Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Omnivore’s Delusion: Against the Agri-intellectuals — The American, A Magazine of Ideas AND NPR Interview with Blake Hurst and Michael Pollan

The Omnivore’s Delusion: Against the Agri-intellectuals — The American, A Magazine of Ideas
by Blake Hurst, farmer
Farming has always been messy and painful, and bloody and dirty. It still is. This is something the critics of industrial farming never seem to understand.

I’m dozing, as I often do on airplanes, but the guy behind me has been broadcasting nonstop for nearly three hours. I finally admit defeat and start some serious eavesdropping. He’s talking about food, damning farming, particularly livestock farming, compensating for his lack of knowledge with volume.
I’m so tired of people who wouldn’t visit a doctor who used a stethoscope instead of an MRI demanding that farmers like me use 1930s technology to raise food. Farming has always been messy and painful, and bloody and dirty. It still is.
But now we have to listen to self-appointed experts on airplanes frightening their seatmates about the profession I have practiced for more than 30 years. I’d had enough. I turned around and politely told the lecturer that he ought not believe everything he reads. He quieted and asked me what kind of farming I do. I told him, and when he asked if I used organic farming, I said no, and left it at that. I didn’t answer with the first thought that came to mind, which is simply this: I deal in the real world, not superstitions, and unless the consumer absolutely forces my hand, I am about as likely to adopt organic methods as the Wall Street Journal is to publish their next edition by setting the type by hand.
Young turkeys aren't smart enough to come in out of the rain, and will stand outside in a downpour, with beaks open and eyes skyward, until they drown.
He was a businessman, and I’m sure spends his days with spreadsheets, projections, and marketing studies. He hasn’t used a slide rule in his career and wouldn’t make projections with tea leaves or soothsayers. He does not blame witchcraft for a bad quarter, or expect the factory that makes his product to use steam power instead of electricity, or horses and wagons to deliver his products instead of trucks and trains. But he expects me to farm like my grandfather, and not incidentally, I suppose, to live like him as well. He thinks farmers are too stupid to farm sustainably, too cruel to treat their animals well, and too careless to worry about their communities, their health, and their families. I would not presume to criticize his car, or the size of his house, or the way he runs his business. But he is an expert about me, on the strength of one book, and is sharing that expertise with captive audiences every time he gets the chance. Enough, enough, enough.
Industrial Farming and Its Critics
Critics of “industrial farming” spend most of their time concerned with the processes by which food is raised. This is because the results of organic production are so, well, troublesome. With the subtraction of every “unnatural” additive, molds, fungus, and bugs increase. Since it is difficult to sell a religion with so many readily quantifiable bad results, the trusty family farmer has to be thrown into the breach, saving the whole organic movement by his saintly presence, chewing on his straw, plodding along, at one with his environment, his community, his neighborhood. Except that some of the largest farms in the country are organic—and are giant organizations dependent upon lots of hired stoop labor doing the most backbreaking of tasks in order to save the sensitive conscience of my fellow passenger the merest whiff of pesticide contamination. They do not spend much time talking about that at the Whole Foods store.
The most delicious irony is this: the parts of farming that are the most “industrial” are the most likely to be owned by the kind of family farmers that elicit such a positive response from the consumer. Corn farms are almost all owned and managed by small family farmers. But corn farmers salivate at the thought of one more biotech breakthrough, use vast amounts of energy to increase production, and raise large quantities of an indistinguishable commodity to sell to huge corporations that turn that corn into thousands of industrial products.
The biggest environmental harm I’ve done as a farmer is the topsoil (and nutrients) I used to send down the Missouri River to the Gulf of Mexico before we began to practice no-till farming, made possible only by the use of herbicides.
Most livestock is produced by family farms, and even the poultry industry, with its contracts and vertical integration, relies on family farms to contract for the production of the birds. Despite the obvious change in scale over time, family farms, like ours, still meet around the kitchen table, send their kids to the same small schools, sit in the same church pew, and belong to the same civic organizations our parents and grandparents did. We may be industrial by some definition, but not our own. Reality is messier than it appears in the book my tormentor was reading, and farming more complicated than a simple morality play.
On the desk in front of me are a dozen books, all hugely critical of present-day farming. Farmers are often given a pass in these books, painted as either naïve tools of corporate greed, or economic nullities forced into their present circumstances by the unrelenting forces of the twin grindstones of corporate greed and unfeeling markets. To the farmer on the ground, though, a farmer blessed with free choice and hard won experience, the moral choices aren’t quite so easy. Biotech crops actually cut the use of chemicals, and increase food safety. Are people who refuse to use them my moral superiors? Herbicides cut the need for tillage, which decreases soil erosion by millions of tons. The biggest environmental harm I have done as a farmer is the topsoil (and nutrients) I used to send down the Missouri River to the Gulf of Mexico before we began to practice no-till farming, made possible only by the use of herbicides. The combination of herbicides and genetically modified seed has made my farm more sustainable, not less, and actually reduces the pollution I send down the river.
Finally, consumers benefit from cheap food. If you think they don’t, just remember the headlines after food prices began increasing in 2007 and 2008, including the study by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations announcing that 50 million additional people are now hungry because of increasing food prices. Only “industrial farming” can possibly meet the demands of an increasing population and increased demand for food as a result of growing incomes.
The distance between the farmer and what he grows has certainly increased, but, believe me, if we weren't closely connected, we wouldn't still be farming.
So the stakes in this argument are even higher. Farmers can raise food in different ways if that is what the market wants. It is important, though, that even people riding in airplanes know that there are environmental and food safety costs to whatever kind of farming we choose.
Pigs in a Pen
In his book Dominion, author Mathew Scully calls “factory farming” an “obvious moral evil so sickening and horrendous it would leave us ashen.” Scully, a speechwriter for the second President Bush, can hardly be called a man of the left. Just to make sure the point is not lost, he quotes the conservative historian Paul Johnson a page later:
The rise of factory farming, whereby food producers cannot remain competitive except by subjecting animals to unspeakable deprivation, has hastened this process. The human spirit revolts at what we have been doing.
Arizona and Florida have outlawed pig gestation crates, and California recently passed, overwhelmingly, a ballot initiative doing the same. There is no doubt that Scully and Johnson have the wind at their backs, and confinement raising of livestock may well be outlawed everywhere. And only a person so callous as to have a spirit that cannot be revolted, or so hardened to any kind of morality that he could countenance an obvious moral evil, could say a word in defense of caging animals during their production. In the quote above, Paul Johnson is forecasting a move toward vegetarianism. But if we assume, at least for the present, that most of us will continue to eat meat, let me dive in where most fear to tread.
Lynn Niemann was a neighbor of my family’s, a farmer with a vision. He began raising turkeys on a field near his house around 1956. They were, I suppose, what we would now call “free range” turkeys. Turkeys raised in a natural manner, with no roof over their heads, just gamboling around in the pasture, as God surely intended. Free to eat grasshoppers, and grass, and scratch for grubs and worms. And also free to serve as prey for weasels, who kill turkeys by slitting their necks and practicing exsanguination. Weasels were a problem, but not as much a threat as one of our typically violent early summer thunderstorms. It seems that turkeys, at least young ones, are not smart enough to come in out of the rain, and will stand outside in a downpour, with beaks open and eyes skyward, until they drown. One night Niemann lost 4,000 turkeys to drowning, along with his dream, and his farm.
Food production will have a claim on fossil fuels long after we've learned how to use renewables and nuclear power to handle many of our other energy needs.
Now, turkeys are raised in large open sheds. Chickens and turkeys raised for meat are not grown in cages. As the critics of "industrial farming" like to point out, the sheds get quite crowded by the time Thanksgiving rolls around and the turkeys are fully grown. And yes, the birds are bedded in sawdust, so the turkeys do walk around in their own waste. Although the turkeys don't seem to mind, this quite clearly disgusts the various authors I've read whom have actually visited a turkey farm. But none of those authors, whose descriptions of the horrors of modern poultry production have a certain sameness, were there when Neimann picked up those 4,000 dead turkeys. Sheds are expensive, and it was easier to raise turkeys in open, inexpensive pastures. But that type of production really was hard on the turkeys. Protected from the weather and predators, today's turkeys may not be aware that they are a part of a morally reprehensible system.
Like most young people in my part of the world, I was a 4-H member. Raising cattle and hogs, showing them at the county fair, and then sending to slaughter those animals that we had spent the summer feeding, washing, and training. We would then tour the packing house, where our friend was hung on a rail, with his loin eye measured and his carcass evaluated. We farm kids got an early start on dulling our moral sensibilities. I'm still proud of my win in the Atchison County Carcass competition of 1969, as it is the only trophy I have ever received. We raised the hogs in a shed, or farrowing (birthing) house. On one side were eight crates of the kind that the good citizens of California have outlawed. On the other were the kind of wooden pens that our critics would have us use, where the sow could turn around, lie down, and presumably act in a natural way. Which included lying down on my 4-H project, killing several piglets, and forcing me to clean up the mess when I did my chores before school. The crates protect the piglets from their mothers. Farmers do not cage their hogs because of sadism, but because dead pigs are a drag on the profit margin, and because being crushed by your mother really is an awful way to go. As is being eaten by your mother, which I've seen sows do to newborn pigs as well.
I warned you that farming is still dirty and bloody, and I wasn't kidding. So let's talk about manure. It is an article of faith amongst the agri-intellectuals that we no longer use manure as fertilizer. To quote Dr. Michael Fox in his book Eating with a Conscience, "The animal waste is not going back to the land from which he animal feed originated." Or Bill McKibben, in his book Deep Economy, writing about modern livestock production: "But this concentrates the waste in one place, where instead of being useful fertilizer to spread on crop fields it becomes a toxic threat."
In my inbox is an email from our farm's neighbor, who raises thousands of hogs in close proximity to our farm, and several of my family member's houses as well. The email outlines the amount and chemical analysis of the manure that will be spread on our fields this fall, manure that will replace dozens of tons of commercial fertilizer. The manure is captured underneath the hog houses in cement pits, and is knifed into the soil after the crops are harvested. At no time is it exposed to erosion, and it is an extremely valuable resource, one which farmers use to its fullest extent, just as they have since agriculture began.
Pollan thinks farmers use commercial fertilizer because it's easier, and because it's cheap. Pollan is right. But those are perfectly defensible reasons.
In the southern part of Missouri, there is an extensive poultry industry in areas of the state where the soil is poor. The farmers there spread the poultry litter on pasture, and the advent of poultry barns made cattle production possible in areas that used to be waste ground. The "industrial" poultry houses are owned by family farmers, who have then used the byproducts to produce beef in areas where cattle couldn't survive before. McKibben is certain that the contracts these farmers sign with companies like Tyson are unfair, and the farmers might agree. But they like those cows, so there is a waiting list for new chicken barns. In some areas, there is indeed more manure than available cropland. But the trend in the industry, thankfully, is toward a dispersion of animals and manure, as the value of the manure increases, and the cost of transporting the manure becomes prohibitive. 
We Can’t Change Nature
The largest producer of pigs in the United States has promised to gradually end the use of hog crates. The Humane Society promises to take their initiative drive to outlaw farrowing crates and poultry cages to more states. Many of the counties in my own state of Missouri have chosen to outlaw the the building of confinement facilities. Barack Obama has been harshly critical of animal agriculture. We are clearly in the process of deciding that we will not continue to raise animals the way we do now. Because other countries may not share our sensibilities, we'll have to withdraw or amend free trade agreements to keep any semblance of a livestock industry.
We can do that, and we may be a better society for it, but we can't change nature. Pigs will be allowed to "return to their mire," as Kipling had it, but they'll also be crushed and eaten by their mothers. Chickens will provide lunch to any number of predators, and some number of chickens will die as flocks establish their pecking order.
In recent years, the cost of producing pork dropped as farmers increased feed efficiency (the amount of feed needed to produce a pound of pork) by 20 percent. Free-range chickens and pigs will increase the price of food, using more energy and water to produce the extra grain required for the same amount of meat, and some people will go hungry. It is also instructive that the first company to move away from farrowing crates is the largest producer of pigs. Changing the way we raise animals will not necessarily change the scale of the companies involved in the industry. If we are about to require more expensive ways of producing food, the largest and most well-capitalized farms will have the least trouble adapting.
The Omnivores’ Delusions
Michael Pollan, in an 8,000-word essay in the New York Times Magazine, took the expected swipes at animal agriculture. But his truly radical prescriptions had to do with raising of crops. Pollan, who seemed to be aware of the nitrogen problem in his book The Omnivore's Dilemma, left nuance behind, as well as the laws of chemistry, in his recommendations. The nitrogen problem is this: without nitrogen, we do not have life. Until we learned to produce nitrogen from natural gas early in the last century, the only way to get nitrogen was through nitrogen produced by plants called legumes, or from small amounts of nitrogen that are produced by lightning strikes. The amount of life the earth could support was limited by the amount of nitrogen available for crop production.
In his book, Pollan quotes geographer Vaclav Smil to the effect that 40 percent of the people alive today would not be alive without the ability to artificially synthesize nitrogen. But in his directive on food policy, Pollan damns agriculture's dependence on fossil fuels, and urges the president to encourage agriculture to move away from expensive and declining supplies of natural gas toward the unlimited sunshine that supported life, and agriculture, as recently as the 1940s. Now, why didn't I think of that?
Well, I did. I've raised clover and alfalfa for the nitrogen they produce, and half the time my land is planted to soybeans, another nitrogen producing legume. Pollan writes as if all of his ideas are new, but my father tells of agriculture extension meetings in the late 1950s entitled "Clover and Corn, the Road to Profitability."  Farmers know that organic farming was the default position of agriculture for thousands of years, years when hunger was just around the corner for even advanced societies. I use all the animal manure available to me, and do everything I can to reduce the amount of commercial fertilizers I use. When corn genetically modified to use nitrogen more efficiently enters the market, as it soon will, I will use it as well. But none of those things will completely replace commercial fertilizer.
Norman Borlaug, founder of the green revolution, estimates that the amount of nitrogen available naturally would only support a worldwide population of 4 billion souls or so. He further remarks that we would need another 5 billion cows to produce enough manure to fertilize our present crops with "natural" fertilizer. That would play havoc with global warming. And cows do not produce nitrogen from the air, but only from the forages they eat, so to produce more manure we will have to plant more forages. Most of the critics of industrial farming maintain the contradictory positions that we should increase the use of manure as a fertilizer, and decrease our consumption of meat. Pollan would solve the problem with cover crops, planted after the corn crop is harvested, and with mandatory composting. Pollan should talk to some actual farmers before he presumes to advise a president.
Pollan tells of flying over the upper Midwest in the winter, and seeing the black, fallow soil. I suppose one sees what one wants to see, but we have not had the kind of tillage implement on our farm that would produce black soil in nearly 20 years. Pollan would provide our nitrogen by planting those black fields to nitrogen-producing cover crops after the cash crops are harvested. This is a fine plan, one that farmers have known about for generations. And sometimes it would even work. But not last year, as we finished harvest in November in a freezing rain. It is hard to think of a legume that would have done its thing between then and corn planting time. Plants do not grow very well in freezing weather, a fact that would evidently surprise Pollan.
And even if we could have gotten a legume established last fall, it would not have fixed any nitrogen before planting time. We used to plant corn in late May, plowing down our green manure and killing the first flush of weeds. But that meant the corn would enter its crucial growing period during the hottest, driest parts of the summer, and that soil erosion would be increased because the land was bare during drenching spring rains. Now we plant in early April, best utilizing our spring rains, and ensuring that pollination occurs before the dog days of August.
A few other problems come to mind. The last time I planted a cover crop, the clover provided a perfect habitat in early spring for bugs, bugs that I had to kill with an insecticide. We do not normally apply insecticides, but we did that year. Of course, you can provide nitrogen with legumes by using a longer crop rotation, growing clover one year and corn the next. But that uses twice as much water to produce a corn crop, and takes twice as much land to produce the same number of bushels. We are producing twice the food we did in 1960 on less land, and commercial nitrogen is one of the main reasons why. It may be that we decide we would rather spend land and water than energy, but Pollan never mentions that we are faced with that choice.
His other grand idea is mandatory household composting, with the compost delivered to farmers free of charge. Why not? Compost is a valuable soil amendment, and if somebody else is paying to deliver it to my farm, then bring it on. But it will not do much to solve the nitrogen problem. Household compost has somewhere between 1 and 5 percent nitrogen, and not all that nitrogen is available to crops the first year. Presently, we are applying about 150 pounds of nitrogen per acre to corn, and crediting about 40 pounds per acre from the preceding years soybean crop. Let's assume a 5 percent nitrogen rate, or about 100 pounds of nitrogen per ton of compost. That would require 3,000 pounds of compost per acre. Or about 150,000 tons for the corn raised in our county. The average truck carries about 20 tons. Picture 7,500 trucks traveling from New York City to our small county here in the Midwest, delivering compost. Five million truckloads to fertilize the country's corn crop. Now, that would be a carbon footprint!
Pollan thinks farmers use commercial fertilizer because it is easier, and because it is cheap. Pollan is right. But those are perfectly defensible reasons. Nitrogen quadrupled in price over the last several years, and farmers are still using it, albeit more cautiously. We are using GPS monitors on all of our equipment to ensure that we do not use too much, and our production of corn per pound of nitrogen is rapidly increasing. On our farm, we have increased yields about 50 percent during my career, while applying about the same amount of nitrogen we did when I began farming. That fortunate trend will increase even faster with the advent of new GMO hybrids. But as much as Pollan might desire it, even President Obama cannot reshuffle the chemical deck that nature has dealt. Energy may well get much more expensive, and peak oil production may have been reached. But food production will have a claim on fossil fuels long after we have learned how to use renewables and nuclear power to handle many of our other energy needs.
Farming and Connectedness
Much of farming is more "industrial," more technical, and more complex than it used to be. Farmers farm more acres, and are less close to the ground and their animals than they were in the past. Almost all critics of industrial agriculture bemoan this loss of closeness, this "connectedness," to use author Rod Dreher's term. It is a given in most of the writing about agriculture that the knowledge and experience of the organic farmer is what makes him so unique and so important. The "industrial farmer," on the other hand, is a mere pawn of Cargill, backed into his ignorant way of life by forces too large, too far from the farm, and too powerful to resist. Concern about this alienation, both between farmers and the land, and between consumers and their food supply, is what drives much of the literature about agriculture.
The distance between the farmer and what he grows has certainly increased, but, believe me, if we weren't closely connected, we wouldn't still be farming. It's important to our critics that they emphasize this alienation, because they have to ignore the "industrial" farmer's experience and knowledge to say the things they do about farming.
But farmers have reasons for their actions, and society should listen to them as we embark upon this reappraisal of our agricultural system. I use chemicals and diesel fuel to accomplish the tasks my grandfather used to do with sweat, and I use a computer instead of a lined notebook and a pencil, but I'm still farming the same land he did 80 years ago, and the fund of knowledge that our family has accumulated about our small part of Missouri is valuable. And everything I know and I have learned tells me this: we have to farm "industrially" to feed the world, and by using those "industrial" tools sensibly, we can accomplish that task and leave my grandchildren a prosperous and productive farm, while protecting the land, water, and air around us.
Blake Hurst is a farmer in Missouri. In a few days he will spend the next six weeks on a combine.  
Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.

October 8, 2009 Michael Pollan has authored multiple books in defense of fresh foods. He advocates for food grown on small, local farms. But many farmers argue that Pollan's vision contradicts the future of agriculture, and is not practical for all farmers, or consumers.

Copyright © 2009 National Public Radio®. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
Writer Michael Pollan famously advises eat food, not too much, mostly plants. And don't buy food you've seen advertised on TV. And that's just the kernel of his ideas about the American food industry and American agriculture in his enormously popular books, including his latest, "In Defense of Food." Last month the University of Wisconsin-Madison gave that book to all incoming freshman and urged professors to discuss it in class, which as you might suspect set off a Donnybrook in a heavily agricultural state.
A lot of farmers challenge Pollan's work as a direct attack on them and how they work. Some ideas of his may be appealing, they say, but unrealistic, others just ill-informed. Today we'll talk with Michael Pollan and with two working farmers who deal every day with the practices that he criticizes.
Later in the program, Farhad Manjoo of Slate on the international phishing ring broken up by the FBI and his practical ideas on how to protect our terrible passwords.
But first, the omnivore's debate, and we'd like to hear from farmers today. If you're familiar with Pollan's critique, is it accurate, are his proposed solutions practical? 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation on our Web site, that's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION. And Michael Pollan joins us now from the studios on the campus at the University of California at Berkley. And nice to have you back on the program.
Mr. MICHAEL POLLAN (Author, "In Defense of Food"): Thanks Neal, good to be back.
CONAN: And remind us, if you would, the critique of American farmers.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. POLLAN: How much time do you have?
CONAN: Well…
Mr. POLLAN: Let me start though by alluding to something you said in your set-up, because I don't think it was true. You said I was critical of American farmers. Now, some farmers have taken what I say that way. But in fact, you know, I can't defy anyone to see - find things I have actually written that are critical of farmers. I am critical of various practices and I'm very critical of a system, a set of incentives that really forces farmers to plant monocultures and to consolidate and get bigger, and leaves them with very few choices in the way of either markets to sell their products or ways to grow them.
And that's very different than saying you're critical of farmers. It really is a system that I'm critical of and it's a system that's been designed by other people and is the result of the kind of farm policies we have in our country. I think that's an important distinction.
CONAN: Farmers themselves have few choices?
Mr. POLLAN: Well, very often they do. If you're growing corn and soybeans in the Midwest, you know, there's one buyer of your product, that's the grain elevator in town. If you want, as farmers have told me, if you want to try to do something else, if you want to grow some broccoli or some tomatoes, you run into all sorts of problems. The first is that under the farm policies, you lose your subsidies as soon as you get out of corn and bean land. The second is, who's going to buy your food? So there are many farmers who are interested in changing what they're doing, who see that growing lots of corn and soy is - it doesn't really work that well for them either, I mean that their farm income has been falling.
We had a spike last year and that this system doesn't really serve their interests either. But it's important to understand that there is a counteroffensive underway right now from the agribusiness lobby and that that is trying to depict this critique - and it's not just my critic, it's the critique in "Food Inc." and Eric Schlosser's work and a whole lot of other people - as an attack on farmers, and that that is the agribusiness hiding behind farmers, as far as I can tell.
CONAN: How can you - well, you've explained that people are forced into this. Some of these farmers - why don't we bring a farmer on to speak for himself, all right? Let's bring another voice into the conversation. Blake Hurst is a farmer in Northwest Missouri with six other family members. He grows corn and soybeans on 4,500 acres there. His family also raised cattle for many years. They don't do that anymore though. He recently wrote an article for The Journal of the American Enterpriser Institute called "The Omnivores Delusion - Against the Agri-Intellectuals," and among them Michael Pollan. And he joins us from the studios of NET Radio in Lincoln, Nebraska. And it's good to have you on the program. Thanks very much for taking the time.
Mr. BLAKE HURST (Farmer): Thank you. It's good to be here.
CONAN: And you have choices in what you do and how you do it?
Mr. HURST: Well, certainly I do. The road goes right by my house. I can get on it and leave at any time. I can put different products on it and sell them at any time. I choose to grow corn and soybeans because that's - which first of, I challenge the monoculture - corns, grass, soybeans are a legume. We rotate them year after year. That allows us to now use, you know, we use absolutely no insecticides because different insects attack different crops. So first off, I do not believe I'm in a monoculture. My friends in Southern Missouri grow rice, wheat, cotton, corn and soybeans. So they have lots of variety in the things they grow. But I'm not trapped at all. It's a free society. I choose to do what I'm doing. I'm proud to be doing it and I enjoy it.
CONAN: And when you read Michael Pollan's work - I read your article and you said he's depicting you and other farmers as being, well, either dupes of commercial interests or, well, not so bright.
Mr. HURST: Well, yeah. I mean, he says I'm - the agribusiness is hiding behind me, like when I wrote the article Monsanto was in the room with me. I mean, you know, my wife helped me sound out some of the big words, but other than that, I did it on my own, and I'm not a tool of anybody.
CONAN: And the other farmers that you know, and other people in your district, they're doing the things that they are doing presumably because that's the best way to make a living?
Mr. HURST: Yeah, yeah. And farming is a competitive industry. And whether I'm raising broccoli or corn or soybeans, the profits that come back to me will always be the level of profit that the margin the last farmer is willing to accept. So, it tends to be a competitive business. Yes, I wish I received more from my grain. Yes, I wish my income is higher. But I enjoy what I do and clearly if my income was not high enough, I'd get another job.
CONAN: And Michael Pollan, as you look at the statements by Mr. Hurst and others, I don't think he's part of a - he did write for a conservative journal. But is he part of this concerted attack you're talking about?
Mr. POLLAN: Oh, I don't know that. I can't say whether Blake is writing as an individual for himself or is, you know, part of something larger than that, obviously. I don't question his motives in writing that piece at all. I'm just saying that what's going on around the country right now, and the efforts to, you know, silence my speeches on college campuses where there are agro-business interests involved, which is happening, you know, as you said in Madison, there was a lot of protest and in the…
CONAN: Well that was after handing out the book to every student, every freshman is hardly…
Mr. POLLAN: …right…
CONAN: …but…
Mr. POLLAN: …which the Farm Bureau in Wisconsin had a big problem of and with it. And it was very interesting. What happened there? They bused in several hundred farmers, all wearing green T-shirts that said, In Defense of Farmers. And they were expecting to hear a very different Michael Pollan, I think, than they actually heard because when they left, they were surprised that what I said didn't conform to what the Farm Bureau was telling them I said…
CONAN: Mm-hmm.
Mr. POLLAN: …which is to say, I was talking about how to build new agricultural markets, so that they could diversify. I was talking about figuring out ways to get more of the consumers' food dollar into their pockets. Right now, 90 percent of the consumers' food dollar goes to middlemen, processors, marketers. And that in the kinds of alternative agriculture that we're beginning to be talked about in this country, there are great opportunities for farmers. And I think, a lot of farmers, whether they take those opportunities or not, the fact that there are now these new markets, whether it's for organic or pasture-raised livestock or, you know, farmers' market food or all these other kinds of things, these are great opportunities for farmers who had less choices in the past.
And you know, when the farmers left that hall, they were kind of surprised, and I talked to some ag-journalists who said, yeah, we were on the bus with them going back, and they said they really didn't find as much to disagree with in what you said than they expected. And so I think that there is something of a caricature being drawn here, and that's fine.
You know, the other thing I want to say is that I really welcome this debate that's getting started. You know, it is long overdue, and Blake is definitely part of that, and he wrote a really cogent, powerful contribution to that debate and he raised some really good critiques of alternative agriculture, which is to say, do we have enough farmers to do it? Will it be productive enough? Will we be able to make food - will we be able to change without raising the price of food?
These are really key questions for the alternative food movement, and he honed right in on them, and there are no easy answers. But having this political debate about where farming and food are going in this country is exactly what we need, and I'm delighted to see it being joined.
CONAN: Blake Hurst, could there - I'm sorry, go ahead.
Mr. POLLAN: Yeah, well, I want to - you know, I think that reading a lot of the comments and stuff on the Web about my article, it's clear I did not do one thing very well, and that is, as the old joke goes, some of my best friends are organic farmers. I mean, I am absolutely - let a thousand flowers bloom. We grow flowers on our farm. I actually sell them at the farm. I sell directly to the consumer. I think it's wonderful that there's new markets and new kinds of food being raised, and it's fun for us to leave the farm and go to a restaurant where someone's cooking something different than we might receive at home.
But the point I would make is that there are environmental costs to turning our back on technology. I guess that was the point of my article. In other words, we farm no-till farming, which we are only able to do because of chemicals or because of pesticides that we use, and that cuts our erosion probably down to 20 percent of what it was 30 years ago, when I began farming.
Now, we may choose to move away from technology, and the consumer is going to make that decision in the final analysis, but she needs to know, the consumer needs to know, that there's environmental costs to farming, as the critics of farming would have us to do.
Mr. HURST: Well, I guess I would just say to that is, I assume when you talk about no-till farming, are you talking about using Roundup Ready crops, so you don't have to plow?
Mr. HURST: Yeah, we do, although you can do it without them, but yeah, we use Roundup Ready beans, not corn but beans.
And it is absolutely true that Roundup Ready soy has helped with erosion in the Middle West. There was a huge problem with soil just disappearing from our farms. But it's very important that even when you point to an achievement, and that is in my view the one achievement of Roundup Ready soy, that you take a clear-eyed view of the costs of these technologies, because there really are tradeoffs.
The high productivity of American agriculture has had costs, environmental costs, pollution costs, the amount of nitrogen that washes off of fields that ends up in the Mississippi and creates a dead zone in the Gulf that's now the size of Massachusetts. So you know, there are achievements, and there are costs.
CONAN: We're going to have to…
Mr. POLLAN: Exactly.
CONAN: We're going to have to resume after a short break. That music means we're coming up on a post. So gentlemen, stay with us. Michael Pollan, the author of, most recently, "In Defense of Food"; and Blake Hurst, who farms corn and soybeans on 4,500 acres with six other members of his family in northwest Missouri. Both of you stay with us please. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Most of can agree that we should eat healthier, lots of vegetables and fresh produce, fewer processed foods. The debate is in the details: where we get our food, who produces it, and how. Is it practical to eat only fresh, local foods grown organically?
We'd like to hear from farmers today. Are these proposed solutions practical for you? 800-989-8255. Email You can join the conversation on our Web site. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Our guests are Michael Pollan. A young reader's edition of "The Omnivore's Dilemma" will be published next week. And Blake Hurst farms 4,500 acres with his family in northwest Missouri. He wrote the opinion piece "The Omnivore's Delusion," against the agri-intellectuals for the July issue of the Journal of the American Enterprise Institute.
Let's get a caller on the line, and Adam is calling us from Rhodelia in Kentucky. I hope I'm pronouncing that right.
ADAM (Caller): Yeah, that's correct. Yeah, I'm a farmer. This is my third year. I'm actually considered a young farmer, even though I'm 29, on a beef cattle farm that's been in the family for quite a while, and I just started diversifying into vegetables and mushrooms as well as Pasteur-cultury, and we're now grass-finishing our beef, also direct marking and sales through CSA and farmers markets.
CONAN: I'm sorry, what's the CSA?
ADAM: The CSA is a program where members pay up front for a season of vegetables. So they get a delivery each week. I raise over 40 different vegetables, and…
CONAN: So that sounds very local then.
ADAM: It is. The idea is that it really connects the customer, the consumer, to their food because they understand what's in season and when it's available. and so my comment is really just about the differences that's being made between organic and conventional farming, is that organic has a much higher cost and that it's not as productive, necessarily. And I just kind of have a - definitely don't believe that that's true with animal agriculture because I've seen with our -finishing our animals on grass that we have a much lower input, and that's through fossil fuels and making hay, if we are able to finish our animals on pasture that we keep the animals on year-round. And I think that's true with the chickens as well - the animals, just because they're able to consume 25 to 30 percent of their needs, their nutritional needs out of the grass, clover and insects that they find on the pasture.
So that again brings our feed costs down. And I think that's kind of a myth that organic agriculture is not really productive or efficient because it actually uses natural systems and biological systems to enhance its productivity, and that's not taken into account at all in our conventional view of agriculture.
CONAN: Adam, when we go to the store, if they sell organic produce or organically raised meats, as you do, they're always more expensive.
ADAM: Well, yeah, then they're not subsidized by the federal government, as most of the food and also the processors and the grain-buyers and all these things are subsidized by our taxpayer money. That's not the case with organic food. It's actually more in line with the true cost of food is going to be.
CONAN: The true cost, so we're paying - not paying enough, in other words.
ADAM: Yeah, I mean, I'm taking a lot of what Michael said already, you know, that this is - we're not really - we don't have any idea what food actually costs in terms of not just labor but actual inputs of money, and that's well off-base with the rest - what the rest of the world actually understands where - how their food is - how their food is made and what it actually takes.
CONAN: Let me ask…
ADAM: In this country we're far from that.
CONAN: Let me ask Blake Hurst about the role of subsidies in the economics of your farm.
Mr. HURST: We accept subsidies. We're involved in farm programs. I would point out for the last several years, they have played a very small part in our income, play almost no part in the decisions we make. Last year my total direct farm payments were about three percent of my gross sales. So you know, I'm not sure that they changed the price of grain very much, that they affected the decisions I made. Well, I'm positive they didn't affect the decision I made on the farm.
I would point out that there's a - everyone talks about local - local sales and local farming, and we need to remember that not all of us are able to have - sell directly to the consumer. Within a 30-mile radius of my farm, there's probably only 6,000 people. It's almost impossible for me to have the kind of relationship with the consumer that the caller is talking about.
So that's a very good thing for people who live near urban areas, and I commend them for it. But for those of us that live where I do, what I raise is going to have to get on a truck and go to the city. It's just almost impossible for it to be consumed any other way.
CONAN: Michael Pollan, are the subsidies a big part of the conversation?
Mr. POLLAN: Yes, subsidies are a big part of the conversations. You know, in Blake's case, the fact that he received so little last year probably reflects the fact that grain prices were at record levels. If you go to Iowa in an average year, though, farming comes about 40 percent government payments.
So it is for most, you know, commodity farmers in the Middle West, a big part of the equation, and I think it does limit their freedom of operation and, you know, whether that is driving down the cost of grain is a very complicated question.
I mean, a lot of people argue that even if you got rid of them, grain prices would still be low and keep falling because farmers have a lot of incentives to overproduce.
Mr. HURST: Could I interject? I mean in - in Mr. Pollan's book, "Omnivore's Dilemma," he seems to be lamenting the changes in farm policy that happened in the late '80s and early '90s. In other words, before then there was - the government literally set the price. Now the government, the market clears. The government does not set a floor under the cost of our - or the cost.
So I think Mr. Pollan is correct. I mean, I think, and most farmers would disagree with me, but I think he is correct. I think that farm subsidies, the way they are now, probably do make the price of grain lower than it would be without them, less variable. Our incomes are less variable, and yes indeed, in low-price years a larger part of our income comes from farm subsidies. But I think he's right about that. I have no disagreement.
I don't think that we want to go back to where we were in the 1970s. There was huge amounts of problems caused by those programs as well.
Mr. POLLAN: Well, that's true, but you know - I mean, we're going to scare people off by talking about farm subsidies.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Mostly me.
Mr. POLLAN: All right, Neal, move on.
CONAN: All right. I wanted to thank Adam for his phone call and introduce another farmer on the program. Troy Roush farms corn and soybeans on 6,000 acres in central Indiana, also vice president of the American Corn Growers Association. He joins us from the studios of member station WFYI in Indianapolis. And we know you've gone to some effort to be with us today. We appreciate it.
Mr. TROY ROUSH (American Corn Growers Association): Hi, Neal, thanks.
CONAN: I know you've been listening to the conversation as well. Are the kinds of things we're talking about practical to - the kinds of things Michael Pollan's talking about practical for farmers to do?
Mr. ROUSH: Well, practical in what sense? The big question, and both Michael and Neal…
CONAN: Blake. Blake's - I'm not the farmer.
Mr. ROUSH: Blake, I'm sorry. You're Neal.
CONAN: I was born with a black thumb. I grow nothing.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ROUSH: Blake alluded to this, is whether or not we can, in fact, feed an ever-growing population in a post-peak oil world, and that perhaps is the big question.
CONAN: And how does that impact how you farm on your farm?
Mr. ROUSH: We in the last couple years have become very cognizant of energy costs because it drives a lot of our input cost, namely fertilizer. And you know, we manage that as best we can. But as we've looked at this going forward, you know, we're starting to ask questions.
What's going to happen when oil returns to 100, $150 a barrel? How are we going to manage that on our farm and be profitable?
CONAN: And the questions are hard to answer, aren't they?
Mr. ROUSH: Well, they've very difficult to answer. Therefore that's what I find so intriguing about Michael's book, is this discussion of cover crops and widening out our rotations and utilizing animal manures and such to try to get away from the more industrial type of farming that we now do.
Mr. HURST: But have you? Are planting half your ground to legumes every year and raising corn the next year?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ROUSH: I'm experimenting. I'm learning. I'm working with a lot of cover crops. It's a difficult process, and it's a learning process.
CONAN: Because that restores nitrogen to the soil and reduces the amount of fertilizer you'd have to use the following year.
Mr. HURST: Yeah, but the problem is that our growing season does not allow us to grow a cover crop from the time one year is harvested until we plant the next year. So we have to grow the cover crop without - so we don't grow corn for a year, grow a cover crop, and then come back with corn, which is the way, of course, my grandfather farmed in the '30s. And he would take hay off of the cover crop to feed his cattle. And the problem is that doesn't provide as much nitrogen as my crop needs, and I lose income for a year. So I'm using twice as much labor and twice as much water and twice as much land to raise the same amount of corn. And so there's environmental cost to all - and, of course, I'm tilling the ground four or five times both years. Where in my system I use now, I'm telling you at all. So there's erosion costs. There's land cost. There's water cost, and there's labor cost. I guess that is some of the three percent of the United States nitrogen - or three percent of our energy goes into making nitrogen for crops. So it's a very small part of our energy use.
CONAN: Let's get Josie on the line. Josie's calling us from Boise.
JOSIE (Caller): Yes, hi. I want say how honored I am to be on the show.
CONAN: Well, that's very kind of you to say.
JOSIE: I am organic farmer in Boise, Idaho. I'm lucky enough to be an urban farmer. My husband and I farm 33 acres within the city limits. And this year, we're expanding to a 60-acre model so that we can put it into (unintelligible) systems, just like we've read in "The Omnivore's Dilemma." And so it's such an honor for us to have people like Michael Pollan writing books about exactly how we farm.
CONAN: And as you say, this is a very small farm, an urban farm. And are the principles that he endorses easier for you because of that?
JOSIE: I think it's easy because I am six miles away from downtown Boise. So I don't have to use any days to truck my food into the city. Also, I'm very accessible to the community, so I can teach classes and have dinners. I can have greenhouse sales, which really help. But my - I have tried to run our whole farm in the black with no loans. And right before the show came on, we were having a heated discussion about a new barn. And I don't think we can afford the whole barn this year. And he doesn't think that we should just build half a barn. And so I said, you know, can we just put the post where maybe it's going to be built?
And I think farmers - no matter what type of crop they're growing, commodity, organic, diverse, CSA - it's a tough road to hoe. There's not much money in farming, no matter how you're growing or what you're growing.
CONAN: I think you can get universal agreement on that.
I just have to ask one quick question, Josie: Do you make - is this your principal source of income?
JOSIE : This is our principal source of income. We're very, I guess, lucky to have this be our principal source of income. This is our seventh year. We run a CSA farm with other different markets. We grow about 120 types of vegetables, herbs, fruits, flowers and pastured poultry that we run them through our covered crop. And we're figuring it out without taking out loans. And it feels really good to not have that, like I know a lot of my large farming friends have.
CONAN: Well, Josie, thanks very much for the call. Good luck to you, and I hope you get the whole barn built.
JOSIE: I hope so, too. Thanks so much.
CONAN: Okay. Bye-bye.
Mr. POLLAN: Neal could I - might I jump in?
CONAN: I just want to say one thing, that you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION FROM NPR News.
Go ahead, please.
Mr. POLLAN: Yeah. No, I think it's very interesting to hear this conversation and listen to Blake talked about the challenges of extending his rotations and the experiments that I know Troy is doing on his farm. The fact is, that's what we need is the spirit of innovation. And we need to build a safety net on the farmers so they can do it.
What Troy said is exactly right. We are going to need to be able to learn how to farm without so much fossil fuel. We're going to have to learn how to use the sun again. It doesn't mean turning back the clock. It means coming up with a broader definition of technology, a really ingenious rotation for the Midwest, represents exactly the kind of technology we need. It's just a sophisticated as a Roundup Ready seed.
And, you know, if you go to Argentina, they have a very interesting rotation. They do an eight-year rotation. They'll do five years of cattle on grass, they'll rotate them around their pastures. And then they'll do three years of grain. And they find if they do that, there's so much fertility in the soil, they don't need to use any nitrogen for three years of grain. They also don't need any herbicides. You know, that means putting animals back on farms. That's a radical change from where we are.
Mr. HURST: But…
Mr. POLLAN: But this is the kind of work that, you know, ingenious farmers like Blake and Troy and the woman who just called will be figuring out, and hopefully they'll get a little help from the agricultural schools.
CONAN: Go ahead, Blake.
Mr. HURST: Well, I mean, the nitrogen problem is a problem. I mean, that is the problem. That is the question. I mean, where does the nitrogen come from? Those cows don't produce nitrogen out of the air. The only nitrogen they can leave on the ground is what they take from their diet. And so how can they grow three years of corn without adding nitrogen? Well, either there's been - I don't know. I mean, I - you know, are they growing enough legumes in their rotation to get nitrogen for three years? I don't know. I mean, it's like a work on my farm. I'm sure of that.
Mr. POLLAN: Have you tried it?
CONAN: And - but I did want to ask you if that future that Troy was talking about, where oil goes to 110-$150 gallon a again - a barrel, excuse me - again, if that is indeed our future, and some people believe it is, what's that going to do to your costs?
Mr. HURST: Well, it's going to make them higher, which means that food costs are going to have to go up. Mr. Pollan, in his book, quotes another book about nitrogen, says 40 percent of the world - people that are alive today in the world are there because of the ability to synthesize nitrogen from the air using energy.
We have to have the nitrogen. We can't get it any other way if we're going to feed population we have today or the 50 percent increase in population that we're looking at over the next 50 years. That's the only - I mean, there is no other answer.
Mr. HURST: And we're rich in America, and we can experiment. And we may choose to do things differently, but most of the world is going to have to have commercial nitrogen in order to feed their population.
Mr. ROUSH: Well…
Mr. HURST: I think…
Mr. ROUSH: Go ahead, Troy.
Mr. POLLAN: Well, and I know…
CONAN: Well, and we just got a minute left, so go ahead.
Mr. ROUSH: Sure. I think we got to step back and take a look at this nitrogen question. And the first question we perhaps should ask is: Do we as American farmers in need to be producing 13 billion bushels of corn? We're feeding corn to cattle. That's not necessarily the prudent thing to be doing. What Michael proposes is we put these cattle back on the pastures.
CONAN: And Michael, we'll give you 30 seconds for the last word.
Mr. POLLAN: Well, you know, nitrogen is the big question, but I would not give up on the idea that we can figure out systems, ecological systems to feed ourselves. We don't know the answer. We don't know for sure we can feed the world more sustainably. But we sure are going to have to try.
CONAN: Interesting questions that all of you raised. And it's interesting to me that, indeed, there's a lot of the same questions being asked in different ways by all of you. Thank you all very much for your time today.
And Michael Pollan is the author of, "In Defense of Food." And this week, young reader's edition of "The Omnivore's Dilemma" is going to be published. We thank him for his time.
And Blake Hurst, who farms corn and soybean on 4,500 acres with six other members of his family in Northwest Missouri, joined us today from NET Radio in Lincoln, Nebraska. And Troy Roush, who farms corn and soybean on 6,000 acres in Central Indiana and is vice-president to the American Corn Growers Association at the studios of member station of UFYI in Indianapolis. Both of them went way out of their way to join us today. We thank them so much for their time.
Coming up, after the FBI breaks up a massive online phishing ring, how can we protect ourselves? Tech columnist Farhad Manjoo joins us.
It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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