Against the agri-intellectuals

Anyone who is heartened by the recent surge of interest in local food ought to read this article by Blake Hurst, an industrial farmer who has heard the arguments and is not impressed. His point, which I think is right, is that food cannot be grown as the local/organic crowd would have it grown and still be available to consumers in the quantity and variety that modern society requires. In fact, industrial techniques were developed precisely to do that job, one that local/organic is incapable of doing.

Probably the clearest example is the experience Hurst’s neighbor had growing turkeys:

Lynn Niemann was a neighbor of my family’s, a farmer with a vision. He began raising turkeys on a field near his house around 1956. They were, I suppose, what we would now call “free range” turkeys. Turkeys raised in a natural manner, with no roof over their heads, just gamboling around in the pasture, as God surely intended. Free to eat grasshoppers, and grass, and scratch for grubs and worms. And also free to serve as prey for weasels, who kill turkeys by slitting their necks and practicing exsanguination.

Weasels were a problem, but not as much a threat as one of our typically violent early summer thunderstorms. It seems that turkeys, at least young ones, are not smart enough to come in out of the rain, and will stand outside in a downpour, with beaks open and eyes skyward, until they drown. One night Niemann lost 4,000 turkeys to drowning, along with his dream, and his farm.

Now, turkeys are raised in large open sheds. Chickens and turkeys raised for meat are not grown in cages. As the critics of "industrial farming" like to point out, the sheds get quite crowded by the time Thanksgiving rolls around and the turkeys are fully grown. And yes, the birds are bedded in sawdust, so the turkeys do walk around in their own waste. Although the turkeys don’t seem to mind, this quite clearly disgusts the various authors I’ve read whom have actually visited a turkey farm.

But none of those authors, whose descriptions of the horrors of modern poultry production have a certain sameness, were there when Neimann picked up those 4,000 dead turkeys. Sheds are expensive, and it was easier to raise turkeys in open, inexpensive pastures. But that type of production really was hard on the turkeys. Protected from the weather and predators, today’s turkeys may not be aware that they are a part of a morally reprehensible system.

Sarcasm aside, Hurst’s point is a valid one: it takes industrial techniques to raise 4,000 turkeys. Or the 11,000 chickens and 1,000 beef cows and hundreds of pigs that Joel Salatin raises each year—his techniques are clever and low-tech and inexpensive and humane and operated at a relatively low scale, but they are still factory techniques. And as successful as Salatin has been, he accounts for a miniscule portion of the food supply—the president of Chipotle, a fast food restaurant with 830 locations that has worked with Salatin, has said they need about a thousand more operations like his to supply just the pork their restaurants need. One thousand Salatins.

As I’ve written before, I think the critical divide is not between local/organic and industrial, but between subsistence and cash cropping. As soon as we are no longer growing the food to supply our own needs but to generate the cash with which we supply our needs, we have crossed that particular Rubicon.

And the Rubicon metaphor is deliberately chosen. As I’ve been writing lately, innovations such as the transition from local/organic to industrial are not reversible in any simple way. We can’t simply decide to undo the parts of the shift that led to results we didn’t like while retaining what we see as the beneficial parts.

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7 thoughts on “Against the agri-intellectuals

  1. That phrase “available to consumers in the quantity and variety that modern society requires” is the kicker. Eating what’s available is quite a different endeavor from demanding what we want to eat. In other words, I can buy a banana in January (or strawberries, or whatever). And I can buy grass-fed and -finished beef for $8 a pound. But in both cases, I’m contributing more to a business model than a sustainable way of life. And then I read Wendell Berry’s Nathan Coulter, and it makes me want to weep for what we’ve lost.

  2. Very interesting.

    My sister and her husband have been doing a ton of research into agriculture and have gone off to start their own homestead. I’ve been skeptical of some of their more radical ideas, but they make some good points about some of the more damaging outcomes of mass production. Very interesting stuff…

    ~Luke

  3. Rubicon Indeed. Scary paralells to the decline of Roman Agriculture.
    We don’t need 1000 Joel Salatins. We need about 40 million Gene Logsdons.

  4. Some of Mr Hurst’s points are valid, however, some of them make me wonder if he isn’t so close to the problem, he can’t see the forest for the trees. For instance , the turkeys drowing in the rain. Well, turkeys, DIDN”T used to drown in a rain. It was only when industrial agriculture started breeding tukeys so big breasted they couldn’t mate on thier own, and were too delicate to survive outside etc, that we got this problem. Turkeys have been raised outside for centuries. Only now is it a problem. His opinion of how much chemicals will be still necessary in the future is a point taken, but from where will he get them, and the energy to run his farm, when a billion more people are bidding for the same energy. He was talking about using herbicides to make no till agriculture possible. However there shrimp fisherman in Louisiana who have lost fishing grounds because of a dead zone far out into the Gulf of Mexico. Caused by too much fertility in the Mississippi rivers waters from all those chemicals. He was talking about using all that chicken waste down here in the Ozarks for pasture fertilizing. Well, I live here, and not as much chicken/turkey fertilizer as he thinks is used down here. Mostly just liming a pasture every few years. In fact, bucause of our limestone karst upland geology{the region is famous for it’s springs, and rivers} nobody wants a chicken/turkey shed, anywhere near them, because of groundwater contamination, etc. I could go on, but my point is, it doesn’t matter if it’s “not practical” to do something. The problem is, nature and, population growth, etc, will make it necessary to start figuring out how to do things that ” are not practical” within our lifetimes. No matter how badly we wish it away. Mr Hurst has done farming “his” way, all his life. There are many approaches to farming that work. And I suspect we we are going to be learning them, anew. Richard is right, we need many more Gene Logsdons. And I suspect we will get them, when we need to do “impractical” things.

  5. Jamie,

    But in both cases, I’m contributing more to a business model than a sustainable way of life.

    Nicely put. And as business models, both are actively engaged in training their customers to behave in such a way that is most profitable to them. One side argues that the convenience (?) of Lunchables and pre-made PB&Js outweighs the considerable extra expense, the other that to quibble over paying $20 for a lovingly raised four-pound chicken is misguided and vaguely shameful.

    Richard,

    We don’t need 1000 Joel Salatins. We need about 40 million Gene Logsdons.

    Oh, do I wish I had said that! I admire Joel Salatin endlessly, and reading about his work was what got us off the dime and started down this path. But it is only Gene Logsdon who comes anywhere close to modelling the agrarian life as I think it should be lived today. And I suppose it makes sense that folks like Michael Pollan have not spent any time writing about him.

  6. Sharon Astyk’s “A Nation of Farmers” (which I have yet to read, sadly) calls for 50-100 million new farmers, so that’s pretty close to your “40 million Gene Logsdons”.

    I think Astyk includes in her number “farms” which others might qualify as “very large gardens”, though.

    peace,
    Zach

  7. Thanks for posting the link to that article. It’s helpful to remember that industrial farmers are real people who have good reasons for doing what they do — they’re neither evil nor mindless.

    I like Richard’s “40 million Gene Logsdons,” too. ISTM that the more Gene Logsdons there are, the fewer industrial farmers we’ll need, but if the Pollans of the world have their way, the federal govt will regulate the industry even more, which will cause everyone more problems, including us Logsdon wannabes.

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