Farmer Sledge

  • Sustainability – taste

    Continuing with the interweaving nodes of ecology, local, social, health, humane, and taste.

     

    Personally, there is something almost mystical about the fact that built into the fabric of the world around us there is a synergistic interplay between being ecologically and socially responsible, the health we derive from our food, the meaningfulness found in taking care of contented animals, and last but not least, that it would taste so darn good. Too often, socially and environmentally responsible activities give us little more than a cerebral absolution of guilt. While many of us spend the energy to sort out our recycling and make the effort to separate it into the different bins rather than add to the landfills that few of us have ever seen, there is nothing inherently pleasurable about the activity. We are simply mitigating the damage. There is no synergy of pleasure within the system, because the system itself is one of industry and waste. Waste itself is a man-made concept, utterly foreign to Nature. Whether it is animal feces or decomposing bodies, every output of a natural system becomes an input into another intersecting system.

    Other responsible activities often tack an outside reward to help induce action. Send money to an environmental cause and you’ll receive this wonderful tote bag. Carpool to save gas and you can use the special HOV highway lane. Start a green energy business and the government will subsidize you to help you get started. Let me be clear that I am not against these outside motivators. What I wish to point out is that while these may be necessary jump start measures, they aren’t the real thing because they are not inherently part of a truly healthy and responsible system. In other words, it is not a sustainable approach.

    I grew up in a community that preached very strongly against instant gratification. There were many good reasons for such warnings, but unfortunately it created a posture of suspicion towards pleasure itself. No doubt there were echoes of Puritanism and our good ol’ friend Gnosticism. As a young adult I came upon the religious writer C. S. Lewis who turned the whole gnostic attitude towards pleasure on its head. Some of you may recognize his writings that said it wasn’t that pleasure and desire were in anyway bad, but that we didn’t know how to desire deeply enough. Like an ignorant kid who wants to stay in a slum making mud pies because the child couldn’t imagine what an offer to play at a beach meant. For Lewis there was the mercenary reward “which has no natural connection with the things you do to earn it and is quite foreign to the desires that ought to accompany those things.” And in contrast, “the proper rewards are not simply tacked on to the activity for which they are given, but are the activity itself in consummation.”

    Here was a guy who cared deeply about literature and the arts and it drove him crazy when he found himself in circles that pretended to be cultured when they cared much more about the social status of being hip. At one point Lewis writes. “Those who read poetry to improve their minds will never improve their minds by reading poetry. For the true enjoyments must be spontaneous and compulsive and look to no remoter end. The Muses will submit to no marriage of convenience. The desirable habit of mind, if it is to come at all, must come as a by-product, unsought…In the same way, after a certain kind of sherry party, where there have been cataracts of culture but never one word or one glance that suggested a real enjoyment of any art, any person, or any natural object, my heart warms to the schoolboy on the bus who is reading Fantasy and Science Fiction, rapt and oblivious of all the world beside. For here also I should feel that I had met something real and live and unfabricated; genuine literary experience, spontaneous and compulsive, disinterested.”

    At the risk of sounding all too hokey, this is why I feel that the pleasure of taste is the customer’s key to participating in the activity of farming sustainable food. Buying out of some vague environmental duty, or worse, to be hip, does not truly participate in such an activity and is in fact rather unflattering to the farmer. But taking the time to make a delicious, tasty meal from the products of sustainable operations simply because you enjoy it allows your pleasure to participate in the entire system. The customer’s pleasure becomes the farmer’s greatest compliment. Pleasure is the essential consummation of sustainability.

     

    *** quotes taken from Lilies That Fester and The Weight of Glory

  • Sustainability – health and humane

    Continuing with the interweaving nodes of ecology, local, social, health, humane, and taste.

     

    It is quite sad when the typical American diet makes the average consumer unhealthy, and for some downright sick. I believe there are plenty of other people that can speak with a good deal more authority on the issues of health and humane treatment, so I’ll focus on what I might add to the typical discussion. For serious and scientifically documented discussions on Omega-3 fatty acids, conjugated linoleic acid, vitamins and minerals I personally suggest www.eatwild.com. Find your own source for inhumane treatment since I have long stopped looking at related sites or books. I have seen enough and frankly they make me sick to my stomach.

    There is a serious flaw in the government’s approach to food safety. Rather than being about promoting health, USDA or FDA is typically about setting limits on toxins. Much like cancer radiation that must assess the maximum tolerated dose the patient can handle, safety regulations usually are about maximum acceptable toxic concentrations. This creates a binary system where one is choosing between what will definitely be detrimental to your health and what you hope won’t be detrimental to your health. There is not even an acknowledgement of food that doesn’t even hold possibilities of these risks because the medication or chemicals were not part of the equation. Definitely those limits of toxicity must absolutely be there and be strictly enforced to protect us from serious harm, but a mechanistic view of food that sees only calories divided into fats, protein, and carbohydrates can never have a meaningful discussion concerning health.

    This same maximum tolerable mentality applies to both humans and the animals being raised. Luckily most of these toxins do not concentrate up the food chain, so the negatives are being minimalized. But what about the positives? That’s why I breathe this sigh of relief when I read from sites like eatwild about the benefits of healthy food. Ah yes, this food is good for you for x, y, and z. These vegetables have very high anti-toxins. This type of meat keeps your heart healthy and promotes your good cholesterol. Man, what a difference from the advice of don’t-eat-tuna-more-than-once-a-month-or-else… Let’s just leave it at healthy plants and healthy animals make for healthy eating. Phew.

    Part of health for both animal and human is a measure of happiness. This is where the issue of humane is brought to bear. Not only does it strike me as morally unacceptable to treat animals like automated food dispensers, but without letting them express their natural tendencies, they will not be as a happy and inevitably will not be as healthy, and simply will not be as good for you to eat. The contentment of the animals also directly affects the farmer’s approach to his work. If you ever watch a sow, who has farrowed outdoors on a pleasant pasture, lie down and let her piglets suckle, you’ll notice that she is just as content if not more so than her piglets competing for the teats. When you just can’t help but stop for a bit and smile, it does wonders for your motivation to work. I can hardly imagine the converse where you are the worker who has to check on the thousands upon thousands of hogs in a huge building where the sows are kept in metal cages, forced to stay on their side in order for their piglets to suckle. If I was that worker, I think my soul would just shrivel up and die. Humane conditions provides contentment for both animal and farmer, and without some degree of contentment, I wouldn’t be in this business for the long haul.

  • Sustainability – local and social

    Continuing with the interweaving nodes of ecology, local, social, health, humane, and taste.

     

    Nothing highlights the interconnection of local and global quite like the issue of energy. Our American way of life, so dependent on oil, plays its part in the destruction and destabilization rampant in other places in the world. If we don’t own up to our complicity in the violence found in areas such as the Middle East, we cannot truly help to find a solution. It’s one thing to insist it is morally wrong to invade a country for control of its oil, but if our way of life continues as is, foreign policy has little choice but to try and provide for our energy ‘needs’.

    Local food is the simplest and most straight forward way I know of to ensure a drastic cut of energy consumption. To cut out the middle man as well as the transportation to a packaging facility and then on to a distribution center, saves both money and energy. And when the money paid for food actually goes to the farmer, there is more of a chance she or he will remain as a caretaker of the land. According to the National Farmers Union, farmers receive around 16 cents per food dollar spent by consumers. Not only does this make farming financially unfeasible, but it demonstrates what is valued in our culture. The marketing, processing, and distribution get the lion’s share, while the actual food being produced is almost an afterthought.

    Socially, you cannot maintain a community, let alone a living, when your work is not valued. And farming needs community to survive. And I’m not just referring to customers to buy the products. Local farming needs the local infrastructure to help for the inputs it cannot provide from its own land. Whether it is a mill to buy and mix grain, or farmer markets to sell vegetables, or abattoirs to handle the livestock for selling at market, farms are heavily dependent on the community around them. The farms and these infrastructures were at the heart of any vibrant rural community. The annihilation of this social structure has left rural communities impoverished of both wealth and meaning. To buy locally is one way to supersaturate the solution that I referred to in my earlier post, giving the local systems a chance to grow and eventually provide for a demand. I like the idea that we could eat our way back to social health.

  • Sustainability – ecology

    Picking up from last post. The interweaving nodes of ecology, local, social, health, humane, and taste.

     

    Ecology: One of the most damaging arguments against sustainable agriculture is the idea that modern industrial farms can produce far more than a labor-intensive, diversified, ecologically-minded operation. I have often heard all the criticism of the damage done by industrial farms swept right under the rug simply because of the belief that there is no other way to feed the amount of people existing on the earth today. Forget about the fact that we are insuring that we won’t be able to feed the generations on down the road. Consumption of the resources we have available now is even considered by some the duty of American citizens. The illusion of productivity lies simply in the myopic focus on the output of a single acre for a single product. The output looks impressive mainly because the inputs are both glossed over and are immensely subsidized. Some crops themselves are subsidized, but with an industrial system that is utterly dependent on oil energy from the planting, to the chemicals, to the spraying, to the harvesting, and to the ridiculous amount of transportation, the entire system is dependent on the American machinations that keep oil cheap. I’ve seen statistics range from 10 to even 20 calories of fuel used to get one calorie of food eaten by the consumer. The agricultural industry still has little notion of maximum versus optimum.

    The champion of bushel per acre is corn, which is a plant well suited to growing tightly together in row upon row as long as immense amounts of fertilizers are added to support its growth. Between subsidies and its ability to grow well in crowded mono-crop systems, corn average yields of 170 per acre are touted as the answer to world hunger. This is utterly disingenuous as this type of corn is unfit for human consumption. It either goes towards animal feed or it has to be processed in order for humans to consume it in the form of high fructose corn syrup and such. I am guessing that my audience is quite familiar with the myriad of health issues related to our society’s consumption of this form of corn.

    I was supposed to be writing about what sustainability is… I wanted to highlight the claim of modern industrial productivity in order to compare it to that of Nature. First to address is that of sheer quantity. Obviously nature does not produce 170 bushels of corn on an acre, but the sheer biomass of the diverse forage on a well-managed pasture can top corn, and without the insane amount of inputs. In the animal realm, when speaking of sheer quantity, I think immediately of the wildebeest and zebra herds, North American bison, or the waterfowl that once thrived in the sounds of the East Coast. Populations of tens of millions that were maintained through centuries, all while strengthening the ecosystems they interacted with.

    This highlights several different principles that should never be far from the farmer’s mind. First, the key to quantity with the part of the ecosystem that remains in place, i.e. the plants, is diversity rather than monocrop.   And for the animals, it is movement. Migration in the wild is imitated by rotation on the farm. There is nothing wrong with high-density stock of animals, as long as they are kept moving. The grasses and pastures have actually evolved to thrive in such a system. Bison came along by the millions and ate the grass down to nothing. Roots died underneath, providing food and organic material for the entire ecosystem going on below ground. The grass can handle this, even thrives, as long as the herd has moved on and the vegetation has a chance to recover. This is how the Midwestern soils were created; the soils that we are now rapidly depleting.

    And when looking at the issue from the angle of energy, depletion of soil is a downright crime and sheer stupidity. From one vantage point, our farm is not primarily a meat producer. Rather we are in the business of solar energy. Nature has her own ‘solar panels’ that outperform anything man has ever produced. One of the most impressive ‘solar panels’ is a well-managed pasture. Through photosynthesis the grass converts energy into an available and usable product. The animals on the pasture are there to convert the ‘solar panel’ into food as well as to maintain the health of the pasture. The system of a feedlot literally tramples and destroys one of the best energy converters in existence. Instead of using the livestock as a form of pressure that promotes the growth of the pasture, as well as returning fertility through their manure and urine, modern agriculture (to loosely quote Wendell Berry) turns a beautiful system into a number of problems.

    Rotation is a labor-intensive endeavor, but essential to mimicking the principles found in Nature. Not only does it make us more productive, but we can proudly say that we have made the land healthier than when we first began to use it. And we have done this without any synthetic fertilizer or other energy intensive practices. Between the sun, the rain, the soil, and managing Nature’s currency of eating, our solar panel is healthy and productive. That is both sustainable and meaningful.

  • 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.