Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Omnivore's Delusion?

Farm, Excelsior, Missouri

In The American, the Journal of the American Enterprise Institute, there is a very nice essay from someone you almost never hear from when it comes to farming theory: a Real Farmer.

Not a backyard gardener with a rototiller and a little MiracleGro applied from a hose end sprayer.

Not a young mother with three cats, and a part time job at WalMart.

Not a poet who jets around the country and who thinks no one should be using electricity.

A Real Farmer.

Someone who knows how to disc a field, how to sharpen the blades on a bush hog, and how to clear a jammed combine.

Blake Hurst, who can currently be found driving a combine somewhere in Missouri, writes:

I’m dozing, as I often do on airplanes, but the guy behind me has been broadcasting nonstop for nearly three hours. I finally admit defeat and start some serious eavesdropping. He’s talking about food, damning farming, particularly livestock farming, compensating for his lack of knowledge with volume.

I’m so tired of people who wouldn’t visit a doctor who used a stethoscope instead of an MRI demanding that farmers like me use 1930s technology to raise food. Farming has always been messy and painful, and bloody and dirty. It still is.

But now we have to listen to self-appointed experts on airplanes frightening their seatmates about the profession I have practiced for more than 30 years. I’d had enough. I turned around and politely told the lecturer that he ought not believe everything he reads. He quieted and asked me what kind of farming I do. I told him, and when he asked if I used organic farming, I said no, and left it at that. I didn’t answer with the first thought that came to mind, which is simply this: 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.

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. I would not presume to criticize his car, or the size of his house, or the way he runs his business. But he is an expert about me, on the strength of one book, and is sharing that expertise with captive audiences every time he gets the chance. Enough, enough, enough.

Read the whole thing and learn a little about real farming from a Real Farmer.


Lampropeltis said...

This farmer writes well. But I'm reminded of the angry white men showing up at town hall meetings, passions blazing. The impetus to both types' anger is simply fear of change, and anger that they are being asked to change after doing their best, and doing it well, for most of their lives.

I focused on the part of the essay related to animal "production". I put that last word in quotes, because the farmer uses all of those words meant to throw a veil over the quality of the animals' lives: "production", "confinement", "gestation crates", "bedded in sawdust", "vertical integration". Then too, he illustrates thru anecdotes (farmer who lost his turkeys to drowning, his witnessing piglets being crushed) that he basically believes the animals to be not intelligent enough to care for their bodies. Even if we use the "natural" methods, he argues, the animals will still die unnaturally (drowning, crushing) so we may as well use efficient methods to "grow" them.

I say this speaks to an attitude towards these living things, that is perhaps the result of seeing them as units of production; or perhaps some other factor, but at the heart of it is wrong. The stupid turkeys who drown in the rain: does the farmer think this is the way his god made the turkeys? Could it in fact be, that we bred the intelligence out of these creatures so that their natural instincts for caution and life are not in play?

In short, I see a lot of truth and pain in what the farmer describes. But, just like the average white man who lived, worked, and prospered only a few years ago, that center cannot hold: both because humans are evolving to recognize the nuances of other life, and because the planet is sagging and groaning under the beating humans have administered with the old ways.

Change is always painful. I don't think this farmer can turn the tide back in his direction, and I'm glad. I just hope for his sake he can come to terms with the change.

aficat said...

OT- but have you seen Iams' new commercial for their PreBiotics food? "I should have my digestive system bronzed"... from a bulldog!

Gina said...

The agriculture industry has as much right to be the sole experts and deciders on ag policy as the health-care industry has on health-care.

Farmers are a major stakeholder, but they are NOT the decider, and for exactly the same reason:

How food is produced affects us all. It also has global warming, environmental and natural security implications.

I think it's good and appropriate that more people are looking at, asking questions and demanding a seat at the table when these decisions are made.

I understand that farmers think we "city people" don't have the rights or the knowledge to question industry norms. We certainly have the right, both as consumers and taxpayers who support ag subsidies (not to mention land grant colleges). And we are getting the knowledge.

Sorry, no sale on giving all the decisions to "experts."

All this grumbling is pushback on Michael Pollan, who not only isn't a farmer but is a journalism prof at Cal-Berkeley. I would daresay both of those credential make the veins on the necks of Red State farmers throb. And the fact that he's questioning what "real farmers" do? Arrrgghhhh!

Tough. I'm done taking big ag at its word, and in this, I'm not alone. The days of business of usual for them are over. Get used to it.

sfox said...


PBurns said...

Lampropeltis, you say "this fellow reminds [you] of the angry white men showing up at town hall meetings, passions blazing?"

I think that statement says more about you than this farmer. This person is the OPPOSITE of the folks seen at these "town hall" meetings. The fellow in the airplane is far more like them -- someone who had read one book and was sure he was not a world expert.

And, if I might point out, your comparing this farmer to some angry lunatic is very much like the Lyndon LaRouche lady telling Barney frank that Obama was "like Hitler." It truly seems to be "say anything" time!

I think it also telling that you dismiss real experience as "anecdote." Even more telling is your belief that there has ever been a "natural" form of cow, chicken, turkey, pig, etc. on any farm anywhere. Sorry there hasn't been since 2,000 years before Moses.

I am guessing you have never raised so much as a few gerbils as a child. If you had, you would know that animals are NOT "intelligent enough to care for their bodies". Gerbils and pigs have been eating their young since the beginning. Animals routinely die from falling into ditches, drowning, predation, etc. Surely you know that rabbits, birds, pigs, sheep, and every other animal under the sun has so many young because so many of these animals die from predation, exposure to weather, disease, accident, starvation, and neglect? Surely you know pigs raised outside freeze in winter and sunburn in summer, that they become infested with parasite, destroy pasture and forest, and fall to predation and weather? Surely you know that true "free range" chickens die in droves from hawks, snakes, fox, and rats?

This farmer is not AGAINST change, by the way. He is for it. He wants to use the best techniques. It is luddites like you who insist he go back to caveman farming (and caveman living while he is at it).

This farmer is simply pointing out where Michael Pollan got it wrong. And guess what? He is right. I hunt farms less than 20 minutes from Pollan's house, and all my farms use manure. My farms are all no-till or low- till. My farms all plant cover crops in winter.

What this farmer is against is the people who shows up in every debate -- health care, foreign policy debates, animal welfare discussions, Second Amendment discussions, First Amendment discussions, forest policy etc. -- who KNOWS nothing but thinks all opinions are equal. Guess what? They are not.

TALKING LOUD is not a substitute for actual knowledge.

In a gun discussion, you should hold your tongue if you do not know the difference betweem caliber and gauge, do not know what the 68 Act is, have never read Heller, and cannot tell me how many people were accidentally killed with a gun last year and how that compares to swimming pool drownings or fatal car wrecks.

In farm policy, you should hold your tongue if you do not know the gestation period for a chicken, cannot name four types of plowing, cannot explain three-crop field rotation, and have no idea where farm labor comes from.

In forest policy, you need to be quiet if you cannot explain the relationship between drought and beetle bore, cannot define what an old growth forest is, do not know what a feller buncher or Pulaski tool looks like, and cannot name the special needs of at least four birds in your local forest.

Finally, I have to say I find your repeated use of "white men" to be offensive. The crazy lady Barney Frank was facing off with was not a man, and the fellow with the AR15 in Arizona was not white. Betsy McCaughey, the lady who started the "death panel" nonsense is a woman, as is Orly Taitz, the lunatic dentist-lawyer-realestate agent from Russia who is leading the "birther" movement.

From what I can see, biggotry and stupidity seems to come in all colors and genders. Of course, a real biggot will never admit that.


PBurns said...

Gee, Gina, that's "mighty white of you" to say that someone who actually farms has a right to talk about farming. I am sure they appreciate that green light!

In fact, in the public policy world we listen very carefully to people who actually have KNOWLEDGE about what they are talking about. In health care, for instance, a person who thinks the Government should stay out of Medicare does not get too much attention except as amusement. Policy makers are much more interested in hearing from someone who knows something. Paranoia is not knowledge, and neither is suspicion.

No one is talking about turning anything over to big industry. That said, most policy makers are interested in talking to people who have real knowledge. Strawberry production, for example, revolves around illegal alien and legal immigrant labor, the possibility of automation, and the relative trade-off of allowing (or even encouraging) that industry to move to Mexico. In testimony on the Hill, we would hear about automation from a labor economist and expert on automation at the U. of California. On labor problems, we would hear from a farmer in Oregon as well as someone concerned about immigration issues. On the relative tradeoffs of imports, we might hear from someone with knowledge about differential agricultural practices in Mexico and the U.S., as well as someone from the FDA and Customs. Will a pesticide-paranoid housewife from Dallas be asked to weigh in? No. She has no knowledge of strawberries, economics, pesticides, automation or migrant labor policy. Being loud and paranoid is not enough.

Michael Pollan tells a good and important story. I gave (and give) the book a strong endorsement. But it is story, and at some level a pretty silly one at that. According to Pollan, the only "pure" meal was the one that was hunted. And yet, hunting is not sustainable agriculture is it? And what was Pollan hunting? A non-native animal! I am pro-hunting, but as food policy the chapter is complete nonsense.

And that's the problem with story. It's too easy to paint up hunting as if it's a sensible policy choice (are you eating hunted meat, Gina?), and too easy to demonize American farmers who actually put produce on our plates. It is particularly easy to demonize when the population is well and truly ignorant.

Let's take chickens. No one can imagine killing a fox or a hawk, for example, until a fox gets in and kills all their backyard chickens. Then one of two things happen: they decide killing a fox or a hawk is OK, or they start to understand that there is a reason chickens are raised inside. Or perhaps they do what you are doing, which is buy electric poultry fencing (one of those new industrial technologies we are all supposed to be rejecting). The only problem is that an electric fence does not prevent burrowing animals, or hawks, not does it keep out rats. Somewhere along the line, a hard-sided chicken house starts to make sense, as it will seem less "cruel" than Mother Nature. That is what this farmer is saying -- modern agricultural practices have not developed because farmers are stupid, malevolent, cruel, or ignorant. They have developed though experience and with the farmer looking at all of the trade offs, including what people will pay.

This last part is important. If people want things to be grown or raised in a more expensive manner, they are going to have to pay more for them. Right now Gina, I am willing to bet you are paying somewhere north of $1 an egg for eggs from your backyard chickens. What happens when ALL eggs go to $1 an egg? You have the right to pay $1 an egg now. But do you have the right to require everyone else to pay $1 an egg? On such questions does ag policy swing.


PBurns said...

Susan has a link to a story from Time magazine

The article says, in essencee, that the problem is the consumer.

In short, YOU are the problem because you want food to be cheap.
_ _ _

"For all the grumbling you do about your weekly grocery bill, the fact is you've never had it so good, at least in terms of what you pay for every calorie you eat. According to the USDA, Americans spend less than 10% of their incomes on food, down from 18% in 1966."
_ _ _

How many of you want to see 10 percent of your inmcome disappear right now?

That's 10 percent MORE of your income gone, and never mind that gasoline is more expensive and health insurance is not free, and your 401-k has just tanked.

Huh? You mean organic vegetables and free range chicken and grass-fed beef will cost more?

And you mean if we pay for it, they will grow it?

And that has ALWAYS been true?

What? Amazing!

But of course, we want everything to be free, don't we?

And, of course, nothing is ever our responsibility, is it?

No, it's "them" that are being cruel to the pigs and poisoning the water. It's those stupid, dirty, redneck farmers. Or else it's "big agriculture" which is some shadowy, nameless, faceless thing meeting in an unmarked building somewhere.

It's never us making decision after decision, year after year. We, after all, are the victims!

Why are we all so fat?

It's not because we eat too much and excercise too little! Michael Pollan does not mention that, does he? No!

No, it's because there's been a conspiracy! We have beem set up! Losing weight by eating less and keeping fit by excercising has been kept a secret from us.

We are being poisoned by "indusrtrial agriculture." We have been tricked! It's not our fault. We are the victims of stupid redneck farmers and shady big agricultural corporations. We have no personal responsibility in any of this.

And NO, it's not enough that we individually vote with our wallets. It's not enough for us to eat less, eat better, and excercise more. We must also dictate to everyone else what they eat and how much they pay for food. What? The poor people don't have the money? Well let them go wild boar hunting like Michael Pollan did, or perhaps they can spend $1,200 to put in a backyard chicken coop in southside Boston, or pick dandielions in Central Park. But they cannot eat corn, or soybean, or dairy products, or pork, or chicken, or anything that has been fertilized or sprayed with a pesticide or imported. Other than that, they can eat anything they want!

Got it!

The Time piece says "A transition to more sustainable, smaller-scale production methods could even be possible without a loss in overall yield, as one survey from the University of Michigan suggested, but it would require far more farmworkers than we have today."

Right. And let me be clear what that means: more legal and illegal immigrants. LOTS more. So many your head will spin, and in some areas, it will soon be "press 12 if you want to speak English"

The population of the U.S. will soar past 1 billion in the next 50 years, negating any and all savings from energy efficiency and water efficiency.

You want sprawl? Traffic? Crappy schools and tract housing? Great. Support more hand-picked agriculture. Kill America as we know it and love it. Go ahead and vote to poison the land with even more people.


Gina said...


I love how you take the one or two things I didn't talk about and make that the central point you knock down. I'm no farmer, but something to do with straw ...?

I also love how any time a veterinarian uses anything more than sutures, you jump them for ripping you off with their Big Pharma influenced ways.

I'm saying those "real farmers" are just as bought in to the religion of Big Ag. But you don't seem to recognize that, because you're struck by the romanticism of those who work hard seven days a week doing a real physical labor.

I respect farmers, too. As you know, I have friends who are both farmers and ranchers. But yes, mine are of the change-oriented sort.

Pollan is a catylist, a game-changer, but he's only part of the story. His fanciful boar-hunting escapade is a trip down a side road.

The main roads lead to what's being discussed by many people beyond Pollan: The unsustainability of monoculture: Of how increasing amounts petro-fertilizers are used to get the same results. How the run off has formed a dead zone in the Gulf where the Mississippi empties. How the use of antibiotics routinely in concentrated animal feeding operations puts us all at risk for super-bugs, and how these CAFOs are a prime breeding ground for the mutation of viruses not to mention a source of toxic waste in the form of lagoons of excrement.

No one is asking farmers to go back to oxen and plows. But those of us who are looking at these issues -- which should, by the way, be EVERYONE who eats -- want agriculture to start its next revolution and find solutions for the future.

Because what they're doing now isn't the answer long-term.


Oh, and thanks for asking about my chickens! The first year is very expensive, as you note, mostly because of housing and equipment. If I were the least bit handy, I could have reduced my start up costs to labor and scrap materials, but I'm not, so start-up costs where close to $500. If I keep chickens for a decade, that's $50 a year.

Aside from that big hit, the chickens are cheap and easy. They do eat purchased chicken feed, but they also eat (I call it "pre-compost"!) all the kitchen scraps. If I were allowed to have a rooster by zoning, they'd have more chickens, and if I could be tougher, they'd feed me and the dogs/cats at the end of their laying cycle.

They live pretty normal happy chicken lives without having their beaks seared off or having to eat medicated feed to stay alive. Yes, I like the eggs, which are now pretty darn cheap -- three-four eggs a day for a $20 sack of feed a month.

There's a reason why the sound of roosters crowing is common in the communities of new immigrants -- from Latin America and Southeast Asia -- here in Sacramento. These folks are dirt poor, but they know chickens are easy and cheap to keep. These folks aren't paying $1 an egg, believe me.

Now ... off to the Farmers Market for me to support sustainable, regional agriculture!

Gina said...

Along the same lines:

"[The] diverse, chaotic family farm is now disappearing, replaced by insipid food assembly lines. The result is food that also lacks soul — but may contain pathogens." -- Nicholas D. Kristof

I don't think change is the enemy of "real farmers." I think continued reliance on the ways of corporate agribiz is.

Gina said...

Finally, you write:

"It's not because we eat too much and exercise too little! Michael Pollan does not mention that, does he? No!"

What in what part of "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants" do you suppose Michael Pollan isn't mentioning that?

I have done pretty much "that" for almost two years now, lost 40 pounds and have SAVED money on groceries (even shopping at Whole Paycheck!) while STILL buying sustainably produced, regional food and the meat of humanely, sustainably raised livestock.

My friend Pamela does is for even less -- her food outlays are nill, because she grows everything, preserves most, has chickens and composts like crazy -- and barters! ... all on less than a quarter-acre not four miles from Capitol dome of the biggest state in the country.

PBurns said...

Gina, the quote you give here is not from Omnivore's Dilemma -- it's from the other (more recent) book which far fewer people have read.

The first chapter of Omnivore's Dilemma is largely a tract about how corn is making everyone fat and how we have been "over-served" by bigger drinks, bigger hamburgers, etc. The message is explicit: we were tricked into eating more. The attraction of this message is clear: it suggests we have all been victims of a giant conspiracy.

And maybe we were for the first six months and 10 pounds of "super-sizing". After that, however, I think we have to take responsibility. You clearly have taken responsibility (big applause here!), and that's the message we need to send out. Change and salvation is an inside job, not an outside job. The problem has never come from outside, but always from within.

That's both the bad news and the good news. The bad new is that we have to change as consumers. The good news is that we CAN change as consumers. Not all consumers will agree what change is needed or what direction it should go, however. That's free market democracy!

If you want to make food policy as a citizen, the way you do that is by voting with your fork. Michael Pollan himself is an advocate of that point of view. See

"Vote with your fork three times a day" is a MUCH much more productive way of achieving change than demonzing farmers and "big agriculture" and nagging people on airplanes about things the nagger probably knows very little about (i.e. how farms are actually run on a day to day basis in the real world).

You and I are in agreement, I think, that the world (including farms) is better than it was and not as good as it is going to be.
No one is against change, and certainly big agriculture and farmers will stand for it and applaud it IF people are willing to PAY for it. That is why I say the problem has never been in our fields. It's always between our ears and our decision that food should always be as cheap as possible.

Of course, selling a doubling of food price might be a littl tough righ now, with so many people who have lost their job, who are paying $2.50 a gallon, and who have seen their health care costs soar and their 401-Ks crater. Maybe a doubling of food prices wil not be needed if we can find a way to automate lettuce, lemons, bell peppers, eggplants, and the like, however. As I have said before, if we can automate planting and harvest, we will grow it cheap and local. Otherwise, it won't happen.

As for the quick and easy way to get-your-chicken farm up and running, check this out >>

By the way, if you are paying $20 a month for feed and amortizing that chicken coop at $50 a year, that works out to be $290 a year for eggs (assuming your time is woth zero and there are no additional expenses like incubators, fence repair, antibiotics, etc.)

With eggs at $2 a dozen (actually they were 99 cents a dozen last week, but lets go with $2), that works out to 145 dozen eggs (1,740 eggs). At 3-4 eggs a day, you are getting 1,280 eggs a year for the same price as store bought, and doing a lot more work for the trouble. Of course chickens are good for the soul. Believe me I get that. That said, if you eat a few chickens, your economics might get quite a bit better :)


beautdogs said...

Hi Patrick
Love your blog and read it every day. This is neither here nor there but an interesting comment, I think, on today's topic:


Lampropeltis said...

PBurns, I've enjoyed reading your blog. Your response to my posting was rude and out of proportion to what I wrote.

If you put your ideas out there for the public to chew on, expect opinions that may not mirror yours, and have the grace not to respond so viciously.

PBurns said...

Boo hoo Lampropeltis. If you have been reading this blog, then you know I am not a big fan of anonymous commenters, poor thought, or weak research. You hit a Trifecta, didn't you? Comparing a man who is writing about something he KNOWS something about in a calm and dispassionate voice to someone who screams epithets at a health care rally is a FAIL on your part. Your own verbiage about white men (you managed to use the phrase twice) proved your own biggotry. Your comments about the wonders of "natural" animal husbandry betrayed your own lack of experience with animals. Here's a hint: LEARN MORE before you try to anonymously slag a person or an entire industry you know nothing about. As for my tone, get over yourself: I do not write this blog for you. Cowboy up if you want to come on here and prattle nonsense. See the instructions in the comments box -- I could not be clearer, could I?