• Sustainability – what it is not

    Not too long ago, my father-in-law asked me what sustainability meant to me. He was noticing how it has become the byword of the day and wondered if there were any standards in agriculture. I am aware of a number of labels that emphasize different aspects of sustainability for farm products, but by its very nature, it is hard to pin down and categorize. Here’s my take.

    The difficulty of defining sustainability is precisely because the word implies a system that lasts over time. When it comes to duration of a system, we humans have never come close to constructing a system that matches the efficiency and duration of Nature’s ecological webs. The ecosystems around us have been around and working for a very, very, very long time, and to think we can build systems that ignore the principles we see in the ecosystems around us is pure hubris. Thus even if I break up my definition of sustainability into a number of interconnected aspects, the overall structure and mindset must be tied into and reflect the ecosystem around us. For purposes of conceptualizing the web of sustainability, I like to acknowledge at least six interconnecting hubs: Ecology or environment, local, social, health, humane, and taste.

    First to address the failures or lack of these six issues in modern agriculture.

    The ecological negatives are easy enough to identify and renounce. Erosion of soil is the most straightforward. Losing topsoil by the billion metric tons a year needs little imagination to understand how eventually such trends will lead to starvation. But most soils, even if kept from erosion, are being depleted of nutrients (particularly, vital trace minerals) and the food we eat is becoming less and less nutritious. The Senate recognized this fact all the way back in 1936, where in document #264 they acknowledged that sick soil leads to sick plant, sick animals and sick people. Pollution is another negative easily identified. Whether it is the manure lagoons from hogs kept in confinement by the hundreds of thousands that sometimes seep into our waterways, or the fertilizer run off that enters streams and eventually into the ocean, creating massive dead zones where oxygen-loving algae make the water inhabitable for fish, we as a nation have a horrible track record of unprecedented destruction of our land and water.

    Local frameworks are non-existent in modern agriculture. The utter dependence on the non-renewable source of oil, particularly as we have reached peak-oil, is by definition unsustainable. To grow things in one state, then shipped to another to be processed, then shipped to another state (or even country at times) to be packaged, and then shipped to another state to be distributed to just about anywhere accumulates into a gigantic absurd system that should be addressed at every economic summit, every climate change summit, and even every energy summit. I’ve heard all sorts of figures trying to add up food related use of fossil fuels. But whether you estimate it at 20% or all the way past 50%, this strikes me as the proverbial low-hanging fruit.

    Socially, small to medium size farms and farmers have been nearly annihilated.The trend for decades has been to get bigger or get out. To become more and more technologically and fuel dependent, or remain uncompetitive in the market. The social toll on rural communities is evident in their breakdown. Poverty rises and the ensuing social meaninglessness has led to the drug (particularly meth) epidemics of the day.

    The health of the population of the richest country in the world is a national embarrassment. Overfed and under nourished. Obesity and diabetics becoming the norm. Not to mention the disastrous effects of chemicals from pesticides directly on our health. As a meat producer, I also consider the health of the animals. When the average life-span of a milking cow dwindles down to about 4 years, and other livestock is kept on antibiotics to keep them alive in the conditions they live in, this not only is inhumane, but their health effects ours when we eat from this food source.

    Inhumane treatment of both animals and farm workers. Confined and caged animals speak for themselves. Many of us are inundated with the stories or even pictures of animals living in horrible conditions. But what often is overlooked is that some human has to interact with these animals on some level and work in an environment that values neither the animals nor them. On the side of vegetables, the work conditions for the immigrants that tend our crops are often inhumane as well.

    Taste, at first glance, may not seem important enough an issue to be mentioned alongside these others, but as I’ve tried to express in other posts, the enjoyment of the fruits of our labor is essential in its meaning. When customers tell us stories of how they can’t believe how much better our meat tastes than the conventional options, their enjoyment is the best and most encouraging compliment. Enjoyment is the true completion of a meaningful activity, and without it we would not continue to do what we do over a sustained period of time.


    Like usual my post has gotten much too long and I will have to address the antidotes and alternatives of sustainable agriculture in another post.

  • Fickle Change

    Some of us freaks might like the long version of the history of thought, but let me fast forward through Aristotle’s challenge to Plato and the ensuing philosophical debate between rationalists and empiricists that labored on for centuries. Zip through the heyday of rationalism during the period called the Enlightenment. Couple with that of the rise of Newtonian physics where matter is seen as compartmentalized atoms interacting with one another in the most linear way. Start hitting the brakes during the industrial explosion where people are treated like those compartmentalized atoms in large factories. Take note of the devastating existential effects such compartmentalization does to people in such settings, cut off from each other and any meaningful rhythms of Nature, and then observe how all these “productive” principles are brought to bear on agriculture. Slowing down even further, gawk at the Dust Bowl during the era of the Great Depression, cringe at how all the chemicals once fueling the second World War get rerouted to agriculture, tremble at the rise of multinational corporations getting in bed with governments and patenting life itself, weep at their buying out all seed companies and forcing farmers both domestic and foreign to buy into their intellectual property ruse, all at the devastating cost of smaller farms that retained somewhat of a sustainable relationship to Nature. Phew!


    Historically, we know that change is often quite unpredictable, nonlinear and unruly. From the angle of ideas and philosophy, we are so far beyond the mechanistic world view that spawned the monoculture-industrial-high tech systems that dominate the agriculture of today. We even know the devastating by-products of such systems, and yet we plow on (pun intended) like lemmings. Physics has gone far past the Newtonian model for nearly a century. And General Systems Theory that incorporates the complexity of the non-linear, self-organization, interconnectedness and other such things has been around for more than half a century. Systems Theory has provided the groundwork for huge advances in electronics, robotics, even weaponry. Ecology has long known all these principles are vital to health of natural systems. Yet modern day agriculture continues to churns out its products despite the devastation it renders to soil, water, ecology in general, and the havoc it reeks on our social structures down to the health of our bodies. And the taste can’t compare to the real thing.


    On the flip side, we can point to the grain subsidies the government has never reconsidered. All the money that keeps corn flooding the market in a thousand ways, keeping diabetics addicted to sugar and making the detrimental food the cheapest. We can point to the political and social rights corporations have gained without facing any of the responsibilities such rights demand of us. Think for a moment on the embarrassing fact that the vast majority of politicians spend over three quarters of their time raising money rather than working on the business of governing. Think of the disparity of wealth that is only increasing as global politics continue to favor the have’s over the have-not’s. And all these pressures and a hundred more I haven’t mentioned are rising as we deal with climate change and dwindling of basic resources.


    That’s just it with change—we can’t know when or how or even if it will happen. So where does that leave us?


    Personally, I think back to my chemistry class when we did a lab on supersaturation. I can’t remember all the details, but we kept adding some solid to dissolve into a solution. We added far beyond what was needed for the solution to crystalize and turn into a solid, but the solution remained in liquid form. Then finally, when the solution was quite supersaturated, we added a catalyst. It could be anything really—hair, dirt, another chemical. The foreign object causes a reaction, and boom-bada-boom, the solution instantly crystalizes. Interestingly, there were some that didn’t even work. Change is fickle.


    In our society, I think the vast majority want to be the catalyst. And it seems to me that with every petition that works its way to me in order that I might sign over the internet, the language is such that they believe this one is it. This issue is going to catalyze the change and society. Maybe I’m not doing my civic duty, but I am so unmoved and I hardly even glance at the latest atrocity we need to rise up against, or the latest policy we need to change or prevent. The few times that I do act and write in to voice my opinion have been when someone I know and trust has been successful in convincing me of its importance. For me personally, I’m willing to work on the more mundane job of supersaturating the solution. I’m willing to do the same chores day after day, year after year, within the rhythms of the seasons. But this requires for my work to be meaningful and a true answer to the problem at hand. Personally, I’m not comfortable with living a fast-paced life centered around consumption and promoting the status quo, while every now and then signing a petition to change the system. It’s another way to approach the issue of the ends and the means. I don’t even think it can be true for the end to justify the means. Literally can’t be true, because the end emerges out of the means. For it to really happen, the means must give birth, in a sense, to the end. Another way to approach the issue is to ask if there are enough of us to do the work for the change we are looking for. We want Big Ag business to change, but are there enough of us willing to pick up the slack and do the daily, menial jobs of working with the earth? Are we supersaturated enough? If not, I doubt we will have true and meaningful change.

  • The Divided Self

           We’ve been telling ourselves such stories [of Man and Nature] forever, as a way of making sense of what we call our “relationship to Nature”—to borrow that curious, revealing phrase. (What other species can be said to have a “relationship” with nature?) For a long time now, the Man in these stories has gazed at Nature across a gulf of awe or mystery or shame. Even when the tenor of these narratives changes, as it has over time, the gulf remains. There’s the old heroic story, where Man is at war with Nature; the romantic version, where Man merges spiritually with Nature (usually with some help from the pathetic fallacy); and, more recently, the environmental morality tale, in which Nature pays Man back for his transgressions, usually in the coin of disaster—three different narratives (at least), yet all of them share a premise we know to be false but can’t seem to shake: that we somehow stand outside, or apart from, nature.

    Michael Pollan


    In school, I never enjoyed my history classes much. Dates, places, and names just don’t seem to stick with me. I knew it to be a flaw, and I wished I could be more interested. Then I began studying philosophy and history opened up to me in the most enjoyable way. I may be bad at tracing events and people through dates and places, but retracing thought patterns and how those old ideas still affect us I found thoroughly enjoyable. Thus when I read Pollan’s passage on our schizophrenic stance towards Nature, I hear echoes of Plato, Descartes, the creation story, Gnosticism, and a whole host of thinkers.

    Near the beginning of recorded philosophy, Plato championed the concept that reality was split in two. There was the Noumenal realm of eternal ideas and the mind, and there was the Phenomenal realm which was the reality we encountered with our own senses. And everything we encountered in our sensory world, be it a chair or a horse, existed because there was some ideal Chair-ness or Horse-ness in the Noumenal realm. What things are is determined by what exists in the upper world. For Plato, there was also an Idea of the Ideas, which was the One. There was the projection of the One called the Demiurge, and a projection of the Demiurge called the world-soul, which provided the liaison between ‘spiritual’ and corporal world as creator of phenomenon. This is obviously a precursor to the eventual Christian trinity. I oversimplify, but my main point is to highlight this chasm, this gulf, between the world of Ideas, of Mind, of Spirit, and the physical world. For Plato, it took two beings removed from God to even interact with our world of biology, of sounds and smells.

    This chasm between mind and body, ideas and senses, only grows in Western philosophy, most famously embraced by Descartes who postulated that the only way he could really know he existed was because he was capable of thought. Religion, particularly Christianity, followed much in the same vein culminating in Paul’s teaching of the distinction not only between mind and body, but between Spirit and Flesh.   A group eventually dubbed Gnostics (Greek root of gnostic=knowledge) championed this thinking, placing higher moral value on knowledge than on the things of the material world. Thus when God, as Other, is spirit, even with the very best and very gracious theology, the most the material world can be is a good second. Gnosticism was eventually labeled as heretical, but the damage had been done. Our cultural reflex is to separate our reality in two. Whether it is the distinction between administrative work versus menial tasks that Wendell Berry refers to, or simply our separation of the sacred and the ordinary, we have rendered ourselves in two.

    So what has this to do with a farm blog? Everything—from my point of view. When we lose sight of the goodness of the ordinary because it is separate from the sacred, food becomes a matter of atomistic components of protein, carbohydrates, and fat. Eating too often becomes a necessary chore we must do to refuel so we can get back to our real work. We cut ourselves off from what I argued in my last post is the very currency of Nature’s economy. And in the most schizophrenic manner of thinking, we believe Nature somehow has been rendered separate from us, to become something to use as we please. Whether we don’t give a damn about the environment or whether we believe we have a responsibility to be good stewards, our posturing towards nature remains as one who sits outside of it. Presently, we are sucking the earth dry of fossil fuels, flushing our topsoil down the rivers into the seas, devastating the oceanic ecosystems, cutting down rainforests that regulate our oxygen and our weather patterns, driving species extinct at a catastrophic rate, and killing each other over dwindling resources as basic as fresh water. If our divided self believes that we are simply and only stewards of creation, then we just chalk this up as poor management—and can be mildly concerned. On the other hand, if we see that all these ecological catastrophes are all essential dimensions of our origins which sustain us on multiple levels, then we might feel the urgency of these issues as the suicide that it is.

  • To Eat or Not To Eat

    Some time ago I submitted an essay for a contest in the NY Times to defend the ethics of eating meat. 600 word limit. I didn’t expect to win, but it sure was annoying when one of the winning essays basically said eating meat was fine because we can now grow it in petri dishes. Here’s my entry:



    To address the fundamental question of whether eating meat in and of itself is ethical, we must discard the inappropriate and woefully inadequate ethical frameworks of religion and civil rights. Nothing defines what part a species plays in an ecosystem more than what that species eats. Therefore any ethical discussion concerning what categories of food we eat will be rendered absurd unless it is placed smack dab in the context of ecology. Carnivores have been around long before civilization, industrialization, religion, humankind, and certainly well before the concept of ethics. To insist that it is a different question for humans to eat meat at this juncture of our historical situation is to fall into the long held illusion that we have somehow stepped out of Nature and need to think through what our posture to Nature should be. Only in this schizophrenic posturing could we, as a species, systematically poison, pollute, deforest, and literally trash our own life-sustaining home that we have so abstractly labeled Nature. And with the same haughtiness that we have devastated the environment around us, we turn and insist that we have risen above the animals and are morally obligated to abstain from eating meat.

    Flesh can only be ripped out of its natural context when a culture has sanitized and alienated itself from its food sources and interacts with meat only in small cellophane-wrapped, refrigerated, government-approved packages. If we must impose the human construct of ethics onto Nature, then in order to do the least damage, we need to see the consumption of flesh through the lens of what is most healthy and vibrant for the ecosystems around us.

    Both evolution and creation stories speak of the progression from vegetation to animals. This was a ‘quantum’ leap both up the food chain and in ecological diversity and health. Once the herbivores, the ruminants, even the algae eating fish came onto the scene, suddenly green plants were being converted to flesh and a system of flesh that returned much of the nutritional energy back to the earth in the form of manure. This in turn allowed the vegetation to flourish in a much greater capacity than it had when it was not being eaten. To proceed further up the food chain to carnivores is to diversify even more and take yet another leap in the health of an ecosystem. We are aware of the importance of keystone predatory species, sadly, because in their absence we have witnessed the breakdown of ecosystems. Whether it is the otters keeping the sea urchins in check so that the kelp forests are not destroyed, or the wolves hunting the hooved ungulates and thus preserving the health and diversity of riparian ecosystems, the act of eating one another is Nature’s currency of keeping her ‘economy’ healthy.

    When we put the issue of eating meat in the context of the ecosystems around us, it becomes clear that it is nothing short of arrogance to consider our species as separate from and more enlightened than the rhythms of nature around us and thus decreeing that the consumption of meat, in and of itself, is unethical. Such arrogance, in fact, is kin to the hubris that has led us to treat the environment and the animals around us in such devastating and repulsive ways. If we ever manage to work through our schizophrenia to re-assimilate with the world in which we eat, breathe, procreate and live, we may actually find a moral imperative to eat meat in an ecologically mindful way as an antidote to our species’ insanity.

  • The Goodness of the Ordinary

    I will probably never write anything as poignant and piercing as Wendell Berry does when dealing with the issue of agriculture and all that we have lost in our society. The loss, for me, remains somewhat cerebral and will never be as personal as it is to Berry. But what I can affirm personally is the necessity of learning to enjoy the activities that are so basic and fundamental to human survival. In his book The Hidden Wound, an extraordinarily insightful exposition of the societal costs of racism, Berry tries to reach what is behind racism. At some point, he observes, we decided we wanted to have others do the hard menial tasks of carving out a living from the earth. The drudgery of the daily tasks became either below oneself or something to rise out of. If not African slaves, then we seek to find immigrants to do the hard work.

    Berry clearly recognizes that menial work is not meaningful in and of itself. Many jobs in factory settings or other areas that become “necessary” only in a wasteful, tech driven society, have no intrinsic value other than providing one with money. The hard work and skills he mourns the loss of have to do with providing directly for our basic needs. Gardening, cooking, storing food, saving seeds, building, forestry, animal husbandry, and all the myriad of skills and knowledge it takes to keep these types of activities running smoothly. I felt this distinction very personally in my early twenties. Disillusioned with the ivory tower of college, I took my philosophy degree and worked in the trades, primarily carpentry. For years I worked among the well-to-do, at times remodeling a single bathroom or kitchen for more money than I made in a whole year. I learned and appreciated the skills, but I was hard put to find much meaning. To decompress I came home and turned our suburban ¼ acre plot into a postage stamp size farm. There were apple trees and berries from the previous owner that had also appreciated gardening which I tended, but I began to turn over more and more of the lawn into raised beds that soon gave us tomatoes, beans, squash, and a number of herbs. I even had a small hutch of rabbits which I would clandestinely butcher every now and then for our meals, making sure the neighbors never saw the reality of blood, lest I get reported to some authority. I once burned a pile of old apple trimming branches in my grill, only to be quickly surrounded by firetrucks and police, ordering me to douse out my fire since I wasn’t using briquettes. When I asked what law I was breaking, I was told to stop being a smart alek. The reality of providing for even a small portion of my basic needs was not looked kindly upon in the artificial bubble of suburbia.

    I contrast that with my experience here at the farm. My trade skills have gone into building shelters for my animals, and even the monumental achievement of building the vast majority of our house. Of course I don’t have the pleasure of blaming someone else when things go wrong in our house, but despite its flaws, I can take pride in what my hands have built. And taking care of animals day in and day out can indeed be a drudgery. Sometimes I’m sick of it and wish for a break. Most of the time I just do it and my mind is on all the other things I need to get done. But every now and then, I think Wendell Berry might even be proud of me. Those are the times when I enjoy what I’m doing. I feel connected to the animals and the land around me, pleased that I can offer people an alternative to the crap that passes as food in our society. And most of all, in the meaningfulness, I get a brief taste of how good the ordinary can be.

  • Finger Lickin’ Good

    I used to think people just needed to know about all those hidden costs about factory farms and modern industrial agriculture to change their eating habits. Just a little education about agricultural runoff into fresh water streams that accumulate into the vast dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Or a dose of healthy fear that comes from learning how every year we lose billions of metric tons of topsoil due to our industrial practices of tilling and monocropping. Or a simple explanation of how agriculture is a major consumer of oil in growing, harvesting, fertilizing, and (yikes!) transporting all that food in our insane system. There’s Michael Pollan’s famous explanation how if you define developed in terms of how much oil is pumped into a state per acre, Iowa wins hands down. We’ve got people like Paul Greenberg explaining how we catch fish in the USA, ship it over to China to get de-boned and packaged, and then shipped back. The insanity has gotten to the point that there are even well-meaning people thinking to solve food issues by growing meat in petri-dishes, as if that would ever be cost or energy effective. These are all mind-blowing issues, but for some reason, they just don’t stick with us.

    Which brings me squarely to my point: as much as we think of ourselves as cerebral and rational beings, most of the time, we are plain ol’ biological, visceral beings. We can get all fired up by environmental atrocities. Health atrocities. Societal atrocities. Racial atrocities. Corporation monopoly atrocities. Economic crisis…All fired up…For a while…But then I get hungry. And is there anything that speaks to you like a homemade meal that tastes so real and so good? I’m actually being serious. The pleasures of homemade goodness are powerful things in their own right.

    I am not referring to taste alone. When you make a habit of eating good, wholesome, homemade food, subtle but significant things happen.   Not just the obvious ones of staying healthy, feeling good, and having more energy. Other things sometimes begin to take root. A meal that has taken precious time to be prepared has earned the right to be eaten together by a family. It often grows from there. A meal that is eaten together tends to want to be shared with others and before you know it, habitual consumption of scrumptious food can become the centerpiece of a community. Certain values creep back into our lives and are re-celebrated. Values that act as a counter point to this technical, industrial, informational, high speed culture of ours.

    And I almost don’t want to mention this last bit lest I jeopardize the value of eating good food in and of itself, but I can’t help but notice that the most significant, meaningful, and lasting changes that combat the types of atrocities that I mention earlier, seem to always have at its core, some community somewhere, with vision and passion that drove the change. Maybe eating well is the first step to addressing the wrongs in this world. Or maybe it’s just my way of having my cake and eating it too.

  • We Are All Complicit

    In these modern times, in a world as small as it has become, we are all complicit in so many of the evils we can no longer claim to be unaware of. Do you use a cell phone? Oops! Those rare minerals in your phone were most likely bought and sold with blood, and possibly with the blood of African children. Do you drive a car? Oops! Not only do you add to carbon emissions, but you have done your part to ensure the bloody conflicts over oil continue. Wear clothes? Oops! Child labor? Own anything plastic? Oops, sorry ocean! Another contribution to the ever-growing “eighth continent”. Unless one goes the way of the hermit, you will find yourself implicated in umpteen crimes against the Earth and the poor around the Earth just by living a ‘normal’ life. We are all complicit.

    Food is no exception. The Agricultural-industrial-congressional-complex is a behemoth to match any other; encompassing social, economic, political, environmental, local, racial, global, (you name it) issues. People don’t realize the extent of the reach industrial agricultural has in our lives, not because we have forgotten how basic of a need food is, but rather we haven’t truly grasped how numerous our species has become. Couple our vast population with the modern idea that just about nobody should be concerned with providing themselves with their own food, and you have a perfect recipe for the factory farming and monoculture agriculture that has prevailed in the last century. Of course most of us know this comes at the expense of clean water, healthy animals and people, soil, and countless other environmental and social atrocities.

    Oops! Complicit with every bite.

    In this age of information, I’m much too informed; especially for someone who has a social conscience. Every day is a practice in hardening one’s heart. Each one of these issues mentioned in passing could claim a lifetime of fighting for social justice. So we pick our battles—don’t we all? We all draw some sort of line somewhere and try to hold it. Our line is food. Particularly meat. It is a good fit for us, as we love animals and we love a good meal. But it is a great deal more than that. We fight for local, because we know what it does to the planet globally. We fight for environmental, because we believe in long-term efficiency. We fight for humane, both for animal and for farmer. We fight for healthy food because our society is sick in more ways than one. And certainly not least, we fight for food that tastes good, ‘cause, dang it, otherwise the rest is a losing battle.

  • The ? of GMO


    Short answer: First and foremost, we want to support our local mill and surrounding grain producers. Second, non-GMO is not always an environmentally responsible option. Not only does non-local carry a greater fossil fuel dependency, many non-GMO grains are grown with a higher quantity or more potent pesticides and herbicides than GMO grain. Third, non-GMO can be price-prohibitive. The Organic option, which ensures a level of environmentally responsible methods as well as a non-GMO product, is often twice, if not three times, as expensive. Organic grain is not local and some of it is supplied from as far away as China. (story: imported grain) Since non-GMO grain would have to be delivered in bulk, we would have to invest in some serious storage infrastructure, which would not only be a huge upfront cost for us, but would end up sacrificing a significant amount of quality, which would in turn not provide our animals with optimum nutrition. This is due to the simple fact that once grains are milled their nutrition quality quickly deteriorates as it sits around waiting to be used. Fourth, while the research pointing to negative health aspects of GMO has been slow to gain credible consensus, we are much more convinced of the detrimental aspects of routine antibiotics and non-fish animal by-products in our feed, as well as the positive benefits of outdoor grass-based systems. With this in mind, we are not willing to sacrifice local infrastructure or environmental responsibility while hiking our prices for an issue that is not our top priority.


    Although our feed is freshly milled and free from any sort of medication, it is not GMO free. We feel this is the best option for our farm for issues of distance, price, storage, local economy, and other complicating factors. Though this explanation is quite lengthy and divided into separate headings, there is a flow of thought from start to finish.


    GRAIN VS. VEGETABLES: a sack of potatoes ≠ a sack of wheat

    LOCAL SOURCE: how local is local?

    A TRUE ALTERNATIVE?   green-washing the non-GMO

    ‘SUPER ORGANISMS’ & GMOs: Nature’s response


                    a. THE AGRO-INDUSTRIAL-COMPLEX


    THE CONSUMER’S HEALTH: in search of the illusive perfect food


    LIST OF FEED OPTIONS (including what an ideal feed-grain operation might look like)



    The issue of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO’s) has come a long way from its beginnings some 20 years ago. Today all corn and soy used for animal feed, unless otherwise stated, is nearly guaranteed to be genetically modified. It has taken decades, but we now see a huge rise in concern over the use of GMO’s. We at Weathertop Farm like the fact that we are taken to task by our customers about our use of regular feed for our animals. People are growing concerned about what they put in their bodies as well as the effect such food has on environment, economy and even gastronomy. However, the GMO issue is quite complicated and is not a separate issue to be addressed in a vacuum. Every year at the farm we revisit the GMO issue and debate the pros and cons among ourselves, so we thought it worthwhile to write up some of our thoughts, both as an explanation for our decision as well as an opportunity to give some framework and context to the issue in relation to animal husbandry as we see it.

    GRAIN VS. VEGETABLES: a sack of potatoes ≠ a sack of wheat

    To begin with, I want to stress that growing grain is a very different sort of process and operation from growing vegetables and fruit, especially as you try and scale it down for local use. One can grow vegetables intensively on a small amount of acreage, and, with excellent management and a commitment to sustainable practices, can produce not only a significant quantity, but a significant variety of produce of the highest quality. To meet the enormous quantities of grain that animals such as chickens consume, the scale of any operation that could actually make any sort of profit has to be a great deal larger and would require vast amounts of land, machinery, financial resources, and expertise. At this point in time, in contrast to corn and soy, the vast majority of vegetables are not genetically modified. Consequently to make the pledge to grow and sell non-GMO squash is a very different and a much more easily attained goal than to make the same claim for eggs or meat.

    LOCAL SOURCE: how local is local?

    Our closest sources for non-GMO feed that might possibly have the quantities we would need for our animals are presently between 100-150 miles away. Much of their grain will also be from additional distances, predominantly from Pennsylvania. Immediately, the definition of local comes into play. One key element of stressing local is to address our culture’s addiction to oil. With conventional food having, on average, traveled thousands of miles to get to our plates, central Virginia and Pennsylvania are definitely an improvement. However, just a 20 miledrive from our farm is a family owned mill, one of the last remnants of local infrastructure supporting agriculture in the surrounding areas. Not only do we highly value the very personal connection we have with those that run Big Spring Mill, but they keep alive the dwindling grain growers in the area. Local soy is not an option as it is not grown in this region, but the mill is able to source at least 50% of their corn from farms within a 100 mile radius. When dealing with thousands of tons, this is an impressive contribution to the local economy. To make up the rest of their grain needs, Big Spring Mill does buy grain from as far as the Midwest and they make no distinction between non-GMO and GMO, mixing all their grain together. While this may deter some from buying their product, the local contribution they make to agriculture seems invaluable to us and is the single most important reason we are not willing to make the switch.

    A TRUE ALTERNATIVE? green-washing the non-GMO

    There are other reasons beyond the local issue that also give us pause in the GMO debate. Some of these relate back to the scale of grain growing that I mentioned earlier. The present public outcry against GMO’s has created a growing demand that is outpacing the supply within the marketplace, but the scale and equipment it takes to grow grain in any significant quantity means that those who are already set up to grow grain are the ones who are in the easiest position to meet this demand. While a demand for organic, non-GMO local vegetables can be relatively quickly provided by small farms, even ones that are starting up with minimal infrastructure, the same is not true for grains. This means that it is often the case that the farmers growing non-GMO grain are the same conventional GMO grain producers who have set apart a portion of their land to be designated for the non-GMO market; this is known as a split operation. (Split operations are also common among large-scale Organic operations.) Whereas the Organic label requires the use of non-GMO seed, there is no requirement for conventional non-GMO grain to follow any sort of organic protocol if it is not labeled as such. This is significant, not because we hold a grudge against such producers, but because such growers have a mindset and methods of growing food that do not share the values that are important to us as people involved in the sustainable movement.

    These days, ‘non-GMO’ being a byword, the average consumerassumes the label is accompanied by less pesticide, less herbicide, less synthetic fertilizer, seeds from a non-Monsanto source, and all around a more organic approach. However, unless the product is accompanied by the Organic label or you are personally familiar with the grain grower, there is absolutely no guarantee that any of this is true. This is a classic case of separating an issue within a vacuum. In fact, it may even be true that some of the practices by non-GMO growers are more detrimental to the environment than the regular GMO grain growers. Whereas there is a growing general hatred towards the Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup, which is used in tangent with the genetically modified crops labeled Roundup Ready, it is not the most environmentally destructive herbicide in and of itself. As it has been explained to me, Roundup, an herbicide in the class of glyphosate, has relatively little direct soil activity and only kills any foliage above ground that has not been genetically modified to resist Roundup. Clearly no herbicide is benign, even to the soil, but we cannot forget that many of the older, more conventional herbicides were even more poisonous, directly killing bugs and seeds and the entire ecosystem below as well as above the soil in a nice euphemism called sterilization. This was one of the reasons why Roundup was originally touted as environmentally friendly. It’s all about what you are comparing yourself to. Even when claims are made concerning more pesticides being used, it is important to know if we are comparing glyphosate (foliage only) poisons or atrazine (soil sterilizing) poisons, or any of the other many categories. There is no question that there are detrimental environmental effects from the ubiquitous and constant use of glyphosate, but when weighing the options and operating in the real world, we are reduced to choosing the lesser of evils.

    ‘SUPER ORGANISMS’ & GMOs: Nature’s response

    The quantity of herbicides and pesticides used leads right into the issue of ‘superbugs’ and ‘super-weeds’. I believe it is important to remind people that genetically modifying plants themselves is not what leads to resistant bugs and weeds. What leads to epidemics of resistance is the method of growing grain, which requires mass amounts of poisons as well as fertilizers. It is because the Roundup system worked well that it quickly became the standard and has been used in unprecedented quantities across the country. I am not an expert, but I believe that any poison used so prolifically and repeatedly, without discretion, would result in resistant organisms. It is simply a response of Nature to the modern methods of agriculture, not a unique trait of GMO’s. So what I find lacking in a simplistic approach to the issues, is that a demand for non-GMO grain without a demand to change the methods, is not much of a gain, and in fact can blind us to other sustainability issues that can be just as, or at times even more important, than genetic modification. If nothing else, I hope I can get across that the issue is not quite as clear-cut as some may have us believe.



    I find it an interesting cultural phenomenon that GMO’s are where ‘green’ proponents seem to be drawing the line. A nerve has been struck and the emotional fervor invested in the issue has taken me by surprise. What does not take me by surprise is the development of GMO crops and the fact that multinational companies and government regulation agencies are willing to ‘experiment’ on a vast population with minimal thought to ‘safety’. Since WWII we have been dumping chemicals into our ecosystem at unprecedented rates. Sure, we no longer spray DDT in our streets, but there are thousands of unregulated or poorly regulated chemicals (many of them much more potent than glyphosate) not only in our food and our soil, but polluting our air and water as well. Has not this disregard for health and nature, in the form of ‘experiments’, been the norm? And it is not just agriculture. There are systemic issues revolving around carbon emission, plastic, rare minerals used in our cell phones, mountaintop removal, and a whole host of other issues that enrich a relatively few at the expense of both other people and nature herself. In light of all this, GMOs are the logical icing on the agro-industrial-complex cake; a small cog that fits perfectly in the agendas of multinational corporations whose goal is to make money while giving little thought to the destruction of the environment, the health of the consumer, or how their unconstitutional claim to intellectual property of life disempowers farmers as well as entire populations overseas who have less means to fight the agro-industrial-complex than we do here in America. What I am getting at is that I don’t see the strategic advantage of making GMO’s the single most important litmus test when it is only a relatively small part of a large system. Even if GMO’s were banned, the multinational corporations would quickly adapt and their systems would be fully intact maintaining their monopoly infamous for their disregard of the environment, health of the consumer, and disenfranchisement of farmers.


    The existing system may have its catastrophic faults, but it is the system in place and consequently feeds the vast, vast majority of our population. While it is imperative to build an alternative system, one that is not riddled with hidden and not so hidden costs, the task is quite daunting. Even without the pressure of impending environmental, economic, and social disasters, the task of constructing a food system that can compete with the present one shored up by decades of government subsidies and corporate success, borders on the impossible. Too few people realize the extent of scale needed for sustainable agriculture to become a viable alternative, and just as few feel the urgency. Such exponential growth as needed, coupled with the time factor of impending energy crises, vital resource crises, and global warming crises, makes it impossible for a young agricultural alternative system to meet everyone’s criteria of an environmentally and socially responsible system.

    How does one maintain integrity in the face of such tensions? As I see it, integrity is upheld by understanding that an agricultural endeavor is more than just a sum of its parts; more than just a sum of its issues. Part of a sustainable system’s distinction, is the acknowledgement of viewing the system as a web of interrelating parts that work synergistically and which are difficult to separate into different, individual categories. For a grass-based operation, the pasture is the center ‘hub’ of the web. This is our energy source; one of nature’s solar panels, whose long term efficiency should be a model for us as a society. Around this hub we literally rotate our animals. Feed-wise, some of our animals, like chickens, only get a portion of their needs from the grass and bugs, while others, namely ruminants, can be 100% grass-fed. However, figuratively, the hub is surrounded by other strands of the web: environment issues, energy issues, health issues, local economic issues, animal welfare issues, farmer welfare issues, as well as health and gastronomic issues. And while a grass-based system makes huge leaps towards a more socially and environmentally responsible system, we the farmers, are the first to say that our system is far from perfect. Such an alternative system is a constant diplomatic give and take of literally hundreds of issues all trying to settle into place to keep the farm an intact and living whole. We have issues of breeds and genetic diversity, distance, feed quality, infrastructure, scale, to name just a few—all being juggled against our need to be financially viable in order to continue farming.

    So when the issue of GMO’s is addressed, we can’t simply say GMO=bad therefore take it out of our system. Any addition or change to the system, especially one so difficult to attain, is going to occupy a very distinct space within the ‘web’ of our farm, and potentially shove others out. So if we see that incorporating non-GMO’s into our operation is going to raise prices significantly as well as negatively impact the local infrastructure so dear to us, we must weigh the options. And when you factor in that non-GMO grain is often raised on operations that are not very different from the status quo, this gives us even further pause. The next time you buy meat or eggs from a farm feeding non-GMO feed, do yourself a favor and ask the farmer if they know what kind of system the grain was raised in. What types of herbicides and pesticides were used? Where was the seed originally bought? Is the grain grown as a mono-crop, or do the farmers practice crop rotation as well as animal grazing on their fields? Are synthetic fertilizers used? What sort of distances does this grain travel to get to the dealer and then to the farm? Like I have said, these issues aren’t within a vacuum, separate from each other. And if you are satisfied with the answers, then by all means, buy the product.

    THE CONSUMER’S HEALTH: in search of the illusive perfect food

    So if you have gotten this far, you are likely wondering why I haven’t yet addressed the health aspects to the consumer. Two reasons: first and foremost, because this is the area where I feel like I can speak with the least amount of authority. And second, because this is where the rubber meets the road for most and I am very wary of rocking the boat when such emotional fervor is usually accompanied by both sides of the GMO issue. Putting aside all the systemic issues of intellectual property, increased usage of poisons, and a whole host of environmental, economic and social issues, I personally don’t see much conclusive evidence showing that consumption of GMO’s is directly detrimental to our health. I have looked in detail at some of the more famous studies, particularly that of Seralini with rats and the more recent Carman/Vlieger study with hogs. I say this knowing I risk a very strong backlash from many of my sustainable food allies, but the science in the research does not hold up to close scrutiny and I believe it detrimental to our alternative food movement to use these studies as debate points. I personally, particularly as a hog raiser, would not put my reputation on the line for such research. The key to putting things in perspective, I believe, can be found in the wording of the studies that claim GMO food is safe for health and environment. Over and over one finds the phrase ‘AS safe as conventional food’. The unfortunate reality is that very, very little of our food does not have some detrimental consequences either directly or indirectly. If we go looking for these consequences, we will find them in any food system. In light of that, I believe it is a matter of choosing which evils we are personally willing to live with and which ones we will attempt to avoid.

    Does it bother me that introducing genetically modified food into our lives is, in effect, an experiment on our population? Yes, but though I am unhappy about it, I have grown accustomed to living with this morally gray aspect in just about every facet of our society. In addition, this genetic modification experiment has been going on for two decades already and we have not delineated direct correlation of GMO to the general un-health. The data is still rolling in, but our epidemic of obesity and diabetes has a clear relation to our glut of high fructose corn syrup and sugar, as well as the accompanying Omega 3 issues and such. There is a very strong argument that government subsidies of corn are far more responsible for our health epidemics than the consumption of GMO’s. (Upcoming documentary) In fact, we know for sure that aside from GMO’s, numerous aspects of modern agriculture, as practiced today, are responsible for a whole host of health issues from blue babies, to antibiotic resistant viruses, to e. coli outbreaks, etc… This is not to even mention the health of ecosystems being devastated, whether within the soil, in our waterways, or in the dead zones along our coasts. When we place the GMO and health issue alongside all these scientifically established disasters, I personally feel the GMO issue distracts from these more vital systemic problems.

    As writer and poet, Sandra Steingraber has phrased it, we are all living downstream. With the plethora of chemicals, pollutants and carcinogenic material ending up in our air, our food, and our drinking water, it is actually remarkable how little glyphosate or even the genetically modified DNA has shown up in our systems considering its ubiquitous use. Perhaps atrazine, PCB’s, grain subsidies, routine antibiotic use, to name but a few of the plethora of known problems are simply too old hat and boring for us to spend our time and energy on. In my opinion, to actually confront any of these issues without addressing the faulty and destructive systems that keep generating such problems is like fighting the proverbial hydra. Chop off one head and two more will grow in its place.


    The last thing I want is for someone glancing over these thoughts to walk away with the assumption that Weathertop Farm thinks GMO’s are perfectly fine. I trust our customers have a good sense of the complexities of the issues of our day. The fact that I put more emphasis on other ‘green’ issues than on GMO’s is as much a strategic choiceas anything else. Sustainable agriculture is an attempt to start, maintain, and grow an alternative system that is both saner in its environmental, social and economic responsibilities, and less destructive than the systems in place today. We, as an entire planet, are headed for crises of global impact. Food and water will be at the heart of it all. The hidden costs of modern agricultural systems are already catching up to us, and unless we have other systems in place that have been tried and proven effective, we will suffer a great deal in the inevitable transition. Time is running out and we must choose our battles all the more wisely.

    Finally, I wish to say that I consider myself open-minded and am happy to learn more about any of these issues, as long as the discourse is levelheaded and respectful. I am saddened by the tone of the arguments one finds these days in the public square, and consequently have written these thoughts with a great deal of trepidation. In the end, we are all on the same boat, the same planet. The crises are here at our doorstep and we cannot afford to lose our heads.



    In the search for sources of feed there are typically 4 general categories of feed to choose from:

    1. Conventionally-grown pre-mixed feed: available at your local farm store or mill, already packaged. Sometimes this feed is medicated and often contains a small amount of animal by-products.

    2. Conventionally-grown feed that is custom-mixed: this is what we use here at Weathertop, we take a recipe down to the mill and they custom-blend the feed for us by the ton. That way we ensure that the feed does not contain any medications, antibiotics, or animal by-products that we do not want, and instead we can add nutrients & minerals according to our recipe.

    3. Non-GMO conventionally-grown feed: this is feed mixed from non-GMO feed grains (non-GMO corn, non-GMO soy, etc.), but otherwise are grown conventionally and may have significantly higher levels of pesticide & herbicide levels than the GMO-conventional grains. Our closest sources for non-GMO in large quantities tend to come from Pennsylvania or Ohio. This option tends to be somewhere between 25%-30% more expensive than what we get at our mill.

    4. Certified organic feed: feed made from organically-grown grains (by definition these are non-GMO as organic standards prohibit their use, and should have only USDA organic–approved chemicals used in their cultivation). The extension office at Virginia Tech published a paper in 2009 (VTex2009) about Organic-feed grain markets. They explain how “the U.S. imports 8 times more organic grain than it produces.” 80% of imported grain comes from China, some of this is organic grain. Not only is the organic option the very opposite of local, but it can be 2 or 3 times as expensive as what we get at our local mill.

    5. Above and beyond: We have never grown grain ourselves, but we have heard of a few operations that we find impressive and approach the ideal. Typically non-GMO, but not necessarily labeled Organic, these environmentally responsible operations inevitably include rotations of crops, some even include a rotation where the land is grazed by animals, and the herbicides or pesticides are used at a very minimum, and when used, are also rotated. These operations are typically focused more on encouraging the natural health of the soils than the bottom line. However, though they may not make as much money for their grain, because the land is used in different and compatible ways, it can be used for other sources of revenue such as other cash crops or even meat. Find us a source nearby like this and we will gladly use their grain.