RINGOES, NJ. Recently, a friend and I visited Polyface Farm outside Staunton, Virginia. Polyface is owned and operated by Joel Salatin, whose parents started farming these verdant five-hundred acres in 1961. Polyface is not simply a farm. Salatin refers to it as a ministry, and he describes the various facets with the zeal of a missionary. The website (www.polyfacefarms.com) includes a mission statement: “to develop emotionally, economically, environmentally enhancing agricultural enterprises and facilitate their duplication throughout the world.”
Although he sells beef, chickens, eggs, turkeys, pork, and rabbits, Salatin calls himself a grass farmer. That is, he is in the business of raising meat and eggs for sale, but he realizes that the quality of his products, and ultimately the success of his farm, depends on the quality of the grass in his pastures. Unlike the vast majority of meat products in the U.S. today, Salatin’s cows are raised and finished on grass; his chickens are pastured; his hogs are happy, and his turkeys, well, they seemed friendly. The Polyface website affirms their belief that the natural world is the model they seek to emulate: “Believing that the Creator’s design is still the best pattern for the biological world, the Salatin family invites like-minded folks to join in the farm’s mission.”
Salatin has developed innovated methods of enhancing his grass farm and thereby providing a good place for his animals. For example, his cows are moved to new pasture almost daily, and these docile beasts are anxious to move, for each fresh pasture represents, in the cow’s mind, what Salatin calls “cow ice-cream.” As in nature, once the herbivores (in this instance, cows) have moved to another field, the birds (in this case, chickens) come next. Portable chicken coops make it possible to move the chickens through a recently grazed pasture. The chickens flourish on the cropped grass, and they pick through the cow dung, eating bugs and parasites, and in the process spread the manure over the field, while depositing plenty of their own. The symbiosis of this relationship between cows and chickens replenishes the pastures even as it sustains the animals living there. This is just one example of how the people at Polyface seek to work with the natural world to raise healthy animals while simultaneously sustaining and even improving the land on which they farm.
A central element of their mission is a commitment not to ship their products. There is a small store behind the main house and directly adjacent to the open-air concrete slab where the chickens are dressed. The intrepid or the curious can find their way to the farm over winding country roads to purchase meat and eggs as well as wander around the farm, which is open to the public. Polyface delivers products to a variety of locales as far away as Washington D.C., but they will not ship. They seek relationships with their customers believing that personal trust between individuals is the best way to conduct business. This personal (and necessarily local) touch has served Polyface well. They have a growing number of loyal customers who appreciate the humane way the animals are treated during their lives, the conscientious way they are slaughtered and packaged, and last but certainly not least, the superb quality of the products, which are free of growth hormones, steroids, and antibiotics. Indeed, the steaks my friend and I grilled that evening were delicious.
The no-shipping policy, ironically, put Polyface in the national spotlight when food writer Michael Pollan tried to get Salatin to ship him a chicken and a couple of steaks. Salatin refused. Pollan was intrigued. He paid Polyface a visit, and Salatin and his farm were prominently featured in Pollan’s 2006 best-seller The Omnivore’s Dilemma. In the same year, Rod Dreher’s, Crunchy Cons, contained a chapter on food where an interview with Salatin plays a central role. The books by both Pollan and Dreher contain sections that describe the meat industry in modern America. They are repeating the nastiness described in graphic detail by Eric Schlosser in his muckraking exposé Fast Food Nation, which, itself, harkens back to Upton Sinclair’s classic The Jungle. A tour of an industrial meat-processing plant would, these authors are convinced, shake most meat-eaters to the bone (pun intended). That we tolerate such a system is only possible because of our separation from any awareness of the history of our food. For the vast majority of Americans, food comes from the grocery store. We give little thought to the methods and miles that brought all that we eat to the shiny shelves of our neighborhood Food Mart. Salatin and others in a small but growing band of farmers and consumers think that this radical separation between food and eater is indicative of a serious cultural and political breakdown. On this matter, Dreher quotes Salatin:
You know what we’re losing? Common sense. There is wisdom that comes into a culture when many of its people have a direct connection to the land and to life, to the living cycles. I see many of the political agendas today as being a total failure to understand life, seasons, accountability, and the connections of life and people to our community. There’s just no connection, and so there’s no reason, there’s no common sense. You can blame as many people on the right as on the left.
The work of Polyface Farms is interesting (and even inspiring), but one is left wondering if such an operation could provide a model for agriculture more generally, or if it can only succeed as a niche market in a world that, for better or worse, is necessarily wedded to industrialized agriculture. Enter John E. Ikerd, professor emeritus of agricultural economics at the University of Missouri. In his collection of essays titled Crisis and Opportunity: Sustainability in American Agriculture, Ikerd argues that American agriculture is in crisis precisely because it has succumbed to the industrial model, which, according to him, is simply unsustainable economically, ecologically, or socially.
Ikerd admits that his views are not typical of economists, but
being an economist is no excuse for ignoring ecological and social reality. How can agriculture meet the food and fiber needs of a growing world population if we destroy the natural productivity and regenerative capacity of the land? Economists generally assume that we will find substitutes for anything we use up and will fix any ecological or social problems we create, but these are simply beliefs with no logical, scientific support in fact.
Furthermore, although it is true that, at least in the short term, industrial agriculture can produce an incredible amount of food, there are trade-offs, and we are remiss to ignore what is inevitably sacrificed.
What is the net benefit of an agriculture that meets the physical needs of people but separates families, destroys communities, and diminishes the overall quality of life within society? How can it possibly be good to defile the earth, even if it is profitable to do so? Economists simply don’t consider the social, psychological, or ethical consequences of the things people do to make money. Economics treats such things as social or ecological externalities, which may impose irrational limits or constraints on the legitimate pursuit of wealth.
Ikerd admits he was slow to come to these views. He spent the first half of his professional career advocating the principles of agricultural industrialization. “I thought pretty much like most other neoclassical economists. I believed that the market was always right, I believed that bigger was generally better, and I believed in the conventional wisdom of farming for the economic bottom line.” Eventually, Ikerd’s views changed. He concluded that
we economists, and many others in the agricultural establishment, were simply out of touch with reality….We had encouraged farmers to specialize, standardize, and consolidate, as if farming were a manufacturing process, simply transforming inputs into outputs. We had been treating farms, which are complex biological and social organisms, as if they were nothing more than sophisticated machines.
The temptation to reduce farms, or even reality itself, to the model of a machine is a temptation that seems especially acute in the modern world where the urge to establish control, to dominate unruly systems or things, is so prevalent. But the results of such an attempt are, at least potentially, harmful to the very ones who seek to assert the control. As the complex world is simplified and unified by specialists operating under the guise of efficiency, people, now excluded from participating in the full spectrum of skillful and complex work required of the generalist, find themselves reduced merely to consumers, or as Wendell Berry puts it, to a “consumptive machine.” The goal of control, it seems, cannot itself be controlled. Domination asserts itself over those who would dominate. In his classic work, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, Berry argues that it appears “the concept of total control may be impossible to confine within the boundaries of the specialist enterprise—that it is impossible to mechanize production without mechanizing consumption, impossible to make machines of soil, plants, and animals without making machines also of people.” Farms, much less farmers, cannot be treated merely as food-producing machines. The economic benefits may appear positive in the short term, but the long term cultural and ecological effects are grave and, when they become acute, the economic benefits will invariably diminish.
Ultimately, rather than advocating that farmers orient themselves merely to the bottom line—the logic of which leads to industrialization—Ikerd argues that farms, because they are more than simply factories, and their occupants more than employees, must be oriented toward what he calls the “triple bottom line.” Of course, farmers must make enough money to foster a satisfying life, but at the same time, they must attend to the environmental and social aspects of their endeavor. Farming merely for the bottom line will, in time, weaken the social fabric of which the farm is a part, and destroy the soil, without which farming is impossible. Attending to this triple bottom line is the core of what Ikerd defines as sustainable agriculture. According to Ikerd, sustainable agriculture is a viable—and ultimately, the only—alternative to industrial agriculture.
A sustainable agriculture seeks to work in harmony with nature—to restore, renew, regenerate, and sustain the productivity of the natural environment. A truly sustainable agriculture would empower people to enhance their social and ethical quality of life, thus eliminating their need for continual economic exploitation of the earth and of each other. A sustainable agriculture is based on the belief that there are fundamental laws of nature, including human nature, that we humans violate only at our own peril. And a truly sustainable agriculture is easier to achieve on small farms.
Scale matters. The logic of industrialization, with a myopic concern with the economic bottom line, leads to specialization, standardization, and consolidation—in a word, centralization. If, instead, we broaden our concerns to include cultural and ecological matters as well as economic ones, we find that achieving those three goals simultaneously is best achieved on farms that are of a scale suitable to natural processes and human communities.
But, of course, government agricultural policies, not to mention farm subsidies, are disproportionately weighted toward industrialized agricultural corporations. Thus public money is primarily directed toward corporate farming enterprises that are, by and large, motivated by bottom-line economic thinking and little else. Public policy and resources, then, are advancing the centralization of the food system and undermining the efforts of those who are concerned with economic, ecological, and cultural sustainability. Salatin’s illuminating and entertaining book, Everything I Want to do is Illegal, provides a delicious cornucopia of personal anecdotes detailing the numerous ways small-scale agricultural operations are threatened by government agricultural policies and their agents. Salatin’s prose is entertaining, often hilarious, but the fun is tainted when one begins to grasp the pervasive and perverse reach of the agricultural bureaucracy.
The centralization of our food system is a problem. First, industrialized food tends to possess less of the healthy qualities of fresh foods. Corn has become the ubiquitous food, serving as the main diet for cows and chickens, but in less recognizable incarnations, corn appears in a vast array of our processed foods in the form of modified corn starch, high-fructose corn syrup, and many ingredients with names suited to a chemistry class. All of this contributes to a food supply that consists, as Salatin memorably puts it, of “amalgamated, irradiated, genetically prostituted, bar-coded, adulterated fecal spam from the central processing conglomerate.” When put in those terms, alternatives begin to look attractive.
Second, securitarians take notice. A centralized food system is a vulnerable food system. In an age when national security is a near obsession, and when attacks on our infrastructure and national assets are a real concern, our industrial food system is an obvious target. Despite the assurances from the USDA that food inspection procedures will ensure that our food is safe, an attack on our food supply is not difficult to imagine. When the food supply is centralized, the scale of such an attack would potentially be catastrophic. On the other hand, consider the effects of an attack on a nation where the food supply is decentralized. Of course, a terrorist could still attack, but the effects would be mitigated and the scope would be limited. If we are concerned about national security, we should be concerned about food security, and because our food system is more secure when it is decentralized, farm policy should encourage the success of decentralized family farms rather than the corporations that gravitate toward centralization. As Wendell Berry has been arguing for years, we need to “shorten the supply lines.”
Finally, as Ikerd repeats throughout this collection, industrialized farming is not sustainable. Thus, it will eventually destroy itself. An agriculture that is sustainable is one suited to the future. It is one that, as Ikerd puts it, “applies the Golden Rule both within and across generations.” In short, we should develop a system of agriculture that our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will thank us for.
That our industrialized, corporatized, food system could ever change appears, from some vantage points, to be a quixotic dream. But change is in the air. A growing number of people are expressing interest in and concern about the food they eat. Local foods, organic farms, farmer’s markets, the Slow Food movement, all of these are hopeful signs that Americans are beginning to take more seriously the responsibility that is naturally and necessarily associated with eating. As we were discussing these matters at Polyface Farm, Joel Salatin said something that portends the cultural shift that is occurring. He noted that thirty years ago 75% of the people who visited his farm were hippies. Today 75% are Christian home-schooling families. In this, admittedly anecdotal bit of evidence, we see what appears to be a breakdown of the traditional left-right distinction and the emergence of something new: conservative, pro-family people who are taking seriously the idea of stewardship. Perhaps a new day is dawning for a new kind of food culture. Perhaps, by extension, the rediscovery of agriculture is on the horizon. If so, the work of people like Joel Salatin and John Ikerd will be an important part of that story.
A version of this article was previously published at www.firstprinciplesjournal.com