Stories We Tell

The place we stayed in Arizona offered trail rides. We didn’t go on one, since Arden wasn’t old enough, but we did watch a group set out. Once they were gone we talked for a while with the very nice man who remained behind to clean up and feed the remaining animals. He asked where we were from and what we did. On hearing that we had pigs on our farm, he told a convoluted story about a picture of a pig chewing on a cable that had been manipulated to look like it took place in a factory setting, even though it really was a bored pig playing around in the middle of a large paddock. Further, he said, the outrage that resulted from the widespread circulation of this picture shut down domestic pig production in a huge area, meaning any pork I’d see in a local store had been imported from Japan. I asked whether any came in from Iowa, but he shook his head - it was all from Japan.

I admit I haven’t exhaustively researched this claim, yet I am certain it’s utterly false. Fifteen minutes spent searching the internet suggests America is a net exporter of pork, with Japan as a major customer. Further, what pork is imported comes mainly from Canada and Denmark. The chances that a supermarket in Payson, AZ exclusively stocks Japanese pork approach zero.

This is a funny and extreme example, and it’s easy to laugh at it. But I think it’s a natural human tendency to use stories to understand our world, and in many cases it’s a useful approach. Emotional responses and the narratives we construct around them contribute to the sense that life is meaningful. Still, the whole thing works a lot better when the stories we tell ourselves comport with reality.

To this end I’ve been trying to think of the areas in my life where my views contradict the preponderance of the research or other evidence. One of these that has been in the news lately is genetic modification. In one post about genetically modified chestnuts and another about the response to the first post, Gene Logsdon articulates the position I now find myself in, which is to say, I think many applications of genetic modification are terrible, but the technology itself is not inherently so.

Another point I’ve been considering is the environmental impact of the farm. It’s easy to go through the methodology of the studies that claim animal agriculture is inevitably damaging and tally up all the ways the enterprises they are examining in no way resemble what I’m doing, and it makes me feel pretty good. But if I take a sober look at the few metrics by which I can assess the health of my farm I find a lot lacking; the pigs have exposed more bare dirt than I would like, and goldenrod and Canada thistle are becoming more prevalent in some areas. Fields that have had hay taken from them need better nutrient management to replenish them. Areas that are not grazed or mowed are continuing their slow march away from pasture and towards scrub.

Even taken together these are not cause to give up, though they are evidence of how much I have to learn. More than that they are a reminder that simply having animals on grass, even with active management, does not inevitably lead to a healthy, productive landscape. There are lots of feel good books and lectures about how the widespread use of rotational grazing will reverse the effects of climate change, or, on a smaller scale, how using such tools will lead to healthy, productive, profitable pastures. I believe that a farm managed as an ecosystem can be beneficial to its owners, community, animals, and to the land itself. But to achieve this goal I need to make sure the story I tell myself about it aligns with what’s happening out in the field.

-Garth

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