The biggest question in my life is how to make a living as a farmer. It’s tough enough in New Zealand, even without the United States’ government-supported, artificially-depressed food prices, which make it difficult to stay in business growing anything but corn and soy (and damn hard to stay afloat growing that, come to think of it). Given the shortness of the season it’s no surprise that Alaskan farmers can’t survive without a second career, but even in climactically blessed regions being a farmer has begun to mean coming home from a nine-to-five to plough until midnight. Of course the average age of those who grow every morsel we eat is quickly overshooting the average age of retirement: no sane, self-respecting young person would willingly plan a personal future that included desperate debt and work hours that rival indentured servitude.
Which must mean that I know some very crazy young people, because believe it or not, some of us actually do want to create a life around the growing of food. Many of these potential farmers have reached this conclusion after being long-term travelers, learning to enjoy the grub(s) people eat in far corners of the world. Some have been passionate activists, and now see farming as a meaningful way to practice the ideas we’ve been preaching. We’ve all seen our country’s infinitely valuable soil bleeding away into the rivers with every new bottle of high-fructose corn syrup that reaches the shelves, and we’re interested in doing a better job than that. The would-be farmers I know are excessively energetic, expressively enthusiastic, and educated in at least some of the relevant sciences, having learned both in the classroom and in the field. Unfortunately, every single one of us is just about flat broke.
If it’s nearly impossible just to stay in business farming, how can young farmers afford to get onto the land? Or, if you can’t bring yourself to care about that, think about this: who is going to be ready to feed the rest of you in ten years if we can’t?
I’m pondering these questions in a cozy caravan located in the carpark of Fiona and Jeffery Graham’s fantastic self-built straw bale house, while a cold southerly blows outside. Pukeatua Peak Goat Dairy is not far from the little town of Te Awamutu in the center of the North Island, and they are the sort of farm that is planning to be feeding people for decades to come. As a nice bonus, they also appear to be making a living at it. This is a living that involves daily 5 a.m. milkings, weekend farmers’ markets, and a month of pure craziness while their 400 milkers give birth to twins and triplets, inconveniently congruent with the short ski season in this wet temperate climate. Still, there is money enough for new cars and good wine, and no second jobs for this family.
Nor is there any ecological ideal, however. The Grahams consider themselves alternative farmers, and I would certainly agree; they are spray-free and focused on growing healthy soils, managing for increased organic matter and using organic inputs. They’re also very concerned with the welfare of their goats, but this is actually part of the reason they’re not organic, owing to the difficulty of combating viral pneumonia without resorting to antibiotics. The problem is a serious one; another local goat dairy had been certified organic for years, but recently gave it up, mostly because of high death rates resulting from the lung disease.
About ten percent of the herd also get penicillin at some point during the year for high somatic cell counts, which indicate an infection of the udder called mastitis. In case you’re worried about drinking antibiotics, rest assured that any medicated doe voids her milk into a separate bucket so as not to contaminate the supply chain. This rule is as assiduously followed in New Zealand as it is in the States.
Along with milk to the dairy goat cooperative and tangy camembert to the folks at several markets, Pukeatua Peak sells ton after ton of certified organic compost, made from the bedding that lines the barn where the goats spend about 20 hours per day. Goats that are confined get more protection from the unpredictable weather, allowing them to maintain their weight (and thus their milk production) more easily on less feed. Still, like all ruminants they must eat almost constantly, or they will not be able to extract enough nutrients from a diet composed mostly of chlorophyll and cellulose. The Grahams cut and carry feed from their pastures, which requires big petrol-guzzling machinery, and they also buy in grain pellets grown out of somebody else’s soil. The milkers get extra fat from a special supplement that is essentially shredded coconut, shipped in from tropical climes.
Pukeatua Peak represents one end of the spectrum for alternative farming. They are just big enough to thrive, without crossing the line into factory-style production. They are moving toward ever more environmentally-friendly practices, while retaining the viability of their business. They are marketing a high-quality value-added product directly to their customers, enjoying both the widening profit margin and the growing relationships. Still, they have at least one thing in common with the besieged and indebted: they don’t drink their own milk.
Not to mention they also do all of the hard work, especially if they’re in dairy. Something is seriously wrong with this picture.
In order to see exactly how bizarre things have gotten, we need to step back about ten thousand years, to the beginning of the partnership between humanity and the noble goat. Imagine you are part of a small family group living in the hills of what is now the Middle East, around the end of the last ice age. You are quite happy to wander your forested habitat, munching fruit from the trees and tubers from the earth, and of course shooting the occasional succulent wild goat. Everything is sweet as, except that the rain has been falling a little bit less lately. The trees are gradually retreating, and both the valley grassland and the alpine scrub are expanding. Being a practically-minded person, you find yourself thinking gee, what a nice pretty lawn I’m getting, but what the heck am I going to eat?
Now, humans are fantastically omnivorous as organisms go, eating everything from alfalfa sprouts and Brazil nuts to roasted ants and blue whales. The nutrients in grasses, however, are completely inaccessible to us, which is a shame because a significant portion of the Earth is covered in them. Luckily for our hunting and gathering ancestors, a symbiosis between ruminants and the microflora that live in their gut acts to turn all that inedible biomass into delicious meat and milk. The goats provide a safe cozy environment, and the bacteria attack the glucose molecules in every little cellulose chain, breaking the beta-1,4 linkage that flummoxes our own digestive systems. We capitalized on that relationship when we formed our own symbiosis, and for thousands of years we’ve been letting the goats do all the work of cutting, chewing and converting the grass, while we’ve sat back and swallowed the returns.
Over the last several thousand years, we’ve figured out how to raise those returns by putting in more energy of our own. First, humans followed the herds as they migrated, killing mostly the weaker males and letting the females breed. Then we exerted a little more influence over the goat’s genetics, began to fend off other predators, and shepherded our charges to control what they ate. Eventually we were building fences, grubbing thistles, and milking every morning. This is a lot of work, but still much less expensive (both energetically and monetarily) than forking up the hay twice a day and ordering out for coconut condiments.
At Waihi Bush Farm in Geraldine on the South Island, I got to see how the other half lives while goat-sitting for what is possibly the most minimally-managed modern herd in New Zealand. The does had been allowed to feed their own kids, which would be ridiculous in a commercial setting. The fence, though present, was completely un-goat-proof, so the small herd ranged up and down the creek, and were sometimes far out of ear-shot when I called them up to milk. Their feet went unclipped, because they wore down their hooves climbing on stumps and rocks, and they had no sign of the contagious foot-rot that afflicts the Pukeatua head. The only feed supplement the Waihi goats ate was a waste product from the farm’s flax-oil press, given solely to keep the girls occupied while I milked. No barn, no $40,000 milk shed, no strict 5 a.m. wake-up.
Granted, I only got about three quarters of a liter of milk per day from two does, which is low production even for the end of the season. All I had to do to get that, however, was show up and squeeze it out of them. The whole system chugged along all by itself, grass harvesting energy from the sun and nutrients from the soil, goats harvesting both from the grass, and me harvesting the milk to go on my breakfast cereal and into my tea. To drink it was to swallow the concentrated effort of a thousand separate life-forms, all sharing the same space, all working together to create a network of energy that sustained us all. Together we formed an ecosystem, not so different from that first pretty lawn on which humans learned to be goatherds.
How different such an ecosystem is from the input-based farm; how different the self-perpetuating loop from the one-way river, sucking energy and nutrients from far-off places only to hemorrhage energy, nutrients and soil to other far-off places. It all makes good sense (for a given value of good), because in order for money to come in something must be continually going out, and the more that goes out the better. The trouble is that this is simply not the way natural ecosystems work; only the sun comes in, only heat goes out, and life is lived in the precisely-engineered and gradually-descending energetic steps in between. No wonder farms grow up into factories, when it is so much more difficult to make a living out of a loop.
So how do we get the goats off the antibiotics, out of the barn and back on to the grass, while still having enough to eat ourselves? Pukeatua Peak is trying very hard, and making some progress, if slowly. How do we design our businesses more like loops than rivers, so that we end up with ecosystems rather than factories? I’m still thinking about it, as are many other smart young potential farmers. What I have figured out, though, is that there is a profound difference between making a living and creating a life.