by Marion Nestle
Jul 11 2014

Weekend reading: Grass (the green kind)

Courtney White, Grass, Soil, Hope: A Journey through Carbon Country.  Chelsea Green, 2014.

New Picture


Courtney White, whom I do not know but would like to, describes himself as a former archaeologist and Sierra Club activist who became a producer of grass-fed beef, thereby catching on to the importance of grass for restoring nutrients to soil, reducing climate change, and feeding the planet.  Carbon, he says, is key and we can achieve all this with low-tech methods.

He visits a bunch of “new agrarians” who are managing carbon-conserving agriculture, from farms to rooftops.

We’re all carbon.  We live in a carbon universe.  We breathe carbon, eat carbon, use carbon products, profit from the carbon cycle, and suffer from the carbon poisoning taking place in our atmosphere…We could, for example, find ways to support the 2 percent of Americans who actively manage the soil portion of the carbon cycle.  There are a million ways to help them, starting with the power of the purchasing dollar.  Seek out the new agrarians and buy their products.  Better yet, get involved yourself.

He writes well, and convincingly.

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  • Lorraine Lewandrowski

    Well , the old “agrarians” in Upstate NY have been grazing cows for centuries now.

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  • Brian Klein

    I’m glad to see this movement is gaining traction. Hopefully our regulators will not find a way or reason to stifle it. But I’m sure Big Ag will have something to say about it before it’s all said and done.

  • NECroeus

    Very good book. His Quivira Coalition in New Mexico does great work on a low budget. This book – along with his previous one – should be required reading for all urban, cow bashing greens.

  • pawpaw

    You’ve written well on related issues before, of the value of NYC embracing upstate dairy producers, of your efforts toward this dialogue.

    Is upstate NY milk production dependent on trucked in corn and soy? If so, how did that happen, and why did you leave the model that worked for centuries? With per capita milk consumption dropping, which dairy models are sustainable in the long term? Both in short term economics, and in terms of building soil carbon? (A dairyman in my area shared that he receives the suicide hotline number along with each milk check.) How easy is it for NY citizens to buy your milk, or specifically from your dairy co-op? What needs to change to make (more of) that happen?

    What are the current economics of grass-based, seasonal dairying, in your area? Know any farmers making this work? What are the impediments to going with that model?

    (My situation; skip this if not into milk or meat from grass: Here in VA, we were below minus 10F many times last winter, but usually with snow cover. We’ve been selecting Jerseys that retain body condition on grass and hay alone, and breed back well. But since we only milk 2-4 at a time, allows us to select for those traits. We’re using NZ genetics to help us get and stay there, as much of NZ dairy is still grass-based.)

    From the book above, are locals willing to pay for carbon-building cattle, at a scale to make it viable? Our market customers enjoy Jersey steer beef, as well as our Devon-Angus crosses. But there are few farmers locally who pay all their bills from cattle alone, or who are willing/able to promote their offerings for regional sales. We were talking today, that we need to be more intentional about seeking out additional customers who might support local/regional, grass-based farming, as in the last paragraph Marion quoted above. I recall you’ve been frustrated in your bridge-building efforts before. Any glimmers of hope heading forward? Strategies that might work?

  • Lorraine Lewandrowski

    Hello! Nice of you to think of us Upstate, PawPaw. Will try to go briefly down your questions. The Northeast has long been home to thousands of grazing herds. Due to harsh winters, typically supplemented with grain (some of which was locally grown). If you google “cow islands” you will see that around the nation cows are being moved into more concentrated areas some economists call “cow islands.” We have been losing the mid-sized farms that graze. We have about 3,000,000 acres in NY alone of grasslands standing mostly idle.
    I would say the loss of these small and mid-sized farms in the northeast has been of high concern to the urban food movement. Now that the farm bill is over, farmers have faded from the media. Urban writers and professional PR of outfits like Chipotle and Stonyfield pretty much control the discourse. If anything, I’ve found an increase in the heckling farmers take if they try to speak now.
    It is very difficult to sell milk from our coop or farm as none of us have a bottling plant or access to shelf space. Most of the milk in my neighborhood of small grazing farms goes to Chobani. A few of us here and there are working on perhaps making artisan cheese. But, given tighter regulations, this is becoming more costly and requiring even more education in food science, out of reach of most.
    NY was recently rated the second most hostile state in the US to farmers by ag economists at Colorado State who rated states on dozens of parameters. Tough to talk with urban people about these parameters when they are not listening and reiterating how they only want organic milk because it is “better.” Again, very little focus on what the farmers might need to survive, with the focus being mostly on what the consumers want. Key consumers cherry pick the 1 out of a 100 farms that is certified organic to care about. This destroys hope of looking at the ecosystems and communities upstate. Only an ecosystem comprised of many farms can provide contiguous habitat, not the 1 in a 100 farms that is organic. Only groups of farms provide critical mass can sustain an ag community of machinery dealers, suppliers, vets, etc.
    Going forward, milk prices are good now ($25 per 100 pounds of whole milk, as opposed to $10 a few years ago.) We still see suicides. My organic neighbor burned his house and barn down and then killed himself, mired in debt. No doubt that farming in NY is very stressful.
    NY is 7.2 million acres of farmland (1/3 of that is in woodlot and perennial pasture). Last figure I saw was that 170,000 acres were certified organic.
    If you or anyone else is interested, please email me at and I’ll shoot you some pieces I wrote on what we have been trying to do to see if we can entice urban NY to speak with us. I did have a technological break-through. I was able to speak to the NYC Bar Association via Skype about the above issues.
    Although urban food groups do not seem very interested, I will say that the Chinese are. We are seeing more reports of Chinese investors buying farmland in our rainfed northeast and Ontariio. A Chinese film crew from China State TV was in my area this weekend filming clean and green pastures and sincere farmers for a special on growing exports of US dairy to China. Once Port Authority is expanded and the Panama Canal expansion completed, more markets will open up to move NY powdered milk, whey and cheese overseas, while importing more fruits and vegetables (and possibly meat)into NYC. The same goes for Port of Miami where a dedicated “food train” will bring imported fruits and vegetables into the heartland, and possibly backhauling dairy and grain back out. I am hoping that prices stay at $25/hundred pounds as this will help some of the smaller and mid-sized farms stay afloat. Asian demand will help.
    In the meantime, a small group of us are trying to educate NYC and beyond on the rainfed grass of the Northeast as a resource that can help feed NYC milk and meat, while sequestering carbon, providing biodiversity and critical habitat, protect watersheds, etc. Please check out our Facebook page at New York Grassland Alliance. We welcome any farmer who uses grasslands for even a portion of their farm and we welcome any consumer interested in grasslands ecology of our home state, NY. And, email me, I have been open to talking cows and grazing for a good half century now. 🙂