In addition to influencing the relationships of neighbors, I’m learning fences have a number of other uses on the farm. Of course, they help keep your animals where you want them. And hopefully they help keep predators off your animals. And they may keep wildlife off your vegetables, although hungry deer will jump any fence less than eight feet high. Less obviously, though, fences define our relationship to the land and the uses we can put it to.
Most everyone is familiar with the story of the colonial split-rail fence. There’s one on the cover of William Cronon’s Changes in the Land. The rail fence, roughly cut from the timber settlers needed to clear in order to turn wild eastern forest into farmland, symbolizes European ideas of land use and ownership that settlers brought with them and imposed on the environment and the natives they found there.
Fences remain important to farmers, and their use is still a complicated affair. Cattle and horses can be grazed on pasture enclosed by a few strands of barbed wire. Sheep, with thick fleeces to protect them, will go through barbed wire. Goats are even harder to contain – there’s an old saying that if your fence won’t hold water, it won’t hold goats. And although chickens will usually come back home in the evening, there are a lot of varmints out there that will eat them in the meantime if they aren’t protected by a fence. Farmers have used woven wire, hardware cloth, rigid panels, and electric wire to contain and protect animals. Each comes at a price, and it adds up: a decent four-foot high sheep and goat fence will run you over a dollar a foot. So these fences tended to be expensive and permanent. Most small farmers use and endlessly reuse a variety of materials based on what they can get cheap, and hoard the bits they aren’t currently using.
As sustainability and soil depletion have come into sharper focus in recent years, innovative farmers have rediscovered what the old-timers knew before the age of chemical fertilizer: pastures will support a larger number of animals if they are grazed in succession. Sheep and goats prefer to eat different plants than cows, so they can coexist with cattle on a pasture without competing. And then the poultry can follow, eating bugs out of the droppings; which not only breaks up the fertilizer and spreads it over the fields, but also actually reduces the number of parasites and pathogens. This is a win-win-win, the animals are better off, the farmer produces a larger quantity and wider variety of protein on a given plot of land, and the land itself is improved in the process. The only catch is, you have to enclose and protect all these different types of creatures!
That’s where the story gets interesting. The cost of fencing has traditionally made it difficult for farmers to fence appropriately for intensive pasturing, and the effort involved in setting and moving fences has made land use inflexible. But recently, battery-powered low-impedance fence chargers and moveable electric fences have changed the game again for small farms. Deep-cycle batteries like the ones in your boat or RV can run miles of low-cost electric tape, twine or netting. They can even be hooked to solar chargers. And they’re easy to set up and move, allowing farmers to raise temporary paddocks and move animals as quickly or slowly as needed over the land.
This may not seem like such a big deal, but I think it may turn out to be. The world’s food supply depends heavily on fossil fuels, both for transportation and for the production of synthetic fertilizers like anhydrous ammonia. It currently takes fifteen calories of energy to put a calorie of food on your table. If there’s any truth to either climate change or peak oil, multi-thousand acre cornfields and factory-style feedlots may turn out to be as much of a twentieth-century anomaly as McMansions and jet-setting to conferences. But it has been suggested that the world’s food needs could be met by intensive techniques combining grazing with gardening. Farmers like Joel Salatin claim that not only would intensive pasturing solve the world food problem, but “in fewer than ten years we would sequester all the atmospheric carbon generated since the beginning of the industrial age” (Folks, This Ain’t Normal, p. 195). If true, this is a really big deal; and even if Salatin is not quite right about this, intensive pasturing still seems like a really good idea. And these new fences make it possible. That could be historic.