When I buy organic, I feel good about it. Heck, I feel good about myself. Because I’m getting, say, beef raised by a local farmer who fed his happy herd of cattle on grass. Some of them may well have been named. These cattle were probably slaughtered in a humane fashion, butchered and packed on site, loaded into the farmer’s refrigerated truck and driven into town, where I bought it at C’ville Market a few days later. My money stays in Virginia, a family farm can sustain itself, and I get a great steak for dinner.
That’s how I once thought it worked, anyhow.
Now that I’ve read Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” it pains me to admit that I thought so simplistically about something so essential as the food that I put in my body. The truth, of course, is far uglier.
Were this a decade or two ago, my assumed scenario may well have been true. But with the explosion of demand for organic meat and produce, factory farms have modified their processes to fit those demands. The enormous midwestern feedlots on which cattle are fattened up are now divided up between those cattle who eat pesticide-drenched corn and those who eat organic corn. And that’s pretty much the difference between most organic and non-organic beef.
Cows, of course, are not meant to eat corn. They’re ruminants; their fundamental body design has evolved to consume grasses. Cows are no more meant to eat corn than you and I are meant to eat grass. The corn that they eat makes them quite sick, which is why they have to be pumped full of antibiotics. This doesn’t make them well, but it keeps them from getting so sick that they’d stop growing. We feed cows corn because we grow such an unbelievably huge quantity of it, thanks to ill-planned government farming subsides, so we’ve got to do something with it.
So we grow lots and lots of corn in one place, we ship it all to another place where we feed it to cattle, which we ship to another place to butcher, and then ship to another place to be sold, which we then buy and take home. The entire process places a tremendous demand on our transportation infrastructure, requires a huge amount of fuel, and produces beef that is full of antibiotics, steroids and hormones, and is metaphorically dripping with petrochemicals. This is industrial farming.
Once upon a time, “organic” was an indicator. Yes, it meant what it does now, but it was freighted with so much more, all of those assumptions that led to my misunderstanding of the origins of my organic beef. But once the federal government established an organic standard (setting the bar pretty low) and demand increased at a rate greater than could be accommodated by family farmers, it was inevitable that factory farms would fill that gap.
With this understanding, I’ve decided that I really just don’t care about organic. If I have a choice between organic beef from Argentina or regular ol’ beef from Montair Farms, here in Albemarle County, I’m not going to hesitate to choose the latter.
First and foremost, I want to keep my money local. If my money goes to Argentina, I’m never going to get it back; if it stays in Albemarle, I’ll see it again in a dozen different forms over the years.
Second, I want to avoid the pollution and foreign-oil dependency that comes of unnecessarily shipping food hundreds or thousands of miles. Pollan writes about this in “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”:
A one-pound box of prewashed lettuce contains 80 calories of food energy. According to Cornell ecologist David Pimental, growing, chilling, washing, packaging, and transporting that box of organic salad to a plate on the East Coast takes more than 4,600 calories of fossil fuel energy, or 57 calories of fossil fuel energy for every calorie of food. (These figures would be about 4 percent higher if the salad were grown conventionally.)
I simply can’t find an excuse sufficient to contribute to that sort of waste of fuel. I’d like to know how the ratio of gallons of oil from Iraq to deaths of American troops; how many California salads equal a dead soldier?
The third reason and final reason that I prefer the local meat is that I can visit Montair. I can walk right on up, get myself a tour, and buy the meat from their farm shop. It’s not possible to visit many factory farms; good luck ever getting a tour of an abattoir.
I would be remiss in failing to acknowledge the Virginia connection to “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” Pollan spends a good bit of his book writing about Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm, over in Swoope, in the valley. The author holds up Polyface as the ideal of sustainable family farming, and for good cause that is worth relating in brief.
The industrial process farming that I outlined above — corn grown one place, cows in another, slaughterhouse in yet another, stores in another — is incredibly wasteful. The soil where the corn is grown is left ruined. The land under and around the cows is likewise ruined. Every step contains inefficiencies, often hugely wasteful, some of which are hidden in the costs of our transportation infrastructure or maintaining access to oil in the Middle East.
Polyface is the opposite. Salatin’s process is simple. First and foremost, understand that he describes himself as a grass farmer. The fact that he sells chicken and beef and eggs and rabbits is incidental — his primary job is raising grass, delivered to you via a cow or a chicken. He’s got 550 acres: 450 forested and 100 as pasture.
The pasture is set up on a simple rotation scheme. The cows are fenced off with a portable electric fence, and they’re moved around the farm every few days. Three days after the cows are moved, the chickens are brought in with their own portable hutches (known as the Eggmobile). That’s just long enough that flies have laid their eggs in the cow manure and the eggs have hatched into larvae. And chickens love fly larvae. They break up and scatter the manure — accelerating its transformation into fertilizer — get a lot of good protein (one third of the chickens’ diet), and help keep the cows free of bothersome flies. By moving the Eggmobile around regularly throughout the year, all of the pastures get plenty of nitrogen. All of this is made possible by the cows having first eaten the grass, since chickens don’t deal well with grass over 6″ in height.
The forested land cools the air in the adjoining pasture, making the animals less stressed in summer. The pigs are moved about in the forest, via a portable paddock, so they can root around and improve the soil, inducing it to convert to grassland that’s the pig’s natural habitat. The trees slow the winds, reducing the evaporation in the fields and letting the grass use less calories to try and stand upright. Most birds won’t venture into open grassland, but they’ll hang out along the edge of the forest, eating insects that would otherwise bother the animals. The forest allows critters like voles and chipmunks to live there, giving coyotes and weasels something to eat other than the chickens. And the trees are harvested for woodchips that go into the compost — compost that nourishes the grass and, thus, the beef.
The cows eat the grass and poop. Chickens can then navigate the grass, eat the larvae in the feces, and fertilize the fields with their own waste and by spreading the cows’ waste. Which grows grass. Which the cows eat and poop out. Repeat. The end result is that Salatin saves a fortune on fertilizer, chicken feed, antibiotics (to deal with fly-borne diseases), grass-mowing, and so on. The result is that his eggs are $0.25/dozen less than they’d otherwise need to be.
The amazing thing is that, as the years go by, Polyface’s soil doesn’t get worse. It gets better. It seems that we can take from the land without diminishing it. Salatin’s not doing anything special — he’s just farming the way that people have for centuries.
Last Thursday evening found me, my wife and my father in the crowded cafeteria of Western Albemarle High School. (Where I believe I ate lunch once in my two-year career at WAHS. Hallways and the lawn in front of the school were more my style.) The Virginia Independent Consumers and Farmers Association was holding “Farm Food Voices 2006: Local Pastured Meats: Making the right choice for health, taste and bio-security,” and apparently hundreds of people had gotten the memo. A pair of long tables had been set up, stocked heartily by dozens of independent farmers from across the state — a half dozen types of meat and every fruit and vegetable that could be grown in Virginia had been combined into a hundred different dishes, free for the taking. Everything was, of course, delicious — save for the mysterious pie that looked like chocolate with whipped cream but tasted like something closer to ass. Long-haired hippies mingled with guys in suits. A quarter of the audience was either Mennonite or had really bad fashion sense. Both Al Weed and a representative from Virgil Goode’s office were present, along with two candidates for state senate. Honestly, I’d expected three dozen people, half farmers and half aging hippies — certainly nothing like this.
Polyface’s Joel Salatin was the MC, charged with introducing the series of speakers and keeping the event running smoothly. Salatin is a curious cross between a geek, a farmer, and a conspiracy nut, making for a guy that has got to provide great conversation. In khakis, a checked shirt and a blue blazer, he looked more like an accountant than a farmer. But it was also clear, as he talked, that he knew an enormous amount about food. I’d write “farming,” but that’s not accurate. His farming is premised on his understanding of ecological processes and the human body’s process of digesting and extracting nutrition from food. While I can’t imagine there are a lot of farmers like that, there sure seemed to be a lot in that cafeteria.
It has been lamented that farming is a profession that kids get pushed into if they don’t perform academically, or if their families don’t have the option of sending them to college. I got to know a good number of kids at Virginia Tech who were taking over the family farm when they got home, and I think it’s fair to say that it was a distinctly average bunch. Certainly not dumb kids — just regular. They had gone to VT to learn pest management, animal husbandry, crop maintenance, etc. What they did not learn about, and were not required to learn about, was nutrition or ecology. We’re teaching our children how to run tiny factory farms, to be reliant on Roundup Ready seeds, to ignore the wisdom of millennia of farming for the innovations of the past fifty years. This may well serve them well, but I wonder whether there will be anything left of their farm to pass onto their children in twenty five years.
Talking to people in WAHS’ cafeteria made me feel better about the future of Virginia farming. Hundreds of people came to learn more about how to raise chickens without being reduced to being a chicken janitor, how to raise beef without sickening the cattle, how to farm so that the land is improved by the process, not diminished. I never would have guessed that there was such broad interest in that ideal among consumers and farmers alike.
I’ve changed my view on organic in the couple of weeks since I’ve finished reading “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” That’s just one small way that food can be better for me, for the environment, for the country and for the world. And I think the merits of organic pale next to the merits of sustainable, local family farming. I want organic food for the same reason that I want nutritious food, but I see now that organic is just one small piece of a much larger picture. Joining a CSA program and maintaining a sizable home garden are two steps steps that I’ve taken towards eating better and having a healthier environment. And when I purchase meats and vegetables, I try to not just buy American, but buy as locally as possible. The means no tomatoes in January or apples in April, but instead hewing more closely to the seasons.
“Organic” is no longer the watchword that it once was; you cannot assume that it represents more than it does. Start paying attention to your foods — find out what country or state they’re from. (Hint: If it’s from Whole Foods, it’s probably from a factory farm.) See if you can get a sense of how big of an operation produced it. Try and buy foods from farmer friends in your area. Not only will you be more aware of what you’re eating — something much more fundamental to your well-being than, say, what the Virginia General Assembly did today — but you’ll probably find that your food is a whole lot tastier.