Friday, August 29, 2014

The Polyculture Project.

Conventional meat production has been (justly) criticized for the strain it puts on the environment and the deplorable conditions in which animals are kept. However, there is an alternative to conventional farming. Diversified, pasture-based farms, also called polycultures, work with the land such that the farm becomes integrated into the natural ecosystem. Multiple species of animals are raised together along with crops that can be used for animal feed and for human consumption. Overall, this type of farming provides many environmental benefits and a higher quality of life for the animals than conventional farms.

A criticism of polyculture farming is that it isn’t productive enough to meet the needs of our population, and thus, meat could only ever be a small part of a sustainable food system. Although often repeated, I have rarely seen this statement quantified, which has led me to ask the following question.

How much polyculture farmland would it take to produce enough meat to feed the US population?

Answering this question requires two types of data: the amount of meat we need for everyone in the US and the amount of meat, per acre, produced on polyculture farms. The USDA and FDA collect and distribute vast amounts of data on the productivity of US farms, but I couldn’t find anything on the productivity of pasture-based, diversified farms. So I set out to collect the data myself.

I first reached out to the farm where I currently get my meat: North Mountain Pastures (NMP), a polyculture farm in Pennsylvania. My family has been part of their Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program for several years now. Every month, we get a box of meat with a variety of cuts from a variety of animals. The farm is run by Brooks and Anna Miller, who graciously contributed to this project.

Brooks and Anna put together this table of their farm’s output in 2013, which includes all of the animals they raised and the edible pounds of meat typically provided by each animal. The total weight they compute is consistent with a rough estimate based on the amount of meat supplied through their CSA. Brooks and Anna also calculated the acreage of their farm and the land required to produce some additional grains they feed their chickens and pigs. Dividing the total number of pounds (49,855) by the total acreage used (114), gives an annual output of 437.33 pounds of meat per acre.

The other key piece of data is the amount of meat required for the entire US. The USDA recommends that typical adults get about 6 oz of protein each day, which is 0.375 pounds (see MyPlate for more info). For this analysis, let’s assume that all of the protein comes from meat. Throughout a whole year, we would need to produce 42 billion pounds of meat to feed all 308 million Americans their recommended 6 oz. of meat every day. Americans actually consume about 52 billion pounds of meat each year (Earth Policy Institute).

Assuming the productivity of North Mountain Pastures farm, we would need just under 100 million acres of land to produce 42 billion pounds of meat each year and 119 million acres to match current demand for meat.

Those are such big numbers that it’s hard to interpret them without some context. So, let’s compare them to the amount of land we currently use for grazing. According to the USDA (as cited by the EPA), the US devoted about 600 million acres to animal grazing in 2007.

That means we could produce enough meat for the entire US population by converting 16% of our current grazing land to polyculture farming. We would need to convert 20% to match current meat demand.

That doesn’t seem like a lot of land at all. In fact, it seems like diversified farms could actually reduce the amount of land we devote to meat production without reducing the amount of meat people eat. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean that meat is totally sustainable. There are other environmental impacts we should consider, such as water usage and carbon emission. From the perspective of land use though, diversified, pasture-based farms can provide more than enough meat without requiring any additional land.

If people choose to get less of their protein from meat, it would further lessen the land burden of raising animals. For example, North Mountain Pastures also produces eggs, which we did not include in their meat production numbers. Fish, nuts, seeds, and legumes are also high in protein and can serve as alternatives to meat. However, if sustainability is the goal, we would need to consider the relative environmental impact and scalability of obtaining these other foods to that of meat raised on polyculture farms.

Another benefit of diversified, pasture-based farming is that it hasn’t yet been fully optimized. Farmers and scientists around the world are working on advances that can boost efficiency and lessen the environmental impact of raising animals for food. At North Mountain Pastures, they are working with grain farmers who use no-till agriculture and other ecofriendly methods, exploring ways of reducing off-site feed, and adding an orchard. In a much broader effort, the Savory Institute is devoted to restoring badly managed grazing land and promoting ecologically-sound land management. If we actually wanted to convert current grazing land to polyculture farms, the Savory Institute’s research could help bring the productivity of marginal land closer to a farm like North Mountain Pastures. Additional improvements, as well as more widespread adoption, are also likely to lower the cost of producing meat in this way, a savings that can be passed on to the consumer. Currently, members of the NMP CSA pay about $8 per pound for their meat.

One other potential barrier to producing all our meat on polyculture farms is that we would have to change the way we eat meat. North Mountain Pastures raised 7 different animal species with a wide range in the number of animals of each species. For example, they raised only 12 cows and 10 goats but 240 turkeys and 5200 chickens. To take advantage of a diversified farm requires that we diversify both the types of animals and the cuts of meat we that we regularly eat.

For this analysis, I’ve assumed that any diversified farm could be as productive as North Mountain Pastures. Without any additional data, it’s hard to know if this assumption is reasonable. I will say that I didn’t know how productive NMP would be when I approached them about this project, although that doesn’t necessarily mean that their productivity is typical. And productivity can vary a lot depending on the location of the farm. That’s why I would like to expand upon this study to include as many polyculture farms as I can find. That way, I can better quantify the productivity and scalability of polyculture farms, assess additional environmental concerns, and help develop a pathway to a food system that produces meat without destroying the environment or abusing animals.

It’s a lofty goal and one that I can’t achieve on my own. If you, or someone you know, has data on the productivity of a polyculture farm, please consider sharing it with me. Together, we can turn the polyculture project into a polyculture solution.

Note: This material was originally presented at the 2014 Ancestral Health Symposium. I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to participate in this terrific event and for all of the interest and feedback I received from my fellow attendees.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

From farm to table.

It seems that spring has finally arrived in Maryland. We’ve had a whole weekend filled with sunshine and crisp, fresh air. There are daffodils popping up along the creek, little green buds on all of the trees, and a constant buzz of little creatures (human and otherwise) venturing back outside. To celebrate this lovely change of events, we are dusting off the grill and making the one food we have rarely had the chance to eat over the past few years: hamburgers.

It may sound strange – hamburgers are one of the most popular foods in the United States – but eating only ethically-sourced meat means avoiding hamburgers almost everywhere. I recall eating them quite regularly back in college, though, both at restaurants and grilled in my backyard. Hamburgers were the mainstay of nearly all get-togethers: the Superbowl, July 4th, or even just a weekend poker party. I remember those times fondly because, above all, they were celebrations of friendships. They certainly weren’t celebrations of food, however. I bought my burger patties frozen, in a big tan box from Costco. I never thought much about how the meat had come to be in its mechanically-pressed, totally uniform state, and I had no idea how the cows were treated in the process.

Today’s event will be quite different. It will be just me and my little family, celebrating life, hard work, and of course, food.

After the 2013 Ancestral Health Symposium, a fellow attendee who lives nearby contacted me about joining a cowpool. I’d never participated in a cowpool before, but I jumped at the chance. Here’s how it works: A group of people pool money to purchase a half or whole steer from a farmer. Typically, the price per pound is lower than if you bought comparable meat at a store or farmers market, and you can find a farmer who uses practices you are comfortable supporting. Depending on the farmer, you may even be able to visit the farm and your particular cow while it is being raised.

Our cow was grass-fed, raised on pasture at Legacy Manor Farm in northwest Maryland. Although the farm isn’t run with quite the level of management of Polyface Farms (i.e. maximizing integration between the different animals and the land), the animals are raised in a natural, low-stress environment without hormones or antibiotics. Our cowpool, which was broken down into 8 shares, purchased a half-steer. A few months later, our intrepid cowpool leader, Steve, met up with our farmer, Kathy, at the midway point between Silver Spring and the farm to pick up our half steer.

Buying a whole or half animal is quite a different experience than buying cuts of meat at the deli counter. Our meat came, quite literally, as a side of beef, which weighed in at 347 lbs. Although we could have had it broken down before delivery), we instead turned to the experts at The Urban Butcher, an artisan butcher shop located in downtown Silver Spring. These guys were amazing. They allowed Steve to attend and photograph the butchering process. Rather than issuing them a list of cuts, Steve simply let the butchers make the decisions about how best to break down our half steer. Due to their diligence and expertise, only 10 of the 347 lbs were unused, and we got some rather uncommon steaks and roasts in addition to T-bones, ribs, ground beef, and the like.

In early February, all the members of our cowpool met up in order to distribute our shares of meat. It was a lovely day, and our hosts greeted us with wine, a warm fire in their backyard pit, and over 300 lbs of vacuum-sealed and labeled beef. Before we started divvying up the meat, Steve gave a toast. He spoke of the gratitude he felt for this food, which was enhanced by his participation and the awareness it gave him of all the time and effort that goes into raising and butchering a steer. We were able to acknowledge and appreciate the life lost in bringing this food to our table, and the efforts of our farmer and butchers to honor that life.

We then picked numbers out of a hat, and took turns selecting cuts of meat until each share-holder had their allotted amount. My family took home about 40 lbs of grass-fed beef, bones, and tallow. The cuts we selected included: neck roasts, oso bucco, ground beef, kabob, “man” steak, top sirloin roast, short ribs, sirloin tip roast, T-bone steak, picanha steak, clod, and flank steak. We paid $210 for our share, which comes out to about $5 per pound, although excluding the fat and bones brings it up to about $7 per pound.

Over the ensuing months, we’ve been slowly working our way through the meat. Everything we’ve tried has been delicious, in part because we treat each of these meals as a special occasion. Even today, grilling hamburgers on the patio for no one but ourselves, it is a celebration. The ground beef has a heftier consistency, with larger chunks of bright red meat and bright white fat, than you would find in a grocery store. We prepare it simply, alongside grilled portabellas, asparagus, and romaine hearts. We pour some wine. Even our toddler can sense that this is a special meal. It’s not just the amazing taste of the food, it’s also the fact that this meal took effort, that makes it so satisfying. This is a hamburger I will remember.