The Wealth of Nations Revisited
In 1776, the same year of the American Declaration of Independence, Adam Smith wrote “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations,” generally referred to by its shortened title “The Wealth of Nations.” What makes a nation wealthy? According to this summary of Smith’s work, “Smith held that the wealth of a nation, what we today call the income of a nation, depends upon (1) the productivity of labor and (2) the proportion of laborers who are usefully or productively employed.” Smith was all about division of labor and productivity and the origin of money and such.
But hold on. What is wealth? What is it really? At it’s core? Am I wealthy because I have indoor plumbing? Or because I drive a Volvo? Or because I can choose between a hundred different kinds of boxed cereal at the grocery store? Or because I have a cell phone? Or because I have a big bank account? Hmm. Is my nation (America) wealthy because most people in America have all these things? Is my nation wealthy because we have thousands of massive farms which grow millions of bushels of corn and soybeans using huge combines with air conditiong, TV and GPS? What if those farms (and those farming practices) are destroying our soil instead of building it? Then what? What if 100 years from now America is like the Sahara Desert? Will we be wealthy then? Something tells me that indoor plumbing and Volvos will be irrelevant if we cannot eat.
So what is real tangible wealth? (I’m interested in TANGIBLE wealth in this article, which is to be distinguished from REAL wealth, that is, Treasure in Heaven. See Matthew 6:19-21.)
I would have to say that at the bottom of it, at the foundation of of it … THE (TANGIBLE) WEALTH OF NATIONS IS LAND. Let me repeat that in bold type.
THE WEALTH OF NATIONS IS LAND
And it so happens that our land – our farmland that is – is being destroyed. Year by year. Inch by inch. If you don’t believe me, read Joel Salatin’s book “The Sheer Ecstasy of Being a Lunatic Farmer.” He’s the guy who Chipotle buys their meat from. And in my opinion he’s one of the most important visionaries of modern times. He should get a Nobel prize but I’m sure that will never happen. After all, he’s a lunatic. Anyone who says they are a farmer but doesn’t own a plow is a lunatic, right?
The truth is that Joel is one of the few farmers on the planet who is BUILDING WEALTH (soil) instead of DESTROYING WEALTH (soil). Quite NON-lunatic actually. In fact, maybe it’s the rest of us who are the real lunatics.
How does Joel build wealth? Two ways that I see.
1) He builds soil
2) He catches water
In my opinion, these are the two most fundamental aspects of tangible wealth building. Everything else builds off of these fundamentals. Think about it. If you don’t have soil and water, you cannot feed yourself. And if you cannot feed yourself you are not wealthy. Period. I don’t care if you have a Rolls Royce sitting in your garage. You cannot eat a Rolls Royce and if you don’t have something to eat, you will die. Now obviously you need other things too. You need plants – perennial grasses to be specific – if you are going to build soil. And you need animals. And soil organisms. And you need sunshine. And you need air. Now these latter items are obvious and readily available. But building soil is not obvious. And most people don’t even know that we need to build soil. And water catchment is all too uncommon.
Soil building. To build soil you need (most visibly) two things – a) cows (or bison or some sort of herding herbivore) and b) perennial grasses. Yes, you need some ancillary things as well – coyotes, wolves, mountain lions (or electric fence) to pack the herd into a dense mob. And you need earthworms and other soil organisms and so on. But it all centers around THE HERD and PERENNIAL GRASSES. It’s an amazing system and it wasn’t invented by Joel Salatin. It was invented by God. God is an engineer by the way. I like to think of God in this way because I have an engineering mind. I love electro-mechanical gadgetry and God apparently does too. From an engineering perspective, perennial grasses and herbivores are amazing electro-mechanical gadgets. As are earthworms. And soil bacteria. Actually they are much more than that. Every organism on the planet is actually an unbelievably sophisticated computer controlled robotic machine, composed in turn of zillions unbelievably sophisticated computer controlled robotic nano-factories (cells). All working in synchronicity to accomplish some purpose decreed by the Master Engineer. Here’s a simplified overview of natural soil building from an engineering perspective: A grass seed sprouts – an amazing process in itself. The sun shines and another amazing process begins – the use of light to create plant food. Grass grows tall and roots reach their maximum extent in the soil. Along comes Bessie and eats the grass. At this point yet another amazing thing happens with the grass plant. It sheds a large part of it’s root system. In other words, the roots prune themselves and the dead roots become organic matter in the soil. Think about that! How many home gardeners all across America spend money, time and energy going to the garden center and buying bags of cotton bolls or cow manure or what have you, then laboriously digging in their gardens to incorporate the organic matter into their soil. So from an engineering perspective, God has created an Automatic Soil Enhancing System. Cow eats grass. Soil is enriched. Automatically. Brilliant. But wait. There’s more. Cows have four stomachs which process grass and turn it into a) high density protein (meat) and b) manure. Now the benefit of the meat is obvious, but how about the manure? Manure is yucky, right? Let’s get rid of it. Yes it’s yucky if not managed properly, but again, God has designed a wonderful system to manage it properly. Here’s how it works: the manure exits the back end of the cow and immediately gets stomped and spread by the herd. Then the herd moves on because they’ve eaten all the grass and birds come along and pick out all the maggots and spread the manure even more. Maggots are like filet mignon to a bird and manure is like butter pecan ice cream to a grass plant. They love this stuff! Thus the cycle is complete. Sun makes grass grow. Cow eats grass and gains protein. Grass plant feeds soil with pruned roots. Cow poops and feeds grass even more. Soil builds. And the only thing the farmer has to do is move the cows every day with some electric fence. (I wonder if you could train a pack of wolves to do the job for you?!) How much protein can the land produce? Joel’s pastures are reported to be 400 cow days per acre. That means it takes less than one acre to feed a cow for a whole year (More than 4X as productive as land around here. Best I can determine (not having done it much) you could produce at least 27 cows per year on 80 acres if your pasture was this good. That’s a herd of about 30 mommas and a bull to start out which produce about 27 calves per year. The calves would be full grown in about 2 years. Sold as quarters, grass fed cows bring about $2000 per head which would be $54000 per year in gross income. Sold in small pieces this figure would be higher. To get the pasture this productive would require several years and/or some fairly heavy composting of the pasture. The cool thing is that this system requires virtually NO outside inputs. No meds. No corn. No hay (cows eat grass all winter stockpiled in certain paddocks). It’s a solar powered system that just grows soil and meat year after year. And the meat is healthy for you, unlike feedlot beef. As for cash income, this system produces about $700 per acre. If you just run a finishing operation and buy calves in, you’re looking at more like double this figure. Chickens can produce more like $3000 per acre but they do not grow soil like cows do.
Are we a wealthy nation? Not for long I think. We once were back when the Mayflower arrived. But we’ve been steadily spending our wealth down the river. But we could get it back again if we would build our soil. More on catching water in another post.
II Chronicles 7:14 If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.