Friday, October 29, 2010


In 1990 my now husband and I started a fresh foods market in New Boston, NH.  We sold local produce, meat, eggs and baked goods.  It was always a labor of love and never a money maker and eventually we had to stop.  But the years of buying and displaying and trying to sell this food and associating with the producers made me a believer.  I am a food fundamentalist and I want everyone to be born again eaters.  I believe  that the growing, handling, preparing, and eating of locally grown food are intrinsic parts of the human experience and should be protected as such.  

What is more important than the food we eat?  What can we do for our families that is more important than feed them the foods that are the best for them?    

Perhaps the local food movement's greatest hero is Michael Pollan.  Here is the presentation he gave at the last Bioneers conference.  At the end he warns us to keep an eye on our government's food legislation, particularly the farm bill.  It's another  thing to keep in mind before you vote next Tuesday.  Do you know where your candidates stand on the food issues?  

Beyond The Barcode: The Local Food Revolution

by Michael Pollan

Much of my education and the hopes for transforming our food chain I owe to a Bioneer—Joel Salatin. When I was first writing about organic agriculture and the gradual industrialization of what had been organic agriculture, I spoke to Kenny, and he said you really need to talk to one of the most important critics of organic agriculture, Joel Salatin. I called him, first to get some salty quotes about Whole Foods and the Organic Empire as he calls it, and I’d heard about this wonderful pastured chicken and grass-fed beef he was raising. So I’d hoped he would send me a chicken or a steak.

Well, I got the salty quotes I was looking for. He went on about the clash of paradigms and the Western conquistador mentality that was ruining our food system—both organic and industrial—but when I asked him for a chicken he said, “Sorry I can’t do that.”

Michael Pollan

“What? You’re not set up for shipping? I could have the FedEx man come with the dry ice and the box and the whole thing.”

He said, “No, no, you don’t get it. I don’t believe it’s organic or sustainable to FedEx meat across the country. If you want to try my meat, you have to come down here to Virginia.” Which I promptly did. Thus began my education in one of the most interesting agricultures going on in this country. I won’t walk you through it. I just want to give you a little close-up vignette because something I saw on that farm was a real paradigm shift for me. I think it holds the kernel of a completely different way of looking at our relationship with nature.

Joel calls himself a grass farmer. If you ask him are you a rancher, or chicken farmer, an egg farmer, he’ll say, “I’m a grass farmer.” When I got to the farm he insisted before I met any of his animals that I get down on the ground and meet his grass. And he explained something very interesting as to what happened. He grows these six different animals in a very complex rotation. It’s kind of an animal rotation based on manures and grubs and all that kind of stuff. As soon as the grass is sheared by the ruminant, the grass plant does something that all gardeners understand. It strives to restore its root/shoot ratio. It strives to balance the root mass with the leaf mass that it’s lost. So it promptly sheds as much root as grass, that has been eaten by the cow.

That’s a very interesting process. Essentially it’s killing off its roots. What happens to those roots? Mycelium goes to work along with the bacteria and protozoa and they break down those roots. That is precisely how soil is made. We build soil from the bottom up. And that is how the prairies were made, in a reciprocal relationship between the bison and the grass and all the wilderness of life that takes place in the earth’s stomach—the soil.

Joel adds to this kind of pulsing of the pasture, the element of bringing in the chickens to add nitrogen to it and within six weeks the grass is back and you can run it again. And the key thing to know here is that at the end of the year he has taken off an immense amount of animal protein from his farm. 40,000 pounds of beef, 30,000 pounds of pork, 10,000 broilers, 1200 turkeys, 1000 rabbits, 35,000 dozen eggs from 100 acres. If anyone asks can organic feed the world, take him to this farm. There is no question that sustainable agriculture can feed the world when it is done right.

The really important thing to remember is that at the end of that year when all that food has come off this land, there is more soil, not less. There is more biodiversity, not less. There is more fertility, not less.

Now, why is that significant? It’s significant because most of us carry in our heads a model of our relationship to nature that is zero sum. That is, for us to get what we want from nature—whether it’s oil, energy, whether it’s food, whether it’s entertainment—nature is diminished. We assume this to be true. We see examples of it all around. What a well managed pasture shows is that it is not necessarily the case. There is a non-zero sum way for us to engage with the natural world. And for me that is one of the most hopeful things I’ve observed in 25 years about writing about the human relationship with nature.

I don’t have time to go through my whole Paris Hilton adventure. I worked on the farm as a farm hand for a week and it was a brutally difficult week. I want to go right to some of the lessons that came out of this.

In challenging the zero sum idea, it’s not just about our relationship to nature. It is also challenging our zero sum attitude toward economics. I want to move to economics and politics and put forth the proposition that some of the most important politics going on in this country today are being transacted at farmer’s markets.

There is a direct line from the kind of healthy soils underneath Joel Salatin’s farm and other farms like his too, as Albert Howard reminded us a long time ago—a link from those healthy soils to healthy plants to healthy animals to healthy eaters and healthy economies.

I think local food is one of the most important political movements going on. It’s much bigger than food. It is the most important protest against what Wendell Berry has called, “the rise of the total economy.” The total economy is the globalized world in which everything is a commodity. Everything is produced wherever it can be produced most cheaply, which is to say most destructively, of people and resources, and moved to wherever it can be sold most dearly. This is zero sum food economy. It means more cheap food for us, less for the soil, less for the workers and much less for the animals.

Make no mistake: under this regime—and this is the regime of free trade and food that we’re hearing is so important—food is about to go the way of clothing, of consumer electronics.

Our food, in the vision of the globalizers and the vision of the total economy, will come from wherever in the world it can be produced most cheaply, freeing American labor and land for higher uses. I frankly don’t know what higher use there is for labor and land than growing food. But in the view of the economist, people like Steven Blank at UC Davis, American’s farming is like Ph.D.’s doing child’s play. This is the technocratic vision.

Now make no mistake: organic food is on the same path today, as organic food has gotten industrialized. We found a product such as Stonyfield Organic Yogurt made from organic milk powder from New Zealand, strawberries from China, apple purée from Turkey, blueberries from Canada. We are in the age of organic feedlots, organic factory farms. These are words that were never meant to be attached to one another.

Local food economies are our best hope for checking the drift toward the total global economy. And food is where these economies beginA revolt is underway across this country. A revolt of the small producers and consumers and some of the most important politics today, as I said, are happening at the farmer’s market.

Now we’re told all this is very sentimental to go back to a local food economy, even reactionary. And surely there are reasons for buying local that might strike the unsentimental as a little softheaded. We like the idea of keeping farmers and their wisdom in our communities. We like eating food in season picked at the peak of its taste and nutritional value. You find no processed food, no high fructose corn syrup at the farmer’s market. We like the idea of keeping land near us in production for food rather than houses and strip malls, defending the landscapes we love.

We like what happens socially at the farmer’s market, which is quickly emerging as the new public square in this country. If you compare what happens in the aisles at the grocery store with the farmer’s market, think about what a world of difference that is. At the farmer’s market country meets city. Children are introduced to where their food comes from. They learn often for the first time that a carrot is not a glossy orange bullet that comes in a plastic bag, but is actually a root. How amazing!

People politic. They have petitions. They schmooze. It’s just an incredibly vibrant space. We like how the farmer’s market or CSA lets us reconnect through these plants, animals and their farmers to the natural world. We’ve always looked to food for that connection. Food will always give us that connection. Even the Twinkie has its origins in the natural world. It’s only obscure to us.

I’m fully prepared to defend local food on those so-called sentimental grounds. But I would point out here that all those benefits suggest this is a non zero sum economic relationship, or social relationship. There is a lot more is going on in that marketplace than the exchange of money for food.

But let me move briefly on to other ground. Let me move on to their ground. Let me suggest that it is the globalizers of food that are the real sentimentalists who are, as Wendell Barry says, “acting on a faith without any justification,” very much like the Soviet Communists, the last great destroyers of global food economies. They tell us we need to sacrifice things we like here and now—landscapes, relationships, local enterprises—for a promise of future prosperity, that we must break a few eggs to make an omelet.

What could be more unrealistic, more soft headed than to propose we should destroy things we have and love in the present for the uncertain prospect of some future benefit? Let me remind you that the Soviet Union was founded precisely on the issue of food. Let’s stick with the eggs. Let’s not make this omelet. Let me suggest that there’s nothing more hardheaded or realistic than building and defending local food economies. Indeed, to do so is a matter not of sentiment, but of critical importance to national security and public health. Let me quickly run through a couple of reasons.

Energy. The total economy depends on cheap energy, not to mention peace and no threat from terrorism, in order to move these goods from point of cheapest production to point of highest purchase. We will not reduce our dependence on foreign sources of energy or confront the issue of climate change without dealing with this industrial food system. This food system is consuming 17% of our fossil fuel. That’s to grow the food with fossil fuel fertilizers, to use diesel on the farm, to use diesel to move the food and to process the food. You know the statistics. We’re moving all the food 1500 miles on average. By the way, supermarket organic food is moved even further today. You could buy local tulips in Seattle at Whole Foods. But in fact, they’ve been shipped down to a regional warehouse in California and then sent back to Seattle. This is the rationalization of our distribution system. There are people in Denmark eating American sugar cookies. And there are people in America eating Danish sugar cookies. As economist Herman Daly said, it would be much more efficient for them to swap recipes.

So energy is one reason to buy local. Sovereignty is another. Do we really want to go down the path we have gone down with our energy with food? Do we really want to find ourselves in a position where all our grain is coming from South America, our produce from Mexico? The projections right now are that in the state of California at the end of this century there will be no more food production in the Central Valley. It will be houses and highways wall to wall, mountain to mountain. Do we want to go down that path? Do we want to give away our food independence?

National security. Our government knows better than we the eaters the risk of a highly centralized food system. Tommy Thompson, when he left the Department of Homeland Security, in his last press conference, said something very interesting. He said, “I, for the life of me, cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply, because it is so easy to do.” When all your hamburgers are being ground in the same factory. When all your salad is being washed in the same sink it is a very precarious way to eat. (Read the rest of the article.)

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