A recent issue of the New York Times Magazine Food and Drink issue featured a piece by food writer Mark Bittman about California's Central Valley. He paints a vivid picture of the vast scale of vegetable production in this incredibly fertile land--a place that is taken for granted by many of us who rely on the bounty of the region for our daily meals. Bittman reports that the continued productivity of the region is threatened by unsustainable farming practices, access to water and urban development. You can read the article for yourself here:
Everyone Eats There
In the same issue Michael Pollan writes about the food movement in politics: Vote for The Dinner Party
I'm thrilled that more and more writers like Bittman and Pollan are drawing attention to the important issues surrounding food and agriculture in this country. But...their latest contributions to the NY Times highlight what has become a recurring frustration of mine. So many advocates for sustainable agriculture just don't seem to understand how down right difficult it is to grow food! Five years ago, when I arrived at New Morning Farm fresh out of college, I was full of idealism and excitement about the sustainable agriculture movement. The problem, I believed with utmost certainty, is that most farms use too many chemicals on too many acres with too little crop diversity. Or, as Pollan writes, "an intensifying rain of pesticides on ever-expanding monocultures; and the monopolization of seeds, which is to say, of the genetic resources on which all of humanity depends." But within a few months, my pleasantly black-and-white picture of the world started to look a lot more grey. I learned that organic farms use chemicals sprays too. Yes, most are naturally derived and less persistent in the environment, but they are made to kill bugs nevertheless. Organic farms use tillage to control weeds instead of chemical herbicides. But the trade-off is the risk of erosion and the loss of soil structure and nutrients through the mechanical process of turning the earth.
Bittman attempts to add nuance to the conversation about sustainable agriculture: "[One farmer's] idea of splitting the difference between “organic” and “conventional” seems to me to point the way forward to a place beyond a simplistic label like organic." Nevertheless, he seems confident that its easy to spot the difference between the "right" and "wrong" way to farm. He says upon visiting a small CSA farm, "the farm’s land is replenished at or near the rate that it’s being exploited." That's it. No further explanation about what it means to "replenish" or "exploit". No discussion about the tough decisions those farmers face every day as they struggle to both do the right thing and make a decent living. Although he sets out to educate readers about where our food really comes from, Bittman still takes for granted the immense challenge of producing abundant affordable food: "All of this made me wonder what, if anything, big farmers owe a society...Do we have a right to expect tomatoes that taste like tomatoes and to have them grown sustainably?" It's hard to say that any farmer owes society both great tasting and sustainably raised food. To expect this is to assume that it can be reliably done without fail year after year and that it is just a matter of an enlightened farmer's willingness to try. After putting countless hours into crops such as broccoli, leeks or shallots only to yield absolutely nothing worth selling, I can tell you that it takes a lot more than effort. It takes an equal measure of immense skill and good luck.
Late blight came in August and devastated 1/3 of our planting for the year. Even without the blight, our tomatoes were suffering from half a dozen other fungal diseases, insect infestations, and nutritional imperfections. Undoubtedly, we would have harvested more tomatoes had we sprayed them with a host of fungicides. Or we could move our operation to a dry climate like California (where fungal diseases are less prevalent) and grow the type of tomatoes that are specifically bred for long-distance shipping (and are, consequently, hard and flavorless). The truth is that our own commitment to offering great tasting organically grown produce means that we sometimes sacrifice yield or lose an entire crop. As soon as we think we have a handle on our foes, new problems present themselves. Scientists suspect that the late blight organism is evolving into an even more persistent pest and invasive species like the stink bug, spotted wing drosophila, and swede midge present challenges never seen before in this country.
Trying to make stuff grow is a tremendously humbling experience that has taught us that we may spend our lives working towards solutions, but we don't have them yet. Unfortunately, ambiguity doesn't propel a movement. I'd like to see supporters of the sustainable food movement like Bittman and Pollan publicize the real challenges all growers--big and small, organic and conventional--face in their effort to produce abundant food and sufficient profits. As much as we need a movement to fight the political battle for sustainable food and bolster its appeal among consumers, we need scientific research into sustainable farming methods so that we farmers can actually deliver on the promises of the movement.