The commercial opened on a lone, bearded farmer standing in a dark field. A narrator intoned meaningfully that less than 1 percent of American farmland is organic. But, the female voice continued, we could change that simply by buying Michelob Ultra Pure Gold, the first national, certified-organic beer brand. There was the pop and hiss of a twist-off bottle top, and suddenly we were in the club, only the club was a subway station and a woman carried a six-pack with her onto the train.
Patricia Highsmith, the novelist best known for creating the diabolically charming character Tom Ripley, was a notorious misanthrope. An editor once characterized her as “a horrible human being” and a fellow writer described her as “an excellent hater.” But, at the very least, she loved animals. When she came across spiders inside the house, she would carefully carry them to the garden outside. She had a particular affection for snails, and kept some 300 of them as pets when she lived in a cottage in Suffolk, as well as for cats, with whom she was often photographed. Her feline relationships, a biographer wrote, were “often counted as her longest and most successful emotional connection.”
Federal agencies and state governments are spending millions on anaerobic digesters to wring renewable energy from animal poop. But critics say “cow power” from factory farms is neither clean nor green.
For Hakai Magazine, I interviewed Danielle Bissett about her work restoring oysters to the New York Harbor with the Billion Oyster Project.
Imagine for a moment, a possible future, some years ahead: Across the plains, acres that were once plowed up and planted to corn or wheat go back to native grass. Marginal, flood-prone land is left to return to wetlands, improving water quality downstream. Farmers diversify their operations in order to effectively manage risk in a changing climate. Monocropping is a thing of the past.
Or this scenario, not so long from now: Growers adopt practices like no-till and cover cropping, which helps lower their inputs—the money spent on fertilizer, pesticides, seed, and anything else they need to get a crop in the ground. They turn a profit with ease. They may even switch to cheaper, non-GMO seeds and see profit margins swell.
In this future tableau, cattle are turned out to pasture on land that was once intensively farmed. Land managers plant low-cost grasses and other silage, and graze livestock on a portion of the land while the remaining acres are allowed to rest and regenerate. There’s always something growing in the soil, anchoring nitrogen, helping retain rainwater, and sequestering carbon.
This is what American agriculture could one day look like, according to farmers, environmentalists, and economists. But first we’d have to get rid of federally subsidized crop insurance.