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Is Grass Fed the Worst Thing That Happened To Agriculture?

By   /  May 13, 2019  /  18 Comments

James Matthew Craighead has studied sustainable agriculture for a decade and the result is a lot of questions. Some of these are hard questions and may trigger a little defensiveness in us all. Just remember, he’s sharing them here to open a constructive dialogue that might lead us all to a place where we are better both individually and as a group.

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I bet that headline got your attention.

Question things. It makes people stand up and think about what they are doing and what they stand for, and then defend it (hopefully) rationally. Ask questions that make people wonder if what they are doing is right, and to possibly change their minds. Ask them why they defend their livelihood with such vigor. Ask questions like these:

How do we rationally stand up and say that grass fed agriculture is the best?

Is it the best, or are we fooling ourselves?

The first thing that I would ask you is this: What is better? Better for the environment? Better for the animal? More nutritious for the people that consume it? Can we feed the world with grass fed? Should we be concerned with feeding the world? Does it taste better? Does it make people feel good that they are buying a better product? Will grass fed leave people hungry? Is it better for the farmer? These are just a few of the questions that can, should, and are being asked about the grass fed industry. So how do we answer them?

We can look at studies, but there are studies that prove grass fed is better in some scenarios, and that grass fed is worse in others. How do we approach the results? Are we biased when we look at the research? Are we really looking at it with an open mind, or are we looking for studies that prove our existing way of thinking? Do we just hold on tighter to the theories we already hold? Would we even admit if we were wrong?

How do we decide what to do on our operations?

We can look at anecdotal evidence….”well this worked on my place.” Maybe it worked on your place under these conditions. But can it be replicated? Will it work next year, or at another operation? Do we really understand what went on, or are we just making things up as we go because it sounds good? Is it an anomaly, or should it be a standard practice? Are you making your living off the farm, or the idea?

Are we too extreme?

Do we push extremes just as far as feedlots, just in the opposite direction? We say absolutely no feed, but is some feed such a bad thing? We say no fertilizer at all, but we turn around and use fertilizer of a different method (hay, manure, etc.). We push no fly control, antibiotics, vaccines, etc. But does that leave our animals suffering? We belittle people who don’t do an amazing and outstanding job grazing. But they are trying to become better. Are we alienating other agriculturalists at a time we need to be banded together?

What About Pricing?

How do we justify the current prices found in the grass-fed, pasture raised, organic, etc. market? My wife and I both work off the farm, we farm on the side, and I can honestly say that we cannot afford to eat grass fed, pastured meat, except for what we raise ourselves. Can we justify charging $20 for a chicken or $10-$15 per pound for ground beef? We claim that grass fed has fewer inputs. I that’s so, why are our products so much more expensive? Are charging too much, or does the average family not make enough income? Is this just the beginning of what will eventually replace our current meat sector, or is this just a fad?

I ask you this: Starting today, using whatever farming methods you are choosing, could you honestly feed your family for a year off your individual operation? I can guess the answer would be no. I know mine would be. Should that change how we view the current agricultural system? We are quick to condemn today’s agricultural system, but it has evolved to where it is for a reason. Think about how things in agriculture were a hundred years ago and how they are today.

Are we so desperate as farmers to make a living that we will chase whatever rabbit hole we see without pausing to consider what we are doing? Do we listen to people without thinking about what we are actually doing? Do we pride ourselves with one aspect of our operations when the rest is in shambles? Do we solve the problems on other operations and neglect our own?

How do we make the world a better place using agriculture? Whose world? The entire world or my world?

I wish I could answer all these questions, but I cannot. What I can do, however, is create thoughtful discussion without extremes. I want to see people discuss both sides of a topic constructively and then come to a decision for what works best on their operation, without belittling someone who chooses differently. I have studied sustainable agriculture for the past decade, and one thing I know is not sustainable is the animosity toward our fellow farmers that is rearing its head throughout our industry.

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About the author

My name is James Matthew Craighead. In 2011 my wife, Amanda, and I established LearnGrowInspire Farms, or LGI for short. We have a forage based cow calf operation as well as a small greenhouse. We also run a few sheep, and do some custom top hogs. We also assist our parents on the day to day operations of their farms as well. I work for our local soil conservation district, and my wife teaches agriculture and chemistry at our local high school. In 2017 we welcomed a baby girl, Ember Kate, into our our life.

18 Comments

  1. James Matthew Craighead says:

    I find it interesting that one of the biggest discussions we are seeing is about “feeding the world.” During morning coffeetime a thought occurred to me: Every person reading on pasture that actively farms is probably trying to feed the world.

    Here is my reasoning: Do you produce more (product) than you and your family can consume in a year? The answer is probably yes….therefore you are actively contributing to feeding the world.

    Just a random thought to share with everyone this morning.

  2. Burke says:

    Since I was high school age (in the fifties), I have continually read in the popular agricultural press that we are about to run out of food and the capability to produce enough to feed the world. I guarantee, if the price is there, the production will be there too. Question is, “Who pays the price.” That leads to a bigger question–“How much have subsidies messed up rational decision making.” Example, how many center pivot irrigation systems have been paid for with “government” (are you kidding me) money? Have price, crop and rainfall insurance subsidies led us to produce excesses or to produce too much of one thing and not enough of another? Until we are willing to strip away some of the distortions to economic signals, the politician and lobbyists will make too many of the decisions.

  3. KARL HESS says:

    James,
    I appreciate your thought provoking questions. I will only comment on your mention of “feeding the world”. In the limited research i have seen on feeding the world oftentimes it is noted that the problem is not to little food available in the world but that the countries that are food distressed do not have the infrastructure or distribution networks in place that they need. Grass based agriculture allows us to improve arid and semi arid environments to a point that they can feed the local population. I am young and have a lot to learn yet in life but i believe it is vital for long term sustainability that a country, region, or community produces as much of their own food as possible. Cheap transportation is not likely to be here long-term. I know this does not apply to the hard questions of making a grass based farm in the USA profitable. Can the grass-fed system feed the World? I think yes. Should we be concerned with feeding the world. Yes and no. If we try to feed the world ourselves we can risk situations where countries are dependent on the fossil fuel based transportation industry. We have some responsibility to help others be self sufficient through educational interchange and information and data sharing. Obviously we can’t duplicate exact practices across the world but the basic principles apply.

  4. Karl Hakanson says:

    Good Day,

    Good questions. Yes –too many in one swallow!

    Two Comments:

    Why is ag the way it is today? Hint: It ain’t the “free market”. It is because of, IMHO, the the Golden Rule: Them’s that got the gold makes the rules! Corn and beans as far as the eye can see slathered in expensive “inputs” is not by accident. It took a while to get here for sure.

    Feeding the world? Really? It never has been nor will it ever be about “feeding the world”. Who exactly puts that thought in our heads anyway? Good Grief. Don’t take the bait.

    OK, three: Grass-fed costs more? Sure. How can that be with less inputs? Externalities anyone? Extraction. Exploitation. Our dominant economic system was/is built on exploiting the land, water, people, animals, communities … (Two reads: Empire of Cotton, by Sven Beckert and, A People’s History of the United States, by Howard Zinn). If the prices we pay for things included all the “externalities” things would be way more expensive … and grass-based meat and milk would be the value proposition! Nature as guide ….

    It is now a difficult trap to get out of, this cheap food/everything we buy world. How do we pay farmers –all farm workers, what they need/deserve? A start I believe is to expand the definition of agriculture to include eaters, the basic point of ag after all. Instead of hapless “consumers”, how about fellow citizens? As partners in re-creating a regenerative ag system, field to fork.

    One recent example of externalities not paid in the news:

    http://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/mar/21/catastrophe-as-frances-bird-population-collapses-due-to-pesticides?fbclid=IwAR3IvW6BkYHZjqHHXIj36tkBAVpTBzNfrHs9rvziptuFarT9CBr45cHB0ec

    … not to mention suicides, opioid crisis, farm foreclosures, etc., etc., etc…

    Is grass fed the answer to all our problems? No. Is it world’s better than what we have now? Ya’ think!

    Karl Hakanson

    • James Matthew Craighead says:

      Karl,

      I appreciate your candidness, views, and input!

      The idea of “externalities” is an interesting way to look at things. I don’t know that I had ever thought of it that way before. You might be on to something there. How could we integrate this into our model/advertising for regenerative agriculture?

      I also think we get so caught up in chasing the best that we forget that better is the first starting point.

  5. Tim says:

    The answer to the headline is “no”. Agriculture has a role in feeding people, but not all of them at all costs. The higher cost of grass-fed beef inherently contains benefits associated with ecosystem service values and not the subsidies included in other production systems. Society is in the early phase of grappling with who pays for taking care of our nation’s and world’s natural capital…we’ve been living off depreciation for quite some time. Just some quick thoughts. Thx.

    • James Matthew Craighead says:

      Interesting way to phrase it…living off natural resource depreciation…..might make a good T-Shirt.

      It will be interesting to see how society will value “natural capital.” I agree with you that we are at a turning point. We are already seeing premiums coming from major brand for regenerative agriculture practices.

      I also think that not only will we question who pays for it, but who puts the time and effort into it as well. It is easy to condemn (all)agriculture from a concrete jungle, but farmers are the ones who are managing the majority of the natural resources around the world every day. It is an issue that throwing money at may not be the cure.

  6. David Tucker says:

    All great questions, many of which I ask myself almost daily. I would suggest that we all need to keep asking and keep seeking answers to these questions. In this erratic and changing climate, we will need to constantly seek ways to feed ourselves and the environment in ways that adapt to changing conditions and which don’t contribute to more changes.
    A terrific article to start a discussion!

  7. Paul Nehring says:

    How do we even respond to all your questions? Where should we start? What if we focused articles addressing one or two questions, so that we could actually have a discussion about that topic? Seriously, you have some good questions, and valid concerns, but so many in one article makes it difficult to respond to any of them appropriately, because they can all warrant a separate discussion. Did you really expect us to address all your questions or are you suggesting that since we raise grassfed beef that we aren’t asking ourselves these questions?

    Seems like these questions are really just issues that have been bothering you for a while, so what if you and Kathy address them each as a topic for separate article? Again, they are valid questions. They are worthy of discussion, but I sure don’t have time to write the novel that addresses all of them in one post.

    • James Matthew Craighead says:

      My intent here is not necessarily to provide answers or even get a response but simply to get people to think….to question how and why they do things the way they do on their operation.

      I know a lot of the readers at on pasture have examined these questions very deeply, but there may be readers that have never even considered them….those are the ones I am trying to provide a spark for.

      I also want to push people a little outside their comfort zone….to get them to think outside their box….and who knows, it may change the way they do something on their own operation.

      That being said, I always look forward to constructive discussion. Thank you for your response!

      • Paul Nehring says:

        Thanks for taking the time and effort your response to my comments.

        I like constructive discussion, too. The thing is, it’s hard to have one when you are hit with a barrage of questions, some of which, admittedly, when coming all at once seem accusatory in nature, because you realize that they can’t all be addressed. Again, if you want to discuss any of these questions, why not address them as a single topic? Then we can have a real discussion.

        I too, work fulltime, and run a farm, as well, so while I would like to address some of your questions, it’s hard to know where to start, or find the time to address them all. I do have messes to attend to on my less-than-perfect grassfed farm–I’ll never claim that I’ve got all figured out, as there are always issues. Besides, now that I have chosen to raise food, somehow I am also now responsible for feeding the world, which seems like rather difficult, because it’s hard just to feed my family.

        On that note, how about this one, what do you mean by feeding the world? Why does this continually come up as a constant criticism of grassfed beef? That would be a good topic for a single article.

        • James Matthew Craighead says:

          I write to solve my own problems….I sat down and basically put the questions that were floating around in my head down on paper….I know it is a lot, but it is how I think.

          The feeding the world paradox is something I think about a lot, and that is a great question….Are we responsible for feeding the world?

          The way I have finally decided to approach it is this: One of my personal farm goals is to provide as much food for my family off the farm as is feasible. Currently we produce all of our own beef, pork, and lamb. I am hoping to expand into poultry and vegetables this year(don’t ask why I don’t already have a big garden…all I have is lame excuses).

          The next part is where it gets tricky…I can easily over produce beef and pork(compared to our needs), but I can’t grow pineapples, or avocadoes, or etc….so I have to source them from where they are grown. At the same time I can send them my beef, or pork, or etc(theoretically….)….so maybe we do actually feed the world in a round about way?

          I have found that agriculture truly is a globally traded product in today’s market. Even what little(in the grand scheme of things) that I produce will eventually hit some form of global trade route.

          I agree that the “feeding the world” idea is thrown around in a lot of different ways. Some are constructive…some are destructive. How can we alter this message to be more constructive?

          And it is a great article topic….I don’t know if I am qualified to write it, but maybe I will give it a whirl. Thanks!

        • Kathy Voth says:

          Hi, Paul!
          You’re welcome to address one question at a time as you like. I wanted to share the questions as a whole because they build on one another in some cases. It’s a lot to chew on, but they represent concepts that are all important to think about.

          Hope that helps,

          Kathy

  8. Dave Stanley says:

    Might I suggest it could be wrong questions? IPCC/COP24and the associated Special Report 15 identified that for the last 20 years the true magnitude of climate change had been under reported, they generally agreed 2°C increasing global temperatures was in reality too high, and that we must now aim for the lower 1.5°C target if we are to be in with a chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change.
    To deliver on this basically states that we must halve our fossil fuel consumption is by 2030 and be at zero by 2050. Furthermore we need to reinstate our ecosystems and also drawing down carbon from the atmosphere.
    So the question becomes which of the agricultural systems being considered has the lowest intensity of fossil fuel use, reinstate ecosystems and also sequestration of carbon to soils?
    Then the answer is …….. and you can go back to sleeping at night.

    • James Matthew Craighead says:

      I was not up to date on that particular study….I have read a lot about climate change, but not stumbled across that resource. It is now in my bookmarks to check out. Thank You!

      Climate change is something I believe we are seeing impacts from, and it is a factor in the plans of my operation, but it is not the only factor.

      Getting from where we are today to zero usage of fossil fuels will definitely be a huge challenge. How will we go about this while still maintaining enough productivity to feed our population? What technologies do we need to invest resources in today in order to sustain tomorrow?

  9. John Marble says:

    James! You had me with the first question! (the title). But all the rest, well, my goodness, now I get to spend the rest of the evening pondering what we all do and why. Honestly, the “how” questions are easy. But the “why” parts, well, much more challenging.

    Thanks for a great article. No sleep tonight.

    • James Matthew Craighead says:

      Excellent phrasing! I like that….the “how to” can be easy at times….the “why”, however, can be challenging.

      I am finding that the “why” is the part that drives us to do the daily tasks and meet the challenges. Until we each define our “why” it is hard to define our future.

      I am truly discovering this….I have an 18 month old daughter, and I some day want her to have the option of a life on the farm. That is my why.

    • James Matthew Craighead says:

      Great phrasing! “How” is easy….the “why” can sometimes be the hard questions.

      I am finding that until we know our “why”, we don’t know where our future lies.

      I have an 18 month old baby girl and some day I want her to have the option of a life on the farm. That has become my new why, and it has given me a focus for the future.

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