I am a farmer of 25 acres with seven cows, a few goats and chickens. I am a vegetarian and plan to sell an older milk cow for meat this coming spring and bring sheep onto the farm as well. I take a strong interest in expanding the local food economy. In the debate for and against meat consumption, I take an approach based on the landscape and climate I observe in the Southern mountains: It's very steep, universally forested and very rainy.
A brief history: Commercial agriculture has always been marginal in Western North Carolina. Before anything local was marketable just by being local, tobacco was the farm's cash crop. Before that, corn was, for a time, grown as a fattening fodder for the hordes of livestock driven through WNC from east Tennessee to Spartanburg. The result of plowing for corn and tobacco on steep hills in a climate of year-round rainfall caused a period of incredibly destructive soil erosion. On my farm, I walk past big gullies in the young forests every day and observe topsoil barely one-inch thick in parts of the pasture.
With this in mind, I believe keeping steep farms in grass and, thus, in animal agriculture, is a good option to mitigate erosion of steep land. Also, as a farmer without machinery, I appreciate the ease of raising animals compared to the hard labor of growing, weeding and harvesting crops. Unless more vegetarian people are interested in becoming intensive farmers and terracing hilly land to prevent soil erosion, I don't imagine there will be or even should be a shift toward plowing hilly land for local crops.
Though I am a vegetarian, I do not preach vegetarianism. I suppose that's because I know people who really love their meat, and that demand for good meat is not going to decline. Bottom line: I believe local, grass-based animal agriculture is a plus for our climate and landscape and that feedlot farms are terribly destructive. But there is a question we might ask: Is there a line between big feedlot farms and local farms that import most their animal feed? Should I feel ill-at-ease feeding my livestock a little bit of distant grain? Probably, though I am happy that they derive most of their food (rotationally) grazing on seasonal grasses, clovers and pasture weeds that enrich the soil of my Appalachian hill farm.
— James Geoffrey Steen