“pasturing doth not improve the soil”

» June 11th, 2014


I’ve been doing some historical research lately. One of the rewards that comes from investigating the details of 18th-century agriculture is that an unexpected discovery can cast doubt on common assumptions about the way agriculture works today (or is supposed to work). One of the more tenacious beliefs common in contemporary agriculture is the idea that the best way to keep soil healthy is to graze animals on it. Defenders of rotational grazing insist they’re farming the way nature intended us to farm, and the way farmers have been doing it for centuries. It was thus more than a little gratifying to stumble upon the following account, published in Maryland in March of 1789, by a sheep farmer, who was not so convinced of this received wisdom:

So far as dung improves soil, it ought to be allowed for; and this is for all dung applied from winter littering or summer folding; but how far, if at all, it is to be prized, when slowly dropt about in pasturing, is a question. Beasts constantly ramming the soil of a pasture into a close compact state, until it more than is commonly apprehended. That the foot of the beast does more damage to soil than his dung so dispersed and exposed to exaltation does good, is probable from several instances related by serious good people of clover fields having been divided, and the one half pastured on, all the summer, the other mown twice and both sown at the same time with wheat on one plowing, when the mown gave considerably the best crops of wheat. Let us suppose a lay of grass has been left unpastured, and even uncut, for three years; another like field at the same time is pastured close as is usual during the same three years; now let the farmer walk into these and observe how mellow, light, and lively the one is,–how firm the other. Whish of these will he prefer for a crop of grain? . . .It them may be suspected that pasturing doth not improve the soil; that on the whole it even injures it.

It really makes you wonder in what other ways we’ve twisted the agrarian past to fulfill today’s utopian visions, or at least on what sources what we’ve based our contemporary ideas.

20 Responses to “pasturing doth not improve the soil”

  1. Ann Ninaber says:

    Socrates predicted this over 2000 years ago.

    A kind of ‘sacred contract’ between man and animal…

    Wherein we take care of animals, and animals will take care of the lands, and of us.

    • James says:

      Sure, but it’s a contract animals never signed.

      • Mountain says:

        Do you remember signing the social contract or the Constitution? I don’t. And yet, I don’t murder my neighbors, or steal from them, and sometimes I even vote. Contracts are only signed when they are intended to be legally enforced; contracts that are enforced through social pressure remain unsigned. You can call them by a different name if you like, but, functionally, they’re contracts.

        • James says:

          Truth be told, I never signed the Constitution or the social contract but I maintain the option of opting out of them. By not opting out, by not going all Ted Kaczynski, I implicitly endorse (ie, “sign”) these contracts, neither of which (by the way) necessarily leads to the mass slaughter of its virtual signatories.

          • Ann Ninaber says:

            My comments where not designed to invite
            neo-luddism support or critique, but was implying an underling question about the lack of social ethics for animals :-)

          • Mountain says:

            So, if domesticated animals are given enough freedom that they could realistically opt out, and if they choose to stay instead, they are implicitly endorsing the farm?

            As for mass slaughter, 200+ million victims of democide in the 20th century might like a word with you. It’s true that it pales in comparison to the 10 billion slaughtered every year to feed Americans, but I think it’s analogous.

        • Ellen K says:

          But don’t contracts, even de facto not formal, assume basic comprehension of the deal by all parties, and freedom to opt out? Were animals to be given full disclosure of the terms, would they “sign”? Same thing with animals and many sports involving them: would they consent, fully informed? I’d say no, and in any case, see little resembling a contract however loosely defined.

    • Taylor says:

      Samuel Johnson: There is much talk of the misery which we cause to the brute creation; but they are recompensed by existence. If they were not useful to man, and therefore protected by him, they would not be nearly so numerous.

      James Boswell: But the question is, whether the animals who endure such sufferings of various kinds, for the service and entertainment of man, would accept of existence upon the terms on which they have it.

      (Unfortunately, Boswell became an apologist for human slavery, claiming, in effect, that slaves willingly accepted the terms of their existence.)

  2. Ann Ninaber says:

    For sure, I agree, but the point that I am trying to make is that the way in which modern agriculture operates, is in contrast to the ethical treatment of animals (and the land itself). In other words, we have broken the contract, our behaviour towards animals is criminal.

    • Mountain says:

      I agree with you, Ann, that there is something resembling a contract between humans and domesticated animals, and that we are violating that “contract” terribly.

      There was nothing arbitrary about which animals were domesticated, and there is a long list of animals we tried and failed to domesticate. We only domesticated animals who had a pre-existing social role we could slide into– typically, as the leader of a pack. Among social animals, some leaders treat their subordinates well and others treat subordinates poorly, but none treat them as badly as we do with contemporary farming.

  3. ARC says:

    Interesting information, albeit anecdotal But there is a lot of careful research and experimentation that point to the same conclusion.
    Directly challenges the Savory canard that the hoof action of ungulates (many, many of them) will make deserts bloom and that we should hence forego one of the most effective and safe approaches available to us to quick methane reduction (from those same ruminants and monogastrics) and to resulting climate change mitigation by simply drastically reducing in the short run and eliminating over a realistic time period the breeding and elevation of these animals for food.
    Last time I looked the slogan festooned on the Savory Institute website was “Eat Read Meat and Save the Planet”. This pernicious nonsense has a achieved a surprising currency in environmental circles Personal lifestyle changes are hard; it is comforting to be able to delude yourself that your dietary cravings are good for the planet and future generations, Aware and concerned environmentalists should be prepared to challenge it on every occasion: public forums, blogs such as this one.
    As for Socrates I am no expert but I am not aware of his (via Plato) ever invoking a human/ non-human animal contract. He did however have a lot to say about the disastrous effects of meat eating and other non essential indulgences on human society in the famous passage in the Republic (book 2; 373 Edith Hamilton edition, Bollingen) where they are linked to ill health and war.
    It is all there, a mere twenty four hundred years ago. It is somehow comforting to have evidence that Socrates/Plato, THE seminal thinker of the West, seems to advocate for vegetarianism.

    • ARC says:

      Just in case of confusion: Red meat not read meat. Excuse typo.

    • Marc Bedner says:

      My thinking exactly when I saw this. Two centuries before Savory and his nonsensical TED talks about supporting local animal agriculture, the destructive effects of grazing were well known.
      James, do you have the exact source that I can post on my blog, as well as others such as the Wildlife News?

      • James says:

        John Bordley, “Purport of a Letter on Sheep,” written in Maryland, March the 30th, 1789. Pamphlet owned by George Washington.

  4. Benny Malone says:

    One of my favourite historical pieces to look back on is ‘A Vindication of Natural Diet’
    by Percy Bysshe Shelley. http://www.animal-rights-library.com/texts-c/shelley01.htm It is interesting that he used an argument for ecological efficiency and this was in 1813. ”The quantity of nutritious vegetable matter, consumed in fattening the carcase of an ox, would afford ten times the sustenance… if gathered immediately from the bosom of the earth. The most fertile districts of the habitable globe are now actually cultivated by men for animals, at a delay and waste of aliment absolutely incapable of calculation.”

    • Tina Eden says:

      Thank you for the link. I’ve often thought that if we were really meant to eat meat, we wouldn’t need to cook it. So interesting how Shelley links meat-eating with Prometheus.

      • Mountain says:

        “if we were really meant to eat meat, we wouldn’t need to cook it.”

        Sashimi and tartare would like word with you…

      • Benny Malone says:

        Thanks Tina. This is a great site for looking back on animal rights history – http://www.animalrightshistory.org I find it really interest that Shelley noted ecological efficiency in an age before the mass industrialisation of agriculture where the different efficiencies are even more marked now. ”In comparing the cultivation of animals versus plants, there is a clear difference in magnitude of energy efficiency. Edible kilocalories produced from kilocalories of energy required for cultivation are: 18.1% for chicken, 6.7% for grass-fed beef, 5.7% for farmed salmon, and 0.9% for shrimp. In contrast, potatoes yield 123%, corn produce 250%, and soy results in 415% of input calories converted to calories able to be utilized by humans. This disparity in efficiency reflects the reduction in production from moving up trophic levels. Thus, it is more energetically efficient to form a diet from lower trophic levels.” – Wikipedia entry on Ecological Efficiency.

  5. Ann Ninaber says:

    Precisely – so just try for a minute to comprehend the amount of sun power / energy that we are tapping in order to continue this global lifestyle of consumers eating meat… (as well as other animal products integrated into our lifestyles).

    This is why Meatonomics is such a great book because it gives perspective.

    I’m still trying to wrap my brain around the enormity of all of this on a mass global scale. I’m deep diving into literature but get conflicting figures regarding the precise amount of factory farms and slaughterhouses globally.

    It’s not just a question of social ethics for animals… It’s also a question around the social ethics of those involved in the actually killing and process of fabricating the animal into products.

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