JUST THINK: When put to the test, people come up with better answers

<p>Dairy cows graze in a tight herd enclosed by an almost invisible single wire electric fence.</p>

    Kathleen Sayce’s August essay about cows’ impact on soils faces me every day in that there are two dairy farms in my neighborhood.

    One is a “traditional” or “conventional” farm with hundreds of cows that roam freely over large pastures — that is, when the low-lying fields aren’t drenched. During fall and winter rains, the cows are confined to a large barn, with feed trucked in and manure trucked out. The farmer, who comes from a pioneering local family, complains that he only breaks even, and not much more than that. At the same time, he is focused on acquiring more land, where again his animals can freely roam. The process seems a bit like the hamster running the wheel — or is the wheel running the hamster.

    The other dairy farm is visible from my window. I’ve written about it before — the apparently manicured pasture that cows inhabit in tight wedges only during the dry parts of the year. The pasture visible to me is on sort of a peninsula formed by the North Fork on the western edge and the old channel, now a slough, on the east and forming a natural barrier between our property and the pasture.

    This pasture is divided into pie-shaped sections by temporary electric fencing — a single wire rolled out to form a long narrow section of grass. When the herd is using this section of ground, the cows are herded into a paddock of sorts on the far side of the peninsula and the next day, or later the same day, are moved one paddock closer, until in a series of moves, they have swept the whole peninsula. Each time a new patch of ground is made available to them, the cows move quickly, almost joyfully, to the new spot of grass.

    All this I can watch with binoculars or a spotting scope. The cows are packed tight in their pasture wedges. The single-wire electric fence is invisible to the naked eye. Obviously someone has to tend these animals, sometimes on an ATV to move the fencing, sometimes on foot.

    When I say the cows move joyfully, I’m reminded of going to move a herd with Doc and Connie Hatfield, founding ranchers in Country Natural Beef, a cooperative. They, too, practiced a pasture management program similar to my neighbor’s dairy on their multi-thousand acre ranch southeast of Bend. Huge pastures converged to a point where Doc could open a gate to a new section and his cattle, which had already converged in a tight pack near the gates upon hearing the approaching pick-up, moved quickly into the new grazing area. They were downright frisky — and that’s what I see across the way: dairy cows not merely contented, but frisky.

    I write about this at length because it illustrates a conundrum. Kathleen Sayce wrote about high-intensity, short-impact grazing being better for soils, water quality and eventually fish. She didn’t mention, as another person told me, that the quality of the grass is also nutritionally superior.

    My question is this: Why does one farmer stay on course with his traditional approach while watching his income and personal energy dropping and another farmer, a bit younger but not all that different, adopt a different approach? What are the conditions that encourage adoption of a new paradigm? Pessimists say that we humans don’t change, won’t change, until we are so uncomfortable that we begin searching for alternatives.

    One social science theory is that as long as a person is being rewarded by the current paradigm, he will stick with it; those not being rewarded by the dominant paradigm will not be blinded by the rewards but able to see the negative consequences of staying the course. It is those outliers who innovate, often because they have to. A simple example is immigration. People don’t move away from their home situation, whether a community on the East Coast or an impoverished part of southern Europe, when they are living well, both materially and spiritually.

    These concepts apply to our current political, economic, and environmental dilemmas. As long as those who have the opportunity to make decisions or influence policy merely pick up their paycheck based on the dominant paradigm, solutions are less likely to emerge. It is only the risk-takers, the particularly thoughtful, or those driven by higher order intellectual or spiritual values who will experiment with new paradigms. In the high-tech world, a creative individual might also make a fortune, unlike our local dairymen.

    Victoria Stoppiello is a freelance writer and was amused by this quote, “The way we’re headed, we’re going to get there.” You can reach her at anthonyvictoria1@gmail.com.


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