7.30.2015

Food Issues Book Club - Bringing It To the Table, Concluding Thoughts

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

Bringing It to the Table, Concluding Thoughts

I am pleased that I've now read Wendell Berry.  I can now say with authority that his work frustrates me on numerous levels.  He is a bit of a broken record on two subjects: that small well-balanced farms are best, and that petroleum is expensive and unsustainable.  I agree on both of these points, of course, but I do not need to read dozens of essays making these points repeatedly to understand them.  He has said these things early and often - more early and more often than nearly anyone - and they're concepts that the food industry is still largely ignoring.  There's a limit to the reach of one man's voice I suppose, even if that man is white and famous.

Which brings me to my next point of irritation with Berry.  I can't help but note that, as far as I can tell, Berry has never spoken to another human being who is not a white male.  This trend begins in this collection with Michael Pollan's somewhat nauseating introduction and just doesn't let up.  This could be partially reasoned away in that he is "of a certain generation" and has spent his life in an area of the country predominately populated by white people, but he doesn't even seem to have ever read something written by a person of color.  At least nothing worth referring to.  Also, it's hard for me to excuse the complete absence of women in this work (aside from the fictional passages not discussed here).  He must have come across them.  Surely the father of the seven Amish sons, for instance, had a wife who stuck around the farm for, bare minimum, seven-ish years?  Was she just always knocked up in a bedroom somewhere?  Could there really not be a single woman in all of Kentucky worth speaking to or about?  Berry's own wife really only gets an honorable mention for existing.

Sigh.

I've read Berry.  Huzzah.  I highly suggest reading Stupidity in Concentration, Energy in Agriculture, Agriculture from the Roots Up, and The Pleasures of Eating (get it here) to anyone with an interest in food on any level.  If you're extremely (EXTREMELY) interested in the intricacies of non-industiral farming (and don't mind an endless parade of white men), you should read this collection and all the rest.






7.28.2015

Food Issues Book Club - The Pleasures of Eating from Bringing It to the Table

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and/or my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

Bringing It to the Table: The Pleasures of Eating, 1989

Summary:

Berry has frequently told audiences to "eat responsibly" and that "eating is an agricultural act," but knows that these bot mots don't constitute clear direction.  Most shoppers know little of how the food they buy was produced, processed, or transported, or how these and other factors have affected the foods' cost.
"The specialization of production induces specialization of consumption. ...  Patrons of the food industry ... have tended more and more to be mere consumers - passive, uncritical, and dependent.  Indeed, this sort of consumption may be said to be one of the chief goals of industrial production.  The food industrialists have by now persuaded millions of consumers to prefer food that is already prepared.  They will grow, deliver, and cook your food for you and (just like your mother) beg you to eat it.  That they do not yet offer to insert it, prechewed, into your mouth is only because they have found no profitable way to do so.  We may rest assured that they would be glad to find such a way.  The ideal industrial food consumer would be strapped to a table with a tube running from the food factory directly into his or her stomach."
HA!

He continues by expanding upon the importance of shoppers' ignorance of industrial food practices:
"And this peculiar specialization of the act of eating is, again, of obvious benefit to the food industry, which has good reasons to obscure the connection between food and farming. It would not do for the consumer to know that the hamburger she is eating came from a steer who spent much of his life standing deep in his own excrement in a feedlot, helping to pollute the local streams, or that the calf that yielded the veal cutlet on her plate spent its life in a box in which it did not have room to turn around. And, though her sympathy for the slaw might be less tender, she should not be encouraged to meditate on the hygienic and biological implications of mile-square fields of cabbage, for vegetables grown in huge monocultures are dependent on toxic chemicals — just as animals in close confinements are dependent on antibiotics and other drugs."
This essay, as should be obvious by now, is a brilliant excoriation of the problems of industrial food (absent, noticeably, a mention of labor abuse, but otherwise well-rounded).  I strongly suggest you read it in its entirety.  And you can!  By clicking here!  Enjoy.

...In case you're not in a reading-the-whole-essay-right-now mood, here's a summary of Berry's suggestions on becoming a conscious eater (please add "to the extent that you are able" to each):
  1. grow your own food
  2. prepare your own food
  3. learn the origins of your food and eat locally
  4. buy from producers (farmers), not resalers
  5. learn about industrial food
  6. learn about good farming
  7. learn how current food plants and animals were bred, and why
Good suggestions, all.

Thoughts:

Berry's outline of how to eat consciously (and, I would argue, ethically) is very much what I have strived to do for the past 10 to 15 years.  I will say, though, that I have fallen terribly short on growing and preparing my own food.  Even I, as a privileged (white college educated with a salaried office job) person struggle with the time and energy necessary to grow or even regularly cook food.  This is why the "to the extent that you are able" qualifier is so important.  That's not to say, though, that various types of disadvantage (economic, health, etc.) are excuses not to do the best we can.

In a fascinating turn, Berry states near the end of this essay that he dislikes "the thought that some animal has been made miserable in order to feed me.  If I am going to eat meat, I want it to be from an animal that has lived a pleasant, uncrowded life outdoors, on bountiful pasture, with good water nearby and trees for shade."  He conveniently ignores that there is no slaughtering process in existence in which the animal being killed does not suffer terror and pain before death.  It's not hard to agree that a little terror and pain right at the end is better than lifelong terror and pain.  Berry, I suppose, is a "welfarist."  Which, I suppose, is still a good bit better than being an industrialist. 

In true form, he continues with: "The thought of the good pasture and of the calf contentedly grazing flavors the steak.  Some, I know, will think it bloodthirsty or worse to eat a fellow creature you have known all its life.  On the contrary, I think it means that you eat with understanding and with gratitude."  OK.  Sure.  I'll call that well-reasoned rationalization.  If you've ever wondered how meat eaters justify their actions, even when they fully understand the sentience of animals, look no further than Wendell Berry. At least he acknowledges the issue?  "Eating with the fullest pleasure - pleasure, that is, that does not depend on ignorance - is perhaps the profoundest enactment of our connection with the world."  In that, Mr. Berry, I agree - even when it is evident that you are engaging in some willful ignorance yourself.

I wonder if Berry has ever read Singer and Mason?  He should like them well enough - after all, they're both white men!

7.26.2015

Food Issues Book Club - Agriculture from the Roots Up from Bringing It to the Table

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and/or my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

Bringing It to the Table: Agriculture from the Roots Up, 2004

Summary:

The Land Institute of Salina, Kansas is advocating for a better understanding of the pieces of agriculture that occur underground.  Their approach is "radical" in comparison to industrial agriculture because it sets nature as the standard of agricultural performance, rather than production or "efficiency."  This measure is painful even to small sustainable farmers, as it is a high bar to reach.

Humankind has waged war on nature, and we are losing.  That we would lose has always been the inevitable outcome of such a war.  Nature "has forced us to recognize that the context of American agriculture is not merely fields and farms or the free market or the economy, but is also the polluted Mississippi River, the [resulting] hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico, all the small towns whose drinking water contains pesticides and nitrates, the pumped-down aquifers and the no-longer-flowing rivers, and all the lands that we have scalped, gouged, poisoned, or destroyed utterly for "cheap" fuels and raw materials."

Compared to a monoculture like wheat, a natural prairie is different in five important ways: soil erosion is low, it has good water retention, it harnesses sunlight to its greatest extent, it "builds and preserves its own fertility," and it is naturally resistant to ecological stressors.  The Land Institute asks how agriculture can better replicate these strengths.  "Harmony between our human economy and the natural world - local adaptation - is a perfection we will never finally achieve but must continuously try for.  There is never a finality to it because it involves living creatures who change."

"The context of everything is everything else."

The Land Institute assesses agriculture not by its productivity or efficiency but by the health of its waters and soils.  As goes the health of our agriculture, so goes our own physical health.  "If our war against nature destroys the health of water and soil, and thus inevitably the health of agriculture and our own health, and can only lead to our economic ruin, then we need to try another possibility.  And there is only one: If we cannot establish an enduring or even a humanly bearable economy by our attempt to defeat nature, then we will have to try living in harmony and cooperation with her."

7.23.2015

Food Issues Book Club - On The Soil and Health from Bringing It to the Table

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and/or my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

Bringing It to the Table: On The Soil and Health, 2006

Summary:

In this essay, Berry speaks of Sir Albert Howard, one of Berry's main influences and - per Berry - the first champion of "organic" farming.  Howard's essay The Soil and Health was published in 1947, just as industrial farming practices were taking a firm hold in the developed world.  "World War II had proved the effectiveness of mechanical and chemical technology that in the coming decades would radically alter both the practice of agriculture and its underlying assumptions.  This 'revolution' marginalized Howard's work and the kind of agriculture he advocated."

When practiced properly, Howard's method of organic farming "was proven to be a healthful, productive, and economical way of farming."  Regardless, government agencies and agricultural schools alike ignored the success, much as they did Amish farming practices, and embraced industrialization.

The organic practices that have ostensibly grown from Howard's writings, though, have dramatically oversimplified his teachings, failing to "connect farming with its ecological and social contexts."  Modern organic farming looks much like industrial farming without the chemicals.  Howard had envisioned a far more holistic approach that closely mimicked the natural world.  Per Howard,
"The main characteristic of Nature's farming can ... be summed up in a few words.  Mother earth never attempts to farm without live stock; she always raises mixed crops; great pains are taken to preserve the soil and to prevent erosion; the mixed vegetable and animal wastes are converted into humus; there is no waste; the process of growth and the processes of decay balance one another; ample provision is made to maintain large reserves of fertility; the greatest care is taken to store rainfall; both plants and animals are left to protect themselves against disease."
From An Agricultural Testament by Sir Albert Howard

Berry's farming beliefs, then, echo Howard's nearly identically.  (Perhaps I should be reading Howard?)  Howard was, and Berry is, "fundamentally at odds with the industrial economy, which sees creatures, including humans, as machines, and agriculture, like ultimately the entire human economy, as an analogue of an industrial system."  Howard's beliefs were born both of science and of intention and observation.  He supported a style of agriculture that creates no waste and returns nutrients to the soil - two major deficiencies of industrial agriculture, which creates enormous waste and utterly strips soil.  By refusing to see anything in isolation, Howard saw all farming issues and their solutions in the context of a farm's ecosystem.

Thoughts:

It must be noted that Howard performed his agricultural studies in colonized India.  The organic movement, then has at least some of its roots in British colonialism.  This is an unsurprising beginning, perhaps, for a food philosophy that remains almost completely dominated by the privileged and white, even while its products are grown largely on the backs of brown bodies.

7.20.2015

Food Issues Book Club - Elmer Lapp's Place from Bringing It to the Table

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and/or my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

Bringing It to the Table: Elmer Lapp's Place, 1979

Summary:

Editor's note: This essay frustrated me so greatly that I've been compelled to editorialize throughout my summary.
"The Thirty cows come up from the pasture and go one by one into the barn.  Most of them are Guernseys, but there are also a few red Holsteins and a couple of Jerseys.  They go to their places and wait while their neck chains are fastened.  And then Elmer Lapp, his oldest son, and his youngest daughter go about the work of feeding, washing, and milking."  Emphasis added.
***

"Standing in the stanchion barn while the cows are being milked, I am impressed by how quietly the work is done.  No voice is raised.  There is never a sudden or violent motion.  Although the work is quickly done, no one rushes.  And finally comes the realization that the room is quiet because it is orderly: All the creatures there, people and animals alike, are at rest within a pattern deeply familiar to them all."
Where Berry sees peace, I see broken spirits.

Lapp has spent his entire life on one farm in Pennsylvania.  It is a livestock farm where crops are grown only for animal feed.  It is primarily a dairy operation, and sells to Hershey chocolate manufacturers.  He also breeds horses, fed by the barley grown on the farm.
"But just because his major income is from dairy cows and brood mares, Mr. Lapp does not shut his eyes to other opportunities.  "You stay awake," he says.  He knows what will sell, and so far as his place and time allow he has it for sale.  He feeds three hundred guineas at a time in a small loft.  He raises and sells collie pups.  He sells his surplus of eggs and honey.  Even the barn cats contribute their share of income, for when he gets too many he sells the surplus at the local sale barn."
It's official.  This man disgusts me.  I can understand, if not agree with, a farm that keeps and well tends a small number of animals for food to both eat and sell.  Breeding dogs and horses and other animals purely for profit I cannot abide, and there is no justification for.  And HERSHEY'S ffs?!

This farm, of course, conforms to Berry's good farming standards.  "Underlying the patterns of the farm's productivity is a stewardship of the soil at all points knowledgeable, disciplined, and responsible."  Lapp uses crop rotation and manure from his own animals to maintain soil fertility.  "For a man giftedly practical, Mr. Lapp justifies what he has and does remarkably often by his likes."

And there you have the human justification for use of other animals in a nutshell: "I like it."


7.18.2015

Food Issues Book Club - A Talent for Necessity from Bringing It to the Table

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and/or my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

Bringing It to the Table: A Talent for Necessity, 1980

Summary:

This chapter focuses on Henry Besuden, a top breeder of Southdown sheep.  He managed to raise his animals on land that had been "corned to death."  "[H]is predicament became his education and, finally, his triumph."  He used a plow to even out deep gullies into "saucers" that allowed runoff to gently pool rather than cause erosion.  He chose grasses carefully, and even put weeds to strategic use.  After 23 years, the land was still not fully healed.

Despite his extraordinary flock, his priority was always the farm and not the show ring.  "He never forgot that the purpose of a sheep is to produce a living for the farmer and to put meat on the table."  Besuden feared that sheep, which he referred to as "land builders," would be removed from live stock programs after World War II.  "He had seen the handwriting on the wall: the new emphasis on row cropping and "production" which in the years after WWII would radically alter the balance of crops and animals on farms, and which, as he feared, would help to destroy the sheep business in his own state."  This fear did, in fact, come to fruition.

This essay, then, serves as another exploration of the types of farming practices espoused by Berry.  (Unsurprisingly, he again supports the idea of animals as commodity - despite acknowledging their suffering elsewhere.)  Besuden strove for "a way of farming compatible with nature," much as Berry does.  Per Berry, Besuden was "convinced that paying attention pays," setting him apart from industrial farmers who pay attention only to profits.




7.17.2015

Food Issues Book Club - A Good Farmer of the Old School from Bringing It to the Table

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and/or my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

Bringing It to the Table: A Good Farmer of the Old School, 1985

Summary and Thoughts:

This essay speaks to the farming practices and wisdom of a farmer named Lancie Clippenger.  He impressed Berry with his animal practices; specifically:
  • he let pigs reproduce naturally and allowed their "shoats" to forage in a corn field in a year when corn prices were particularly low, then sold the shoats for a premium
  • he would only keep 25 milking cows at a time, because if he had more than that he wouldn't really "see" them
  • he plowed with horses at the rate of one acre per day per horse, thus saving on fuel without exhausting his animals
Berry was also impressed with Clippenger's crop practices, stating that his farm was "ordered and used according to its own nature and carrying capacity."  Essentially, Berry uses Clippenger's farm as a case study in what can be produced with what he deems "proper" farming methodology.  The specificity of the essay and its dealings with animals make it a tedious and painful read, so I shan't discuss it further.

7.15.2015

Food Issues Book Club - Seven Amish Farms from Bringing It to the Table

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and/or my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

Bringing It to the Table: Seven Amish Farms, 1981

Summary:

In the midwest, farms are becoming both larger and more specialized.  Structures from the small farms bought up for expansion lay in ruins.  If these large monocultures are deserts, small, diversified Amish farms are oases of life and activity.

Amish farming practices including diversification of crops and animals, crop rotation, use of manure as fertilizer, and seeding of legumes can restore land that has been spent by modern farming techniques.  Even so, it has become more difficult for the younger generations to begin their own farms without accruing significant debt.  At least in the case of one Amish family, all seven sons have taken up factory work to earn a steady income while establishing their farms.

Amish farming has grown significantly in the past two decades,* while farming as a whole has been on the decline.  Yet their farming practices have been ignored by schools of agriculture and government agencies alike.  "Amish farming has been so ignored, I think, because it involves a complicated structure that is at once biological and cultural, rather than industrial or economic."  Because more than money is generated by Amish farms, an accounting in the typical sense is impossible.  Their farms do have quanifyably lower expenditures, however, because "[t]hey have substituted themselves, their families, and their communities for petroleum."

*In this instance, referring to the 1960s and 1970s.

7.13.2015

Food Issues Book Club - Renewing Husbandry from Bringing It to the Table

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and/or my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

Bringing It to the Table: Renewing Husbandry, 2004

Summary:

Industrial agriculture took hold rapidly because "by the measures it set for itself, it was wonderfully successful."  The shift is seen easily in the change from animal-drawn plows to the use of petroleum-driven tractors.  While older generations shunned the new machines for their compacting the soil, young farmers in the 1950s embraced them for their speed.  After five decades it has become evident that, though frustrating, the limitations of the Old Ways of farming are actually beneficial in the long term.  "[L]imits are not only inescapable but indispensable."

More important than the change in method of farming was the accompanying change in how farming was thought about.  For a farmer to continue to see himself as a steward of the land after mechanization was possible, but required an effort not frequently seen; this has resulted in a loss of husbandry.  "Husbandry is the name of all the practices that sustain life by connecting us conservingly to our places and our world; it is the art of keeping tied all the strands in the living network that sustains us."  One effect of our disconnection from husbandry is that farmers have been convinced that they should no longer feed themselves.  "The result is utterly strange in human experience: farm families who buy everything they eat at the store."

A shift away from husbandry is reflected in agricultural language: rather than soil and animal husbandry, we now teach soil and animal science.  This has led to a drastically oversimplified understanding of farm work.  Where soil husbandry understands soil as a living matrix, a being greater than the sum of its parts, soil science sees an inanimate compilation of components.  The health of the soil, then, is no longer considered since health is a concept seen as applying "only to living creatures."

Animal science, likewise, "forgets, almost as a requirement, the sympathy by which we recognize ourselves as fellow creatures of the animals."  That oubliessance is what allows us to use animals like cogs in a factory, "which like the concentration camp, is a vision of Hell."  Proper husbandry of animals, at its most basic, feels good.  Warehousing animals requires the shutting off of feeling.

"It is strange that a science of agriculture founded on evolutionary biology, with its practical emphasis on survival, would exempt the human species from these concerns."  Whereas agricultural husbandry strives for local adaptation and local coherence on a farm, agricultural science has tried to turn these on their heads - forcing land to unnatural production through technology.  "Our recent focus on productivity, genetic and technological uniformity, and global trade - all supported by supposedly limitless supplies of fuel, water, and soil - has obscured the necessity for local adaptation."  Such use of force against the land and animals can only be a short term endeavor.

Thoughts:

In this essay, Berry surprises me in his discussion of animals.  While in other essays he describes his disdain for CAFOs and the like, this is the first in which he has given any acknowledgement that animals might have feelings, and that respecting their feelings is good for people.  He seems to stand a fair distance past the "I don't want to know where it comes from mmm bacon" consumers of the developed world, and yet is still miles from where vegan activists would want him to be.  It raises the question I ask myself so frequently: do we, the vegan movement, count him as an ally on the subjects on which we agree, or cast him out whole because he doesn't meet us where we stand on all fronts?

7.11.2015

Food Issues Book Club - Sanitation and the Small Farm from Bringing It to the Table

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and/or my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

Bringing It to the Table: Sanitation and the Small Farm, 1971

Summary:

Prudent adults once advised children to save nickles and dimes.  When one had acquired enough of these, a sow or cow could be purchased and a farm thus begun.  Today, "one must start [a farm] with a quarter of a million dollars.  What are the political implications of that economy?"

The cost is in part because new rules around "sanitation" consistently require new and costly equipment to implements.  These rules work against the small producer - not because they demand cleanliness, but due tot he methods by which they require that cleanliness to be obtained.  Changes made by government under the guise of "consumer protection" seem always to be at the disadvantage of both farmer and consumer, and to the advantage of agribusiness.  Such changes, then, must be looked upon with skepticism.

Thoughts:

Short chapter huh?   I don't think there's any argument here that sanitation on farms is a bad thing per se.  But there are definitely rules that make it harder for small producers; small producers, after all, are not generally the concern of the rulemakers.  The concept of "get big or get out" took hold in the 1970s and has never truly let go - unsurprisingly, I suppose, given how profitable it has been for agribusiness.

7.10.2015

Food Issues Book Club - Conservationist and Agrarian from Bringing It to the Table

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and/or my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

Bringing It to the Table: Conservationist and Agrarian, 2002

Summary:

The "sides" of conservationism and agrarianism have suffered consistent losses for decades, while a third side of agribusiness has appeared to become consistently richer.  Its wealth, though, is based in fantasy and will ultimately be self-defeating.
"Perhaps in order to survive its inherent absurdity, the third side is asserting its power as never before: by its control of politics, of public education, and of the news media; by its dominance of science; and by biotechnology, which is commercializing with unprecedented haste and aggression in order to control totally the world's land-using economies and its food supply.  This massive ascendancy of corporate power over democratic process is probably the most ominous development since the end of Word War II, and for the most part "the free world" seems to be regarding it as merely normal."
Conservationism and agrarianism also conflict with each other.  To address this conflict, wilderness preservation efforts must take into account the surrounding economies and communities.  Domesticity and wildness are connected; what is foreign to both is industrialism.  "The question we must deal with is not whether the domestic and the wild are separate or can be separated; it is how, in the human economy, their indissoluble and necessary connection can be properly maintained."

Conservationists must care about farming for the simple reason that they eat.  Small, diversified farms are more ecologically sound and provide better food, and are thus far more aligned with conservationist values than is industrial farming.  Agrarians (farmers) must also be conservationists in order to be good farmers.  Farmers who do not operate their farms in line with the laws of nature and local adaptation "increase the ecological deficit that is being charged to the future and will ultimately render their operations unsustainable (and unprofitable)."
"Good farmers, I believe, recognize a difference that is fundamental between what is natural and what is man-made.  They know that if you treat a farm as a factory and living creatures as machines, or if you tolerate the idea of "engineering" organisms, then you are on your way to something destructive and, sooner or later, too expensive.  To treat creatures as machines is an error with large practical implications."
The "sides" of the conservationist and the agrarian are really only at odds with each other when viewed through the industrial view of what the world is.  "Conservationists have got to know and deal competently with the methods of economics of land use.  Land users have got to recognize the urgency, even the economic urgency, of the requirements of conservation."  Only in uniting their efforts to fight industrialism can either "side" succeed in not being crushed by "the corporate totalitarianism which is now rapidly consolidating as 'the global economy.'"

Thoughts:

In this essay, Berry touches on a concept near and dear to the vegan community.  As vegans, we love to claim that one can't be an environmentalist and eat meat.  This is very nearly true: in point of fact, one can't be an environmentalist and eat industrial meat - without being a big ol' hypocrite, that is.  One could, plausibly, source meat from the types of small idyllic farms which Berry describes and be considered environmentally conscious.  (The ethics or morality of meat eating don't determine whether it's environmentally sustainable.)

Of course, given industrial meat's prevalence - over 99% of all meat commercially available last I checked - perhaps this qualification is rendered redundant.  And yet I still feel compelled to make it, pedanticness notwithstanding.  I believe it behooves the vegan community to make wholly accurate statements.  When we overgeneralize we leave veganism open to easy arguments that allow people to continue to justify the use of animals as food, thus undermining our ultimate cause.

/soapbox.

7.08.2015

Food Issues Book Club - Energy in Agriculture from Bringing It to the Table

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and/or my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

Bringing It to the Table: Energy in Agriculture, 1979

Summary:

Family farms built upon agrarian patters that kept energy economy separate from money dwindled away in the Twentieth Century.  This dwindling was the result of a "change in cultural value."  That shift involved the devaluing of manual labor such as farming, and a preference for city over countryside.  The desire for monetary profit over any other kind of success was of course also a factor.

The cultural shift away from small farms was enabled by "cheap" fossil fuel, our use of which was enabled by "a kind of moral simplicity: the assumption that we had a "right" to as much of it as we could use."  A new culture was built on energy stolen from future generations.  "That is the real foundation of our progress and our affluence.  The reason that we are a rich nation is not that we have earned so much wealth - you cannot, by any honest means, earn or deserve so much.  The reason is simply that we have learned, and become willing, to market and use up in our own time the birthright and livelihood of posterity."

It can be said, then, that small farms were given up because "[t]hey did not lend themselves readily to exploitation to fossil fuel technology."

"The industrial economy grows and thrives by lengthening and complicating the essential connection between producer and consumer."  {This is the concept of food miles that is so popular today.}  Local food economies require far less energy.  This is important given the industry's near-complete dependence on an ever more scarce supply of fossil fuels.  Prior to industrialization, agriculture relied almost completely on free and ever replenishing solar power.  We have thus turned an energy-neutral pursuit to one that gluttonously consumes non-renewable energy sources.  For one reason only: profit.

The shift away from solar power and toward petroleum is wasteful in a number of ways:
  1. solar power is wasted
  2. human energy is no longer being utilized - "We now have millions on some kind of government support, grown useless and helpless, while our country becomes unhealthy and ugly for want of human work and care."
  3. energy is wasted in bringing {the wrong} food to livestock when the animals would rather go forage for themselves
  4. waste of soil via improper use that leads to erosion
In these ways, our current system of farming is really more like strip mining.

Thoughts:

I always tell the young folks that it's important to understand the historical contexts of writings, even for fiction.  In the case of this essay, I don't think it's a coincidence that energy and petroleum products were weighing heavily on Berry's mind.  A decrease in oil supply resulting from unrest in Iraq and Iran caused a panic in 1979, particularly as it followed so closely on the heels of a major shortage in 1973.  Depressing / alarming / baffling, then, is the fact that 35 years later we apparently all go buy trucks and SUVs when gas prices dip for long enough.  We still don't get it.  One wonders whether we'll figure it out before irreversible, civilization-destroying catastrophe strikes.

7.07.2015

Food Issues Book Club - Let the Farm Judge from Bringing It to the Table

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and/or my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

Bringing It to the Table: Let the Farm Judge, 1997

Editor's note: this essay contains extensive information regarding the shepherding of sheep.  In the interest of exploring ideas rather than specifics on farming, the summary here is much abbreviated from the chapter content.

Summary:

Local adaptations - development of breeds and hybrids that flourish on a particular area of land - is "the most important requirement for agriculture."  Such adaptations must account for both what the land can support and what the farmer can reasonably sell.  In the absence of such adaptation, "the farmer and the farm must pay significant penalties."

The modern food industry ignores the need for local adaptation, and is paying penalties as a result: "[M]uch thoughtlessness in livestock breeding has been subsidized by large checks paid to veterinarians and drug companies."  Such ignorance of putting the right animals on the land is only possible because of "cheap" fossil fuels and the "cheep" feed crops produced with them.  Corn, however, is never as cheap as the grass already growing on a farmer's fields.

Livestock is now bred for optimal performance in factory conditions.  As such, "[b]reeders should recognize that from the standpoint of local adaptation and {genuinely} cheap production, every purchase of a breeding animal is a gamble."  It is the judgment of the farm, not the farmer, that will ultimately determine the animals' success.

Thoughts:

As mentioned in the note above, Berry waxes abundantly in this chapter on his own experience in raising sheep.  The point is essentially that you can't put an animal on farmland it's not well adapted to and expect it to do will.  For example, a sheep that is adapted for rolling grass-covered hills will struggle and never reach its full potential on a rocky hillside.  From a vegan / AR standpoint, this chapter has some merit but is largely just painful.

7.05.2015

Food Issues Book Club - A Defense of the Family Farm from Bringing It to the Table

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and/or my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

Bringing It to the Table: A Defense of the Family Farm, 1986

Summary:

It is amazing (absurd) that the family farm must be defended - and its political defense has done it harm.  For these purposes, a family farm is defined as follows:
  • It is a farm that is in fact farmed by a single family with little outside help - additional labor on a family farm supplements, but does not replace, labor of the family.  "On a family farm, the family members are workers, not overseers."  Any additional labor remains full time, year round, essentially becoming part of the family.  Seasonal workers are not employed.
  • The farm is tended sustainably.
  • Its family has a long-term, vested interest in its health - and the more generations that have been on that farm the better.
A real family farm produces good farming - "farming that does not destroy either farmland or farm people."  Large farms are unsustainable; "there is a ratio between eyes and acres, between farm size and farm hands, that is correct."  In modern agriculture and in a far cry from the family farm, "we have enough farmers to use the land but not enough to use it and protect it at the same time."  A family farm uses the land properly, and as such yields a great return for both the family and the community.

In addition to agricultural benefits, family farms are justified politically and culturally as well.  A society in which people depend on money rather than the products of their own work, where usable property is owned by the few, is not true democracy.  "To renounce the principle of democratic property, which is the only basis of democratic liberty, in exchange for specious notions of efficiency or the economics of the so-called free market is a tragic folly."

When the family farm is displaced by more "efficient" means of farming, the quality and dignity of farming is lost.  The factory-minded method of dividing labor so that each worker performs one repetitive task denies workers "the economic use of their minds," reducing each worker's activities to "dismembered gestures."  When workmanship is thus degraded, so are the work's products.  "This is why we must now buy our clothes and immediately resew the buttons."

The family farm is demonstrably good, and yet it is failing.  Why should something good fail?  "[T]he fault lies in our identity and therefore will be hard for us to see."  Namely, the family farm is failing because it does not align with industrial values, to wit:
  • it does not accept that value equals price;
  • it does not function well as a factory; and
  • it does not treat its community as either merely a resource or as a market, or strive to compete.
"The industrial mind is a mind without compunction; it simply accepts that people, ultimately, will be treated as things and that things, ultimately, will be treated as garbage."

The family farm fails, in other words, because it does not fit into the industrial economy.  "We assume that we can have an exploitive, ruthlessly competitive, profit-for-profit's-sake economy and yet remain a decent and democratic nation, as we still apparently wish to think ourselves."  Profit at any cost is, of course, the antithesis of how a family farm operates, but it is what the industrial world - our world - demands to be deemed "successful."  Farms large and small continue to fail to be sustainable in various ways, despite government subsidies and other such supports, because these supports are aimed singularly at an industrial style of agriculture.  The industrial model and agriculture fundamentally do not mix.  And yet, because value equals price, as long as agribusiness continues to turn a profit the system will be deemed successful.

Farmers share part of the blame of the failure of farms, in that they have "subscribed to the industrial fantasies" of what value is and of how farms should work.  They have quite literally bought in to the industrial economy, and now can't find a way out.

The family far can, perhaps, be saved by ending the industrially-minded practice of producing as much as possible and by instead matching supply to d3emand.  Large operations should not be allowed to undercut the prices of smaller farmers.  Farmers must learn to return to looking to each other for assistance rather than agribusiness.  "[N]o farmer and no family can be entirely independent," but that dependence should be on community rather than on corporation.

7.04.2015

Food Issues Book Club - Agricultural Solutions for Agricultural Problems and Stupidity in Concentration from Bringing It to the Table

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and/or my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

Bringing It to the Table: Agricultural Solutions for Agricultural Problems, 1978 AND Stupidity in Concentration, 2002

Editor's note: I've decided to discuss these two essays together, because I find it interesting to compare the two writings on the same subject - the industrialization of farming - separated by over twenty years.  Enjoy.

Summary: Agricultural Solutions for Agricultural Problems, 1978

The industrial revolution reshaped our language, replacing natural metaphors for machine-based ideas.  Along with this change in language, our values changed: efficiency is now prized above any other virtue.  It is the most profitable.

With regard to agriculture, ideas have shifted away from animal husbandry and caring for the land, toward seeing the farm as a factory with inputs and products.  These food factories do indeed seem the heighth of efficiency.  Taking a wider view, however, they are deeply problematic on numerous ecological and social levels.  The supposed efficiency also ignores the vast food distribution chain these factories require.  "All the producers are at once in competition with each other and dependent on each other, and all are dependent on the petroleum industry."

Industrial agriculture is a failure in two main ways.  First, it considers only production.  When only maximum output is considered, sustainability falls by the wayside.  Second, it is exceedingly wasteful; waste both requires never-ending inputs and inevitably leads to exhaustion and contamination.

Chemical fertilizers are allowing us to disguise lack of sustainability, for now.  The industry's dependence on these petroleum-based chemicals is one of its greatest weaknesses.  It is also weakened in that it can be disrupted by an issue occurring anywhere along the distribution chain.  Yet another weakness is that the vast majority of the population has no means by which to supply its own food: should that supply chain be disrupted, food stores would be depleted within days.  In other parts of the world where more traditional farming is still used, more people know how to grow food and more food can be grown per acre.

We have assumed, foolishly, that we can achieve the same results through technological advancement.  This belief is self-serving and absurd.  "How can this agriculture be industrialized without destroying its intensive methods, and thus reducing its productivity for acre?  How can the so-called pedestrian tasks be taken over by machines without displacing people, increasing unemployment, degrading the quality of land maintenance, increasing urban slums and other blights?"  The "pedestrian" tasks of farming, once considered noble, are seen as lowly and inefficient in the industrialized world.

To solve the four main problems of agriculture, they must be approached agriculturally.
  • On the issue of scale, farms should be small enough to be tended by a single grower or family in ecologically sustainable ways.
  • Balance, which is related to scale, is found in the proper ratio of plants to animals.  When in balance a farm provides its own fertility and production is stable.
  • Diversity - having as many different plant and animal types as possible for the land - provides natural resistance to crop and flock failure.  Diversity of types and locations of farms also strengthens our food infrastructure.
  • Finally, the issue of quality can be measured as health: that of the farm, the food it produces, and the community it feeds.  Proper scale, balance, and diversity leads to quality.
"[A] good farmer is a craftsman of the highest order, a kind of artist.  It is the good work of good farmers - nothing else - that ensures a sufficiency of food over the long term."

Summary: Stupidity in Concentration, 2002

Factory farming strives to process the largest number of animals as is "efficient," despite widespread acknowledgement of its cruelty.  Animal factories concentrate not only the animals themselves but also the waste they produce, the pathogens they carry, the growing of the grains on which they feed, and the labor required to tend them.

Government has spurred on this concentration when it should have impeded it.  "This is the result of a political brain disease that causes people in power to think that anything that makes more money or 'creates jobs' is good.  The government has fallen under the spell of short-term economics, wherein much money is made now but at the expense of the future.  Conversely, long-term economics strive for sustainability.  Animal factories are, on every front, unsustainable.  A long-term economic outlook from the government would be more beneficial to society.

Factory farms increase and concentrate the ecological risks of food production.  They poison soil, water, and air alike.  They also force farmers to the lowest level of operation and income, siphoning profits to the controlling corporations.  These corporations in turn behave as terrible neighbors while consistently asking for increase government favor.  "It is clear that the advocates of factory farming are not advocates of farming.  They do not speak for farmers.  What they support is state-sponsored colonialism - government of, by, and for the corporations."

Sustainable agriculture, by definition, should be able to continue indefinitely without significantly diminishing the environment in which it is performed.  Industrial agriculture is not at all sustainable.  it is toxic to environments and wasteful of natural resources.  It also isn't economically sustainable.  "It ought to be obvious that agriculture cannot be made sustainable by a dwindling population of economically depressed farmers and a growing population of migrant workers."  Farmers have been rendered an expendable resource by the industrial agriculture corporations.

Corporate interests claim that "great rewards" may be realized from industrial agriculture.  Those rewards, though, are never endowed upon the farmers or their communities or their land - only upon the corporations themselves.

7.02.2015

Food Issues Book Club - Nature as Measure from Bringing It to the Table

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and/or my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

Who's ready to dive in to Wendell Berry's essays on farming and food?  Exciting!  As I mentioned in yesterday's post, I'm going to switch up the format a bit and only have summaries for this book (...probably).  Some posts may also have some thoughts at the end.  We'll see!  Also, note the year for each essay, and the time periods are important and telling.  I can tell you up front that reading my summaries will not, in any way, replace the wordsmithing of Mr. Berry.  I strongly suggest you read his words for yourself!  OK, let's do this.  :)

Bringing It to the Table: Nature as Measure, 1989

Summary:

In the 1940s, in some parts of the country, farms were small and diversified and well supported by their communities.  Decades later those lands have become depressing, devoid of variety and full only of "cash-grain."  The communities have become aged as the young decline to follow footsteps, and so the community support systems have declined as well.  The knowledge of how to care well for the land has been lost, and that loss is visible.

Despite the loss of knowledge and quality, tobacco farmers face increased demand.  Though tobacco isn't food it's grown as food is: it follows that the same loss of know-how but increase in demand will happen with food crops.  "The fact is that we have nearly destroyed American farming , and in the process have nearly destroyed our country."

This destruction has come about because we have cared only about production, believing that technology will keep up with endless increase.  "We have been winning, to our own inestimable loss, a competition against our own land and our own people."  The resulting food surplus gives us false security.  This focus on production ignores two requirements just as important as - and crucial to - continued production: that land be used well, and that people know how to and are able to use it well.

We must replace the standard of production with the standard of nature.  "By returning to 'the nature of the place' as standard, we acknowledge the necessary limits of our own intentions... The appropriate measure of farming then is the world's health and our health, and this is inescapably one measure."

Because the singlemindedness of production takes as much as it wants by any means necessary, exhaustion is inevitable - of both the land and its people.  By engaging nature instead, a conversation grows between farmer and farmed.  When the farmer is willing to listen, nature will tell what she can let thrive.  "In a conversation, you always expect a reply."

Farming in line with nature requires knowledge of the land, a small scale, and a supportive community.  Farming for production leads only to exhaustion.  "The inability to distinguish between a farm and any farm is a condition predisposing to abuse, and abuse has been the result."

Thoughts:

I am not a farmer.  I've planted a few successful flowers in the yard, and when I was a kid we had a small vegetable patch that I loathed working in.  So when I say that Berry is SO TOTALLY RIGHT in his ideas about farming, it's not based on personal experience.  It is, though, based on somewhat extensive schooling and personal research on systems ecology.  Not to mention the fact that more and more leading minds are now - decades after Berry's writings on the subject - beginning to realize that fighting against the earth, forcing from it what we "need," is a short term proposition.

This essay lays out themes about farming sustainably that will repeat throughout Berry's essays on farming, making it an excellent starting point for the collection.

7.01.2015

Food Issues Book Club: July!

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and/or my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

Hello all!  Long time no see!  June was a busy and difficult month for me, and I find myself jonesing to get back to the books.  So I'm excited to dive into Bringing It to the Table, a collection of essays by Wendell Berry.  I've intended to read Berry for at least a decade so it's really about time!

Given the essay format of the book, I'm not quite sure how blog posts will shape up.  They may be in a bit of a different format than other months.  I hope you'll enjoy reading them regardless!  Have you read Berry?  Are you reading him now?  Chime in!  Comments are always appreciated as everyone benefits from intelligent discourse.  Look out for the first blog entry in the next few days!