Saturday, February 14, 2009

In Praise of Farms

Farms in general are good for conservation and good for animals. The average American farmer feeds about 130 people. If we were still stuck with 17th century farming methods it would take a lot more land, we would all be starving, and that land would become exhausted. Modern farming methods actually do build soil, which is easy to see if you've ever lived in a cornfield. All that organic matter that corn harvest leaves behind builds soil, as does waste from wheat and soy. Soybeans are legumes that put nitrogen in the soil, as are peanuts. Cattle are grazed after corn harvest, which salvages corn, helps restore soil bacteria and makes the organic leavings easier for the plants to use.

It is absolutely necessary for industry to increase the viability of any food animals that it uses and of the plants that it uses. "Maize" is practically a weed in its natural state and the corn that was developed from maize produces a lot more usable biomass per acre, thus more organic material for soil, and more food from an acre. These days we do also have the means to produce fuel from that corn, although that technology would be better used to produce fuel from landfills. Biomass isn't a good solution when it takes the equivalent of a gallon of gas in petroleum to produce a gallon of ethanol, and ethanol contains about two thirds of the energy per gallon. The best way to produce liquid fuel for cars is probably going to be biomass conversion plants that can process garbage with water at high temperatures, powered by small nuclear plants that are just now going into production. These mini-nukes produce about 70 megawatts of heat, are proof against meltdowns, produce little radioactive waste, are self-regulating, and are already tested and proven by the laboratories at Los Alamos.

Progress has always been like that. It takes energy to move nutrients from one place to another, and the next time that the soil will be really naturally refreshed in the United States is when Yellowstone's volcanic caldera blows its top and covers most of the continent with volcanic ash. Mining this caldera may eventually be a practical solution when someone develops the machinery for it and invests the money, but there are many easily available deposits of volcanic ash and other sources of suitable nutrients including silt from the ocean floor. Farming practices have already brought soil nutrients to depleted regions in the form of fertilizer. Kansas was pretty close to being scrub desert until the settlers brought in cedar, elm, and walnut trees, which did so well that they threatened to overwhelm the prairie completely, but which also performed the vital service of bringing nutrients and water to the surface, and the service of conserving water. Hot soil can literally burn away organic matter and leave only sand. Tree cover lowers soil temperatures and allows the soil to hold more moisture and support more life like earthworms and bacteria. It's working in Israel. It worked in Kansas and we weren't even aiming for that effect.

More animals can live on an acreage, with less infant mortality, less disease, and fewer population crashes due to modern technology. Building shelters, fences, and providing clean water is cheap and a lot of us don't even know how much more advanced that is over medieval methods and technology. Humans can and do selectively breed for animals that can survive in the wild because we still have to in order to have a productive farm. We can maintain a larger population overall than nature does because of advances in medicine, food production, and methods of keeping animals. It's ironic to see animal rights activists complain about the way that farmers use modern medical methods to keep animals alive at the same time that they use advanced medicine to keep animals going that have lost body parts and mobility, to use in their sideshows.

In the wild large bison-type animals, buffalo and the common cow and bull, have a really rough time and they become really aggressive as a result. Five or six people are killed each year by buffalo in national parks in the USA. They're not much tamer when socialized to humans and used as food, which is all to the good because they can defend themselves from wolves and coyotes. Most production cattle are kept on open fields with barbed-wire to keep them in. It's as natural an environment as it gets, and when managed well, it's better than the wild because trees are not allowed to overgrow the pastures, which would happen without human intervention, and they would choke out most of the graze that cattle depend on.

Deer also benefit because the plants that do them the most good grow best at the edges of cleared areas and in areas of new growth of trees. Deciduous forests choke out most other plants and decrease available vegetation for herbivores. Fire and logging make room for new vegetation. Fire control is an added benefit. Too many humans have died in wildfires lately. Environmentalists want us not to manage the underbrush and don't seem to care how many homes, jobs, and human lives are lost, which is pretty sick. Australia just lost Marysville in Victoria to a wildfire. About one hundred out of the original five hundred residents died. Almost every building in town was destroyed. Think of them when an environmentalists wants to save dead underbrush over human beings. Wildfires are managed in advance by clearing flammable materials and making fire roads. I am crying right now because I read about a man and his dog who were burned to death in Marysville. This was preventable. Fire management techniques have been used effectively for over a century.

Humans actually assist in the maintenance of life already. We protect animals, sometimes as livestock, sometimes as pets and service animals, and sometimes as exhibits in menageries. We deserve a lot of credit for this and we should give ourselves that credit. The "chilling effect" that animal terrorists try to create should just be more incentive, even a challenge.

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