Regenerative Agriculture and the Role of Fiber-Producing Animals•
Posted on January 25 2018
I know you know, dear reader, that I'm a hippy and I prefer non-superwash yarn from sheep raised in the US. Being a knitter means a lot of things to me like creating art, taking my support away from fast-trash-fashion, and keeping my mind busy with calculating angles and counting stitches. But mostly, I see an opportunity for the knitting community to make the world better. Yes, better through seeing more technicolor sweaters around, but most impactfully, through the way the fiber animals are raised.
My BFF Renee has written all about going beyond expecting the animals to be treated humanely - about what we should know to be the gold standard and express that we support the efforts of the shepherds and farmers who raise the animals in this manner.
What does it mean to be a conscious consumer of animal fiber? It’s safe to say that the animals involved in production of fiber should be treated humanely, fed a biologically-appropriate & organic diet, and given plenty of green space to roam. These factors add up to “happy fiber”, a product we consumers can feel good about. However, given the current state of our planet due to the uprising of industrial farming, perhaps we must take our ethical sourcing one step further.
Through the practices of contained animal feedlots, unmanaged grazing of livestock, monocropping, and heavy fertilizer/pesticide/herbicide use, we find that our soil is depleted of nutrients, our water supply is dwindling, and atmospheric CO2 is climbing (a contributing factor to global warming). This isn’t great news for the future of our fiber and food supply; successful agriculture requires nutrient-rich soil, water, and a steady climate. It’s no surprise that the natural world is getting out of whack; we’ve done a pretty poor job of working within the natural laws. We impose our own systems that fight natural processes rather than work with them.
Now that I’ve thoroughly depressed you, let’s visit the upside; things don’t have to continue this way. Through holistic management and rotational grazing of animals, we can undo many of these wrongs that industrial agriculture imposes on the earth. Rotational grazing is the process of quickly moving large numbers and high densities of animals through many small pastures (rotations occur anywhere from a day to a week). This practice is intense, but disperses nutrients over the land, improves overall soil fertility, controls unwanted plants, enhances water retention, sequesters carbon dioxide out of the air and into the soil, and decreases the spread of parasites among the herd. The effects of managing animals in this way are the goals of regenerative agriculture. “Do no harm” is then advanced to “improve what we’ve got”. While it’s obviously a good thing to support sustainable and organic producers, we’re at the point in which looking beyond sustainable is necessary to reverse the damage to our soil and our atmosphere.
To get an idea of how greater soil fertility is reached through rotational grazing, let's first consider how the bodies of ruminant grazers work. Fiber animals such as goats and sheep are mobile fermentation machines. They eat plants (grasses, shrubs, trees) which get fermented during digestion by microbes in their gut. What comes out on the other end is nutrient-rich poop that gets deposited back into the soil. Their hooves act as miniature tills, breaking apart the top layer of soil, allowing nutrients and water to disperse downwards. The soil now has a greater richness in microbial life than before, which means greater fertility. Microbes work symbiotically with plant roots, feeding the plant and depositing the plant’s carbon into the soil. Grazers and grasslands are co-evolved, and they completely rely on one another to flourish. The land needs grazers to move nutrients around. For example, the top of a hill or mountain tends to be more nutrient-poor than the base, considering rain and erosion drives the nutrients downwards. How else, than through animals moving up and down in elevation, could nutrients cycle back up, against gravity, to the top? Given enough time and proper management, nearly any piece of depleted land can get transformed to viable farmland with the help of grazers.
The physical act of grazing by fiber-producing animals on managed grasslands retains water and sequesters carbon. To get a full perspective, consider the average fiber pasture in which the animals are given a very large area to roam, and they are rotated rarely, if at all. The grass, therefore, stays quite short (usually only a couple of inches tall) since the ground is rarely given a rest from constant grazing. The roots of these grasses are also very shallow, since roots only grow deep when grasses grow tall. Now consider a pasture that is managed within a regenerative practice; a large herd of animals is rotated intensively through a large number of small pastures. This allows most of the grass to be resting at any given time, so the grass has the opportunity to grow tall. Consequently, the roots grow deeper into the ground. This is of huge importance because plants have the ability to transfer carbon out of the atmosphere and into the ground through their roots. The deeper the roots, the more carbon pumping, the less carbon in our air, and the deeper water can trickle easily. It’s no surprise that this latter practice of rotation is a good representation of how grazers move in the wild; almost always on the move due to predation and seeking areas with more abundant grass. If every farm practiced rotational grazing of their fiber animals, imagine the potential to reverse global climate change! (Now imagine if there were tax incentives for carbon sequestration on your land ... but I won't get too political). Everyone imagines that the best way to reverse global warming is to plant hundreds of trees, but grasses actually have a stronger ability to sequester carbon, so why not start with the millions of acres of animal pasture that already exists in the US? After all, the majority of this land is unusable to grow plans on due to poor water availability, topography, altitude, and poor soil quality.
We have a dizzying number of fiber options online and in stores, and knowing which buzzwords to look for can be tough. Choosing fiber from organically-raised animals is a great start, but we can challenge our producers to do more. The best way to go about this ethical consumption, as with anything, is to know your farmer and know their practices. You may not be able to meet them in-person, but a quick phone call or email with a short list of questions (How many pastures do you rotate your sheep through? How quickly are your goats rotated? Do you test your soil?) will let them know that there is a demand for animal fiber from regenerative practices. If we are to continue using our land as a resource for creating goods, we must take steps to build its fertility and vitality. As Bill Mollison famously says, “Though the problems of the world are increasingly complex, the solutions remain embarrassingly simple.” If we move our fiber animals through the land in a way they naturally move in the wild, the biology of the soil with thrive, the environment and climate will being to correct, and the knitting community will help drive the revitalization of the Earth.
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