Grass Fields in Motion; Meet the Philosopher Farmer

Jul 31, 2019

Lately there’s been a growing outcry about how eating meat is bad for the planet. But a new breed of regenerative farmers say, exactly the opposite is true. They argue, that an age-old farming practice known as rotational grazing, if more widely adopted, could actually save the planet, by sequestering carbon, restoring depleted soil and producing more nutritious meat than conventional farming. It’s all about how the animals are raised.

CedricRic Shannon and his wife Sarah bought ‘Weathertop’ Farm in 2003, just before it was about to broken up for house lots. On this sunny Saturday morning, he’s taking a hay wagon full of visitors on a tour of the place. He says it’s about making that connection, just telling customers his meats are grown locally isn’t enough.  It could sound like one of those green washing things and just because it’s local doesn’t necessary mean anything. I want them to come see that I’m actually practicing what I preach.”

Credit Kurt Holtz

He stops the wagon near a pasture where beautiful red pigs are grazing to talk about the way this farm is different than most. is so passionate about regenerative farming that he’ll spend time explaining it in detail, as though it’s the first time he’s telling the story.

“We used to measure the Midwest soil in feet and now we measure it in inches and if we don’t do something about it our grandkids are not going to eat, period.  We’ve gone a long way into making this country into a desert.”

Weathertop Farm is a far cry from the flat plains of the Midwest, near where the Shannons used to live.  This pasture is on a high plateau among gently rolling hills. and slowly rolling live stock shelters, where the animals graze for a day or more, before they and their coops are literally moved to greener pastures.  That’s the whole idea of regenerative farming.  As they feed, the animals sort of mow the native grasses, and then they, well, ‘fertilize’ it. By moving on, they give the pasture a chance to grow back as they head to next luscious grazing ground..

Shannon credits Swope, VA regenerative farmer, Joel Salatin as a leader in the field of regenerative farming. Shannon, who grew up in the Congo, also credits Zimbabwean ecologist Clifford Alan Savory and the writer/environmentalist Wendell Berry, as inspiration for this approach to raising animals; You enrich the earth instead of depleting its nutrients .

Weathercrop sells grass fed – and in some cases, mostly grass-fed meats and poultry at farmers’ markets in Floyd, VA and Blacksburg, as well as direct from the farm and by order.  He does feed some grain, as chickens and pigs can’t survive entirely on grass, but he sources that grain to be sure it’s organic, non GMO and does not travel all the way from China, because for it to travel that long distance, is a burden on the earth as well.  “When I explain this to my customers, they get an understanding of why I have to charge a little more.”

Shannon raises livestock but he says his true ‘crop’ is the grass.  It all goes back to the cycle of grass eating and soil producing, and the way livestock keep that cycle alive. “It’s perennial. It’s permaculture. It’s the ultimate permaculture culture out there and we’re just kind of putting the animals on top. They condition the soil, condition the pasture and then we get to reap all the nice benefits on top.”

Far from harming the planet, regenerative farmers say an intact ecosystem like this, where the soil is constantly being fed and rejuvenated, is the only thing that can save it and that the animals, specifically ruminants like sheep, and other grass eating species, are key to that cycle.  Shannon points to tall, dense grasses that don’t exactly look like they’re easy to chew. “They’re taking that stuff that we couldn’t even remotely eat and they’re turning it into food for us.”

So, plants do play roll here, but Shannon argues that without cycling them through the animals, none of that magic happens. And that brings us to his existential question, ‘Can Your beans do that?’  It’s the name of his Podcast. He was a philosophy major in college, and it’s an apparent he was listening in class. 

“I’m calling this Podcast, “Waste Not….”  He invokes the Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard and several others, “So this is the language of gestalt, this is the language of emergence, this is the language of symbiotic emerging systems; much of the language that I use when I talk about ecology.”

Rumination has its benefits, in thought, and in farming.  So according to this way of thinking, in order to take an important step forward, we have to also look back. “As Wendell Berry says, ‘we take a beautiful solution and separate it into 6 different problems. Whereas, this is all intact. All the systems, all the feedback loops have evolved over millennia, to make it work and if they didn’t work, they would have disappeared. And we’re trying to reclaim that synergy bet the ruminants, all animals, and the soil.”

Click here for Shannon's podcast, "Can Your Beans Do That?"