Last week the ENVS 230 “Sustainable Agriculture” class had a chance to visit one of the few 100% grassfed, rotationally grazing beef farms in the county: Green Vista farms, operated by Jonathan Berger and his family (I know, convenient name, right?). Mr. Berger took us around his farm and explained how traditional cattle raising leads to environmental problems — some that one would never think of, such as the fermented mash that is stored in silos leaking through the concrete of the silo and contaminating groundwater with bacteria. Then he took us to his own fields, where his cows graze on nothing but grass — fresh for 8-9 months of the year, and stored hay when snow covers the ground. It was a classic example of a field trip adding an “in the flesh” element to a set of classroom concepts that invigorates the learning process.
Here’s what some of the students had to say about the trip:
While Michael Pollan talked about farmers optimizing grazing for the grass’ sake, Jon talked about grazing for the sake of cattle growth. His detailed knowledge explained the “why” behind his farming practices. Considering his farm, the label of “Management Intensive” Rotational Grazing makes perfect sense. If you did not have the knowledge (or the interest) to manage your fields well, optimizing the available nutrients for cattle growth, this system of farming would fail miserably. Feedlots and vast fields of monocultures require relatively few knowledgeable people to run them.
What continues to amaze me is the sheer knowledge needed for farming, particularly with raising cattle, sustainably. As [Mr. Berger] spouted off information, I noted his topics ranged in everything from American agricultural history to the physiology of a cow’s rumen. Listening to his tour was a mini lesson in liberal arts education that viscerally contrasted with the agricultural setting that surrounded us.
His case is so interesting to me because he certainly doesn’t seem like most environmentalists I know, but he also doesn’t let the dollar make decisions for him. Jon’s philosophy seemed rock-solid to me. He handles maybe the most unsustainable of all American agricultural items, and yet he does so with a truly impressive paltry level of external inputs.
When Jon Berger admitted that he was no longer a certified organic farmer, I was barely surprised. To me, all of the rules and regulations that accompany the certification are simply a waste of time and often unnecessary, especially if, like Berger, you have customers lined up along the hot electric fence who are all anxious and ready to purchase your product. Although it might be true that in a larger market Berger might do better with a cute little “Certified Organic” sticker, he does just fine without it at his level of distribution and local clientele base.