If It Weren’t for Domino’s, We’d All Be Dead

In her article, “In Praise of Fast Food,” Rachel Laudan offers up the kind of nitpicking skepticism only a historian can bring to a conversation.  Hers is a general critique of the slow food movement.  Although Laudan admits she tends to choose natural, fresh food over processed, she recoils from any moral or political motivation attached to these tastes. The reason? As a historian, she says, she simply “cannot accept the account of the past implied by [the slow food] movement: the sunny, rural days of yore contrasted with the gray industrial present.”  In short, Laudan accuses slow food advocates of culinary Luddism, and claims that their picture of the past is not only a distortion, but also indirectly supports a plethora of less-than-pleasant historical realities, from sexism to labor abuse.  If the slow food movement could turn away from its nostalgia and take a look at the past with a historian’s austere eye, she reasons, food advocates would find a food culture couched in forced labor, unbreakable gender roles, widespread starvation, and food adulteration. Therefore, Laudan claims, slow food should abandon their political and social aims and begin working within the industrialized food system, rather than outside it.

Is Laudan right? Does slow food cater to our sense of nostalgia? Does it invoke some eternal, literary conflict of man versus technology? Are slow food advocates just caught in their own Isaac Asimov novel?

Unfortunately for Laudan, if one looks to Slow Food’s officially-stated philosophy as a yardstick, the answer to these questions is probably no:

We believe that the food we eat should taste good; that it should be produced in a clean way that does not harm the environment, animal welfare or our health; and that food producers should receive fair compensation for their work. 

This sounds less like nostalgia and more like relevant, progressive social policy.  In addition to this philosophy, Slow Food defines and achieves its mission through the support of local farmers, the connection of people to their food source, and the revival of endangered food varieties as an alternative to industrial monocropping.  Again, I fail to see images of rolling meadows or happy peasants, so I have to assume that Rachel Laudan has made the common mistake of creating and attacking a caricature. 

We could leave it at that. But what fun would that be?  Because in addition to her unfair attacks on slow food, Laudan, for all her claims of authority, shows an incomplete, bordering nonsensical understanding of food policy, both past and the present. As her title suggests, Laudan “praise[s] fast food” in her article. So let’s take a look at some of the reasons fast food deserves praise.

One, food of convenience is not a modern invention. Fast food is just another interpretation of a very old idea to help people live their every day lives.

Laudan argues that fast food is only new in form, not function. “Hunters tracking their prey, shepherds tending their flocks, soldiers on campaign, and farmers rushing to get in the harvest all needed food that could be eaten quickly and away from home,” she notes. “The Aztecs ground roasted maize and mixed it with water.”  Here, Laudan appears confused about the definition of fast food.  The absurdity of comparing roasted maize mixed with water to pink slime in commercial hamburgers is not only misleading, but shows a real misunderstanding of what is at issue.  It’s not the speed with which these foods can be prepared, but the manner in which they’re produced and consumed.  A hamburger from leading fast food restaurants is hardly worthy of the name.  While you’re promised beef, bread, and a handful of other ingredients, what you often get is a mixture of corn, water, artificial sweeteners, low-grade meat, and harsh chemical additives.  Had the Aztecs been turning their maize into high fructose corn syrup and studies were suggesting it was making their children obese, perhaps Slow Food would have developed in the 15th century. 

Two, industrialized food allowed men to get out of the fields and women to get out of the kitchen. Turning back the clock would be to confine groups of people back to lives of “servitude.” 

Making the claim that industrialized food has freed people from toil and abuse is at best, sloppy, and at worst, racist. The industrialized food system, particularly industrial ag, is addicted to cheap, migrant labor that is extremely vulnerable to abuse. Because farm workers are not privy to the same rights as workers in other industries, food production has become a sort of apogee of worker abuse.

Organizations like the United Farm Workers of America and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers have formed to combat abuses in the food industry, especially involving people of color. There is a spectrum of worker abuses in farming, from withholding wages to outright slavery. The foundation for these abuses is not industrial agriculture alone, and they certainly can exist on small farms, but to present industrial agriculture as some sort of remedy to social inequality is dishonest … and, really just stupid. For more reading on slavery in agriculture, check out the book Nobodies by John Bowe.

Three, industrialized food gives us a choice in what we consume. If something goes wrong in the kitchen, we can “pick up the phone and order a pizza.” If we went back to old times, we would again become dependent on nature, and “many of us would be starving.” 

Proponents of the Green Revolution are fond of arguing that higher crop yields caused by better technology is the only way to combat world hunger.  However, since the Green Revolution, world hunger has not decreased, but increased by over 11%.*   Additionally, Laudan’s claim that industrialized food provides consumers with more freedom in their food choices is nothing more than an illusion, one that is best articulated by historian and anthropologist Sidney Mintz.  Although it may look like we have a multitude of choices in our grocery store aisles, the reality is that a handful of companies produce and process around 80% of US beef, Monsanto genes are in 80% of genetically-modified US corn, and if you do eat chicken at a fast food chain, you’re more than likely eating Tyson-processed chicken (they supply Yum! Brands).  Most recently demonstrated by the egg recall, concentration describes our current food system, not choice.

While I don’t have the same credentials as Laudan, getting my master’s degree in history gave me plenty of opportunities to use the historian’s favorite argument, “Things have always been this way.”  But unfortunately for Laudan, today’s food industry is one of the few spaces where that argument just doesn’t apply.  Industrial ag as we know it is a new development, only 50 or 60 years old.  In fact, the idea that industrial food ‘has always been around’ is a powerful weapon used by this industry to convince us of its own utility, to paint homemade food as unsafe and inferior, and to claim particular health benefits for their products.

Finally, just to end on a positive note, Laudan does make one good point.  She points out that “what we need is an ethos that comes to terms with contemporary, industrialized food, not one that dismisses it.”  That I can get behind.  I don’t think anyone expects McDonald’s to go out of business (there’s one in the Red Square for Christ’s sake).  What I would like to see, though, is a more responsible, honest product from these fast food companies, one that, as Slow Food lays out, respects our health, the environment, and food workers.

* Source: “Nobodies” by John Bowe

Everything is Everything

I have some big news. 

After months of reflection and internal searching, weighing the options, and talking (read: arguing) with Travis, I have decided to resign from my job at Johnson’s Backyard Garden.  I gave two weeks notice on Friday.

This will probably come as a shock to most of you.  There are a lot of reasons for this decision.  Unfortunately, this is not the time to divulge the entire story of everything I’ve been going through at Johnson’s.  What I can say is that Travis and I have discussed my future there, and we both decided that my staying was no longer contributing to our goal of getting our own farm.  It makes more sense for me to find an off-farm job, begin a small farming project on the side, and try to grow our business that way.

I want everyone to know that this certainly doesn’t mean I don’t like farming anymore, and it doesn’t mean the end of Dissertation to Dirt.  This is just another chapter in my path to owning and operating my own farming business with Travis, and I’m confident that this is the best step forward. 

I wish I could tell you more, but for now let me just say that in my year and a half of working on organic farms, I have learned a lot of what I expected to learn–that broccoli and cabbage are part of the same family, that garlic is ready to harvest when half of the leaves turn brown, that tomatoes are a pain in the ass to grow, and that hot peppers are way more productive than they should be.  But I’ve also learned a lot of things I didn’t expect.  Like that farmers, organic or not, can’t pay their workers a living wage because of the demand for cheap food. That wholesaling to large food companies is a quick ticket to bankruptcy.  That there are all kinds of ways to farm and still be considered “organic.”  And that we better get our heads around just what we’re looking for as we’re trying to make a change in our food system.  As I look for land to farm on my own, I’m keeping all these things in mind so they may shape the kind of operation Travis and I have.  Farming is not just about making money to me.  Viewing food as just a commodity continues to plague our food culture.

I also want to say that since I announced my resignation to my friends, everyone has been incredibly supportive and helpful in trying to connect me to other employment.  I’m looking, predictably, in academia since that is where most of my experience is.  I expect to stay connected to the farming community in Austin through volunteer work, the Austin Grower’s Guild, community gardening, going to the farmers markets, and any other way I can think of.

On a related note, there are some exciting opportunities in front of Travis and me:

  1. My cousin Thanos put me in touch with a development company in Florida who is looking for a couple of farmers for a small organic farm within a new low-cost community.  We would be charged with developing and running our own CSA and farmers market.
  2. Our friend Jon has connections to two separate pieces of land, each under 5 acres, that we might be able to rent together and begin a small farming operation.
  3. Thanks to the Austin Grower’s Guild, I just found another 2.3 acres in Webberville.  The owner is willing to rent in exchange for a share in the vegetables.
  4. Travis’ mother has put us in touch with a couple of farmers in New York who are looking to retire and pass their land onto a young farmer.

(this is the first plant in my new windowsill garden.  I named him Chardy)

When I told Brenton I was leaving, he seemed to think it was because I wanted to do something else.  Quite the contrary.  I am more motivated now than ever to farm, and to get something started of my own.

The *&%^?# bok choy flowered on me

As I mentioned in a previous post, Travis’s new job is as the greenhouse manager.  Which means he spends most of his days in the greenhouse, secluded, with baby plants.  Every time I walk into the greenhouse I get this waft of serenity. It’s quiet, the doors are closed, and the transplants are so dense, it’s like a mini rainforest at your feet. Travis assures me that this isn’t always the case, but still, my new job is somewhat more hectic. 

03.12.10 Alberto Martínez AMERICAN-STATESMAN — Neysa King harvests broccoli rabe at Johnson’s Backyard Garden, an organic vegetable farm at the eastern edge of Austin. They grow organic vegetables and have received a grant from the state through a program that encourages young farmers to stay in the business.

I have been appointed the harvest coordinator.  That means I have 20 acres, soon to be 70, under my charge.  It means it’s up to me and the group leader, Vicente, to monitor the fields for what’s ready to harvest, decide the right combination of crops to go into the boxes for the CSA members, and note any problems like pests, disease, or excessive weeds.

Back in New York, Travis and I led the harvests 2-3 times a week.  I do have experience harvesting most vegetable types, running a CSA, and keeping harvests organized.  But Brenton’s farm is nearly 7 times as big as Betsey’s.  In New York, you could stand in one place and see the entire field.  This farm is a completely different animal, and Brenton has placed an intense amount of trust in me since I began training.  Granted, this probably has less because to do with confidence in my abilities, and more with the fact that he’s getting ready to triple the size of his farm and it makes a guy busy. 
So, the last few weeks I’ve steeled my jaw and done my best to make good decisions.  But I keep feeling like I’m one step behind the vegetables.  Today and yesterday were especially crazy.  Remember the post about the pecan and mesquite trees?  Well, apparently, when spring comes, the established plants know it, they flip out, and they start trying to spread their seed as quickly as possible.  They’re all desperately trying to shoot up flowers, which means they won’t grow anymore, so I’m desperately trying to stop them. Something tells me I shouldn’t be embroiled in an epic battle with broccoli, but that’s how it feels right now.  
Today, I woke up to rain.  I got to the farm at 7am and sat at my computer to print out the harvest list to give to Vicente.  Brenton came and said in his most chipper voice, “Man, it’s raining!” 

I said, “yes, I know.” 

“We really needed the rain.  I’m happy about it.  It’s going to make everything grow so much!”  He walked out of the office again, whistling. 

Normally, the prospect of our crops growing faster would fill me with a sense of contentment and anticipation.  But today, all I could think was, “shiiiit.”

I went out into the field ready for battle.  This morning I would be fighting an overabundance of ginormous lettuce.  Like, thousands of heads, all huge and getting huger, and I only had so many places for all of it to go.  Two weeks ago, I swear, it was tiny.  

So, Vicente and I improvised and decided not to give everyone a head or even two, but to chop it up and make a salad mix, so we could give everyone a full bag, making use of more lettuce.  Harvesting 20 bins of lettuce mix in the pouring rain is not a great time, in case you’ve thought of trying it.  But we got it done, and I think if we can keep harvesting like that, we will make it. 

On top of that, the bok choy already bit it last week.  Last friday they were fine, and by Monday two beds of it had flowered.  After I finished the lettuce, I began picking the last remnants of the flowered bok choy.  Vicente warned me against putting it in the boxes, because flowers might not look good.  So as I was cleaning off the flowers (which are edible and taste like bok choy), I began thinking about our collective expectations when it comes to the appearance of our produce. 

I think about this a lot, especially at markets.  Often (but certainly not always), I find that people will treat farmers market stands like a grocery store.  Produce is inspected closely and expected to be spotless, uniform, and abundant at all times of the year.  But I can tell you that that’s not how it works.  Farmers are just people, and they make mistakes just like anyone.  Sometimes they do everything right but the weather doesn’t cooperate, like the three months of rain we got this winter.  Or, the weather cooperates too much, like the transition to spring that made everything shoot up to godzilla size in a matter of days.  Sometimes, veggies are blemished just because, you know, they’re outside … on the ground.

Unrealistic expectations fostered by mass produced fruits and vegetables at large grocers is detrimental to small, organic farmers.  Unlike the local HEB, if some produce is blemished, we can’t just order more from California.  Instead, we have to rely on our communities to support us, through both the lean months and the harvest.

*Photos thanks to Alberto Martinez

I’m Somebody Now!

Get this: Brenton has decided he’d like to hire Travis and me. That’s right, we are employed, being trained for positions that we will fill after our internship ends in May. That’s right, we have real jobs again. In farming, too. I know I wrap up my identity too much in my work, but having a legitimate job, getting paid a decent wage, having a place of my own, being self-sufficient, and most importantly feeling like I was contributing to something–lacking all these things made me start to question my self worth. It shouldn’t have. But it did.

How did I get here? Things seem to be coming together, and I have to step back and reflect. When Travis and I first moved to New York, we wanted an introduction to farming. We wanted to see if we could hack it, number one, and if we liked it, number two. We quickly found that yes answered both of those questions, but we were still at a loss for how to progress in organic farming, where it seemed like everyone who would be doing it in the future was already doing it now… in other words, there aren’t a lot of farmers, but there are fewer would-be farming entrepreneurs.

By the time we moved to Austin back in November, we were already burnt out on the aimlessness of interning–the inherent transience, the lack of real engagement with farming, the awkward living arrangements. Young people often enter internships with the expectation to learn about the job, but usually they find themselves doing a lot of mundane tasks with little real training. Although we took on a lot of responsibility in New York, because we could never feel any ownership in the total process of farming, Travis and I often felt that we were doing the farming equivalent of stuffing envelopes.

Not that you can’t learn anything from just being on a farm. And to be fair, after I moved to Austin and began working for Brenton, I was surprised at how much I had learned in New York without even realizing it. But it’s also true I’ve learned more in the past two weeks, training for a real job with real responsibilities, than I did in the all my time as an intern up to this point.

It makes me wonder, is my path replicable? Is interning the best way for young people to get into organic farming? Or is it an only-choice in a field with a tiny pool of colleagues? Could others sort of stumble-jump into fulltime employment on an organic farm like I did? And still, Travis and I aspire not only to work on an organic farm, but to own one of our own, and that remains a giant question mark.

Brenton and I figured it out one day: if his farm is 70 acres, and there are about a million people in Austin, that means it would take over 200 farms of the same size to feed the entire city. So, the need is there, and in a city like Austin, so is the demand. But the question is, who will supply it? And how?

Organizations like the Crop Mob (thanks, Esther) I think are less an idealistic excursion or an attempt to reconnect with nature, and more a testament to how haphazard and makeshift are the paths of people who are genuinely interested in growing food.

But back to the point, Travis and I are gainfully employed, we live in a great apartment in a great city, and we are doing something we really enjoy. It’s been a long, uneven road, toward making a career of organic farming, and we’re certainly not near the end of it, but it’s good to at least see that we are making progress.