In November I quoted Aldo Leopold, an influential ecologist and conservationist. In this month’s column, I will lean on another equally learned and celebrated philosopher: Baxter Black. I’d like to look at his explanation of the differences between agrarian and pastoral production and the people who engage in it. For homework, look up “Farmer or Rancher,” Black’s poetic piece that analyzes the subtle variations between farm and ranch lifestyles.
From a scientific standpoint, a practice could be classified as farming or ranching by looking at the inputs and harvest methods involved in production. Farming is a practice that produces food, fiber or fuel, primarily through directly harvesting some part of a plant. We cultivate plants that take up water, sunlight and different nutrients and turn it into something we can use directly.
Much of our food comes from the seeds, be it corn, wheat, beans, etc. Sometimes we are interested in the fruits, like the fiber that surrounds a mature cotton seed, or an edible fruit like tomato or squash. Root crops like potatoes, beets and radishes can also be farmed. Fuel can be created from either energy stored in seeds like ethanol in corn, oils in legumes, or in the biomass of the plant stem. Today, harvest is typically done by machine, but is generally focused on maximizing efficiency, regardless of exact method. Inputs are focused on economizing the ability of the plant to give us the desired product.
Ranching, on the other hand, utilizes animals to harvest plants we can’t eat or wear and converts them into something we can. If instead of a field of potatoes you have a field of bermuda grass, you can trade out your mechanized harvester for a cow and turn that grass into meat, leather and several other usable products. A pack of angora goats can take a field of weeds that would make you or I sick and turn it into high-end mohair, goats’ milk and lean protein (although angoras aren’t a traditional dairy or meat breed). Your inputs change focus from maximizing one aspect of a single plant species to ensuring animal health and performance. While ranching is possible in most ecosystems, it gains an advantage over farming in arid climates where traditional crops wouldn’t thrive.
I would like to throw in one more classification for a production practice: gardening. While gardening is not necessarily focused on food, fiber and fuel production, I feel it deserves to be recognized as an altogether different endeavor from farming when some of the same species are being cultivated. Gardening for consumption is much like farming, except more emphasis is placed on the value of a single unit of its produce. That value may be in the vitamin content of a leaf of spinach or the sugar content of an ear of corn. A gardened crop requires significantly more inputs to produce the same quantity as a farmed crop because the end goal is higher quality, with much of the difference being labor. If the world were to switch to a more garden-like food system, we would need more people to become gardeners to keep everyone fed.
So, which are you? Do you farm, ranch or garden? If you’re the latter, remember that February is the month to start your seeds indoors.