REVIEW: All Flesh is Grass
The echoing green
The latest from Gene Logsdon advocates grass-based farming on every scale

Reviewed by Laura Sayre

Details:

All Flesh is Grass: The pleasures and promises of pasture farming

Gene Logsdon, Swallow Press, 2004; ISBN 0-8040-1069-2; 262 pp; $18.95

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December 9 , 2004: All Flesh is Grass, the latest title from the prolific—not to say garrulous—Gene Logsdon, is well-timed to capitalize on the recent surge of interest in grassfed meat and dairy products. It's not easy to write a series of essays that are at once a pleasure to read and a wealth of practical information, but as his fans will know, Logsdon is a master of the form, and he hasn't lost his touch. This book won't tell you everything you need to know about small-scale grass-based livestock management (or what Logsdon's coined as 'pasture farming') by any means, but it could very well inspire you to take your first steps in that direction, and will give you a good idea of what you'll be getting yourself in for if you do.

Logsdon begins with a (rather tantalizingly) brief history of the thinking behind grass-based farming and a somewhat more detailed account of his own gradual enlightenment on the subject. As he points out, the British (in fact Scots, not English, as Logsdon says) agricultural writer James Anderson argued in the 1770s that "[a] farmer who has any extent of pasture ground should have it divided into fifteen or twenty divisions. . . and the beasts be given a fresh park each morning, so that the same delicious repast might be repeated" (p. 6).

The ideas behind rotational grazing, in other words, are not new, but have been largely suppressed in this country for economic reasons—above all, by subsidies for grain production, including the indirect subsidy provided cheap oil.

With economic conditions shifting—more expensive oil, more cheap grain coming in from overseas, more demand for healthier, leaner meat—grass farming has a chance of regaining the ascendancy.

Even so, it won't be easy to convince humid-land farmers on anything but the steepest slopes to give up cash grain production. Rotational grazing in the arid West is one thing, but to grow grass alone where you could get 180-bushel corn? It flies in the face of nature. "I'm not ready to become a rancher," an Iowa organic farmer told me recently, "that seems like putting all your eggs in one basket."

But in truth, it may be a matter of emphasis, a question of viewing your row crops as a break in a sod-based rotation or your sod crops as a break in your row-crop rotation. As Logsdon puts it, "if the mix of 90 percent annual grain and 10 percent pasture that now reigns on our better farms was turned around to 80 percent pasture and 20 percent grain, farming could again be profitable and ecologically sane" (p. 2).

At any rate—and perhaps for that very reason—Logsdon throws the majority of his pitches to the small grass-farmer, or what he sometimes refers to as the 'grass gardener,' the owners of five- to ten-acre ranchettes who maybe already keep a horse or two, or a few sheep, or some goats, mainly for recreation, and may not be thinking about efficient pasture management, or, on the other hand, the owners of two- to five-acre country properties who don't have animals but instead mow expanses of fruitless lawn for no reason they've ever given much thought to.

With this audience in mind, the chapters move from a discussion of infrastructure (buildings, fences, water supplies), to grazing animals of different types (horses and donkeys, sheep, cows, goats, pigs, poultry), to plant species and their management (grasses, legumes, grains, weeds, hay and silage, trees). It's pretty evident which chapters Logsdon is writing from direct experience versus those which he has researched in order to round out his coverage of the overall subject. ("As far as caring for sheep in general, one learns over the years that sheep love to die" [p. 98].) On the other hand, Logsdon helpfully enlivens his leisurely account of his own pasture farming experiences with occasional mini-profiles of other pasture farmers, from Mark and Debbie Apple, who direct market milk from a small herd of Dutch Belted cows, feeding no grain and milking just once a day (pp. 38-9), to Bob Evans, founder of the restaurant chain, who grazes 2000 acres in southern Ohio year-round and who is, if possible, an even more cantankerous advocate of grass farming than Logsdon himself.

The chapters on grasses and other forage species are probably the most useful (one might only suggest that they come first instead of last, as being most fundamental to the subject). Like the book as a whole, they contain valuable information both for beginning and experienced graziers. Quirkier, or more radical, sections are devoted to farm ponds and the stocking of fish as another form of 'grass farming,' to grains for grazing, and to wildlife as an element of pasture farming. Throughout, Logsdon's open-mindedness is both refreshing and instructive—in a lifetime of farming, he says, he's been forced to question assumptions and reexamine received ideas so many times that he no longer dismisses any idea out of hand, no matter how crazy it may seem at first.

That grassfed livestock systems are more efficient than grain-and-confinement systems will be evident to anyone who has visited New Zealand, where a wholly unsubsidized agricultural economy thrives despite naturally poor soils and extreme geographic isolation. Because grass farming requires less infrastructure and equipment than grain farming, and fewer inputs, it may be prove more accessible to young and beginning farmers and therefore help to broaden and diversify our agricultural base. With luck, All Flesh is Grass will serve to narrow the gap between potential consumers of grassfed meat and dairy products, grain-oriented farmers, and the growing ranks of those already converted to the principles of grass farming.

Laura Sayre is senior writer for NewFarm.org.