The Vanishing Pool

On two farms in Iowa, preservationists are fighting a battle against the disappearance of countless plant and animal breeds. If they lose, the costs to the planet could be incalculable.

          Ma Kettle is at rest, all 700 pounds of her reclining on a bed of fresh straw, slowly heaving. She's black, about five feet long, and rotund, yet remarkably nimble when she finally ambles to the water bucket. The most striking thing about her is the face, all wrinkles and folds arranged around a pug nose and a pair of alert eyes. There's an echo of Major in Animal Farm, or maybe something from Where the Wild Things Are.

          Ma Kettle is a purebred Berkshire, a descendant of the pigs English settlers brought with them to the New World. At one point, they were among the most popular breeds on American farms. But in the 1960s, the industry's marketing people noticed that consumer tastes were changing. People wanted bacon rather than lard, and leaner pork chops. Breeders crossed Berkshires with other hogs to produce a longer-bodied animal, and the original type was almost forgotten. The way things stand now, Ma Kettle may be one of the last of her kind. And she looks as if she knows it.

          The lonely sow is one of about three dozen animals housed in and around a big red barn in Decorah, Iowa. If things go well for the organization that's keeping her, a mate will be found and the breed will continue for at least a while longer. Which is more than one can say for many of the Berkshire's old barnyard and farmfield contemporaries. As pastures and fields around the world are populated with the highly specialized products of advanced genetics, thousands of animal and plant types are disappearing. Some biotechnologists have taken to calling them "genetic waste."

          Farm-animal disappearances are a trifle compared to the rate at which species in the wild are being extinguished: Some 3,000 species are estimated to vanish each month, compared to six domesticated breeds. Yet the numbers add up. Some 27 American farm breeds have become extinct since the early part of the century. Most of the rest are declining in numbers.

          Each time one goes, it takes with it a configuration of genes that took millennia to create. Genes for tallness, shortness, fat or lean meat; for disease resistance, fertility, climate tolerance. In some scientific circles, "genetic erosion," as it's called, is considered one of the biggest threats to humanity's future on the planet. But not many people are familiar with the notion, and no one is doing much of anything about it.

          The barn in Decorah was built in the late 1860s, when white settlers began to get comfortable in this part of northeastern Iowa. It's beautiful country--rolling hills dotted with massive burr oaks opening toward the Iowa River. In the valley sits Luther College, which until the 1960s operated a farm to raise its own milk and meat. Then it became cheaper to buy those things at the grocery store. By the time Peter Jorgensen came around in 1991, the old barn was about ready to come down.

          A lanky, bearded man in a blue flannel shirt, Jorgensen grew up on a dairy farm not unlike this one, in St. Clair County, Michigan. There were hundreds of family operations like it around back then, populated by cows of various hues, shapes, and dispositions. Farmers raised chocolate-colored Brown Swiss, chunky Milking Shorthorns, hot-tempered Guernseys; and, of course, Holsteins, the black-and-white heifers every child knows from the ice cream ads. Today in St. Clair County, a lot of the cow breeds are gone, and so are many of the farms. Larger industrial holdings, populated mostly by uniform herds of Holsteins, are what remain.

          Jorgensen had long since left the farm by the time this started happening. He and his wife, Shan Thomas, headed to California in 1980 to "escape the economic disaster Michigan had become" and Jorgensen took up cabinetmaking while Thomas did office work. Then one day Thomas's boss asked Jorgensen to help find someone to run a new program to preserve rare farm breeds. Jorgensen suggested himself, and soon the couple was tending a flock of Navajo-Churro sheep in the hills of Sonoma County.

          When the opportunity came up to use an old farm in Decorah for a similar but bigger project, the couple jumped. Last year, after five years of fundraising and restoration, the Institute for Agricultural Biodiversity opened its doors. Run on a shoestring budget, it's the only systematic effort of its kind in the U.S.

          The old barn has a comfortable, bittersweet smell made of equal parts rotting wood, animal bedding, and wildflowers. Inside one can hear crickets and the occasional passing car. Tours begin in the lamb enclosure, where three tiny Navajo-Churros rub their budding horns against the wooden fence.

          This breed was brought to America by the conquistadors and adopted by Navajo herders, laying the foundation for the Southwest's legendary weaving industry. Over the centuries, the American version developed distinct features, including a tendency to grow four horns rather than two. The trait was suppressed in medieval Spain, where the Catholic church associated the number four with the devil, but flourished among the Navajo. Besides the horns, the breed is known for its long, mottled fleece whose special coating makes it extraordinarily durable.

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