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The Missouri Table: A Response to Ethical Foodies From a ‘Factory Farmer’

Monday, July 29, 2013

Trendy urbanites dining in the Berkshires can chastise “factory farmers” all they want, but commercial farming today is a modern miracle, satisfying the needs of millions.

“In the end, Michael ate half my dessert. We finished the wine. And then, reluctantly, we got up to leave; we both had a long drive ahead of us. Walking out, we were stopped by a group of young butchers sitting at the bar discussing the morality of meat. Owner Mark Firth came over to join the conversation and talk proudly of his pigs. It was 2013, in a rural Massachusetts town, and I had a moment of pure joy. In 1970, when I first became concerned about the future of food, I could not have imagined this moment. Even as recently as 2006, when Michael came out with the Omnivore’s Dilemma, it would have been foolhardy to hope that this could come to pass. We looked at each other. We smiled.”

The American Table: Michael Pollan and Ruth Reichl Hash Out the Food Revolution
Smithsonian Magazine
June 2013

While many of us are celebrating summer by wiping from our chins the butter of roasted ears, the grease of brats and barbeque, and melting ice cream, the Smithsonian Magazine’s summer Food Issue attempts to draw our attention from these gustatory delights with a dialogue over dinner between Michael Pollan and Ruth Reichl at a restaurant in Massachusetts’s Berkshires. Not surprisingly, the joint these celebrity diners enjoyed is operated by a former Brooklynite who has decamped to the hills to open a restaurant supported by “ethical” and “sustainable” farming. One sentence will suffice to describe his business plan: “Market overpriced food to the terminally self-satisfied.” It’s a plan more likely to be successful on either coast than here on my farm in the center of the nation, where we are all too likely, by food writers’ lights, to be unethical, unsustainable, and obese as well.

Dinner with a Side of Moralizing

The article is entitled the “The American Table,” and there is much for Midwesterners to absorb. Much of the food for a politically correct Pollan-Reichl style table will be unfamiliar to those who actually produce most of America’s food and live in areas unfashionable for trendy urban pioneer farmers in search of a simpler life. It is almost always accompanied by a healthy side of self satisfaction. Pollan elsewhere recommends eating only food that your grandmother would recognize. Trust me, my grandmothers were both wonderful cooks, but nothing but the deviled eggs on this menu ever appeared on their tables. Yoghurt lemon mousse just wasn’t the thing at grandma’s house. In fact, foods familiar to them would be limited to pork (cured), beef (corn-fed), potatoes (fried), and vegetables (limp).

We are 'factory farmers' when only artisans will do, and for that we must pay in the pages of Smithsonian Magazine, the New York Times, and on the bestseller lists.

Peas were cooked with cream, as a summer’s afternoon in the hayfield or swinging a hoe chopping weeds took fuel. My father’s mother often fed a crew of six or eight men who were doing physical work for ten hours a day, and dinner (that would have been the noon meal in mid 20th-century Missouri) served the same purpose as a truck pulling up to a diesel pump. It was better if it tasted good, but there was work to be done, and calories were for the burning. It is a sign of how much better off we are now that we can spend so much time fretting over the ethics of fuel for work, but it hasn’t been an unqualified blessing. Whenever I see a food writer damn my industry for a lack of ethics, I almost long for the days when hunger was truly a threat. I’m not wishing a famine on anyone, but I am keeping my freezer full of industrially-produced beef and my larder well stocked with canned hybrid tomatoes just in case the food movement cannibalizes modern agriculture and makes it the modern day equivalent of the nuclear power industry.

The New Food Enforcers

Today’s battles are waged over genetically modified seeds, gestation crates for raising pigs, and the size of chicken cages for the egg industry. One wonders, though, whether agricultural methods can ever truly measure up to what is demanded. If labeling turns out to be insufficient and genetically modified food is no longer marketable, the gimlet eye of the “food enforcers” will choose another target. Will they really declare victory if gestation crates disappear and pigs are allowed to fight in pens? Can those of us in farming ever hope to fully satisfy the demands of writers such as Pollan and Reichl, who have developed their own extremely lucrative industry over the past several decades? Is their success truly the start of a mass movement, or is it necessary to their success that people who eat “ethically” have the rest of the country to look down upon?

One caller to a radio show I appeared on recently desribed the people who patronize fast food restaurants as "sheeple." That kind of derision leads me to believe that the caller will only feel good about himself if he believes I eat hamburgers several times a month at a place with cheesy uniforms and kid’s meals. I’m happy to oblige, but it is hard for me to take him seriously. He’s not as interested in making the world better as he is in feeling superior to people who can’t afford to eat the diet he believes necessary to living an ethical and sustainable life. He’s not nearly as concerned about the future of the planet as he is at being noticed, approvingly, by the kind of people who worry about the proper way to boil lentils, raise a few heritage pigs in their backyard, and are always available to be interviewed by NPR and the New York Review of Books. 

Today’s battles are waged over genetically modified seeds, gestation crates for raising pigs, and the size of chicken cages for the egg industry. One wonders, though, whether agricultural methods can ever truly measure up to what is demanded.

John Kinsella, a poet who teaches at Cambridge, has remarked that he has “not sold his soul to market fetishization.” Writer Stephen Miller, in a recent article in The Weekly Standard, explains that “Kinsella means that he doesn’t want even to think about making a profit from his writing.” Miller goes on to assemble a long list of quotes and examples from writers and artists criticizing commercial activity and businessmen. It’s always amusing to me to read reviews of commercially successful authors penned by authors or academics who have never produced a bestseller. Success is often assumed to mean that the creator has sold out to “the man.” The same meme is ubiquitous in writing about food. To achieve commercial success in the agriculture industry is the true breach of ethics committed by the “industrial” farmer, and that is why we’ll never be able to satisfy our critics. We are “factory farmers” when only artisans will do, and for that we must pay in the pages of Smithsonian Magazine, the New York Times, and on the bestseller lists.

We just bought a new planter here on our corn and soybean farm in Missouri. It will allow us to move a bit further toward adopting “precision farming.” The planter communicates directly with global positioning satellites and will, using yield maps developed over several years, allow us to vary seed population rates over the field. We will plant more seeds in places where yields are typically high, and sow fewer seeds where yields have been lower. The machines that fertilize the farm will have access to the same information and satellites, allowing us to apply the optimal amount of nutrients precisely on each fractional acre in the field. We will be farming with a level of precision, economy, and individuality that has never before been possible. We will be spoon feeding our crops in a way that means each corn field might as well have been grown by, well, an artisan. We’ll have that local knowledge that Wendell Berry so eloquently wrote about in the books and essays that were the founding documents of what is now the “food movement.” 

The planter costs around $100,000; the technology is only available because of research and investment by the federal government and huge private companies; and all of the seed we’ll use, which will be bred for the exact traits the world needs, including drought tolerance, will have been produced by genetic engineering in the labs of Monsanto and DuPont.

Meanwhile, Back on the Farm

We’ll continue to help produce large quantities of reasonably priced food that satisfies the wants and needs of a large number of people; that’s the actual crime we in the food industry have committed.

The “rustic and relaxed” Missouri Table this weekend included sweet corn grown “industrially” on our farm, tomatoes from the most fungus resistant hybrid varieties we could find, a cucumber from a seedling left over from spring sales in our greenhouse, and hamburger from a local rancher’s herd. Pollan is nothing if not engaging, so the conversation at our table was probably second rate, but I’ll put the food on our table up against that at the trendiest of restaurants any day. We’ll never share a lunch with famous food writers, and we’ll never satisfy those who want more from lunch than good taste and nutrition. We’ll continue to help produce large quantities of reasonably priced food that satisfies the wants and needs of a large number of people; that’s the actual crime we in the food industry have committed. And there is no amount of change, outside of a vow of poverty, that will do penance. Without the side dish of moralizing, I doubt the Missouri Table will make next summer’s Smithsonian Magazine Food Issue. But just in case we do, my Missouri Table partner has some closing thoughts:

In the end, we didn’t have a dessert, but we did finish the wine. Reluctantly, we got up, even though we had nothing planned but watching the Cardinals on television that afternoon. We discuss morality and ethics more often than you might imagine, and often shake our forks full of steak at each other to emphasize our point. We have never worried about whether it is sensible to eat meat, but we did talk about the relative merits of grandson Aaron’s half dozen 4-H pigs. It is 2013, and if Great Barrington is rural, Tarkio, Missouri is ur-rural. We chucked the cobs in the trash; we smiled.

Julie and Blake Hurst farm, garden, eat, and cook in Missouri.

FURTHER READING: Hurst also writes “Organic Illusions,” “Our Real Food Problem” and “No Butz About It.” Jay Richards discusses “The Foodie Takeover of the Environment” and “Where Granola and Tea Partiers Meet,” while Mark J. Perry says “As a Share of Household Spending, the U.S. Has the Most Affordable Food in the World.” Jon Entine looks at “Organic Food – What is an ‘Organic’ Label Really Worth?” and Nick Schulz argues “Trade and Tech Are the Solution to the World’s Food Crisis.”

Image by Dianna Ingram/Bergman Group

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