This Farming Man

There are a lot of problems with industrialised farming; over-use of chemicals, unsustainable reliance on mined or manufactured fertiliser, habitat destruction and soil erosion. This is to name just a few of the most serious issues facing food producers.

There are at least as many solutions offered by proponents of alternative methods of farming, and many success stories to demonstrate that some of these methods work in some places for some people.

I recently heard a talk given by Joel Salatin, a farmer from the east coast of the United States, who was here on a lecture tour, promoting a new book he’s written about his version of sustainable agriculture. He is a charismatic and engaging speaker. His message is an interesting take on food security, and reclaiming personal responsibility for our food.

His farming methods have been described as radical and controversial, as well as environmentally friendly. He uses a combination of livestock to produce meat from pigs, cows, chickens and turkeys as well as eggs from the birds, in a way that is quite different to the feedlots and battery farms where much of this produce in the US originates. He is focused on improving the soil to improve pasture which in turn produces high quality fodder for the animals he farms. The conservation of soil organic matter is the basis of his methods, and it is a change from the 20th century “Green revolution” method of chemical fertiliser to increase soil nutrient levels.

He feels that people are disconnected from their food production, that they have relinquished control to huge corporations who care only for profit, and not for nutrition. The internet allows people a much more direct connection to farmers than they have ever had before, and allows people to access information on a scale unprecedented in human history. He thinks that people should process their own food from scratch, preparing their own meat and vegetables from as close to their originally harvested state as possible and that people should attempt to grow their own food to ensure its purity and freedom from chemical residues. He may have a point.

But I am always wary of anyone who suggests that their way of doing things will work everywhere for everyone. Especially when there are issues of access and equity involved. There are some issues with Salatin’s message that are based on practical realities.

First of all,  Joel never had to buy a farm. He was lucky enough to take over a farm that had been under organic improvement for twenty years by his parents. His situation is not comparable to someone who is setting themselves up from scratch.

He mentioned that his father had trucked in literally tonnes of organic matter, logging waste, walnut hulls, sawdust. All of this off-site material was “going to waste” but it was also foreign material. The idea of improving one piece of land by degrading another is a fundamental flaw of any purportedly sustainable system.

Salatin also has a policy of only selling his produce to consumers who live within four hours of his farm in the Shenandoah Valley, in Virginia. He says this is because people should buy food from their local community and keep the money there. It’s difficult to accept this as a viable business model for farmers in other locations, as Salatin’s farm is within three and a half hours of the Washington-Baltimore metropolitan area, home to almost 9 million people. The urban conglomeration of that area is the best educated and highest earning region in the entire United States, and it’s easy to see how a niche market for organic meat and produce could be found to make a farm such as Salatin’s “Polyface” a profitable enterprise. It’s also hard to understand how urban dwellers from the nearby mega-city are keeping money in their own communities by buying from his company.

The idea of everyone processing their own food from scratch, using farm fresh ingredients is a most romantic ideal, and it was hinted at during his talk that this is possible if someone in the family took the time to do it. He was referring, clearly, to a traditional nuclear family unit with two parents, the suggestion being one works to earn money while the other stays home and tends to the domestic tasks including the cooking. Because of the restrictions of a one-income household, this also means the stay-at-home partner would have to complete most of the other work around the home. Because the partner with the greatest earning capacity would be the obvious choice to continue working, the housewife is resurrected, as women almost always earn less than men in almost every industry. To give up careers and almost halve a household income is a huge thing to ask of people, and possibly reflects some moral stance that is not made explicit.

The idea that people need to work less, but rely on modern technology to enable their shift towards a more old fashioned lifestyle is puzzling. One audience member related the story of their partner learning to kill a chicken in real time from an iPad in the paddock, but how could they afford that without a high income level, or potentially two? How do single people who work in industries like IT find time to learn these skills while they are running the internet on which the supposedly new model depends? Should anyone really have to give up their career goals in order to eat good food?

Salatin describes himself as a “Christian-libertarian-environmentalist-capitalist-lunatic-Farmer” and this in itself raises some issues. Not because he is a Christian, though he does use some pretty biblical language when talking; “Would you rather live in Eden or Sodom and Gomorrah?, he asked the audience at one point. Libertarians believe people should be allowed to do what they want, as long as no harm comes to others as a result. A noble ideal, but one more often used to defend individuals’ rights rather than social justice as far as it goes. An environmentalist is one who attempts to reduce his or her impact on the broader ecosystem in which they operate, but it’s a sliding scale, and all agriculture has some environmental impact, even if it is just the farm land preventing natural plant and animal communities occupying the space.

But it’s the capitalist part that really sticks. It’s obvious that Joel Salatin has something to sell. Sure he is promoting his ideas, which are fine as far as they go, but I don’t think they necessarily translate from the lush, high rainfall slopes of the Shenandoah Valley to the dry rangelands where most of Australia’s beef is grown. Agricultural land that is predominantly well outside any arbitrary four hour limit from its intended market place.

He is also literally selling his ideas in the form of books. While I am sure the farm itself is a profitable venture, there is no doubt his income is enhanced by the third of the year he spends off the farm talking to people and hawking books at events like the one I attended. It’s not an option for many farmers to do as he advised, and take a Toastmaster’s course and get out there spruiking. And would he really want them to?

If the market became flooded with organic beef, for example, basic economics would suggest the price would fall. The production costs would remain the same, but the profit margin would have to shrink. This is something Salatin himself maintained had to be large for farming to be profitable. It’s clear that he is no lunatic, he is an intelligent business man with a well considered business plan.

Salatin was the guest of Dumbo Feather, a magazine that could be described as subtly hip, appealing to a relatively small, cashed-up segment of consumers from the inner suburbs of Australia’s larger capital cities. These people were clearly Salatin’s audience, too. They probably try to buy organic food, they are aware of animal cruelty issues, they want to “eat local” and have a global ethical awareness. The talk was part of a series run by Dumbo Feather, sponsored in part by the Commonwealth Bank, ironically one of the largest investors in agribusiness, the very kind of farming that is perceived as “the problem”

Farmer Joel’s message about clean green produce distributed locally to a small niche market is exactly what the gathered audience wants to hear. They can take control of their food sovereignty, they can make a difference to the environment, and move away from the manufactured “food-like substances” they have been warned off by Michael Pollan and others. They can improve their diets and their lives by choosing to buy fresh local produce, and by choosing to grow their own wherever possible. They can avoid the health issues involved with pesticide and herbicide use, from a diet of processed, unrecognisable foodstuffs.

The big issue for me is that the people in that audience will probably not have any health problems because of their diet. They were not morbidly obese, they were not starving, they obviously have access to a wide range of relatively healthy food, and Australians, like most of the “Western” world spend a tiny fraction, less than 10%, of their income on food.

Compare this to the developing world, where as much as three quarters of household income goes on food, and we can start to see that the audience here is already operating on a level of privilege. To put it bluntly, hunger is the world’s number one health risk, it outweighs AIDS, Malaria and tuberculosis in the number of deaths it causes every year. 870 million people in the world do not have enough to eat, that’s 1/8th of the world’s population. But these people live for the most part in the developing world. Not in the USA, and not in Australia.

In our own society, there are many people who have no access to space to grow their own food. The talk at Abbotsford Convent was only a few hundred metres from a large high rise housing commission project. The people who live there have no income to afford organic food in the way the audience of Salatin’s talk could afford it. They don’t go to monthly gourmet Farmer’s Markets to which they must pay an entry fee, they go to the supermarket when they can afford to, and buy the cheapest food they can.

The reason supermarkets have a stranglehold on choice now is because of buying decisions made by our parents, who themselves were just trying to make household budgets stretch. But those decisions had the knock on effect of pushing smaller businesses with higher overheads out of business. Everyone used to shop in the local greengrocer, and the local butcher, and the local bakery, which are in most places now a luxury or a memory.

The proportion of disadvantaged peoples’ income spent on food is much higher than the tiny fraction spent by the Dumbo Feather audience on their daily requirements. The audience in attendance are probably able to afford take away food and dining out on a regular basis, as well as the $27 entry fee to hear a wealthy farmer from half way around the world telling them what to buy.

There is no doubt that agriculture needs to be overhauled, no doubt it’s worrying that most food is owned in some way by a handful of companies and retailed by even fewer. Sustainability is a concern for agriculture, and reducing reliance on oil, chemical fertilisers and pesticides is absolutely necessary for the future.

But Salatin’s model, based on his personal, privileged experience on a small family farm in the fertile Shenandoah Valley does not translate universally. Beyond the highly populated east coast of the United States, the concepts make less sense. Salatin chooses to grow beef on his property, but most of Australia’s beef is produced on land that is highly unsuitable for any other form of agriculture. The rainfall at Polyface farm is about double what Melbourne receives, and three or four times what most of the grazing land in Australia receives. This alone should raise questions about the viability of his methods.

Ultimately, it just feels false for someone to travel 25,000 kilometres to sell something that tells us to buy local. The global problems of agriculture can’t be solved by consumer choices, because the overwhelming majority of global consumers just don’t have that choice.

2 thoughts on “This Farming Man

  1. A good critique. I received two requests for crowd funding Americans to come to Australia and teach us about sustainability and food only in the last fortnight. I’d like to think that there are comparably learned experts residing in Australia but perhaps they aren’t pretty enough? Hip enough? I also agree with pretty much everything you’ve written, given that I spent every day working with renters, many of whom could never afford organic produce or have access to a meaningful harvest crop however long they wait grow seedlings on their window sill. I find the ‘green movement’ is often at odds with those most impacted by a lack of food sovereignty. I could go on but I won’t, considering I couldn’t actually afford to attend the talk :).

  2. It always worries me that IF the health concerns associated with “conventional produce” are valid, low income earners will once again be the most disadvantaged in not being able to afford the food that will give them good health.

    But the evidence suggests organic food is no better for people than conventional food, and that in Australia, the minimal pesticide residue on some food is outweighed by the benefits of a diet full of fresh fruit and vegetables anyway.

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