Large scale sustainability?

Frederick Kirschenmann writes:

The January/February 1997 Kerr Center Newsletter announced that it was 
adding "rural development" to its program.  Suddenly, given the Fund for
Rural America, every one is interested in developing us. Ironically the 
lead article in the newsletter ("Future of the Beef Industry") points us
in a direction that can not possibly lead to any real rural development.
 It suggests that 

        most of the problems the beef industry is facing could be       
solved through vertical integration, much like the swine and    poultry 
industries.  Producers would be paid a salary to raise  calves to a 
specific weight and receive a bonus for good performance.

The article goes on to say that "raising cattle is a hobby and not a 
business" when herds are only a 100 cows or less (50% of the beef cows 
in the US are in herds of this size according to a 1995 USDA report).

Well, I would have expected something like this in Beef or the Farm 
Journal.  I was really surprised to find it in a "sustainable 
agriculture" newsletter.

Apparently Will Lathrop, the author of the article and a "livestock 
specialist", is not aware of several facts:

        1. That the economic viabiality and environmental benefits of 
herds of less than a hundred cows that are fully integrated in  
crop/livestock systems, has been well established.  Several North Dakota
State University studies on integrated crop livestock systems 
demonstrated that: 
                *when 60 beef cows were integrated into a cropping      
system so that the cows could make use of corn stover and other crop 
residues,  the return for labor was $22 per hour. Feed costs were 
minimal since cows were making use of crop waste, and it also reduced 
cropping costs since the cow manure was used to supply  nutrients for 
the cropping system.  Any time a farmer can turn waste into income and 
make $22 an hour doing it, he is on the path to economic sustainability.

                *when 85 cows were added to a cropping system the
return to the cropping system increased by $24,000 annually in 
conventional farming systems and $27,000 annually in conservation 
tillage systems.
                *when crop residues were feed to cows 71% of the 
nitrogen consumed by the cows was returned to the field in the form of 

        Crop/livestock integration, then, is one of the key ways to
improve economic and ecologic sustainability---and herd size can be well
under 100.
        Furthermore, it is precisely such integrated crop/livestock     
systems that enable producers to develop ecologically elegant 
ystems----surely one of the hallmarks of sustainability.

        2. Contrast this with the model Lathrop proposes---the broiler 
industry.  An October 26, 1992 issue of Time magazine pointed   out that
farmers who had contracted with Tyson to produce chicken for them had 
become "serfs on their own land".  Since Tyson was the only market, 
farmers were in no position to bargain or auction for better prices. 
They had not received an increase for their labor in 11 years despite 
the fact that their costs had increased by 50%.  In the processing 
plants workers received minimum wages  in extremely harsh working 
conditions that now make "fowl processing one of the nation's most 
hazardous jobs".   Furthermore, the manure overload from the massive 
concentration of chickens is creating an intolerable waste disposal 
problem that has numerous detrimental environmental impacts. Is this    
the "sustainable" future that Lathrop sees for beef producers and the 
rural communities in which beef is produced?
        3. Ours is a 3100 acre grain and livestock farm with 114 beef   
brood cows.  The beef cattle are fully integrated into the      cropping
system.  We feed our cattle no cash grain, only forages         and crop
residues.  We generate, on average, $300,000 gross revenue annually, and
haven't borrowed any operating funds in 20 years.  I assure you this is 
not a hobby farm.  We also get top price for our backgrounded 
calves---not because we are part of a vertically  integrated 
industry-managed quality control system, but because they are healthy,  
grass-fed, and ready to perform well when they hit the feed lot.  Over 
the past 10 years we have always gotten top dollar for our calves each 

Lathrop does suggest that producers need to cooperate.  I agree.  But 
they need to cooperate with one another (not some Tyson type 
corporation), develop direct markets where possible, and pool their 
capital to recapture part of the market sector by building locally owned
processing plants with product produced to meet specific market  niches 
that the IPB's of the world can't compete with---like high quality grass
and forage fed beef.  That way the wealth generated by beef enterprises 
will stay in local communities instead of being drained off to distant 
investors.  That is real rural development.  

If you want to respond to Fred you can do so at this E-mail address.