Food Fight, Ctd – A Critique of the “Culinary Luddites”

Food Fight, Ctd – A Critique of the “Culinary Luddites”

Rachel Laudan has written an article at Utne Reader titled, “In Praise of Fast Food” that takes on what the author calls Culinary Luddism. Luddism, in case your wondering, is an opposition to industrialization and technology. The backlash against the local food movement is gaining steam and the critiques are maturing beyond just dismissing food miles mathematics.

After laying out her foodie bona fides, the author says that she can’t abide in the extremes of the local food movement and concludes;

…the sunlit past of the culinary Luddites never existed. So their ethos is based not on history but on a fairy tale. So what? Certainly no one would deny that an industrialized food supply has its own problems. Perhaps we should eat more fresh, natural, local, artisanal, slow food. Does it matter if the history is not quite right?

It matters quite a bit, I believe. If we do not understand that most people had no choice but to devote their lives to growing and cooking food, we are incapable of comprehending that modern food allows us unparalleled choices not just of diet but of what to do with our lives. If we urge the Mexican to stay at her metate, the farmer to stay at his olive press, the housewife to stay at her stove, all so that we may eat handmade tortillas, traditionally pressed olive oil, and home-cooked meals, we are assuming the mantle of the aristocrats of old.

I don’t have time to respond to this artictle today but plan on getting to it later in the week, along with responding to my previous post on the merits of the10,0000 mile diet.

If 2008 was the year of the locavore, 2010 is shaping up as the year of the backlash against the locavore.

Food Fight, Ctd – In Praise of the 10,000 Mile Diet

Food Fight, Ctd – In Praise of the 10,000 Mile Diet

A recent Chicago Tribune article had one of the more thorough treatments of the debates between industrial agriculture pragmatists vs. local food idealists.I was intrigued to hear about an upcoming book;

…economist Hiroko Shimizu and University of Toronto geographer Pierre Desrochers are finishing a 2011 book, tentatively called “In Praise of the 10,000 Mile Diet,” that argues locavorism is a misleading marketing fad that, among other problems, ignores the threat it poses to the current affordability of food and to the economic health of developing countries.

Food security can suffer if “you put all your eggs in one local basket and something goes wrong,” Desrochers said from his Toronto office. “I also have a problem when local food activists want to promote food that is either not economical or cannot compete with foreign food in that area.”

Go here for a brief article of the same name by Shimizu.

The whole Tribune article is worth a read but I should clarify one point regarding the use of food stamps at farmers’ markets. The article offers that as a counterpoint to farmers market elitism but early reports are that while many markets take food stamps, few consumers are taking advantage of it. Unfortunately, this has been true at the Millwood Farmers’ Market where we haven’t had a lot of food stamp transactions this summer.

Go here for my response to these debates.

Food Fight: Washington Post Foodie Ezra Klein Defends Industrial Agriculture

Food Fight: Washington Post Foodie Ezra Klein Defends Industrial Agriculture

6a00e5500a0b5588340134876e98f9970c-500wiEarlier in the week influential blogger Ezra Klein of the Washington Post wrote a short post dismissing the influence of the local food movement and heralding that “Industrial farms are the future.” He wrote;

Despite the dreams of many foodies, I can’t think of a major industry that went from small, decentralized production methods to large, scaled industrial production — and then back again. Are there any examples I’m missing? Maybe so. But for now, I think of the preference for farmers markets and small producers as being mainly important in sending certain signals about production methods and branding preferences to Big Ag than in actually creating some sort of viable alternative.

In the article he references an article from the Guardian in the UK where Jay Rayner argues;

Words such as local, seasonal and organic have become a holy trinity. But these are merely lifestyle choices for the affluent middle-classes, a matter of aesthetics, and nothing to do with the real issues.

If we are to survive the coming food security storm, we will have to embrace unashamedly industrial methods of farming. We need to abandon the mythologies around agriculture…and recognise that farming really is an industry, much like car manufacturing or steel forging, one which always works better on a mass scale, but which can still be managed sustainably.

Ezra Klein is a farmers’-market-shopping, meatless-monday-eating, full-on-foodie so his little post created quite a stir. Tom Philpot at Grist offered up the highest profile retort. He mainly takes down Rayner’s editorial and tisk-tisks Klein for passing it off as meaningful commentary. He writes;

Rayner’s argument goes like this: a) because the U.K. relies increasingly on food imports, and b) U.K. supermarkets demand flawless, uniform fruits and vegetables, forcing farmers to “grade out” much high-quality produce, and c) U.K. consumers have come to expect dirt-cheap food, then the nation “will have to embrace unashamedly industrial methods of farming” to avoid looming famine.

Really? The same line of reasoning could more logically have led Rayner in the opposite direction: that Britain’s food problems stem from a globalized industrial food system consolidated into the hands of a few powerful companies.

Yesterday, Klein offered a little bit of an apology for citing the Guardian editorial, which he admits is weak, but he sticks to his guns when it comes to the future of food being industrial;

…I’m increasingly less convinced that small and big are, in the overall scheme of things, terribly useful dividing lines for the future of agriculture. Whether one could hypothetically imagine feeding the world using decentralized production methods, I don’t see much reason to believe it will happen. At the same time, small farms can be run wastefully and large farms can be run sustainably.

When I say that the food movement is sending important signals to America’s agribusiness giants, I mean it — forcing them to innovate in organics and compete with Stonyfield and think about the success of farmers markets are types of pressure that could lead to really important transformations in how they do their business. And those are transformations that might then be copied by large producers in other countries. That’s why I think the most important role of the food movement is potentially changing the behavior of players like Nestle and ConAgra, and creating some large companies that demonstrate how a different ethos of food production can be brought to industrial scale.

Andrew Sullivan just pinged this dialogue so I suspect it will get a lot of play on blogs and editorial pages in the coming weeks.

This little food fight touches on so many different aspects of what I blog about here that it’s a little hard for me to decide where to enter in, but let me pick one aspect of the debate and see where it leads.

Klein mentions the hypothetical question as to whether it’s possible to feed the world through decentralized production methods. It’s typical in these debates for defenders of industrial ag to assert that it’s not possible to feed the worldusing organic or local methods and others reply that, actually, you can. Klein dismisses this line of argument as irrelevant. He says it’s not going to happen. He asserts that we have never seen “a major industry that went from small, decentralized production methods to large, scaled industrial production — and then back again,” which is what would need to happen in the case of food. The industrial cat is out of the bag and there is no turning back. All we can hope for is mega-corporations that are responsible and responsive to consumer demands for more sustainable and local food.

He takes the the pose of the realist and on one hand I agree with him. I often say (I just said it yesterday in fact), that real substantial change in food distribution will have to come through changes to big retailers like Walmart. For an example of how this is happening with potatoes go here.

But I disagree with Klein’s and Rayner’s foundational assumption – that the production of food is best viewed as an “industry, much like car manufacturing or steel forging, one which always works better on a mass scale…” For one, there is mounting evidence that food production does not work better on a mass scale. It’s only over the last 75 years that food has been imagined as an industry and practiced as such. We fed the world for millennia with small, local and organic agriculture. Modern industrial food practices are a very recent innovation and the long term consequences are still unknown.

There is no doubt that modern technologies have been a boon to the task of feeding people around the world, but there is something different about food than making cars or forging steel. Manufacturing cars is a product of the industrial revolution. Eating food arises out of the very nature of the created order. For all of history food amounted to more than the shallow categories of industry. Food was culture, family, provision, and for the three major religions of the world, a sign of God’s grace.

In the Genesis account of creation the first words out of God’s mouth to Adam and Eve are, “You are free to eat….” Not far behind is the warning, “You must not eat…” After their disobedience, God proclaims judgment, “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:17-19). Even in judgment there is a grace of provision.

It’s funny to me how casually we throw around the phrase “saving the world” in debates about sustainability. Isn’t it so obvious that “going green” is a veiled, modern-secular way of entering into the territory of apocalypse and salvation, the ancient categories of the human quest for life and meaning and God. Food goes deep into mysterious and hallowed places of human existence. Food cannot be reduced to the limited categories of industry and it does great damage to imagine it exclusively as such.

There is one thing I agree with in the Guardian column. Rayner says that the local, seasonal and organic food movements are a matter of aesthetics, and have nothing to do with the real issues of industrial practices and pragmatics of feeding the world. He’s right in pointing out that what drives the local food/sustainable food movement is, something beyond the pragmatism of calories and food miles, something more intangible. Aesthetics is a rather dismissive way of putting it. I would say that it arises out the human search for meaning and hope.

One last comment. Rayner claims that it’s only the well-off middle-class who have the luxury to dismiss the reality of food as industry. In my experience it’s actually the impoverished 2/3 world that understand the reality that food is more than industry. To the majority world food is culture, family and life. Most of the world gets that those are “real issues” that are relevant to conversations about food. Wealthy westerners are actually the innovators of the exclusive view of food as industry and profit margin. It is our particular single-minded lens that is foreign in the world.

The insurgent foodies in the western world are attempting to lift up other issues that are very real, issues that touch on aspects of human life that industry can never reduce and control, and issues that impact and change industrial practices.

As I see it, the task is not to de-industrialize food, the task is to re-enchant, re-annimate, and re-new our imaginations around food, which by necessity means to re-connect with the land that supplies us with food (and perhaps the Creator of the land), and along with that to re-connect with the farmers who farm the land.

Federal Food Safety Modernization Act Could Put Small Farmers Out of Business – Do Something to Help

Federal Food Safety Modernization Act Could Put Small Farmers Out of Business – Do Something to Help

I’ve been hearing rumblings about the the potential onerous impact of theFederal Food Safety Modernization Act on small farms for awhile now. The upshot is that it would impose regulatory requirements that would be untenable for small direct to consumer farmers to handle. It could be a huge setback for the growing movement of direct to consumer sales at Farmers’ Markets. One farmer I talked to said that if this legislation passes as it’s currently written he will retire.

There is currently an amendment from Montana Senator Jon Tester that would exempt farms who sell direct to consumers. Ellen Gray, Executive Director of WA Sustainable Food and Farming Network sent the following information for people in Washington who want to advocate for small farms;

PLEASE CALL SENATOR  MURRAY Toll Free: 1- 866-481-9186 Very quick…just tell the person answering the phone that you a constituent and you want her to support Tester’s Amendment. Her office knows about the issue. They  just need to hear from more consituents!

PLEASE CALL SENATOR CANTWELL Toll Free  1-888-648-7328 again, you can just leave a message..very quick..

ASK THEM TO SUPPORT SENATOR JON TESTER’s AMENDMENT  TO S.510, The Food Safety Modernization Act. The TESTER amendment exempts farms that sell directly to the consumer. Without this amendment the federal legislation will have a huge negative impact on local small farms that sell at farmers markets, to Food Co-ops, CSA customers and local processing facilities!   PLEASE MAKE THE CALL NOW because our friends in Washington DC think the bill could be voted on the Senate floor tomorrow or friday. See below for more info.

If you’re not in Washington go here for the contact information for your Senators.

Arsenic In Kids Traced to Backyard Chicken Feed

Arsenic In Kids Traced to Backyard Chicken Feed

Some kids in Utah were found to have high levels of arsenic in their bodies and they traced the source to the eggs they were eating from their backyard chickens. Apparently the feed contained roxarsone, an arsenic based additive common in chicken feed. Grist has the scoop;

Used in combination with antibiotics, arsenic helps keep chickens, turkeys, and pigs from getting sick in crowded conditions, and also makes them grow bigger, faster. While this sounds nuts — feeding a notorious poison to animals you plan to eat — the poultry industry, along with Food and Drug Administration officials, is quick to point out that there are two kinds of arsenic: inorganic, aka the cancer-causing “bad” kind, which occurs naturally in the environment in combination with other elements such as oxygen, chlorine, and sulfur; and organic. No, not the kind you can get from Whole Foods: in this case “organic” refers to compounds containing carbon, or hydrogen. Organic arsenic is considered less toxic, and that’s what’s used in animal feed, usually in the form of roxarsone.

The key word there is “less.” FDA spokesperson Ira Allen wrote in an email to me that:

FDA completed food safety assessments in conjunction with the approval of the arsenic-containing animal drug products. As part of that assessment process, FDA established tolerances for the presence of arsenic in animal-derived food. For example, the tolerance for total arsenic in uncooked muscle tissue from chickens is 0.5 parts per million (ppm). FDA does not at this time have evidence that residues of total arsenic in animal-derived food are exceeding the established tolerances.

Looks like our chickens are going to get an upgrade to spendy organic chicken feed.

World Comparison – Fresh vs. Processed Food Consumption

World Comparison – Fresh vs. Processed Food Consumption

This is old news but I came across this handy chart put together over at the NY Times that illustrates the comparison of US food consumption vs. the rest of the world. Along with highlighting the US dominance in the processed foods arena, there are several other interesting points of comparison.

I was surprised to see how much bakery goods make up the diet of Mexicans, mostly because I’ve never been a big fan of Mexican baked goods.(Deleon Foodsbeing the exception.) Japan and France are the winners in the sauces/dressings category. China eats more vegetables per capita than the US, Spain and France combined. I’m assuming rice is the main reason for this. The chart makes a note that rice sold loose and un-packaged is in the fresh foods category. Both Brazil and China beat out the US in consumption of meat and seafood. Considering the availability of inexpensive fresh fruit in the U.S. I can’t figure out why our consumption would fall behind most of the world. Maybe southern climates have a leg up on us with year round tropical fruit.
6a00e5500a0b5588340134836a1a34970c-500wiClick through to see a comparison of fresh and processed foods in pictures from the amazing book Hungry Planet. I usually use those pictures in my Powerpoint presentations when sharing about our experience of eating locally.

1. Germany – $500 a week for food


2. North Carolina, USA – $341.98 a week for food


3. Japan – $317.25 a week for food


4. Italy – $260 a week for food


5. Great Britain – $253 a week for food – I wonder if the dog on the table is part of the diet?!?


6. Kuwait – $221.45 a week for food


7. Mexico – $189.09 a week for food


8. California, USA – $160 a week for food


9. Beijing, China – $155.06 a week for food


10. Poland – $151 a week for food


11. Egypt – $68.53 a week for food


12. Mongolia – $40 a week for food


13. Ecuador – $31.55 a week for food


14. Bhutan – $5 a week for food


15. Breidjing Camp – $1.23 a week for food!!! {Sudanese refugees in Chad}


Show Off Your Garden in “View From Your Garden” Series

Show Off Your Garden in “View From Your Garden” Series


Someone over at the sister site at Down to Earth NW asked recently if the “View From Your Garden” Series is still on. Here’s the proposal I made last Spring:

Andrew Sullivan the uber-blogger has a series on his site called“The View From Your Window” where he invites readers of the blog to send in pictures of their view from a window. It has become a staple of his blog and provides a fascinating perspective of people’s lives from around the world. I’d like to propose a much more humble version of this concept, called “The View From Your Garden.” I spent a good bit of blog space last year sharing about our journey of tearing up our lawn and putting in a vegetable garden. I’d like to open it up for the readers of Year of Plenty and the DTE series of blogs to submit photos of the view from your garden. Show us your veggies and flowers as they evolve through the growing season. Send your pictures via the “email me” link listed to the right.

Since Sullivan started his series it has evolved into a reader favorite on his site and has been made into a book. The picture that I submitted to his site as part of the series was even included in the book.

I had a decent response to the garden invitation last summer but I’m hoping that we can really ramp it up this summer and possibly even make it a daily feature. The reach of the blog has expanded quite a bit over the last year so I’m certainly open to gardens beyond the Inland Northwest region. In fact we’ve got another 2 months before our gardens start to take shape in our northern climate so those of you in the southern climes give us some inspiration by chiming in. If you’re tearing out your lawn and putting in veggies send me a couple of pics to show the progression. I’d also love to hear the story of what compels you to garden but pictures and basic location of the garden (city, state) are also fine too.

Click through to see one of the fun submissions from last summer.

Picture: The view from Aylia’s garden plot at the Pumpkin Patch community garden work day last Saturday.


Even better than the pictures are the emails;

Sorry if this email is a little long winded; I’m a girl in love with her garden…My landlord decided to put new siding the house last summer.  During the project he left the siding next to the retaining wall and killed off a patch of lawn.  I saw the dead lawn and thought it would be the perfect place to expand the garden.  I think my landlord had plans on planting the lawn back to grass.  Too bad…it’s green beans, a ton of zucchini and cucumbers now!

I’m currently growing heirloom tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, beans, zucchini, potatoes, basil, squash and pumpkins.  I’m really hoping someone can tell me why I insisted on planting so many tomatoes, zucchini and potatoes in my garden?  I’m a one person household, why would I need 7 tomato plants?  I’m bracing myself for harvest and gathering up recipes as fast as I can.  I guess if it comes down to it, I’ll just leave a handful of zucchini on the doorsteps of my neighbors in the middle of the night.  🙂

By far the pride and joy of my garden has to be the pumpkins.  During a pumpkin carving get together with my friends last October, I came up with the idea to have a pumpkin growing contest.  There is money on the line for the biggest pumpkin and we have a group of about 10 families with plants in the ground.  There has even been some pretty nasty trash talking so far!  I can’t think of a better way to celebrate the end of the harvest than with a get together with friends and family to determine who is the 2009 Fat Pumpkin Contest winner.

I love it. Trash talking, subverting the landlord and zucchini hooliganism. Foodie Revolutionaries unite!

The Goodwin Garden Seed Starting Schedule

The Goodwin Garden Seed Starting Schedule

I made my annual trip to Northwest Seed and Pet today to get my gardening game face on. It’s officially time to start rattling around the greenhouse and get some early season crops started. Here in the Spokane area May 15 is the traditional last freeze date, so short of using a hoop house over the soil you want to plan your seed starting around that date. I recommend Irish Eyes Seeds, a locally owned seed company in Ellensberg, WA. They source a lot of their organic seeds from the Inland Northwest. Just like most commodities veggie seeds regardless of brand are likely from the same source of “who knows where.” I like the local connection and local sourcing efforts of Irish Eyes. I noticed Seeds of Change Seeds at NW Seed for the first time. They are also a good choice.

Below is my game plan for the garden. I have a greenhouse which make managing larger plants easier. You might want to push it back 2 weeks if you’re putting them by a south facing window.

March 1 – 11 weeks ahead of last freeze date

  • Clean up greenhouse and get heater set up
  • Map out this year’s garden plan
    • rotate crops to limit disease (for example tomato, potato, eggplant varieties should not be planted in the same place from one year to the next.)
    • Be aware of plants that like each other and plants that don’t. Gohere or here for an overview.
  • Start seeds for peppers, eggplant and onions.
  • Plant parsnip seeds in the garden

March 15 – 9 weeks ahead of last freeze date

  • Start seeds for tomatoes, perennials and some flowers (I’m experimenting with wildflower seeds I collected last year so I’ll probably plant some trays of those for the fun of it.)
  • I’ll either start pea plants in the greenhouse or more likely just plant the seeds in the garden. It’s so mild this year you could probably get away with it.
  • Six weeks is probably more than adequate for starting most tomatoes but I like to make the most of the greenhouse. The bigger they are the more fun it is to give them to friends and neighbors.

March 29 – 7 weeks ahead of last freeze date

  • Start seeds for squash, lettuce, kohl rabi and other “cole” crops like cabbage. I might start the cole crops earlier. Every year I swear off growing cabbage, kale etc. because we don’t eat them. But the chickens sure do like it.
  • I’ll probably start a another tragic saga of the giant pumpkin somewhere in here too.

April 26 – 3 weeks ahead of last freeze date

  • Go cry on the shoulder of Bruce Metzger from GEM Garden and Greenhouse and ask him why my plants are dying.
  • Start seeds for cucumbers.
  • Buy some of his starts from his greenhouse and put them in my greenhouse and feel a lot better about the green in my greenhouse.
  • Plant pea and lettuce starts being sure to cover them at night if it freezes.

May 15 – historic last freeze date

  • Empty the greenhouse and get it all planted except the tomatoes and peppers that really like it warm. June 1 is the usual date to plant out tomatoes and peppers around these parts.
  • Beans really do best by direct seeding them into the garden so now is the time to do that. I don’t bother with corn anymore. It takes up a lot of space, hogs water and fertilizer and generally disappoints come harvest time.

May 22 – one week before I told everyone on the blog to plant out their tomatoes and peppers

  • Plant out tomatoes and peppers because I just can’t stand taking care of them in the greenhouse anymore.

The best way to learn is to try and try again.

My new policy on the blog this year is that regular commenters get dibs on some plant starts from the Goodwin greenhouse (if your interested). Prolific Twitter retweeterers will also get serious consideration. Nancy has made me promise to not crowd the garden so much this year so I’m going to have to do something with all the starts. Let me know what you’re interested in.

Almost Half of Western Washington Bee Colonies Suffer Collapse

Almost Half of Western Washington Bee Colonies Suffer Collapse

I ran into Jerry Tate from Tate’s Honey Farm at the Rocket Bakery this morning. I asked him how his bees are doing and he said they are great, but added that Western Washington Beekeepers are really hurting. I probed for more information and he explained that based on the research of the state beekeepers association, 45% of Washington bee colonies have collapsed (died) west of Ritzville. By contrast, only 25% of colonies to the east of Ritzville have suffered that fate, which is about average for beekeepers since the rise in recent years of varroa mites and the phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder. The survey included all state beekeepers with over 1,000 colonies.

Jerry’s hunch is that the late supply of nectar in the Spokane region helped eastern Washington bees whereas western Washington bees didn’t have as much available late in the summer. From what I’ve read, the onset of colony collapse usually has a multiple factors that conspire together. It’s a good lesson in the complex nature of the environment. We’d like to think there is one innovation that will fix everything, when it’s actually the systems and the interactions of a variety of factors that need to be addressed.

One bit of trivia I learned from Jerry is that many western washington beekeepers send their bees to the Dakota’s for part of the summer. He also mentioned that California bees also come north and spend some time in Washington before heading east to the Dakotas.

Jerry and others from the state association will meet with the state Secretary of Agriculture tomorrow in Olympia. Our state’s economy is incredibly dependent on tree fruit, especially apples, and without bees to pollinate the trees there won’t be any apples.

American Farm Bureau President Declares War on “self-appointed and self promoting food experts”

American Farm Bureau President Declares War on “self-appointed and self promoting food experts”

Picture: Dry land wheat field and farm road in Eastern Washington.

UPDATE: I can see that this post has stirred up quite a reaction from folks at American Farm Bureau and several farmers who were present at the address have chimed in with some very helpful comments. I do want to be fair and the last thing I want to do is misrepresent what was said but for now I think the title of the post is an accurate characterization of what was said.

Here’s the key section in context:

It is up to us to share the strength of our character and the tradition of our values with our fellow citizens.

But, a line must be drawn between our polite and respectful engagement with consumers and the way we must aggressively respond to extremists who want to drag agriculture back to the day of 40 acres and a mule.

Our adversaries are skillful at taking advantage of our politeness. Publicly, they call for friendly dialogue while privately their tactics are far from that.

Who could blame us for thinking that the avalanche of misguided, activist-driven regulation on labor and environment being proposed in Washington is anything but unfriendly.

The time has come to face our opponents with a new attitude. The days of their elitist power grabs are over.

General George Patton was very quotable. He said that in times of war, “Make your plans to fit the circumstances.”

To those who expect to just roll over America’s farm and ranch families, my only message is this: The circumstances have changed.

Go here to listen to or download the full speech. When you use phrases like “in times of war” and quote from a famous general, I think it’s fair to characterize it as “declaring war” on the “elitists” and “food activists”. That’s how the Capital Press heard it also when they summed up the address as a “Call to Arms.”

The more debatable question is whether this is “declaring war” on consumers, and to be fair I will revise the body of the original post to say “consumer activists” instead of simply “consumers” I think what he misses and what I am reacting to so strongly in the post is that the activists are the consumers and vice versa. You can’t disparage “activists” on the one hand and assume that “consumers” are a distinct group apart from activists that will not be stung by the characterization. I have been working for the last two years on this blog and elsewhere to cultivate local food culture in our region from the perspective of the consumer, and I can’t help but see myself and others I know in our community who are concerned about these issues as the one’s he is disparaging as “self-appointed and self promoting food experts”. Maybe he should clarify who exactly it is that is the enemy in this whole war metaphor.

Original Post is as follows:

I had to stop by my local farm supply store this morning to get something for a sick chicken and I noticed a provocative headline on the front page of the“Capital Press: The West’s Ag Weekly.” In bold letters it  declares a “Call to arms” with a lead in quote from Bob Stallman, president of American Farm Bureau, stating “A line must be drawn.”

The article goes on to describe Mr. Stallman’s strident keynote address to 5,000 people at the annual convention of the American Farm Bureau;

‘It is up to us to share the strength of our character and the tradition of our values with our fellow citizens. But a line must be drawn between our polite and respectful engagement with consumers and the way we must aggressively respond to extremists who want to drag agriculture back to the days of 40 acres and mule.’

In his annual address to Farm Bureau members, Stallman decried ‘the nonstop criticism of contemporary agriculture.’

He described how inaccurate and unfair movies, magazine articles and undercover videos have attempted to turn public opinion against agriculture. Those external forces have created the stereotypes of ‘monoculture, factory farms, industrial food and big ag,’ he said.

As ‘self-appointed and self-promoting food experts’ seek to damage the reputation of traditional agricultural values, he said, it is all the more vital for American farmers and ranchers to adopt a new attitude.’

He invoked General George Patton, saying that in times of war, ‘Make your plans to fit the circumstances…Are we going to let animal rights activists destroy our ability to produce meat that Americans want to eat? I say: No we are not!…Can we stand up – as did our forefathers – and fight for a better future for this great country? I say: Yes we can!”

If I’m hearing him correctly he just declared war on consumers activists who are concerned with these issues. I hear him saying, “Just eat your food and be grateful. Let us farmers worry about agricultural practices.” Ironically he goes on to observe in an interview with the Capital Press;

“Most people are four or five generations removed from the farm, and they have no understanding of basic production agriculture.”

So on the one hand he declares war on consumers activists, like me and many readers of this blog, as a bunch of no good, know nothings but on the other hand laments that the problem is that people are too disconnected and aloof from where their food comes from.

I have a couple of observations;

1. If I didn’t have chickens I wouldn’t be a regular at the local farm supply store and I wouldn’t have the occasion to see a provocative headline from an weekly agricultural magazine. Participating in agriculture and farming practices, even if on a micro, suburban scale is key to being engaged in conversations about agriculture and food systems. Otherwise all we’ll ever see are the hypnotic headlines of People and Us magazines. It’s interesting that the places we buy our food are not the places we find information on where the food comes from.

2. I agree that farmers are at times unfairly demonized by food activists.

3. I have no interest in a war with big agriculture. I regularly make it clear on this blog that I am no expert on food or agriculture. I see these things primarily from the perspective of consumer, and instead of dismissing people like me, farm bureaus need to include us in the conversation. Don’t lump us all together as if anyone who asks questions about big ag practices is an extremist. I have great respect for farmers and I believe that if we are going to make positive changes in agricultural practices farmers are the ones who will pioneer and innovate the new practices. There are few things in the world more difficult than making a living from farming and farmers deserve our support and respect.

4. Stallman says, “Are we going to let animal rights activists destroy our ability to produce meat that Americans want to eat?” I am part of a growing movement of people who are also drawing a line in the sand and are saying through our consumer choices that we don’t want to eat the meat the current system produces. The American Farm Bureau ignores this reality at the peril of the farmers’ it represents.

As consumers we feel incredibly powerless to change the system and so we are changing our consumption practices. We’re raising our own chickens and eating their eggs. We’re tearing out our lawns and growing vegetables and canning them for the winter. We’re shopping at farmers’ markets so that we can know the farmers and the practices that brought out food to market. We’re asking where our food comes from and in some cases are horrified by what we’re discovering. And more than any of that we are re-discovering the joy of being connected to people and food and land in our communities. We are becoming friends with our farmers and working with them on ways to strengthen our community and our economy.

So you can have your war Bob, and your George Patton quotes. We’d rather collaborate and quote Wendell Berry.