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The One Cow Revolution

or some of us it is the fast pace of modern life,

the peripatetic dash from place to place; for
others, it is the invasiveness of the ever-present
digital age, the perpetual noise and demand of
incoming information. Some feel a concern for our
planet, its soils, oceans, forests, climatefor the
future of this Earth that we hold in stewardship. We
long for simplicity, beauty, community, harmony.
And of course there is the desire for clean, affordable foodunmodified, unprocessed, and unmedicatedand the security of local food sourcing, for
ourselves and our children. It sparks in us an urgent
To move to the country. Go back to the Simple
Life. To raise our own food.
Many of us know people who have tried it. Lots
of us work or go to church with someone who, a few
years ago, got on an idealistic bandwagon, jacked up
his or her family, sold the city house, and moved to
the country. They were going to grow a big garden,
keep chickens and maybe rabbits, raise lots of
healthy food, and be a sort of modern Walton family. It never lasts. The end is always the same: after a
year or two, they sell the country place and move
back to town. It was fun, kind of, they say; it was
fun, at first, they qualify. But it was a long drive to
work and to the good city schools (of course we
werent going to lose the advantages of the good
city schools); and after a hot afternoon at the soccer

field it was tiring to come home to chickens that had

to be fed and a garden badly in need of weeding.
And the fuel necessary for the long commute blew
the gas budget.
And frankly, when you came right down to it,
raising your own food was just too expensive.
Yes, expensive! Take gardening. Just a few bucks
worth of seeds and some weeding, you think, and
there it will be, your bounteous vegetable garden,
overflowing with tomatoes ripe on the vine, cucumbers dying to jump into your salad, fresh sweet corn,
watermelon, bok choy, parsnips. Step outside with
your plate and fork and your free dinner is waiting.
Only, it isnt like that. First of all, to break ground
for a garden you have to have a tractor, plow, and
rototiller and the fuel to run them. Seeds are expensive, and anyway unless you remember to start them
indoors in March you have to buy plants, not seeds,
for, say, fifty cents apiece. Before you can harvest
even one tomato you may already have hundreds of
dollars in your garden.
And the work is incredible. I mean, what would
you rather do on a Saturday morning, hit the river
with your Jet Ski, or go out in the garden and hoe
weeds? Huge weeds, like something out of Little Shop
of Horrors. You pull weeds for hours, and then when
you want to fix lunch you have to go back out and pick
stuff and bring it in and wash it off. People forget that
gardens mean dirt, and I mean dirt. Dirt on your


The Independent Farmstead

potatoes when you harvest them. Bugs on beans, and
who knows if their feet were clean? And then those
vegetables have to be peeled, seeded, and stemmed,
and by the time youve done all that who wants to wait
for them to cook? Theyre delicious, I dont deny that,
the best you ever tasted, but who has time for
million-dollar, three-months-in-the-growing, sweatdripping-down-your-face delicious vegs?
And what about the bugs? Big fat green caterpillars with spikes on their tails that doze through
your tomato patch stripping the leaves from the
branches and leaving a trail of little green droppings
like mini alfalfa bales. Armies of gray squash bugs
marching on your zucchini and making a bad smell
when disturbed. Swarms of tiny whiteflies that suck
the juices from your spinach leaves, and platoons of
striped Mexican bean beetles and their fat, fuzzy
larvae like tiny yellow hedgehogs, turning a lush
green bean patch into a forest of brown leaves and
bare stems. How is anyone supposed to compete for
food with such a creepy bunch? Not to mention the
depredations of nematodes or fungi, or the plant
illnesses resultant from less-than-perfect soil conditions. Tomatoes standing tall and loaded with fruit
turn black and rot in three days with late blight; lush
bean vines refuse to produce pods due to inadequate
lime in the soil. Crowded cornstalks bear only a few
small ears, and without good air flow cucumbers are
stricken with mildew. After all our hard work, what
have we to show for it?
Raising animals is lots harder than you think,
too. Take chickens: two dozen hens should have
provided our family with more eggs than we could
ever eat, bursting with omega-3s or what have
you, enough for us and some left over to sell. First
we put three hundred dollars into materials for a
henhouse because the cute one we saw online that
we really wanted was over two thousand bucks.
The one we built was pretty rustic, but it might

have been okay. Then two dozen chicks cost

seventy-five dollars at the feed store, and how
were we to know that half of them would be roosters? By the time the little guys started crowing
they were five weeks old and there were no more
to be had at the store, so we ordered some female
chicks to be sent from a hatchery. That was fun
because Jenny and the girls got to choose lots of
fancy varieties, but by the time they came the first
lot was half-grown and they pecked the little ones,
not that it mattered that much because the chicken
wire we put in the poultry house windows wasnt
raccoon-proof, and the third time one got in it
killed all but four. After that we put in stronger
wire, and the second batch of chicks did all right,
but fancy hens dont lay that many eggs, and
anyway winter came and they quit altogether. The
next year they picked up again, but they went
through sacks and sacks of feed, especially since
we were also feeding hordes of rats and mice that
were attracted by the chickens grain. Then our
oldest daughter made the varsity team in soccer,
and she was the one who really liked the chickens,
so since no one else wanted to do the chores we
sold them on craigslist. Later we figured out we
had spent about fifteen dollars for each dozen eggs
we collected. The thing was a bust.
It just costs too much to raise your own food.
And so it goes. The end is always the same: our
friends sell the place in the country and move back
to town, a little proud of their experience and the
hardships they have endured, a little sorry to say
goodbye to Poco the pet pony (but not sorry theyll
never clean her stall again), and ready with the
benefit of their experience to save the next guy from
making the same mistake: Forget it. It costs too
much. You just cant farm anymore.
Now this is an odd statement, when you come to
think about it, because as few as seventy-five years


ago a quarter of the population of the United States
lived on, and made its living from, a small farm.
Our grandparents were among these, people who
grew their own food and a few cash crops and did
other jobsplowed the county roads, helped
neighbors butcherto make a little cash so they
could buy what they couldnt grow. They didnt get
rich, but they lived a long time, enjoyed hearty good
health, and they ate really well.
Their children, however, took the fast track to
the city and a university education. We, their
grandchildren, knew the old homestead as a mecca
visited all too seldom and all too briefly, a place
where bobcats haunted dusty pine woods strung
with spiderwebs, and white-faced cows stood
chewing cuds and swishing tails beside ponds the
color of clay tile. The small, thin-floored houses
smelled magically of sulphur matches and stove
gas, sweaty water pipes, dust, talcum powder, and
divine cooking. A dappled pony was kept especially
for grandchildren, on which we were set three at a
time to hold on as well as we could while being led
tamely around the yard, at which we shivered with
the visceral terror of the city person encountering a
Large Animal. To leave the farm at the end of a
visit and go back to the city was to mourn with
prematurely mature mourning, the soul-wrenching
sorrow of mortals evicted from Paradise.
But eventually the Old Folks got older. With all
the kids in the city, there was no one left at home to
help with the work, and in time the demands of the
farm just got to be too much. We cant do this
anymore, they said to one another. You cant do
this anymore, their children assured them. And
we, their grandchildren, heard, It cant be done.
Perhaps it was in this way that the myth first
arose, the myth that says you cant farm anymore. Its
an interesting myth, as myths go, because it is one
that is brand-new with the present age. It has never

been told before, could never have been told because

until this very moment in time, it would have been
preposterous. People would have had simply to
look around them to see that it was not true. Mans
existence has depended on the small farm for thousands of years, years in which we have not only
survived, but developed civilization, mechanization, industrialization, digitization. Unlike other
classic mythsthat of the Great Flood, or the
God-King, or the Virgin Birth, all of which persist
in practically every culture in one form or another,
myths about discrete events in a long-ago past
this myth is about Now. Unlike those other myths,
in which Nature opens a window for a once-in-alltime abrogation of one of Her laws, this myth tells
us that all Her laws are abrogated for all time, starting Yesterday. This myth says that the land will no
longer yield food to the laborer.
And our modern experience, as far as it goes,
confirms this. No one we know farms; at most, a
few people keep pots of chemically boosted tomatoes on the patio. Food, our experience tells us,
grows in factories, or is mined with tractors as big as
McMansions, or extruded in polystyrene packaging
from machines the size of football fields. We of the
modern age, surrounded by stores filled with food
that appears never to have grown anywhere, cut off
from even a single unadulterated contact with this
Earth that teems with plant and animal life in intimate, balanced, resonant relationship, experiencing
reality only in its most limited and man-made
formswe accept the Myth because nothing in our
experience contradicts it.
Sure, we know vaguely that somewhere there are
big places where lots of hamburgers walk around
and eat cornor is it straw?before they are sent
to McDonalds. We have seen pictures of pristine
warehouses where jacketed attendants hover over
long lines of sparkling cages filled with gleaming


The Sows Ear Farm. Illustration by Elara Tanguy.

The Independent Farmstead

white chickens laying laboratory-clean eggs, probably right into the cartons. Bell peppers materialize
in cellophane bags on pretty bushes over thousands
of acres in California. We dont know anyone
whose day includes getting dirt under his fingernails, carrying feed to lots of animals, watching the
weather with anxious attention, or getting up at
night to check on a sick animal. None of our friends
has ever milked a cow; many have never even seen
a cow, not up close enough to be sure it really was a
cow. Food doesnt come from farms anymore; food,
as long as it is in the stores whenever we go Hunting
and Gathering, is a fact of life, like air or television;
a thing to be accepted, not questioned. The cute
little farm with dairy cows and red barns is a thing
of the past.
Or is it?

A Different Model

When we bought the Sows Ear in 1996 and began

the process of turning it into a family smallholding,
we followed the usual path of neophyte homesteaders: we put in a garden (several gardens), bought
chickens, acquired goats. We picked up how-to
books on animal husbandry and organic vegetable
growing; we ate lots of tomatoes, collected eggs
from our flock of brown leghorns, drank goats
milk. It was fun, and our diets underwent a significant improvement; but we began to be conscious of
a vague unease. Was what we were doing really
farming? Something told us, as we lugged sack after
sack of laying mash and sweet feed from the station
wagon to the barn, that this importation of concentrated nutrientsmany of them genetically modifiedwas not farming, not as we remembered our
grandparents doing it.

We looked at the farms around us, larger hobby

or commercial spreads, and wondered some more.
The scale on which they operated was considerable,
their productas the farmer calls itturning
over with regularity, their cash flow presumably
healthy. But were they really the islands of security
they appeared to be? We considered one 450-cow
dairy farm from which we bought baby bulls to
raise for beef. What would happen to this place if its
inputs were interrupted, even for one day? Milking
machines and refrigerator tanks would cease to
operate, silage augers and conveyor belts would
stop running. Without petroleum fuels to power the
equipment, the barns could not be cleaned, feed
could not be trucked in. Even water might be cut
off. The whole place would come grinding to a halt,
and if something didnt happen quickly to restore its
inputs, in a short time the animals would sicken and
die. Was this really farming? We had our doubts.
And as our own husbandry projects broadened,
we saw more ways in which our efforts, and those of
the larger farms around us, differed from farms of
the past. We began raising pigs, which meant more
sacks of petroleum-produced concentrated feeds.
The pork was delicious, but the price was disheartening. Yet we were following the instructions in our
how-to books to the letter! Dissatisfaction led to
research. We extended our reading beyond the
many how-to-do-it books that stocked the shelves
of the farm storebooks that gave instructions for
a scaled-down version of the commercial methods,
replete with charts and diagrams on the nutritional
needs of the bovine, breeding and feeding schedules
for pigs, and lists of inoculations to improve the
performance of hens in confinementand we
began reading books by Joel Salatin, Eliot Coleman,
Allan Savory, Greg Judy. And a light went on.
These books, and the people who wrote them,
were making some fundamental assertions about


farming, all of which were derivative of one basic
assumption: that the sun is the source of bioenergy
for this planet. Animals and plantsincluding
humanslive because the sun shines. The success
commercial and ecologicalof these writers farming endeavors was attributable, directly or indirectly,
to their recognition of this fact. Pastured meat chickens, all-grass beef, and four-season vegetable harvest
are all constructions resting on one constant: the
successful farmer is the one who makes the best use
of his sunlight. Reading these authors, we knew for
certain that the redistribution of petro-produced,
livestock-converted nutrients into which we had
entered with such gusto was not, as we had suspected, real farming. The sun, rather than our expensive
feeds of questionable provenance, should be the
power source for our farm. But how?
The answer was grass: the permaculture, present
in enormous communities over 40 percent of the
planets land mass, which can collect our quotidian
solar energythe sunlight falling on our farm
every dayso that cows, goats, sheep, pigs, and
poultry can harvest their dinners. Even more: in the
digestive system of a dairy animal, that sunlight can
become protein, fat, and lactose, nutrients supremely available not only for human food, but in such
quantities as to make it possible to supplement practically every animal and operation on the farm. The
puzzle was coming together: grass, the solar collector; ruminants, the converters; joined by chickens
and pigs as batteries, self-reproducing storage units
of surplus solar energy. Here at last was the secret of
Grandfathers farm, that Mecca of good food,
strong, hard-working men and women, and unquestioned food security: grass management. Otherwise
known as intensive rotational grazing.
We took our lesson out in the fields and put it to
work, and we watched our little farm come to life.
As our ruminants moved over the pasture in

regular, measured rhythms, the bare spots began to

fill in and rank weed growth succumbed to trampling, giving way to lower, more palatable forages.
With impact spread more evenly over the pasture
and the calendarthe grazing season extended
itself, beginning earlier in spring, extending into
late fall and early winter, with increased drought-
resistance to get us over the midsummer dry season.
Poultry found more to eat, and better forage, in the
mix of grass and forage species clothing the soil.
Pigs preferred forage, fruit, and dairy surplus to a
diet of dry factory pellets or crumbles.
And not only did we see an increase in the quantity of solar energy capturegrass, milk, meat, and
eggstheir quality was improved exponentially.
Grassfed beef and pork were leaner and better-
flavored, grass-produced butterfat was yellow with
beta-carotene, and on our improved pastures chicken egg yolks took on a deeper orange. Our purchase
of inputs dropped dramatically, to such an extent
that we no longer had to think our own farm hopelessly vulnerable to interrupted inputs, as our neighbors farms were. We used little purchased feed and
could go without if need be. The management-
intensive grass harvest was improving our soil and
pastures so that forage was of better quality, and
greater quantity, for a longer season.
Prompted by the work of Eliot Coleman, we
intensified our solar capture in the garden as well,
adding new levels to our harvest. Succession planting and undercropping multiplied the size of our
summer harvests, and adding fresh winter vegetables was as simple as some tunnels of 1-inch conduit
and 6-mil plastic sheeting. Stumbling on Cornell
Universitys online library of old farm books, the
Albert R. Mann Core Historical Literature of Agriculture collection, we learned more about pre
World War II animal husbandry; as a consequence,
when the human harvest was over, we filled empty


The Independent Farmstead

Farmingmodern industrial imitations notwithstandingseems to us to be as much art as science,
and to entail more commitment than either. Like
marriage, it is affected by details that are peculiar to
the individuals involvedpeople, animals, plants,
time, and placeand, while similarities between
farms are many, hard-and-fast rules are few. The
best farmers we know or have read make the fewest
claims for their knowledge: I dont really know
how to do it right, I just do the best I can, as one
veteran grazier in our area often says. Allan Savory,
founder of the Savory Institute and father of Holistic Resource Management, avoids the term teach
as applied to his many workshops, preferring words
like demonstrate, share, and equip.
We, with our few poor years of experience,
cannot teach anyone how to grass farm, not teach
in the sense we learned in school, like explaining
algebra. Nature s math, in any case, isnt like
elementary mathematics: where 1 + 1 = 2 in arithmetic, in nature it is just as likely to equal 3, when
the first two are a bull and a cow; or one, if one of
the addends is a sheep and the other a coyote. Nor
are we here to tell you How We Succeed and So Can

spaces in the garden with beans, turnips, sugar beets,

and mangelwurzels; undersowed our heritage corn
with field peas; and planted other areas to wheat and
barleyand the pigs and chickens loved it.
We have come to believe that the secret to the
success of the small farm is the capture and harvest
of as much as possible of the solar energy falling on
that landeach day, week, month, and yearby
grass and grazing ruminants. Our farming efforts
are focused by the application of this principle,

You; just follow these twelve easy steps. If and when

we ourselves achieve a resonant balance between
weather, grass, ruminants, pigs, chickens, forage,
table, and garden, maybe we ll write another book.
But probably notshould we be so fortunate as to
have a year in which all our resources are in balance,
we ll expect nature to spring something new on us
in the next.
The longer we farm ourselves, the fewer flat
statements we are willing to make, having seen
many a curveball come over the plate, and anticipating even more in the years to come. What we hope
to do instead is to share the information we ve
picked up so far in our intense immersion in All
Things Grass. Think of this book, then, not as a set
of directions, but as the beginning of a conversation,
like setting out for a point, distant and inviting, with
someone who has traveled the first steps and is
familiar with the early landmarks. But while we
wont set ourselves up as experts on anyone elses
land, garden, or animals, there may be much good to
be had from sharing experiences nownot when we
have all the answers, but while we are still deeply
pondering the questions.

whereby the farm is not a staging ground for assembling nutrients, but a font from which nutrients
originate, when basic elements are assembled in the
leaves of green growing things, consumed by herbivores, and converted into generous quantities of
high-quality proteins and fats. This is the theme of
a flourishing biodiversity, each species of plant or
animal feeding and being fed, assisting and receiving assistance from the rest, and all, ultimately, fed
by the sun.


No longer are we without personal recourse from
a food production system that implicates even the
unwilling in a widespread destruction of ecosystems. We can ransom food and agriculture on a
small, individual scale, shifting our personal nutrient consumption to fresh, whole, local, responsibly
grown foodsfood produced with todays sunlight
instead of fossil fuels. The careful, attentive

management of our solar energy harvest brings

benefits on every level: in the health of our soil, our
pasture plants, our animals, our family, our community. To bring this about takes not only understanding and cooperation, but a good measure of dogged
determination, an irresistible urge to play in the
dirt, and iron control over your gag reflex. And its
worth every bit of the effort.