How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm?



This weekend’s harvest from my garden

By Ed Nicholson

I grew up on a farm and around vegetable gardens.  I’ve had a garden myself most of my adult life. This year, with the exception of a little Miracle Grow fertilizer on the tomatoes, I’ve gone mostly organic.  While the squash bugs and late blight are taking a toll on production, it’s still a good year.
And although I freeze and can quite a bit, even in a good year,  I couldn’t come close to feeding my family out of my garden. 
Which brings me to my point:  I think the trend toward locally-grown, organic, CSAs and community gardens is fantastic. I sincerely do. Like Guy Clark said, “What’d life be without homegrown tomatoes?”  If I ruled the world, much of the water and fertilizer that goes into making lush green carpets around our homes and in our communities would go into making food in the same space.
However (and granting I have a dog in the hunt), I think the trend toward extolling the virtues of locally-produced food using the tactic of demonizing modern agricultural practices is counterproductive and potentially dangerous. 
I was particularly impressed by Missouri farmer, Blake Hurst’s thoughtful and articulate response to the trend toward trashing modern farming in his piece,  The Omnivore’s Delusion.  You might consider reading it before you form an opinion after seeing Food Inc.
We have a billion hungry people in this world,  many of whom live in climates or locales for which local, organic and heirloom are literally impossible. How are we going to feed them without drought-resistant maize and soybeans, or frost-resistant wheat?  And if we can grow a chicken with six pounds of corn, rather than twelve, well…   As Dr. Jeffrey Sachs states in this video, if we don’t get the hungry fed, our world faces continued political instability.   And in a world with shakily-secured nuclear and chemical arsenals, those risks are as daunting as global warming and ocean eutrophication.
Local and organic,  and modern and efficient need not be mutually exclusive. We can live in a world that has locally-produced food for those of us with the ways and means, while feeding the rest of a hungry planet with modern agricultural techniques.  There’s a place for both.
And if you’re ever in northwest Arkansas in late July, come by and see me.  I always seem to have extra squash.

By the way, if you’re a Twitter user, think about tuning in to  #agchat on Tuesday evenings, moderated by Michele Payn-Knoper.  It’s a lively discussion of issues related to food and fiber production.  

8 Replies to “How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm?”

  1. Jon

    Not sure if anyone is still following this conversation, but I was reminded that this piece from Slate earlier in the month touches on some relevant issues in the organic, conventional, hunger discussion, here’s an excerpt:

    "First, the demographic profile of organic consumers makes this debate one that’s hardly worth having. There’s no broad public health issue at stake here. Organic food costs 60 percent more than conventional and comprises a mere 2.5 percent of the food eaten in the United States. Advocates of organic agriculture often argue that there’s no such thing as a "typical" consumer of organic food. It’s true that organic consumers are rapidly diversifying, but the fact remains that consistent buyers of organic goods tend to be female, college-educated, and at least somewhat well-off. All these demographic factors happen to correlate with better access to health care and basic nutritional awareness. Why should we worry whether an already healthy, wealthy, and well-informed cohort absorbs minimally more nutrition from an organic apple? It’s far more important that we get more fresh food—organic or not—to those wide swaths of the country that sociologists now call "food deserts."

    Obviously things to quibble about there as everywhere, but my question still being, not, is there value, cause or reason to advocate for organic over conventonal production, but what is the role of local, organic food systems in hunger relief efforts?  If there’s not one at the moment, then fine, let’s be honest about that, but let’s also make sure we’re ok with that answer and its implications.  If we’re not ok with it what are we doing about it?



  2. bill shore



      Thanks for starting off this conversation, and in a tone that prompted other mostly thoughtful and balanced remarks as well.  Many of us are still sorting through the complexities of these issues and having access to a diversitry of views based on personal experiences like these really helps.


  3. Michael and Chloe

    Fascinating conversation…

    In addition to the fact that I work alongside Ed (client) in the hunger relief efforts, I’m also an in-town "landscape" fruit and vegetable grower with a knuckle-head golden retriever…her name BTW is Chloe. Why knuckle-head? Well, I caught her scarffing down nearly all of my cucumbers and cubanelle peppers last week, only one week after she demolished a majestic 6′ tall Brandywine beauty (a tomato plant). I couldn’t believe the loss, the spent energy, and the cost to get my garden to the point of near harvest, and to what end? An unsettling conversation (me yelling at my dog) and absolutely nothing to show for it except compost matter and maybe a few seeds.  Frustrated…I gathered everything up and turned it under for another try next spring. 

    So, what’s my point?  Well, the way I see it many of our communities, countries and cultures have some form of "Chloe", where at any moment, when we don’t pay attention, she can spell disaster for the livliehood of a food source and ruin the cycle of nutritious food.  What can they do?  Should they ignore her? If so, she could get worse and cause greater damage.  How about give her away? Because she could become someone else’s problem, right? How about we just banish our beloved, abeit knucklehead, best friend?  Would that do it?  I contend we get better at communicating.  Let’s do a more thorough job, in areas like: logistics, planning, development, education, training, reduction, preservation and recycling in order to prevent widespread hunger disasters from happening. 

    That’s where collaboration and collective thinking comes into play.  A balance of companies’ participation working with local, regional organic as well as modern commercialized farming, as well implementation of best practices in reduction of waste and improved research, plus commerce, distribution and science. I can see this all as welcomed input that will someday help us prepare for that day when another "Chloe" pays an unwelcomed visit. Having a conversation like this is imperative to achieving those measurable objectives with hunger relief, getting people to look at their own garden, communities and neighbors.  Let’s merge the conversation with action, too. And help support hunger relief in your own area and get these ideas into the places where we need it the most.

  4. Jon

     As already demonstrated there are lots of toes in these conversations so let me begin by making explicit my desire not to step on any . . . or at least to do with apologies and a genuine interest in learning why your foot was there to begin with!  Credentials also seem to matter overly much in these conversations (for example, Mr. Hurst’s piece in The American has received at least part of it’s attention because it was written by a farmer and for some reason it’s always fun to watch like fight like) so let me establish some of mine quickly and try to avoid for a few minutes at least the inevitable division into warring camps that these discussions lead to.  

    I currently work for one of Feeding America’s member food banks in a large metropolitan city.  We distributed some where in the neighborhood of 20 million pounds of food last year to those suffering from or bordering on hunger (or as the USDA terms it, food scarcity, as Robert pointed out, semantics matter and someone there knows it).  If you haven’t visited a food bank warehouse lately do so as soon as you can.  Chances are the shelves are a bit more bare than usual but take special note of what food items are on the shelves and which are not.  They are by and large a who’s who of the industrialized food system.  Even the organic items that do make it to our shelves are products of that system.  For all intents and purposes the "industrialized food system," and weight that term however your own predispositions allow, is the only food system that hungry America knows, or more pointedly it is the only food system that knows hungry America.

    And I’m not happy with this.  Prior to moving to the big city I lived and worked on a 40-acre farm.  We operated a 60 member organic CSA.  We ran a Grade A raw goats milk dairy.  I pulled around chicken tractors for our free range layers.  I kept bees, harvested and bottled honey.  We raised, butchered and sold rabbits, chickens and turkeys (and contra Mr. Hurst’s perpetration of the "legend" of the drowning turkey, I’ve never seen or heard of a bird dying by rain – see, even farmer’s get things wrong occasionally!)  We were a local food system and on top of that we trained individuals working internationally in agricultural relief and development to utilize sustainable techniques.  I know about local, organic, sustainable food systems.  I’m conversant with the spokespersons and the seed catalogs.  But suffice it to say that the questions I’m asking about food production now are quite different than the ones that confronted me "down on the farm."

    I read the Tyson Hunger Relief blog not because I’m particularly a fan of Tyson or their products (sorry Ed!) but because they care about hungry people and they talk about how to help them.  Corporate social consciousness is a marketing must these days but Tyson goes too far and does too much for it to be a gimmick.  They care about hungry people and they put their money (and yes, their product) where their mouth is.  Maybe they are the anomaly.  Maybe there really is an unholy alliance between the industrial food complex and hunger relief, to paraphrase Pollan.   But "Farmer Jon" has had to come to terms with the reality that the feeding hungry people with the industrial food system isn’t a "view" it is our only currently (and I’m more than happy to stress the word "current" if someone can demonstrate that something else is on the horizon) viable option.  

    And I’m uncomfortable with that.  I need help reconciling that.  I read the Tyson Hunger Relief blog because they care about hungry people and there are a plethora of local, organic, sustainable ag oriented blogs and publications that I read because they resonate with my own lifestyle, preferences, and choices.  I can’t think of a single one that I read because it focuses on hunger.  Not that those topics aren’t occasionally addressed, especially in regards to access, food deserts, and the tyranny of choice present in our current food systems but I read way more suggestions for what to do with all that kale (has anybody tried that kale biscuit recipe floating around lately?) than what to do with all those hungry people.  

    I don’t like that much dissonance in my life.  I don’t like having incompatible passions.  Because what I want to say right now is that by and large the local, organic, sustainable food movement has nothing to say to the 1 in 8 Americans currently suffering from hunger. (And folks like Will Allen and Growing Power are, I fear, the exceptions that prove the rule)  I don’t want it to be true, because it feels like an indictment of myself as well, but I see little evidence to the contrary.  Convince me otherwise?

    My apologies for hijacking the comments with this ramble but one final question:  why are we so afraid to admit that when it comes to the incredibly complex question of global/local hunger and the future of agriculture upon which it depends that we just might need a diversity of solutions and that this is too important an issue to take any options off the board?

  5. Eric Herboso

    Re: "If we can grow a chicken with six pounds of corn, rather than twelve, well…"

    Feeding the world’s hungry would be far easier if we didn’t waste six (let alone twelve) pounds of corn to grow a chicken. According to the USDA, it takes 6 lbs of grain to produce 1 lb of chicken. If we all ate far less meat, we’d solve most of the world’s hunger problems immediately.

    My personal problem with modern agricultural practices is best expressed in game theory. Yes, developments in biologically-modified foods have done a lot of good. But at what risk? All it would take is a minor screw-up with a new type of plant that’s overly-invasive, and it could ruin the entire world’s agriculture. Sure, it’s an unlikely scenario — perhaps even astronomically unlikely — but if we lose that gambit, then we’re all screwed. That level of risk is just not worth the reward.

    Yes, we do need to feed the hungry. Even if we are just doing so for selfish reasons, as Sachs so clearly explains. But the single best way to do so is to stop eating meat altogether. It not only would solve the hunger problem, but so many other problems as well.

    Sources: ,

  6. Ed Nicholson

    Sorry I offended, Rob. Certainly wasn’t the intention.  I hope you can see I personally have nothing against organic, and practice it myself. 

    I thought Mr. Hurst’s piece was much more a defense of his own farming techniques rather than an "attack" on organic. 

    And trust me, as someone who monitors discussion about my own industry, saying there are great numbers who "demonize" modern agriculture is not hyperbole.  There are many who truly think we’re devils incarnate.

    With that said, I _am_  very interested in your perspective. 

  7. Rob Smart

    I must admit you were doing great until you pulled the "demonizing" card and threw on top of that Mr. Hurst’s full-frontal attack on anyone who values organic food.

    If you are really interested in getting feedback from people that don’t agree with your view of "feeding the world" with America’s industrialized food system, including myself, I would strongly suggest being careful with semantics. I’ve learned this lesson first hand on several occasions in this highly sensitive, personal and important debate.

    Food (sustainable, of course) for thought…

    Rob Smart

  8. Jon

    Ed –

    Thanks for the conversation starter – hope it develops into a fruitful one – I’ll be tracking and contributing more this afternoon as time allows!

    RE: your post title – have you heard Andrew Bird’s version of that song – highly recommended.

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