On Science, Progress, and Pigs

Tuesday’s episode of Fresh Air starts with the caveat “You probably don’t think about pigs a lot, but …” Au contraire, Dave Davies. I am constantly thinking about pigs. I realize this does not put me in the majority of people, or of NPR listeners, so I will echo Mr. Davies and say that even if you don’t think about pigs that much, you’ll be interested in his interview with Barry Estabrook. Estabrook speaks eloquently from an outsiders perspective on all aspects of the pork industry, and his new book, Pig Tales: an Omnivore’s Quest for Sustainable Meat, has been added to my never-ending book queue. Though I can’t yet speak on the merits of the book, the interview is a nice overview on what’s wrong with the pork industry for the uninitiated. I was glad to hear the interview especially because it seemed like timely counter-programming to something that’s been eating at me for a few weeks.

Photo: J.B. Spector/Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago

At the end of April, I (bravely, some might say) decided to take my kids on a weekend trip down to Chicago (I’m at the tail end of a strange saga house-mothering five high schoolers from five different countries. You can ask me about this when I’ve had some time to recover.). The school bought us CityPasses, and we made the rounds of the various world-class museums in the city. On Sunday morning, we checked out of our hotel and piled back in the mini-van for a trip down Lake Shore Drive to the Museum of Science and Industry. For those who haven’t been, the MSI is, according to its website, the biggest science museum in the western hemisphere, boasting 1.4 million visitors in 2014, 340,000 of them kids on school field trips. Their stated mission: “to inspire the inventive genius in everyone by presenting captivating and compelling experiences that are real and educational.” For some reason, they also have a “vision,” which is: “to inspire and motivate children to achieve their full potential in science, technology, medicine and engineering.” Basically, they design most of their exhibits to appeal to school-aged children, with plenty of interactive displays and activities to engage kids with SCIENCE! Though there are some historic exhibits, like the history of transportation or the German U-boat, most of the museum is very much pointed towards Progress and The Future. The MSI has a long legacy in this regard: it was built in the crumbling Palace of Fine Arts from the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, an event that showcased such innovations as the Ferris Wheel, Cracker Jacks, PBR, spray painting, and the automatic dishwasher. When the MSI opened in 1933 during Chicago’s next World’s Far: the Century of Progress, its was the first interactive museum in the country, and was founded by the chairman of Sears, Roebuck, & Co. and funded by some of the city’s biggest industrialists. This is all to say that the Museum of Science and Industry is aptly named, and has always been a way for some of the richest men in the country to educate the masses (and their children) on the amazing technological developments in science and industry, all in the name of Progress. 

Families check out a John Deere tractor

Back to my visit: I’d released my charges into the museum for a few hours with instructions on where and when to meet me again, and started looking at the map wondering what I should look at in the meantime. I’d been to the MSI a few times as a child, and once as a college student for a traveling Harry Potter exhibit (don’t judge), but it had been at least 15 years since I last explored the MSI. Looking over the map, one thing was the first to catch my eye: “Farm Tech.” Fresh from realizing that an exhibit about bugs and other underground plant and animal life at the Field Museum was funded by Monsanto, I did not exactly have high expectations for a farming exhibit at the MSI. After all, at a museum with “industry” right in the name, one can expect the focus of such an exhibit to be on the technology and promise of industrial agriculture. Indeed, as I rounded the corner toward the exhibit, the first thing to greet me was the shiny green and yellow of a John Deere tractor and combine. I’m not going to dwell on the details of every facet of the MSI’s very modern farm, but there’s an emphasis on corn and soy, high-tech farming practices like GPS-guided tractors and robotic milking, and a whole section that non-ironically informs you that “even when you don’t think you’re eating soy, you could be!” Given the top sponsorships by John Deere and Archer Daniels Midland (one of the country’s largest corn and soy processors, headquartered in Chicago), the focus of the exhibit was not surprising in the least. But I’m constantly thinking about pigs, so of course my attention was quickly drawn to the porcine portion of the display. 

It’s almost impossible for me to convey the combination of righteous indignation and resigned helplessness that cycled through my mind as I took in this part of the exhibit. It’s not so hard to follow the logic that leads to lionization of large machinery and conventional corn and soy in a context like the MSI. It was a little harder to stomach the spin that turned modern confinement pork into a wonder of technology and engineering. Here are some excerpts from the signage in the exhibit:

A young visitor looks at a fake sow in a farrowing stall.

  • “Pork farming today is experiencing phenomenal growth as it continues to meet worldwide consumer demand for one of the most popular meat products… U.S. pork producers are increasingly taking advantage of new state-of-the-art innovations designed to provide an environmentally efficient operation that ensures safe, high quality food for consumers."
  • Hog Heaven: Pork producers keep their breeding pigs in specially designed barns that protect the animals from illness, injuries and extreme weather conditions, while allowing fresh air and sunlight in. Sows receive nutritious diets of corn, soybeans and vitamins, have free access to fresh water and are cared for under the close supervision of veterinarians. The animals are kept safe from predators and protected from the aggression that often exists among sows housed in group pens. They are also spared from the competition for food that occurs when animals are kept in groups. Housed in individual stalls, sows are able to move back and forth, lie on their sides and fully extend their limbs."
  • “Today’s pigs aren’t porky anymore. Instead, they’re as lanky as marathon runners. Today’s pork farmer is delivering leaner, healthier pork: 16% leaner and 31% lower in fat than in 1980. The pig’s makeover is an impressive tale of farmers meeting demands for leaner, more healthful meat.”
  • Farrowing Stall: When a sow is ready to give birth it’s called farrowing. The only problem is, a sow weighs over 200 pounds and her newborn piglets only weigh about three pounds. How do you keep mommy from rolling over and making piglet pancakes? Modern hog farmers put sows in farrowing stalls: specially built enclosures that keep mamma hog snug in one place, but lets her little piglets poke their heads in for nursing. The stalls even have heat lamps to keep the baby hogs warm. It’s like a hog maternity room and nursery all rolled into one.”

The sow in the bottom right picture is not a model of porcine contentment.

If you’ve watched any number of popular documentaries about the modern food system, listened to that Fresh Air interview, or even just driven through Iowa, you know that these are rather generous characterizations of practices that are unpleasant at best and barbaric at worst. I’m not going to bother refuting these claims line by line - I’m going to assume you’re educated enough to pick up on at least some of the deep ironies in these descriptions. Included in the exhibit is a fake sow in a farrowing stall, which in itself may not be jarring for the casual visitor. Upon a closer look at the poster describing farrowing stalls, you will see that for some reason, they didn’t even look hard enough to find a picture of a confinement sow appearing comfortable in her stall! And though you might not be able to tell from the slant and the graphics, the exhibit was drastically updated relatively recently, in 2007!

Some of the many sponsors that made the Farm Tech exhibit possible.

Considering how tied the rest of the exhibit was to its major sponsors, I decided to try to uncover who might be responsible for the pig propaganda. I didn’t have to dig very far. Though the donor list in the museum itself is very long, the MSI’s website includes this message under the description of the Farm Tech exhibit: “We are pleased to acknowledge and to extend sincere appreciation to the many generous donors to the Farm Tech exhibit including ADM, Deere & Company, and Fair Oaks.” Some cursory internet sleuthing turned up Fair Oak Farms, a northwest Indiana educational tourist attraction where you can learn about where your food comes from. Fair Oak Farms is a monument to Modern farming, and it’s “Pig Adventure” is its newest experience designed to introduce families to how a modern pig is raised. They have 2,800 sows in a breed-to-weaning situation, meaning that the pigs are sold to other farms around the midwest to be raised for meat. When you think about large confinement pig operations, the first word that comes to mind is definitely not transparency, so this operation caught my attention.

Upon further internet investigation, I found a fewvirtual tours” of the Pig Adventure on a website called PigProgress.net. As you might be able to tell from the familiar use of the capital P “Progress,” this is a site devoted to fully modern pork producers. Again, this is a report filtered through that particular lens, and it shows. The lede? “In the US, awareness is growing that successful welfarist campaigns are related to people being poorly informed about pig farming.” If this whole things piques your own interest, I encourage you to click through the links above to read about the operation and look through a slideshow of the exhibit. Here’s what I’ve gleaned from these sources and the farm’s own website: visitors get in a bus at the main visitor center and are driven two miles to the pig operation, where they enter straight through a garage from the van (not stepping foot outdoors around the pig barn). They are then in an upper section of the barn, where they can look through windows down into the facility, divided into gilts (young unbred pigs), gestating sows, farrowing sows, and young piglets. They use modern feeding technology, in which a microchipped tag on the sow’s ear communicates with computers regulating feed, so each pig is fed an appropriate amount for their stage of development. When they are ready to be bred, they are artificially inseminated and held for 5-7 days to make sure they they’re pregnant. Three months, three weeks later, they are put in farrowing stalls, where they give birth and nurse their piglets for three weeks, at which point the pigs are weaned and sold and the sows (depending on their performance) are returned to the beginning of the cycle. Both the sows and the genetic material used in the insemination have been bred and selected for quick-growing, lean meat and very large litter sizes. Because of the scale of the operation, visitors are almost sure to see a litter being born, and staff regularly bring newborn pigs up to a window for a closer look. Virtually the whole process, except for castration, cutting eyeteeth, and docking tails, happens in full view of the public, in an attempt to provide a counter-example to the growing awareness of inhumane conditions documented in various surreptitiously-obtained videos. 

In some ways, I think this kind of model farm is great - it does provide a closer approximation of where your food comes from than nursery rhymes and picture books. The pigs on display are not subject to the acute cruelties that many animals across the country experience everyday, and visitors are protected from the environmental realities involved with pork production on this scale (see: the bus entering the facility before disembarking, thereby avoiding the majority of the stench emanating from such an operation). However, no amount of Science! Technology! Progress! can paper over the fact that these animals are being denied an animal existence. These sows will never set foot outside! They will never explore their environs for varied food sources, build a nest, protect their piglets. They can’t! If we released these very pigs tomorrow, they would be ill-prepared to survive out on pasture, designed as they are through generations of breeding and lifetimes of sub-therapeutic antibiotic use. The pig-ness has been bred out of these pigs, in the name of Progress. 

This isn’t supposed to be my own submission to the pig propaganda wars - I’m just taking you down the rabbit-hole I’ve been burrowing around in the last two weeks. It has led me to reflect on the disingenuous ways we invoke Progress! in this country, the information being fed to schoolchildren about our Modern! food industry, and the underlying inhumanity at even the most modern of farms. I’m not telling you how to eat or buy, but I can tell you about my current relationship with my own omnivorousness. After a high school and college stint of vegetarianism and a few years of near-indiscriminate omnivory, I’ve settled into the following pattern: I eat the meat and eggs I raise myself, I try to be careful about the dairy products I buy, and I try to avoid eating meat in restaurants unless I know where it comes from. Since the combination of the raw ingredients and restaurants available to me on a daily basis mean that cooking for myself is usually the best bet, I don’t see myself as making any kind of grand sacrifice. All I can ask of others is to educate themselves to the degree necessary to make their own decisions about what kind of food they want to eat and from where it should come. Listening to that Fresh Air interview is a start. Rest assured that though it may appear a bit disheartening at first, there are only going to be more alternative food sources in the coming years. Here’s an antidote to whatever rabbit-hole you’re about to enter, should you choose to go down that path:

Happy sows eat outdoors earlier this spring with their litters. 

On Naming the Farm

For the past two years, I’ve been referring to my “future farm” on this website as just that - an unnamed Future Farm, a great big “farm in the sky,” my “farm dreams.” The past few months, as I’ve gotten down to the nitty gritty of business planning and the realities of farm start-up, it has become increasingly apparent that it was time to name the farm. Certain milestones approach, forms await filling, and it was time to come up with something to fill in that blank. The sign at the end of the driveway says “Valley View Farm,” but there are already quite a few of those doing business in Wisconsin, and the name seems pretty forgettable. Similarly, there’s already an LLC registered in Wisconsin called “Just A Farm,” though they seem to have no web presence otherwise. The two most obvious options unavailable, it was back to the drawing board. I did some brainstorming, lots of googling, and at one point even sent out a survey to some friends with a list of possible names. They were mostly uninspired, especially when presented in a long list. There was liberal use of a thesaurus, lots of seed and root imagery, and bids for memorability that ended up just sounding a little…. off. My criteria for a good farm name, as I laid out in the survey, were that it must: sound nice out loud, be easy to spell, be memorable, not be too crop- or product- specific, be original, and have some je ne sais quoi.... It’s that last one that I was missing, and the feedback I got over and over again were that the name should be more personally meaningful, or place-specific. It wasn’t enough to just pick a good name, but there needed to be some kind of good story behind it. Back to the drawing board. I put the whole thing on the back burner, trusting my subconscious to come up with something eventually.

For once, my subconscious pulled through! I can’t tell you how or when it came to me, but suddenly I had the perfect name for my farm! It checked all the above boxes, and has some family significance to boot. My little hilltop farm will hereby be known as Hazel Hill Farm. On the surface, it sounds nice, and will eventually be accurate (no hazels yet, but there will be some tiny hazels planted soon enough). The name “Hazel,” however, has a greater significance in my family. Here’s an excerpt from the family history that my late grandmother wrote a few years ago about her side of the family:

"While Dan and I enjoyed being with Nell and Nora, the twins were privileged to stay with Hazel and Marie, mainly because their home was not childproof.  Hazel Bush, our mother’s spinster sister, whom we called Dade, and her life long companion Marie Flanigan lived in a beautiful apartment full of things young children shouldn‘t get into.  
Dade and Marie were an integral part of our life.  They had a Packard sedan which was put up on blocks for the winter, but taken out in the spring for an annual trip to Rhinelander.  Our mother was in a tizzy for days to get ready, not because Dade was so particular but Marie poked in every corner and then would suggest to mother, “Don’t you think, dear, that….. “ whatever she was criticizing.  Dan and I were almost afraid of her.
But we loved Aunt Dade.  Everyone did.  She had been a primary school teacher all her life, back in the days when there were 50 kids in a class.  She always was interested in what we were doing.  She had a stash of Hershey’s kisses in her pocket.   And passed them out all day. . . 
Her bedtime ritual was legend.  She would simultaneously smoke a cigarette, chew a stick of gum, drink a beer and say her rosary, all the while watching the ten o’clock news on the television.  The kids were enthralled."

This image of an eccentric old lady with her stockings rolled down, smoking, drinking, chewing gum, and praying all at once has become family lore. During a very memorable girls’ weekend in Las Vegas seven or eight years ago, my mother, my aunt Mary, and some of their female cousins began to refer to one another as “Hazel,” and their collective group of cousins as “the Hazels.” Mary contends that there’s not a shade of “we’re turning into eccentric old ladies” meaning to this collective nickname, but only time will tell on that account. Nobody’s rolling down any stockings these days, but I prefer to think of the Hazels as a family legacy of strong, independent, and slightly idiosyncratic women. This little Hazel will gladly position herself as the latest in a succession of teachers, logging camp cooks, immigrants, pioneers. I hope that though I haven’t inherited a propensity for rosaries and cigarettes, that I can call upon the strength, independence, and, yes, eccentricity of my foremothers as a modern-day pioneer, breaking sod and planting trees. So Hazel Hill Farm will not just be a hill that holds some hazel trees, but a hill full of Hazels both hereditary and honorary, rolling down our collective stockings after a hard day of work just like my great-great-aunt Dade. 

Mushroom Inoculation 2015

This past weekend, I hosted the first (of many?) work parties on the farm. There are some projects that really benefit from an assembly line, and inoculating mushroom logs is definitely one of them. So when it came time to tackle this year’s round of 100 shiitake logs, I thought I better come up with some kind of crew to make the whole thing go a lot faster. I didn’t exactly think it would be pulling teeth, but I was pleasantly surprised by how many people were totally up for putting in a full day of work. I mentioned it to a few people at MOSES, and the response was overwhelming. In fact, I was waffling a bit on starting the mushrooms at all this year, daunted but the prospect of first finding and cutting the logs and then going through the whole inoculation process, not to mention ordering the spawn and investing in the necessary tools. It was the excitement of the free labor force that pushed me to actually go through with my plans - and thank goodness! The whole thing went off without a hitch, and with a great crew! Besides me, Aunt Mary, and Uncle Paul, we had 10 other people rotate through the assembly line throughout the day! Nobody else had ever done mushroom logs before, so we started out at a pretty deliberate pace, but everyone got the hang of it before too long, and after lunch we were fairly flying! The mix of MOSES conference friends/acquaintences and new neighbors made for interesting conversation, and the weather and the food both cooperated for a lovely day! Everybody left with a log or two of their own, and every single one of them can’t wait to come back and help with the next big project! I was very glad to hear it, but I don’t know if they quite know what they’re signing up for!!

On Overwhelming Scope (and MOSES 2015)

Exhibit Hall at MOSES 2015

Last weekend, I was lucky enough to attend the 26th Annual MOSES Organic Farming Conference. It was my second trip to this specific conference. In 2013, it was during conversations with other young conference attendees that I decided to make this website/blog. I skipped last year’s conference in favor of a few others, which meant that my experience two years ago was thrown in greater relief this time around. Two years ago, I was a former WWOOFer about to start my first full-season apprenticeship. It was my first conference, and it couldn’t have been much more overwhelming. Over three thousand people gathered in one place with at least one basic principle in common, a dozen workshops to choose from every hour, a floor full of people who would love to give you piles of information, and a dining hall packed with tables of people having a thousand interesting conversations. From the moment I walked into the La Crosse Center, was certain I was missing something. Sure, this conversation over lunch is interesting, but I bet those people over there are even more awesome. I’m learning tons in this workshop, but could I be learning more in that other one? It sounds like that contra dance is really fun, but I’m too busy drinking beer and getting to know these young farmers. The sheer magnitude of the conference meant that every moment, no matter how completely engaged I was in what I was doing there was a little voice in the back of my head that suspected I might be missing something.

Contra Dance at MOSES 2015

This year’s conference was equally large and potentially overwhelming, but I experienced a drastic reduction in FOMO (fear of missing out) this time around. I think it was partially explained by the return visit and the other conferences I have under my belt, but that only explains away about half of the anxiety. I was talking about this with a friend at the conference, and our conversation brought up a key difference between MOSES 2013 me and MOSES 2015 me: my scope has narrowed considerably. In 2013, I was very new to farming, and everything was incredibly compelling. My experience working on farms so far had been exhilarating and (purposefully) diverse. My farm dreams were grand - I couldn’t imagine giving up any facet of them. So when presented with a list of workshop choices, it all seemed essential! I couldn’t imagine sacrificing the chance to learn about stone fruit production while someone else could be telling me how to farm without fossil fuels! I remain curious about the vast majority of topics covered at MOSES, but my reason for being there has shifted slightly since 2013. In the intervening years I have gotten closer to those “farm dreams” and they come into sharper focus the closer they get. While I still have some possibly outlandish long-term farming goals, my short-term plan is increasingly pared down to the bare bones. It’s not that I find any facet of that initial sprawling plan less intriguing, but practicality has dictated a more measured approach to starting a small business. So when I opened the schedule last weekend to plan my attack, I was able to limit myself to workshops that might be useful to me in the narrow scope of my near future without any dread creeping in that I was making horrible choices.  


I’ve spent the better part of the past week sifting (mentally and physically) through everything I’ve brought back from MOSES 2015. While I wasn’t necessarily as overwhelmed at the conference itself as I was two years ago, it remains equally exhausting and invigorating. Very rarely am I called upon to be completely engaged for such a sustained period, and it made for a physically and mentally exhausting few days. So when I took a moment to sit down after dinner on Friday night, it seemed inconceivable that I’d find myself shedding layers to swing and bounce around for three hours at the annual contra dance. As I sit down these days to get down to the nitty gritty of planning the course of my next year approaching my own farm start-up, I am alternatively exhausted and invigorated. I can’t wait to get down to it, and I can’t really imagine that it will be possible. Two years from now, I hope I’ll be reflecting on MOSES 2017 as a farmer having made it through her first season on her own, probably exhausted, probably invigorated, but always willing to dig deep for the energy for another turn around the dance floor. 

On Learning With and Learning From

I’m not sure if this is true wherever you are, but here in Wisconsin, it’s February. It’s a many-splendored month, full of snow and sleet and cold and flu and all things grey. It’s also the month of seed orders, day lengthening, and the pre-season farmer huddle. It takes a herculean feat of imagination to look out at the greyscale landscape at this moment and paint the rows green, but the seeds are in the mail and attention must be paid! Next season is still a nebulous haze of future colors and smells and sounds and tastes ready to be corralled into a mixed metaphorical bag of tables, calendars, charts, drawings, etc. Danielle and I have started to talk about what next year is going to look like at Boerson Farm, and these ongoing conversations have prompted me to reflect on the idea of the apprenticeship and the different ways one chooses how to learn a trade. We were discussing their decision to scale down their pork production over the next few years, and she made an off-hand comment about my being able to learn from their mistakes. Over the last year and going into the next season, I am constantly thankful that Mat and Danielle take the attitude that they have more to learn than they have to teach. That’s not to say I don’t have lots to learn from them - they’re both whip-smart, well-read, and wise beyond their years. They’ve got an extra ten years of life experience and seven years farming experience on me, but their attitude is always closer to the student than the teacher. So as I prepare for my last season as their girl Friday, I’ve been reflecting on what makes for a good learning experience, and how my time at the Boersons’ compares to other apprenticeships available to aspiring farmers. 

When I was looking into learning opportunities the first (and second) time, I noticed that there seemed to be two possible directions to take when choosing a farmer-mentor: someone who has been farming for years and has everything figured out or someone who is building up their farm and is still figuring things out. There are certainly more people in the latter camp than the former, but there are for sure a few established farmers who attract lots of young acolytes hoping to learn at the feet of masters. More often than not, these masters are published, oft-cited men who have a model to deliver. Almost across the board, apprentices are paid little for their labor, entering into a mutually-beneficial arrangement to learn what they can before striking out on their own. Many of these farmers understandably regard educating the next generation of farmers part of their commitment to sustainability, and take on the burden of training and retraining a rotating cast of enthusiastic young people and sending them on their way after a season or two of hard work. Others, seemingly fewer but no less committed, seek to attract and retain hard workers with the promise of a living wage, benefits, and the satisfaction of working hard with lofty principles. These farmers see their sustainability in a more specific sense. focusing on building a farm community that can sustain itself, not just ecologically but financially. As a few widely-circulated articles have recently pointed out, many successful farms are barely profitable and rely heavily on volunteer or un-/under-paid labor. Of course, these two approaches are not diametrically opposed, and fairness is possible in both scenarios. The issues come up, I think, when the two parties aren’t on the same page. In many conversations with mentors and mentees alike, I’ve come across examples of people feeling exploited in both positions - farmers who invest time and money training what they regard as long-term staff only to have them leave after two seasons to start their own enterprise, or apprentices who work very hard for very little money and end up feeling taken advantage of by a less-than-enriching experience. Circling back to my initial point, it seems that many of these “master farmers” have well-established and well-oiled apprenticeship programs, where they communicate their expectations clearly and attract applicants who sign up with the intention of working hard while learning from someone who knows what they’re doing.

So why didn’t I choose to go the “master” route? I did, after all, choose to attend what is arguably the most famous college in the world, which I don’t regret in the least but which could be seen in retrospect as not necessarily working towards my current goals. It might follow that I would choose to take the same approach in my current (re)education, seeking out equally shiny names in my chosen field. Truthfully, I did initially look into some of these “big name” farms, going so far as to interview at one before encountering an example of the difference in goals I referred to above. In hindsight, there are a few reasons I ended up where I did. First, I wanted to be closer geographically to Future Farm to prepare for my impending transition to start-up mode. While the greater Midwest certainly has some well-established sustainable farms and a few luminaries, the apprenticeship culture isn’t as developed as it is on both coasts, where most of these “masters” farm. The other main reason I didn’t go the “master” route is not a flattering one: I am not suited, personality-wise, to learning from any one person. I am genetically predisposed to be a know-it-all, and I haven’t necessarily worked very hard to curb this less-than-ideal tendency. I’m afraid I bristle at the notion that anyone could tell me the “right” way to do something, to be honest, and the idea of going to learn from someone who has perfected a system might be more than my fragile ego could bear. I’m sure I didn’t acknowledge this reasoning the last two winters during my search for farmer-mentors, but in hindsight this might have been the primary (if subconscious) reason I ended up at the Boersons. Over the past year, I have been included (for better or worse) in planning, decision-making, troubleshooting, brainstorming. I have felt like an integral part of something that, at the end of the day, is not mine. I have worked hard for very little money, but I have gained in other tangible and intangible ways and felt perhaps over-appreciated while doing it. I am consciously trying to become a better receiver of knowledge, but in the meantime I am so happy to be where I am: learning with the best, peering forward together from February to the promises of the season to come. 

On Good Intentions and Land Use

While home for the holidays this year, I was lucky enough to spend some time with my little sister, who I hadn’t seen in over a year. She lives out in Washington, and I have yet to make it out west to visit the area of the country she has called home for almost three years now. She’s a botanist, combating invasive species and restoring salmon habitat for the Quinault Indian Nation on the Olympic Peninsula. She’s spent her years since college working on native species conservation in various places, and she’s been trying to encourage the local conservation efforts to include more native plants in utilitarian roles. When we walk in the local forest preserve or drive by wooded lots, her trained eye sees which plants belong in the restored prairie, how drastically they are thinning oak stands, and how many invasive grasses went to seed last year. The rest of us just see brown stuff poking through the snow. Spending time outside with my favorite botanist makes me think about how differently the two of us might approach the same piece of land if given the chance. 

It reminded me of a book I read a few months ago, Steven Apfelbaum’s Nature’s Second Chance: Restoring the Ecology of Stone Prairie Farm. Apfelbaum is an ecologist who bought a farm in Wisconsin as a young man and spent the next few decades restoring it to a non-agricultural oasis of native plants and animal habitats. He touts his farm as an example of how a little hard work and ingenuity can take a piece of land out of the destructive treadmill of conventional annual agriculture while still supporting a family economically.  He grows food for his family on a small garden plot, sells native plant seeds harvested from his land, and the ecological consulting company he started back in the 70s when he moved to Brodhead has grown enough to employ dozens of people in five offices across the country. They provide ecological consultations to people and companies faced with land-use decisions, backed by highly educated scientists and dedicated to mitigating the harm caused by development and other changes to the landscape. His book, while interesting in its own right, seems to discount any need for agriculture at all. He rightly despairs at the chemical farming of his neighbors, but somehow seems to think that his quarter acre vegetable plot is the answer. I’m not one to begrudge anyone a garden, but restoring prairies and wetlands across the rolling hills of Wisconsin is not going to feed anyone but the birds.

On the other end of the same side of the spectrum (and about two hours northwest) lies another Wisconsin evangelist I’ve written about before, Mark Shepard. Just like my sister and I, these two men are united in their hatred of conventional chemical agriculture, but divided in how to address it. Shepard advocates going cold-turkey on monocultures of all kinds - beans, grains, fruit, vegetables, conventional and organic. In his estimation, the only responsible way to feed the world is through diversified perennial ecosystems using a permaculture model. Permaculturists, among other things, advocate for mixed plantings of edible and otherwise useful plants, minimizing soil disturbance while maximizing layers of food production. Permaculture in general, and Shepard’s Restoration Agriculture in particular often advocates using exotic edible plants. Shepard aims to recreate the oak savannas of the pre-historic midwest more by analogy than by strict restoration. The American Chestnut has all but succumbed to blight, so why not breed a new American chestnut using genetics from Asian varieties? Sounds perfectly reasonable. What worries me about permaculture (in my relatively uneducated view) is the fine line between “hardy perennial” and “wildly invasive species.” There is a long history of well-intentioned people introducing species for utilitarian reasons that end up becoming out of control invasives. My sister specifically mentioned reed canarygrass as an example of a plant used widely by the Department of Transportation and other government agencies to control erosion that is now choking out biodiversity in wetlands across the country. Permaculture is not definitionally dedicated to native species, but to mimicking natural systems to produce as much food, fuel, and fiber with the least disruption of the soil structure and the maximum use of water and other natural resources. Rather than preserving individually threatened species, permaculture seeks to preserve regenerative landscapes that feed people and the soil. At what cost? Why should we worry about saving native plants? If a plant is useful, who cares if it spreads rapidly? 

I’m not well-versed enough in either ecology or permaculture to answer these questions with much authority, but it seems to be that these two approaches don’t necessarily need to be opposing forces. Right now, practitioners of both approaches  to sustainability have so far to go against the destructive mainstream that no breath need be wasted on in-fighting. I think we can all agree that any loss to genetic diversity is a loss to us all. Similarly, even the most small-scale gardener will concede that care must be taken in planting the hardiest of perennials (e.g. nobody has a “little bit” of mint for long). Conservationists are doing us all a great service in preserving as much genetic diversity as possible, and as long as we food-growers don’t actively negate their work by irresponsible use of quick-spreading exotics, there is not reason that we can’t all work together to push back the destructive forces of large-scale chemical agriculture inch by inch and acre by acre. 

On Liminality in Food and Life

Last week, as I made caramels for the first time, I found myself bent almost double over the stove, eyes glued to the mercury in the candy thermometer, utterly concentrated on watching the blue line rise to exactly the right number. Too hot, and the caramels would turn out tooth-wrenchingly hard; not hot enough and they’d stick to the wrappers and be impossible to eat. Turn away for a minute, I was warned, and you might return to find a pan full of scorched sugar. The stakes are high. The sugar bubbles and browns, my brow furrows. I add the butter and cream, the mixture froths and boils, my stomach clenches. 135 . . .140 . . . 145 . . . I rock back on my heels, grope for the bunched kitchen towels from the counter, grasp the hot handles through uneven layers of cotton, hold firmly while the golden brown cascade spreads to fill the papered and oiled pan. I exhale the breath I didn’t know I was holding. I am grinning, absurdly proud of myself for performing this amazing feat of alchemy, skirting pitfalls galore to turn plain cream and butter and sugar into something perfect. Something you can cut into pieces, wrap into little squares of wax paper, and give away to mail carriers, co-workers, family, bring to holiday parties, tuck in a padded envelope and send to friends scattered around far coasts. 

Two days after I made my first (double) batch, I made my second, this time stirring in ground ginger, cinnamon, and garam masala for a warming gingerbread flavor. I’m addicted. This afternoon I’m going to the grocery store for supplies for a few more batches. It’s not that I can’t stop eating them. It’s that I can’t stop making them. There’s something arresting about making this simple candy that comes into being between raw and burnt. Caramels are the delicious incarnation of a liminal state. Thrilling, dangerous, delicious. Liminality (excuse the $10 word), in fact, seems to be the path to my heart/stomach. All of my favorite food are consumed somewhere on the path to rot and decay: stinky, gooey, moldy cheeses, dry-cured meats, fermented vegetables, wine and beer, etc. I could even make the case that in baking bread, you arrest the water+flour+yeast in the perfect moment on the way to yeast+goo+hooch. In fact, every time I cook using the Maillard reaction (the most delicious of all chemical reactions), I am looking for a perfectly liminal state. Post-raw, pre-burnt. The broiler is the ultimate weapon in this dance with destruction, a tool to be used as often but attentively as possible. 

Maybe I lean towards hyperbole in these descriptions of everyday kitchen procedures. I should be glad to get my thrills from courting disaster in the kitchen instead of on a motorcycle or jumping out of airplanes. On the other hand, it is hard to deny that in some ways I have been living in a prolonged liminal state for quite a few years now - always on my way, but never there. Becoming a responsible adult, becoming a farmer, keeping myself from swinging too close to the precarious cliffs of insolvency, uninsured ill health, or simple failure in my crazy endeavors. I’m forever looking forward, planning, dreaming, scheming. Sometimes, this translates to energy, momentum, and the general feeling that my own mundane life is somehow dangerous and exciting. And sometimes I’m just sitting in my kitchen, smiling to myself, wrapping caramels, going nowhere, just being. 

On the Allure of Specialization

Maximize efficiency! Maximize profits! Get big or get out! For decades, those first two exhortations led directly to the third, made famous by bumbling 70s USDA boss Earl Butz. Bigger farms, bigger machinery, bigger subsidy checks, bigger debt. Economy of scale! We’ve got to fed the world, and industrial agriculture was the answer. Industrial agriculture is at its core based on one simple principle: to maximize efficiency (and therefore profits), you have to get very good at once specific step in the assembly line that is our modern food system. One farm to birth the calves, another to feed them, another to finish them. Whole swaths of the country planted in alternating corn and soy. Buildings as big as city blocks stuffed with chickens, animals bred and fed to produce meat as quickly and cheaply as possible. You also get forty thousand acres of organic lettuce, millions of overgrazed acres from grass-fed beef, and more huge buildings full of “all-natural” chicken. You find your part of the chain, buy what you need and sell it for pennies more, relying on scale to maximize those pennies into a living. You build your buildings, buy your tractors, and hope you’ll be able to pay off those loans eventually. Maybe you always wanted to grow up to drive a gleaming green tractor, or maybe it’s just a job you fell into because that’s what you do when you’re rich in land and little else. It’s not hard to see how our food system became what it is today, and it’s hard to point fingers at individuals who made these types of decisions along the way. 

The CSA vegetable farmer of today positions herself as a diametric opposite to this industrial model. She knows her customers by name, and they know exactly where their food comes from and how it was grown. She packs her waxed cardboard boxes each week in the summer and fall, and each week her members unpack the box, challenging themselves to use another cabbage, or a whole daikon, or to try and like mustard green this year. She specializes not in one small task, but in a whole experience. She doesn’t grow one thing, she grows 40! But at what cost? At the small scale that most CSAs operate (and too often, fail to operate), this means efficiency goes straight out the window. She’s trying to be an expert in everything - from the actual planting, cultivation, harvest, and processing of dozens of different plants with different needs to marketing and customer service and delivery, and sometimes even accounting and grant writing. She tries to instill a sense of efficiency in herself and her employees, but in the end she’s stuck using a blunt tool for every job. She can’t buy that specialized potato digger when potatoes are just one small piece of her pie, and a relatively low-grossing one at that. She never gets the timing quite right on her greens in the spring, because she’s busy juggling twenty other hot irons. Maybe someday, after fifteen or twenty years of hard work and lessons learned, she’ll have hundreds (or thousands!) of satisfied CSA members, dozens of well-trained employees, a tractor for every job, and a system for every crop. She’ll still be a sparkling alternative to industrial agriculture, working against the odds to create her own well-oiled machine out of whole cloth and cannibalized parts. For some people, this is the goal when they start out with a few dozen shares and a box full of seed packets. In some ways, it certainly is appealing. For others, including myself, this model leaves something to be desired.

As crazy as this might sound, that CSA farmer hasn’t eschewed specialization enough. She grows dozens of different vegetables, but she’s only growing vegetables. Her systems, while edging towards efficiency, are all high-input. Not just in knowledge and labor, but in resources and nutrients. She might be certified organic, but she is in all likelihood relying on composted manure from outside livestock operations, whose practices may or may not align with her ethics. She tries her best to feed the soil, but at the end of the day, she tills her fields at least once per season (more likely three or four times). She delivers waxed-boxed bounty, but her share amounts to less than half a family’s meals for less than half a year. So what’s the alternative to the alternative? An even further step from the common-sense efficiency of industrial agriculture: the diversified farm. 

The most ambitious version of the diversified farm is the year-round whole diet CSA, the very antithesis of the industrial model. In this case, a farm attempts to grow everything a family eats for the entire year: vegetables, fruits, meats, grains, dairy, etc. There are a few examples of whole diet CSAs, the most familiar of which might be Essex Farm in Essex, NY, which was the subject of Kristin Kimball’s memoir The Dirty Life. I was lucky enough last fall to spend a week volunteering at Essex, where I learned the most I’ve ever learned in a week. Most importantly, I learned that growing all the food eaten by 80 families takes a gargantuan effort by a large and dedicated crew week after week. Mark Kimball said himself that by choosing to grow everything, they were never going to be experts in growing any one thing. They have a dedicated crew of young farmers who each head up one aspect of the farm for the season, but with high employee turnover and the obstacles each new season brings, the learning curve is steep. As Kristin writes on the farm’s blog, “the difficult part, as always, is keeping the whole complex machine running without going broke or burning out.” That is bound to be the complication that arises when the inputs that keep a farm running are not chemical, but human. Whether you’re one farmer feeding twenty people on a quarter acre or fifteen feeding five hundred on ninety, the threat of burning out is always nearby, in the foreground or the background. Every CSA farmer works the hardest they’ve ever worked for six months out of the year. On a diversified farm, your livestock have year-round demands, meaning that your winter never tapers off to the comparative hibernation of the vegetable farmer in winter. If you’re trying to supply your members food all year round, you’re always trying to extend your season, perfect your storage, get the scale just right. Nobody wants to spend February eating nothing but cabbage, and there’s no customer that doesn’t require some level of education, whether that’s someone who’s never canned tomatoes or an old-timer who just doesn’t get the appeal of boc choi. 

It sounds so far like I’m advocating for a return to the hard lives that our grandparents worked so hard to supposedly save us from enduring. In a way, that is entirely possible. There’s no escaping the fact that at the end of the day, the sustainable farm endures. I use the word sustainable here not in the buzzy way. I use it to mean the farm (and farmer) that can support itself ecology-wise, nutrient-wise, labor-wise; a farm that can support the farmers, meet the nutritional needs of the customers, all while sustaining a level of animal welfare and soil health that keep everyone on the right side of history. It’s a tall order, and there doesn’t yet seem to be a right way to do it. I think the folks over at Essex have a great thing going, but I’m wondering whether the same thing might be attempted on a much smaller scale. What if you could convince fifteen a dozen or two families to rely on you to supply everything they eat for a year? It’s an intoxicating thought. I think that somewhere in that range is a sweet spot, a scale that would enable one family to live a good (if hardworking) life while feeding a small community the best food one could ask for. Playing with the numbers to find that sweet spot is the grand puzzle, and where you’ll be able to find me all winter, squinting at spreadsheets and multiplying enterprise budgets to come up with a solid business plan. I’ll let you know when I figure out exactly what kind of puzzle I’m trying to solve.