My farming is everyone's business

Starting out in raising sheep I consulted with a few men I respected very much. One question I had concerned the special nourishment needs of ewes who were in their last weeks before lambing; and two of the farmers I respected most agreed that it was best to add an antibiotic to the feed at that time to prevent abortions.

This was what I did, and sure enough, I had no abortions. But I kept hearing all those reports about the overuse of antibiotics causing the evolution of super-bugs. News stories were claiming that, because doctors were placating patients by prescribing unnecessary antibiotics, because some patients were not taking their full course of antibiotics when they were needed, and because farmers were using antibiotics unwisely, new antibiotics couldn’t be developed to keep up with the strains of resistant bacteria that were evolving all the time. Agribusiness people have denied the connection of resistance in people to antibiotic use in livestock, but many researchers insist there is genuine cause for concern.

So, years later, I phoned my experienced sheep farming friends once again. Lo and behold, I learned that they each had quit adding the antibiotics to their feed. What were the results? They had observed no increase of abortions. Neither have I. In the four years since I have stopped adding antibiotics to the feed of my ewes, I have yet to have a single abortion.

This simple observation has BIG IMPLICATIONS. One applies to both the economics of farming and to the economics of life in general: Progress takes more than product. In a sheep related teleconference sponsored by the University of Illinois Extension Service several years ago a farmer confessed to a big revolution in his life. Following the lead of all the experts he had spent most of his career aiming at output; and he had indeed built a huge operation. But he got to the point where he realized all the exotic breeding he was pursuing, and the special feeds and chemicals he was using, had helped him produce a lot of huge sheep, but his costs were exploding. Now he had shifted to raising sheep that got along just fine on plain old-fashioned grazing of grass. The result was lower output, but much, much lower input, higher profits, and a much more pleasurable farming experience.

The second BIG IMPLICATION is that my welfare is tied to that of my community. The dumbest thing I have ever heard a farmer say is that it’s nobody else’s business what he does with his land and his animals. Of course, it is everyone else’s business. Few people have as much impact on the quality of the soil, water, air and public health as farmers. If there is any chance that I am adding to the threat of antibiotic-resistant organisms, I absolutely must examine my practices.

And what is true for farming is true for all of life. Nic Marks, the founder of the Centre for Well-Being, and the new economics foundation in London, has recently published “The Happiness Manifesto.” He declares that because, during this last century, societies have been striving almost exclusively for economic growth, they have sickened themselves and the planet. He urges individuals, communities and nations to aim instead at sustainable ways at increasing the happiness or well-being of all citizens and of the environment.

I once thought antibiotics were essential to the health of my flock. Now I know both my flock and my entire community are better off if I practice smarter, more sustainable, and more environmentally safe agriculture.

This article appeared in the Daily Chronicle on March 4, 2011. Page A2