The more things change, the more they stay the same. Before ww2, the basic fundamentals of farming were little changed for thousands of years. Everything has changed now, and it is becoming more and more obvious that most of the change is not an improvement. Your grandmother knew a lot more than the scientists (or was it politicians supporting big companies?) who drove all that change.
A couple of years ago, we discovered ‘cover crops’. Some of the younger guys were really excited about this new idea, which is to enrich your soil by growing and plowing down a crop of red clover, while it is still in bloom. Red clover puts nitrogen into the soil, and adding all that green biomass encourages the kind of bacteria which will make your soil less acid. Great new idea. Except I remember 60 years ago, my dad would say ‘if you have a field which is not producing, and you don’t have enough composted animal manure to put on it, plow down a crop of red clover”. Great new idea.
Then someone came up with another great new idea. Instead of building great big climate-controlled hog barns, with elaborate liquid-manure handling systems polluting the entire countryside, just build a great big pile of straw, put a fence around it, and grow your hogs in there. The hogs will make tunnels and beds in the straw, eat a surprising amount of it, breath healthy outdoor air and still have a comfortable temperature; the manure will mix with the straw. In a year or two do it again on a new spot, and the old pile will have been composted for use on the farm fields. Healthy pigs, low cost, improved soil, and no pollution. Great new idea. 60 and more years ago, grain was harvested by use of a threshing machine, which sat in the yard, separated out the grain and blew the straw into a pile. A great big pile in the barnyard was the norm, and of course our hogs loved it. Great new idea.
What brings this to mind is an article this month about yet another great ‘new’ idea. Dairy farms are multimillion dollar operations, with big herds of cows to milk, and conventional wisdom is that the milk is too valuable to allow the calf to help himself. Instead, most dairy calves are killed as newborns, and those females the farmer wants to raise as replacement cows (cows get old and die like everything else) are separated from the cow, and fed a special ration called ‘milk replacer’, through a rubber nipple for the first while. Recently an American farmer ciphered out that milk has gone down so much in price (in the US, not Canada, it’s a long story), and milk replacer has gone up so much, that it could actually be as cheap to let the calf have some milk. This would avoid fiddling around with those nipples and milk replacer, and save a lot of time. So he tried it. After some time, he realized that the new cows he was raising that way were definitely superior to cows raised on milk replacer! Maybe nature’s milk is better than technologies milk replacer! So his great new idea was, let the calf have real milk in its early life (it’s even got a name, ‘the Madre Method’). Of course there was no such thing as ‘milk replacer’ in earlier days, and we all shared the cow’s milk with her calf. New?
These are tiny steps back toward sanity, back toward the way your grandmother knew things needed to be done, back toward millennia of hard-won experience. The local food, healthy food, natural food movement is the most hopeful sign that we as a society are learning that our modern industrial agriculture is a dead end, and needs to change. And small farm area’s like our Wabigoon valley will be big beneficiaries, we can compete handily in traditional, natural agriculture. We have been in a long-term decline because our fields are too small and we are too remote to compete in the modern industrial model, maybe that is about to change.