Tuesday, October 15, 2013
A better kind of lawn
There are about 40 million acres of lawns in America -- a number which grows every year. We use 800 million gallons of gas mowing those lawns, including the amount we accidentally slosh on the ground while filling our mowers: 17 million gallons, more than was spilled by the Exxon Valdez. The average American sprinkles 238 gallons of water on his lawn every year. About 71 million pounds of active ingredients of herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, and other chemicals are dumped on U.S. lawns each year, or about 7 percent of all pesticides used in the U.S. Homeowners use more pesticides than farmers -- in fact, ten times as many. Many of these pesticides are potentially toxic to humans, and pretty much all of them are harmful to the environment. We spend $30 billion every year maintaining our lawns; I have no idea how many hours, but it's a lot.
In America, we slaughter 33 million beef cattle every year. Some is exported, but most is consumed here, to the tune of $262 a year per capita. Though beef cows and their calves are raised on large ranches, 75% of beef cattle is fattened on feedlots before slaughter. Feedlots receive a lot of criticism for being inhumane (the cattle weren't meant to eat that much grain, to stand on bare ground instead of grass, or to have so little space to exercise) and for harming the environment with massive manure ponds.
If very carefully managed, one beef steer needs about an acre of irrigated pasture if it doesn't receive any supplemental grain. (Or so Gene Logsdon says in his books.) In addition, the same acre can be stocked with chickens which eat bugs out of the cow manure along with a provided grain ration.
Do you see where I'm going with this?
It seems to me you could fit those 33 million cattle on those 40 million acres of lawn with room to spare. The grass is already very intensively managed. People could continue watering, but skip out on mowing, weeding, and fertilizing. No chemicals at all will be needed in this scheme, and no petroleum.
I have knocked around a number of schemes in my head for this, considering that most families don't own enough land for one steer, and don't have the time or knowledge to be cattle wrangling either. What makes the most sense to me is for there to be a neighborhood cattle farmer who cares for a small herd and rotates them each day, or even twice a day, into a new yard. Frequent rotating through new pasture is the very best thing for the cattle and the pasture anyway.
Every couple of weeks you'd have your yard full of cattle for one day. Then a couple of days later the farmer would bring a mobile chicken coop through. The chickens would flip over and spread the cowpies, eat any parasites or fly larvae, and move on. The rest of the time you'd have an excellent yard for your barbecues and games of catch, with no mowing or fertilizing necessary.
I can't figure out -- since this system is so mutually beneficial -- who should pay whom. Should the farmer hire out his cattle as a lawnmowing service, or should he rent people's yards? Some fencing will also be required as a startup cost, and who pays for it? Well, you'd just have to let people try it and see. You could even run it as a co-op -- everyone pays for their own fencing and shares the purchase price of the calves, and everyone gets a cut of the beef at the end, in proportion to the size of their yard. The farmer gets an extra-big cut which he can sell for his own wage. The chickens are pure bonus -- you could do meat birds or laying hens, whatever you want, so there would be shares of chicken and eggs as well.
That's the sort of small-scale solution that wouldn't need to be done all at once. People who wanted to, could participate, and every person who did would be saving oil, money, erosion-prone farmland that's currently planted to corn for cattle feed, and the environment around where the feedlot used to be. Meanwhile you'd be getting pastured beef and free-range chicken, which we know are better for you, for far less cost in money and resources than what you could buy at the store. It's efficient in a way you never could practice on a large scale.
This wouldn't hamper anyone from having a fruit tree or two -- those would just provide shade for the cattle. The chickens would pick up any fruit rotting on the ground, so you wouldn't have to worry about that like I do with my plum tree. You could do your back yard in cattle and your front yard in vegetables. If you didn't want to deal with the farmer, you could have a couple pigs in your backyard all on your own, and ask your neighbors for their food scraps for them. There are any number of absolutely local, sustainable solutions for food production on land that is currently wasted.
And why are we not doing this?
Two reasons only. The first is cultural, though that's beginning to change. Some people just don't want cows in their backyard. (What is wrong with them, I wonder! I emphatically DO want cows in my backyard!) And the perfect manicured lawn is something of a status symbol.
The second reason is the government. First, they zone you residential, and then the next thing you know it's against the law to grow tomatoes instead of rhododendrons. Why the overreach? Pesky neighbors who think they have a right to decide what's in other people's yards based on appearance, and perhaps a little bit of fear of what can't be controlled. Our food system, after all, is a major industry which employs a lot of people and turns over billions of dollars a year. They have powerful lobbies and they care about beef a great deal more than you do.
However, the law isn't the same in all places, and I've heard of people renting out goats to mow people's lawns. For real. I hope this is a growing trend!
N.B. In the "everything I want to do is illegal" category, look at this gorgeous earth home. Then read how the government is ordering the family to bulldoze it. It makes me want to cry.