Going to the Source

It is a fairly intuitive assumption that research is essential in beginning to understand a foreign problem space. AC4D takes us right into it with the first quarter’s research and synthesis course. Design research, guided by ethnography, is different than any research I’ve done before. It’s immersive, sometimes awkward, and very rich. I’ve spent the last week and a half running around the Austin area with my classmate, Jay, engaging with people around our selected focus: the environmental and public health impacts of intermediate* livestock farms and ranches.

*Note: the USDA classifies intermediate farms as “farms with less than $350,000 in gross cash farm income and a principal operator whose primary occupation is farming.”

Our meetings kicked off with some subject matter experts: academics, city officials, and professionals seeking to improve the animal product industry. Throughout these inquiries, Jay and I struggled to dig into a lot of the topics we thought would be primary concerns in this space: managing manure, emissions from transportation and livestock, and water quality. These yielded quicker, straightforward responses, while our discussions journeyed deep into topics surrounding food access, the weight of consumer demand, and the economics of urban farmland. When externalizing our data, our very initial inspiration, waste management, found itself in the lonely, far right, bottom corner of our board. Jay and I began to question our focus.

So, where do we go from here?

We needed to hear first-hand what the farmers are dealing with, so we journeyed out to two farms and hammered on our original environment-centric questions. My visits to both the poultry farm of about 1,000 birds and to the ranch of 50 purely grass-fed gave me a high I hadn’t felt before during this research experience. I had finally connected with the people whose activities I’ve been trying to understand! It seems pretty obvious that one should talk to farmers if his or her focus is around farms, right? Trust me, it was on our radar, but, when it came to fruition, I developed such a deeper understanding and appreciation for needing to go to the source of my research focus.

I’d like to share some of the things I learned on these two farms that challenged my initial assumptions and guided where I think I’m going next. It’s a small sample set, so there are likely some exceptions to these findings. One of my goals for the next week of research is to test and challenge these takeaways.

 

Waste is impressively minimal on small-scale farms.

The poultry farm we visited only has one element of waste, and that is duck feathers, which they compost. (Funny enough, it seems like there could be a lucrative market in selling those.) Everything else that could potentially be waste is either fed to animals or put back into the soil.

The cattle ranchers find themselves with a bit more materials, but it is all stuff that can be recycled or composted. Even the bailing wire is 100% recyclable.

I thought getting rid of manure may be a task some of these intermediate farms had to undertake, but it turns out it’s really hard to find any farms in the area that are getting rid of manure, let alone “natural” manure. If you’re looking for organic manure, then be ready to shell out some cash. No one seems to be giving that away.

Smaller farms are, by design, more self-sustainable, and they thrive off their carefully designed ecosystems.

Moving the animals around the farm is essential to fertilizing the soil and allowing the land to thrive. With a healthy ratio of animals to land, the pasture is able to take a lot of regenerative matters into its own hands. Certainly practices like rotating livestock, feeding the livestock a proper diet, composting, and fertilizing are important elements of human intervention. These farmers make informed decisions around how to work with nature instead of against it.

On another interesting note, the cattle ranch we visited doesn’t kill any predators, because they see them as an important part of the ecosystem. While others shoot coyotes, not a single coyote has ever hurt their cattle, so they leave them be.

Water contamination is hardly on these farms’ radars (nor on the protection agencies’).

When doing our initial secondary research, Jay and I found several websites talking about manure run-off into water sources. We figured that this must be something to dig into. Turns out, when you have a well-contained, manageable farm, manure goes where it’s supposed to, and not into nearby water sources.

Between farm visits, I spoke to a man who specializes in identifying potential sources of water contamination, and he continually re-iterated that we were way too focused on livestock farms; these weren’t the issue. To him, livestock farms are one small concern under an umbrella of hundreds. Adding to this thought, a professor at Texas A&M shared study results with us yesterday, revealing that wildlife, and particularly birds, are where we really need to focus our water preservation efforts.

So, again, where do we go from here?’ I thought to myself as we pulled away from the ranch.

The farms we visited have their processes down, but do all or most intermediate farms? Further, our country heavily relies on commercial agriculture to meet our demand for animal products. How do these industrialized farms fare across our environmental and public health concerns? How large can we scale while still maintaining the serendipitous balancing effects I witnessed on the farms I visited?

Spending hours on these farms showed me that some people DO have it figured out. They can raise animals humanely while progressively making their land richer and making a living. I now see the issue as less with being able to farm sustainably, and more with being able to farm in a way that gives back to the earth while also meeting growing global demand for animal protein. Is this possible? Currently, there’s no strong, clear alternative to our nation’s farming practices that wouldn’t carry with it harmful food security tradeoffs.

Experts I’ve spoken with have all ended up at the consumer. In order to alleviate pressure on livestock farmers and give them flexibility to implement more ecologically responsible practices, we need to alleviate consumer demand. So, then, how do we realistically influence consumers to reduce their animal product consumption? From there, if we are successful at reducing animal product consumption, how will this impact the pressures placed on produce and grain farmers?

Each messy problem keeps leading me to another connected and equally messy problem!

I had thought that going to the source and conducting diligence around my initial focus would take me back into that focus. Instead, it reinforced a lot of the connected issues that have been pulling me in other directions. I now feel more empowered to pursue the questions that have been calling out to me, and I definitely would not feel this way if it weren’t for engaging with the heart of my research focus.

With that, I suppose you can’t predict what you will get out of engaging with the primary stakeholder you are trying to understand. You can expect the engagement to yield fruitful guidance in framing what you want to want to solve, while at the same time leaving you with that same, ever-pressing question:

Where do I go from here?