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What are you breeding for?

Wendell Berry has an essay in which he argues that the greatest single evidence for the merits of British culture is that they developed sixty-five breeds of sheep:

What does it mean that an island not much bigger than Kansas or more than twice the size of Kentucky should have developed sixty or so breeds of sheep? It means that many thousands of farmers were paying the most discriminating attention, not only to their sheep, but also to the nature of their local landscapes and economies, for a long time. They were responding intelligently to the requirement of local adaptation. The result, when such an effort is carried on by enough intelligent farmers in the same region for a long time, is the dvelopment of a distinct breed that fits regional needs. Such local adaptation is the most important requirement for agriculture, wherever it occurs. If you are going to adapt your farming to a variety of landscapes, you are going to need a variety of livesotck breeds, and a variety of types within breeds.

The great diversity of livestock breeds, along with the great diversity of domestic plant varieties, can be thought of as a sort of vocabulary with which we may make appropriate responses to the demands of a great diversity of localities. The goal of intelligent farmers, who desire the long-term success of farming, is to adapt their work to their places. Local adaptation always requires reasonably correct answers to two questions: What is the nature - the need and opportunity - of the local economy? and, What is the nature of the place? For example, it is a mistake to answer the economic question by plowing too steep a hillside, just as it is a mistake to answer the geographic or ecological question in a way that denies the farmer a living. (Bringing It to the Table p. 49-50)

The idea that the genius of the place and farmer and local economy might arise together to produce something enormously valuable, not just even if its merits are not universal, but because its merits are not universal, is a very strange one in modern culture, and particularly in modern agriculture. Instead, the show ring and the meat processor and the idea that "bestness" is a universal, rather than a specific, have produced an overwhelming pressure towards there being, say, one kind of milk cow - Holstein-Friesien, and a small smattering of a few other secondary varieties, all pretty much with one kind of dairy body conformation. It has reduced the number of livestock varieties dramatically, as many breeds have died out over the years.

In some cases this happened because the economy changed - that is, the farmer's economy no longer permitted animals that grew out more slowly than others - even if they were healthier overall or more suited to the environment. The economy of shipping cheap grain and our abundance meant that an animal that grew entirely on pasture wasn't rewarding to the farmer for its natural thrift.

In other cases, it came about because of the dream of a single and unified best variety. The best tomato, the best sheep, the best chicken - how often do we hear that question - tell me what the best variety, the best breed is? And magazines and books do - even though the answer to that question is usually "well, for these particular circumstances..." Rarely do the caveats come through.

The consequences of this has been decades of breeding for show conformation, for industrial production, for cheap energy and cheap inputs. There's nothing bad about showing, which can reveal a great deal, and the changes in agriculture economies were real - but the reality is that we have spent decades breeding livestock for conditions that will probably cease to exist, and that we undid centuries, and millenia of overspecialization in our breeding. Going back - or rather, going forward from where we are, will be a central project. The consequences of stock that is *inappropriate* to one's place and economy is enormous - and can be devastating to farmers and local food systems.

In _Becoming Native to this Place_ Wes Jackson describes an incident in the history of livestock breeding - an attempt, after World War I, to introduce better milk genetics into the existing dairy goats of rural Germany by importing Swiss stock. The German goats were a motley bunch, producing only a cup or two of milk a day. It was done with the best of intentions - more milk seemed like an important goal in a nation with endemic hunger. And yet, a few years after the new goats were introduced, upon revisting the German villages in question, they found that there had been an enormous change- for the worse. Instead of everyone in the community owning a goat, and getting to drink a bit of milk every day, almost no one had a goat - only the most affluent members of the community. These people were indeed, drinking more milk. But the hungriest people were hungrier, and suffering overall greater malnutrition, because of the loss of their goats.

What happened? Well, the new goats did indeed produce more milk - but did so by requiring many more inputs than the previous goats. The original German goats were fed entirely on marginal weeds, grasses and food scraps - the Swiss goats required grain, which, if these people could have bought it at all, they would have eaten themselves. The same story has happened over and over again in history - Helena Norberg-Hodge documents the same change in Ladakh, where traditional dairy cows were introduced to take the place of the multi-purpose Dzo, which provided traction, milk and manure and was uniquely adapted to the high altitude terrain and could survive on local vegetation. The Jersey cows brought in required sturdy barns and lots of inputs, and became ill easily.

For ordinary people and their food systems, having animals appropriate to the economic and ecological realities of their world is a central project, and yet, very few Americans realize the degree to which the future of their dinners is wholly in the hands of farmers - some of whom are taking enormous economic risks to begin adapting our agriculture back to the realities of a life with fewer energy inputs, less wealth and a changing climate.

Consider an example near me, Dharma Lea Farms, presided over by Paul and Phyllis Van Amburgh. Located in Sharon Springs, New York, they are engaged in an radical project - the reinvention of the dairy cow. I've not met Paul and Phyllis in person, although they don't live that far from me and we've corresponded (there are an astonishing number of amazing farmers near me that I'm dying to meet - the price of everyone being busy, I guess). I helped find homes for many of their spring calves this year, to help keep them out of feedlots. I was then intrigued by a recent article in Cornell Cooperative Extension's _Small Farm Quarterly_ about their project - the invention of a wholly grass-based dairy, and the development of a cow able to produce milk entirely on grass. Paul Van Amburgh writes:

In our crossbred herd, we are selecting for a thousand-pound cow that is highly fertile, has good feet and udder, and a reasonable production of milk with high components (protein and butterfat). This cow must be able to produce a calf every year and 9,000 pounds of milk (about half the conventional dairy average), while maintaining herself without any grain.

It sounds simple, but understand, for the last 75 years high production has been the central concern in dairy breeding. The end result has been lare cows, producing lare volumes of milk while also requiring great volumes of high quality feed. As an old farmer once observed, "We have bred everything out of her except the milk." This single trait selection approach has been tragic for both teh cows adn the farmers. The high-maintenence animals taht we have ended up with are no longer economical to keep, and they do not return a profit to the farmer - one reason dairy farming is in free fall. Small Farm Quarterly Summer 2010, page 14

Van Amburgh goes on to note that just as there is a traditional "dairy conformation" he's begun to see a new kind of conformation emerging in his most successful animals - but that that conformation isn't recognized by other dairy farmers or in the show ring. Eventually, perhaps it will be - and eventually the merits of Van Amburgh's project become obvious, particularly in our region, which does not produce a lot of grain.

I make no claims that our own project is as imaginative or ambitious as Van Amburgh's or as those who attempt to restore lost breeds or invent new ones, but we too are asking ourselves that, as our babies are born. What are we breeding for? How do we begin to get it?

And the answer is that we are breeding our Nigerian Dwarf goats to be suitable for milk production on very small lots - so that urban and suburban folk can produce milk that is safe, healthy and nutritious even if they don't live on a farm. Until recently the reality of moving to denser housing has meant that you are then wholly vulnerable to the food system that exists in your neighborhood - if there's a great source of local milk, you are fortunate. If not, you have no options - but small dairy goats, able to live on a tiny piece of land and thrive there, small enough to be handled by children, quiet and easygoing enough to be pets as well as milk goats - that's something we need, particularly given the likely rising costs of refrigerated transport in the coming decades.

We are also breeding for lower inputs - fewer grains and better seasonal milk production without grain. And on this point, we're just beginning - most bucks and does have been evaluated primarily on their traditional dairy conformation and their total milk production, so it is almost impossible to go out and search for a buck whose mother and grandmother produce milk on pasture while remaining healthy and maintaining a good body weight. A "good buck" is one with good milk genetics, not with good thrift genetics. So we are starting largely from scratch here - figuring out how our does do on the new regimen, and experimenting with our breeding program.

Our goal eventually is to produce good, solid, strong, healthy goats that also give milk on pasture and require few inputs. We'd like also to explore fiber crosses with angora goats, and possibly working on meatier carcasses as well - eventually the goal would be the emergence of a triple purpose goat that was good for meat, milk and fiber - or perhaps several multi-purpose goats. Others have begun this work ahead of us, and are more advanced at it, and we are learning from them - and yet I think there's value that we do it too, for our particular space and conditions. This is a project of time and place, and we are just beginning - and yet I think it has merit.

The genius of our place and economy, I hope will eventually overcome some of the initial deficits of the farmer - and we will eventually begin to speak the language of an appropriate agriculture again. It is a language that requires above all participation and engagement, not just good breeding but people who want the products of that breeding. While at the level of larger livestock, it may not be for everyone, at the most basic level - the project of adapting the plants and animals we depend on to our conditions, everyone can participate by purchasing products from farmers and gardeners who are engaged in these kinds of selection, and by the simplest kinds of home selection - saving seeds, choosing only the best plants to preserve, and, whether you are breeding plants or animals, thinking hard about what it is you are choosing to preserve for the next generation.


Editorial Notes: Photo credit: flickr/just chaos

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