Thursday, September 17, 2009

Is organic farming a crazy idea?

I have had this article for about two weeks and it has been percolating in my brain for that amount of time. I keep thinking of blogging it and yet I have not. For a while I wanted time to think about it, but then I just didn't blog it and now it is time for me to blog about it.

This article takes on the "agri-intellectuals" and what the author, Blake Hurst, sees as their misunderstanding of farming and especially industrial farming. He points to all of these books that he says are not telling the whole truth to those who read them, that "[f]arming has always been messy and painful, and bloody and dirty. It still is." Well, no shit that farming is messy. But really is this a revelation and I am not sure that most writers would disagree with you on this point. Anyway, he begins with a story about an airplane ride in which a business man was sitting in front of him and spouting off about the whole farming industry and how as a farmer he saw this guy as talking out of his ass, but yet the businessman was able to hold sway over a group around him. Blake finally gets fed up with the guy making his points and Blake says that he is a farmer, but that he is not an organic farmer. Blake is not an organic farmer because he sees organic farming as unrealistic and idealistic As he says, "I deal in the real world, not superstitions, and unless the consumer absolutely forces my hand, I am about as likely to adopt organic methods as the Wall Street Journal is to publish their next edition by setting the type by hand.

Blake then goes on to elaborate about the person on the plane,

He was a businessman, and I’m sure spends his days with spreadsheets, projections, and marketing studies. He hasn’t used a slide rule in his career and wouldn’t make projections with tea leaves or soothsayers. He does not blame witchcraft for a bad quarter, or expect the factory that makes his product to use steam power instead of electricity, or horses and wagons to deliver his products instead of trucks and trains. But he expects me to farm like my grandfather, and not incidentally, I suppose, to live like him as well. He thinks farmers are too stupid to farm sustainably, too cruel to treat their animals well, and too careless to worry about their communities, their health, and their families.

This got my dander up and it continued to stay up as I continued to read this article. Blake continues to belittle and criticize anyone who is not a farmer in the same way he is. He picks and chooses certain sentences and ideas out of several different books and then stomps on them as being totally wrong and stupid. I can honestly say I have not read most of the books/authors he mentions, but I have read Michael Pollan who he seems to fault as the biggest of these agri-intellectuals. Now do I think that Pollan is perfect or has all of the answers, no. But Blake picks out Pollan's discussion on the increased use of cover crops such as soy and alfalfa to do more nitrogen fixing in the soil, so that we can rely less on chemical fertilizers to add nitrogen to the soil. Blake then suggests that Pollan talk to farmers before making this suggestion, but the problem is that Pollan did talk to farmers about this. He talked to farmers who are using this system and using it very efficiently both in his books and in the film Food, Inc. Blake also discusses how he is corn farmer and how corn farmers are family farmers and jump at the chance to use biotechnology as much as they can. I agree they do jump at the chance because corn is a subsidized crop here in the US and so the more they grow the more money they can make to help support their farms and their families. There is also the little matter that most corn grown in the US is not actually used to feed people, it is feed corn for animals. It is feeding cows that do not naturally feed on and digest corn, so that they are fatter and can go to slaughter faster along with chickens and pigs for the same reasons.

This is where my real issues with the article develop. He skips over some major issues. He talks about how turkeys are not smart enough to get out of the rain and turn their heads skyward and then drown, so now farmers have to keep poultry in chicken houses for their own safety. In theory this sounds good, in fact I have an ex-girlfriend whose family had chicken that they kept in a chicken house, but they did not have hundreds of chickens who were living in their own filth, whose beaks had to be cut off to keep them from injuring each other and in situations where it was so overcrowded that antibiotics had to be administered so that the chickens would not die because they were living in too close of contact. These all happen on these large industrial chicken farms. And yes I understand that the chicken houses are owned by family farmers, but these farmers are controlled by contracts from the large chicken producers. They sign a contract and the corporation can dictate how many chickens you have, what kind of houses they live in and what they are fed or the corporation will retract the contract leaving these families in debt and with no way to sell the chickens. Blake also ignores the issues with cattle farming, conveniently in my opinion as he knows there is no way to defend the ways cattle are raised, being fed corn they can't digest fully, pumped fully of hormones and antibiotics, kept in unsanitary conditions, being fed the remains of other animals and finally the ways in which they are slaughtered that leads to outbreaks of mad cow disease and e.coli in consumers.

Blake also leaves out the whole local foods movement and only attacks organic farming. The local foods movement may be more important that the organic foods movement. I and many others would take a locally grown food over an organically grown food that is shipped from thousands of miles away from our homes and stores. And don't tell me that local farms can't feed us and that local farms are not sustainable. I have seen many times over huge farmers markets that bring produce to the consumers that is locally grown and harvested. And the whole idea that farmers markets are only for the middle class is being debunked as increasingly farmers markets will accept WIC and food stamps.

I have run out of steam about this topic, but I have talked about food consciousness here, here, here, here, here, here and here. Yeah I have talked about this in one way or another many times on this blog and I will continue too, hopefully. As a side note, I wish I had written about this article when I first got it as I was less brain dead at that point, I think my points were more well developed and most importantly it might have jump started my blogging again.


Tengrain said...

Boxer -

This is another example of why I love reading your blog, kiddo! ~ you totally think it through and then write about it. I get excited everytime I see a post in my RSS reader.

OK, so lately I have been on a local and sustainable kick. I actually found flour that is grown and produced here in the SF Bay Area. I have a "connection" for local, pasture grown chicken-eggs (and I visited to see that indeed, the birds are running about actually being chickens). I am a long time-time member of a CSA, and I am trying -- somewhat desperately -- to find a local, organic, and sustainably raised source of meat. Again, I'm lucky because the SF Bay Area supports this sort of Ag.

Here's the thing: everything you do to wean yourself off of Industrial Ag is good for you and it is good for the animals, and frankly, it is good for the planet. I don't want to eat cherries in December, so I try to keep my food $ local.



Boxer rebel said...

Ten- thanks for the compliments. Speaking of local eggs and chickens, a few weeks ago I was at one of the local farmers markets and the guy who usually has chickens (I only buy the eggs, but still...) did not have any chickens. Why? It had been too wet and cold and the chickens were not getting outside and eating enough and were not ready to be slaughtered. This is why I love local farms, chickens are not slaughtered till the chickens, not the farmer, are ready.