Farming Over the Edge

European-style agriculture settles in

By Steve Quirt

European-style agriculture is a system of production that combines domesticated animals, grains, tillage and irrigation. Cattle, pigs, sheep and goats, all with Old World ancestry, were imported to a new, cultured landscape along with the accompanying Old World grains: wheat, oats, and barley – the grains were grown as fodder for livestock. The first plows to break up the Tomales hillsides did so to plant oats and barley to empower the same draught horses to plow again to plant potatoes. This rotation could be done without irrigation and fertilization due to the rich topsoil and seasonal rainfall patterns.

By the turn of the century, the county was spotted with small, 50-cow dairies and creameries processing fresh milk into butter that was shipped to the exploding market of San Francisco.

Certainly, the market existed. Demand in the rapidly growing city was so great that the inferior butter from South America and the East Coast was still being imported. But this product was no comparison to the Point Reyes standards. As one contemporary journalist reported, “…the grass growing in the fields on Monday is the butter on the city tables on Sunday.” – Marin County Agricultural Commissioner’s Office

 

Marin grasslands were being used to provide a specialized foodstuff to an expanding consumer base. Welcome to specialty marketing!
 Early sustainability

 

The Marshall brothers were the first to begin ranching and dairying in Marin, and the operation is still going strong today, run by Gary Thornton and his daughter Marissa. Gary showed me the old machinery boneyard once, with the cast-iron frames and weathered oak parts, explaining that “in the old days” they grew barley, lots of barley, for feed. They had a combine, thrasher and bundler, and everything needed to be self-sufficient in feed production.

In the early days of Marin agriculture, agriculturists could support as many head of cattle or sheep as they could feed from the land. Seasonal dry land grazing required that the operators put up hay, silage or grain for the months when there was no rain and dwindling forage. There was little to none of the practice of importing feed that is common today. Herd sizes then were much smaller than today and the rich grasslands provided most of what they needed to thrive with a minimum of imported feed.

The dairies of yesterday were seasonal: that means that the cows were milked about 10 months of the year, then everyone took two months off, sort of, until the calves were all born in February and milk production began again with the new season’s forage. They called it single-milking herd management, and this allowed them to synchronize the nutritional needs of the herd with seasonal pasture growth, thus maximizing available on-farm feed, synchronizing calving, and managing the herd as a singular unit.

Seasonal dairying is easier on the land, the cows, and the dairymen than the modern style of year-round production that often involves milking two, or sometimes three times a day year round. High-volume production dairies like the big ones in the Central Valley milk 5,000 cows or more a few times a day to “maximize” production. The largest dairy herds in the U.S. approach 15,000 cows. These conditions don’t exist in Marin where average herd sizes are about 400 cows.

 

SUBHEAD: The ‘Green Revolution’

 

Chemical fertilizer changed everything. Now you could squeeze production out of the land and you didn’t need animals to supply fertility. Manures became a liability, rather than a necessary resource. The rapidly developing science of pesticide and herbicide applications eliminated the need for careful management practices of crops like alfalfa. All the farmer had to do was pay and spray. And be forever at the mercy of the chemical suppliers.

 

****FORMATTING NOTE: Indent and italicize next paragraph

 

The Green Revolution refers to a series of research, and development, and technology transfer initiatives, occurring between the 1940s and the late 1960s, that increased agricultural production worldwide, particularly in the developing world, beginning most markedly in the late 1960s. The initiatives, led by Norman Borlaug, the ‘Father of the Green Revolution’ credited with saving over a billion people from starvation, involved the development of high-yielding varieties of cereal grains, expansion of irrigation infrastructure, modernization of management techniques, distribution of hybridized seeds, synthetic fertilizers, and pesticides to farmers. – Wikipedia

 

Suddenly worldwide production of industrial-styled farming took off and the whole nature of agriculture entered a new stage – hyper-production fueled by petroleum and extraction. The great feeding of the masses had begun. Cheap, petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides drove imported feed costs down, allowing ranchers to contain more and more cows in one location. The hay trucks came, and the increasingly confined dairy herds grew in size. No longer did producers need to link production to the capacity of the land. The dairy herds became too big to live off the land. The current economies of production demanded larger herd sizes just to stay in business and keep up with mega-dairies developing in the Central Valley.

The new agriculture no longer depended on place. It depended on petroleum. It became cheaper to import feed than to grow it.

By 1970, Agriculture in Marin was pretty much dairy, beef and sheep. Things were sleepy and the status quo was a monotonous cloud over farming. It was then that the seeds of change were sown. A new population of agriculturists was forming – the organic, local, diversified and experimental guys were arriving, and a revival was in the works. Pioneers and explorers were incubating. Albert Straus was just off to college to learn about organic production. Warren Weber was getting ready to bring draught-horse organic farming to Bolinas. Sue Conley was cooking at Che Pannisse, and David Evans was in High School.
ENDING SUBHEAD: Next: Back to Eden

 

 

Farming Over the Edge
MAINHEAD: European-style agriculture settles in
By Steve Quirt
European-style agriculture is a system of production that combines domesticated animals, grains, tillage and irrigation. Cattle, pigs, sheep and goats, all with Old World ancestry, were imported to a new, cultured landscape along with the accompanying Old World grains: wheat, oats, and barley – the grains were grown as fodder for livestock. The first plows to break up the Tomales hillsides did so to plant oats and barley to empower the same draught horses to plow again to plant potatoes. This rotation could be done without irrigation and fertilization due to the rich topsoil and seasonal rainfall patterns.
By the turn of the century, the county was spotted with small, 50-cow dairies and creameries processing fresh milk into butter that was shipped to the exploding market of San Francisco.

****FORMATTING NOTE: Indent and italicize next paragraph
Certainly, the market existed. Demand in the rapidly growing city was so great that the inferior butter from South America and the East Coast was still being imported. But this product was no comparison to the Point Reyes standards. As one contemporary journalist reported, “…the grass growing in the fields on Monday is the butter on the city tables on Sunday.” – Marin County Agricultural Commissioner’s Office

Marin grasslands were being used to provide a specialized foodstuff to an expanding consumer base. Welcome to specialty marketing!
SUBHEAD: Early sustainability

The Marshall brothers were the first to begin ranching and dairying in Marin, and the operation is still going strong today, run by Gary Thornton and his daughter Marissa. Gary showed me the old machinery boneyard once, with the cast-iron frames and weathered oak parts, explaining that “in the old days” they grew barley, lots of barley, for feed. They had a combine, thrasher and bundler, and everything needed to be self-sufficient in feed production.
In the early days of Marin agriculture, agriculturists could support as many head of cattle or sheep as they could feed from the land. Seasonal dry land grazing required that the operators put up hay, silage or grain for the months when there was no rain and dwindling forage. There was little to none of the practice of importing feed that is common today. Herd sizes then were much smaller than today and the rich grasslands provided most of what they needed to thrive with a minimum of imported feed.
The dairies of yesterday were seasonal: that means that the cows were milked about 10 months of the year, then everyone took two months off, sort of, until the calves were all born in February and milk production began again with the new season’s forage. They called it single-milking herd management, and this allowed them to synchronize the nutritional needs of the herd with seasonal pasture growth, thus maximizing available on-farm feed, synchronizing calving, and managing the herd as a singular unit.
Seasonal dairying is easier on the land, the cows, and the dairymen than the modern style of year-round production that often involves milking two, or sometimes three times a day year round. High-volume production dairies like the big ones in the Central Valley milk 5,000 cows or more a few times a day to “maximize” production. The largest dairy herds in the U.S. approach 15,000 cows. These conditions don’t exist in Marin where average herd sizes are about 400 cows.

SUBHEAD: The ‘Green Revolution’

Chemical fertilizer changed everything. Now you could squeeze production out of the land and you didn’t need animals to supply fertility. Manures became a liability, rather than a necessary resource. The rapidly developing science of pesticide and herbicide applications eliminated the need for careful management practices of crops like alfalfa. All the farmer had to do was pay and spray. And be forever at the mercy of the chemical suppliers.

****FORMATTING NOTE: Indent and italicize next paragraph

The Green Revolution refers to a series of research, and development, and technology transfer initiatives, occurring between the 1940s and the late 1960s, that increased agricultural production worldwide, particularly in the developing world, beginning most markedly in the late 1960s. The initiatives, led by Norman Borlaug, the ‘Father of the Green Revolution’ credited with saving over a billion people from starvation, involved the development of high-yielding varieties of cereal grains, expansion of irrigation infrastructure, modernization of management techniques, distribution of hybridized seeds, synthetic fertilizers, and pesticides to farmers. – Wikipedia

Suddenly worldwide production of industrial-styled farming took off and the whole nature of agriculture entered a new stage – hyper-production fueled by petroleum and extraction. The great feeding of the masses had begun. Cheap, petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides drove imported feed costs down, allowing ranchers to contain more and more cows in one location. The hay trucks came, and the increasingly confined dairy herds grew in size. No longer did producers need to link production to the capacity of the land. The dairy herds became too big to live off the land. The current economies of production demanded larger herd sizes just to stay in business and keep up with mega-dairies developing in the Central Valley.
The new agriculture no longer depended on place. It depended on petroleum. It became cheaper to import feed than to grow it.
By 1970, Agriculture in Marin was pretty much dairy, beef and sheep. Things were sleepy and the status quo was a monotonous cloud over farming. It was then that the seeds of change were sown. A new population of agriculturists was forming – the organic, local, diversified and experimental guys were arriving, and a revival was in the works. Pioneers and explorers were incubating. Albert Straus was just off to college to learn about organic production. Warren Weber was getting ready to bring draught-horse organic farming to Bolinas. Sue Conley was cooking at Che Pannisse, and David Evans was in High School.
Next: Back to Eden