My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I fear that Ms. Anderson’s book will be lost and essentially unread. Yes, it was only published in January 2019, but as of this writing, I found only one other review on Goodreads and three non-review ratings; the same review is cross-posted on Amazon (and it is the only rating there); even NetGalley has only one other review; and a handful of blog posts. More’s the pity because there is an important, even vital message here. Ms. Anderson looked at “conventional” agriculture, holistic regenerative agriculture, organic regenerative, and lastly (in the book) diversified regenerative agriculture, arranging the four investigations into those four parts. She grew up on a conventional ranch in South Dakota, disagrees now with her father on pretty much everything agricultural (still “pals” but they don’t talk about it), knows that “most conventional farmers and ranchers are good people trapped in a bad system”, admits in her first journalist job out of college for a Sioux Falls, South Dakota farm-and-ranch newspaper that she was “twenty-one and naive, …, born and bred to believe American agriculture was sacred.” That’s an all-too-common tragedy…thinking that American anything is sacred…but she went on a quest to find out if her family’s ranch – and all American agriculture by extension – had a place in a better agriculture future.
In Conventional, Ms. Anderson looks at how we got where we are; the struggles of the small farmers/ranchers; the industrialization, gigantism, and specialization of the business; the effects of chemicals and the methods on the products and land; the devastating effects of conventional agriculture on soils and the environment; the unfortunate need for subsidies for the business to survive. It was all about “conquering” the land, a common theme for Euro-westerners. Conventional farming actually loses jobs…as farming and ranching become more industrialized, more chemical, more automated and remote, fewer eyes and hands are needed. And despite what some vocal minorities would have you believe, the lion’s share of the workers who do remain for the non-mechanical harvesting and handling are not corn-fed farmers but largely Hispanic because according to Ryan Roth, a Florida farmer, “All of these jobs Americans don’t want to do.” Further hurting the entire system is the fact that conventional farmers cannot set their own prices for produce and livestock. Still, there are “good people” trapped in that system who are trying to be better stewards.
In Holistic Regenerative, Anderson looks at methods of management that are operational and holistic because they take into account the whole ecosystem – “soil, plants, insects, grazers, wildlife, people” – in order to stop and hopefully reverse desertification. She also examines the standard delivery process of CAFO – concentrated animal feeding operations – confining animals for a period of time, jamming grains to “fatten” them up before slaughter. If “grass fed” has taught anything, it’s that the grain-fed crap we get in the meat market sections is horrible (my words, more or less…but she covers it all…and don’t be fooled into thinking “organic” is not CAFO’d). The part on holistic regenerative gives hope, but there are still too many big business, capitalistic drivers opposing intelligent farming/ranching and conventional farming. Worse, too many industrial lobbyists have helped thirteen states as of the publication to adopt food disparagement laws that make criticizing food products illegal – and if that is not a huge WTF? I don’t know what is. So a step in the right direction is to consider the whole and not the parts, or the end.
Organic Regenerative takes the holistic lessons to the next level, but it is not without problems, and consumers should be wary…Phil Jerde, of Great Plains Buffalo says that the organic rules were watered down significantly; organic rules have significant loopholes: parasiticides are allowed in breeding stock if preventative measures fail. Ms. Anderson correctly notes the abuse of the environment is a consequence of the Judeo-Christian “dominion narrative”. “Human authority over the natural world sanctioned by God – a license for destruction.” It’s a common Western thought. Organic is more than using natural means to control insect and herbivorous pests – it generally gives the farmer/rancher a small measure of control over the market, sometimes selling directly to consumers and setting their own prices, while providing a fresher and tastier product. Even though organic has gained traction, people know that organic foods taste better and are more nutritious, there is still the underlying social acceptance of “conventional” agriculture. The problem there is that “conventional sounds right, but in reality, it isn’t…it is a recent (150+ years) perversion of true conventional agriculture that allowed for natural sustainability of the environment. Rodale Institute has conducted a continuing study since 1981 on conventional versus organic to look at agribusiness claims that industrialization was the only way to produce enough food for the future. The side-by-side evaluation has shown and continues to show that organic consistently has comparable or higher yields than conventional, so that argument fails. The advantage of Rodale’s study is its long-term nature…single studies are snapshots. Rodale’s 2011 summary states
After thirty years of a rigorous side-by-side comparison, the Rodale Institute confidently concludes organic methods are improving the quality of our food, improving the health of our soils and water, and improving our nation’s rural areas. Organic agriculture is creating more jobs, providing a livable income for farmers, and restoring America’s confidence in our farming community and food system.
Ms. Anderson’s last part considers a Diversified Regenerative that disrupts the system for what practitioners believe is a necessary and positive effect. Changing products raised and delivered is not what a …conventional … consumer wants; it’s not convenient, and people are not usually open to new things. But it has tremendous effects on regenerating soils. It’s not rotating crops, which just continues to eat the soils, just more slowly. Increased natural soil ventilation by earthworms is possible by eliminating pesticides and synthetic nitrogen sources. Laying down ground cover crops for wildlife to eat, naturally till with hooves, fertilize (natural nitrogen), actually helps food crops to yield more thanks to increased organic matter levels.
I’ve done a poor job shotgunning my notes and summaries. There is real value in this as I said in the beginning, I fear it will be largely unseen. Even those who are aware feel it is too late. The “midsize farms are too big to retail products at most farmers’ markets, but too small to compete in the highly consolidated commodity markets.” The well-chosen title is important to come back to: one size certainly does not fit all, and the chosen one size of “conventional truly fits none.