame others for my shortcomings, I took it as a sign that this particular market had too high of standards for its agricultural laborers.
More recently, I took a delivery of high grade charcuterie to a very, uh, hoighty-toighty restaurant for inclusion on their Valentine’s Day menu. I washed and set aside clean, unripped clothes, cleaned under my fingernails as best I could, even showered the night before, and did my best to meet the urban standards for cleanliness. I came close to pulling it off too, but noticed how worn and faded even my best clothes are beneath the glaring flourescence of the gas station bathroom lights. I don’t really look at mirrors that often, and when I do, it is clear even to me that I am an unwashed bumpkin. If maintaining some level of superficial cleanliness is key to promoting and popularizing a more sustainable and harmonious relationship to resources, if we can’t sell our message as the dirty people we are, living in the dirty world that we do, well we might be screwed.
I fear, like many of you certainly do, that the promise of electronic communication, that anyone with a message and the proper device can reach out and share ideas with the potential to make a better world is being flattened by the competition for dwindling attention. And positive attention is frequently only doled out to those who can depict a pleasing, clean, sanitary, perfect picture of life in this increasingly illiterate, image driven medium. That’s why I’m here, again, if you’ve made it this far.
Muck happens. Don’t trust anyone who presents contrary to this. I mean it in the literal sense of my occasionally mucky barnyard, and I mean it as a broader metaphor. If you ain’t stepping in it now and then, you’re a shill. And being fake dirty doesn’t count. Not everyone can tell, but I can. I sometimes wish I was better organized, or that I were tidier. I wish my trail of buckets, tools, and resources had a better semblence of order. I wish nobody ever commented on what I smell like, not that I care. I wish that what I’m looking at out the window right now, my drab, icy, mucky yard strewn with shovels, wheelbarrows, and duck shit were more, uh, aesthetic. And to a certain, finite degree, order, cleanliness, and even aesthetics have their place in this life. But I can’t abide the fantasy of the idyllic farmscape, nor the lack of nuance resulting. Nobody ever stayed clean trying to feed people and save the planet.
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