Jolley: Mark Bittman’s view of modern agriculture and why it annoys me

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Something about Mark Bittman, the New York Times’ most elitist ag writer, just annoys the hell out of me.  It might be his pollyannaish approach to farming.  His grotesque misuse of words like ‘sustainable’ and ‘organic’ set my teeth on edge.  He will occasionally throw the term ‘ethical’ into the mix, too, inferring that if you’re not operating according to his definition of sustainable and organic, you must also be unethical. I grind my teeth to near TMJ levels.

His recent ‘slant to the left’ sweep through Iowa to look at how the folks in flyover country live and farm and the pre-programmed prejudice he brought with him left the sourest of tastes in my mouth.  He asked for direction from my friends in the pork business about where he should go and what he should see.  They helped assemble a fair cross-section of the Hawkeye state, kind of a department store clothing department tour that hit small, medium and large farms.

Of course he had some time constraints, so, at the last minute, he deleted a few of the places where tours had been arranged, leaving his farm hosts standing at their front door with a fresh-brewed pot of coffee in one hand and their hat in the other.  No need to see those operations, he already knew they were unsustainable, non-organic and probably unethical as well, so why bother?

Then, he compounded his sin by blogging this for NYT on August 16: “When Brenna Chase was farming in Connecticut a few years back, new farmers weren’t always welcome by oldsters. The pie, she says, just wasn’t big enough. “But now,” she said to me here, where she now farms, ‘the feeling is that the pie is getting bigger and that the more people that get into this the better it will be for everyone.’

By ‘this,’ she means sustainable farming (here I use the term interchangeably with “organic” because many ethical farmers can’t afford organic certification), and the poised 33-year-old, who began farming in high school, is representative of young people I’ve met all over the country. These are people whose concern for the environment led to a desire to grow — and eat — better food. And although chefs still get more attention, the new farmers deserve recognition for their bold and often creative directions.

It would be a challenge to find a farm or ranch that is not sustainable or organic. As in any business, wasting your most important asset is an absolute guarantee of failure.  I can drive across most of the great Midwest and a good chunk of the non-urbanized Northeast and pass through hundreds of miles of farmland that should be labeled sustainable and organic using his definition because it has been farmed by generation after generation.  If a fourth or fifth generation is still wresting a living from the same piece of dirt, we’re describing the very essence of sustainable/organic.  Just a few weeks ago, for instance, I interviewed Jane Clifford, a woman who works with her husband on a dairy farm in Vermont that’s been in the same family for eight generations.

Eight sustainable/organic generations of continuous farming.

Clifford reminded me – and let her words reach the ears of Bittman, Pollan, etc. -  that they milk 220 cows three times a day, have three full-time employees and hire additional part-time help. “Our greatest priority is our cows. We provide the best feed, the best housing and the best care which also equates to quality beef at the end of a cow’s life.”

Let’s call her farm sustainable/organic as well as ethical.

What Mr. Bittman is getting so giggly about is the rise of what was once called market gardening, small mom and pop operations that produce slightly more than the inhabitants can consume.  The extra produce – ‘heirloom’ tomatoes, okra, snap beans and maybe the occasional New York dressed chicken – is tossed into the back of the old pick up and driven into town to sell at the weekend farmer’s market for a little extra cash.

It’s the type of nostalgic farming practiced by the folks who populated Mayberry and hung around with Andy, Opie and Aunt Bea.  Or maybe Bittman is old enough to remember the 1950’s TV show “Lassie” and her faithful human companion, little Jeffy Miller, who lived on a small family farm with his mother and grandfather.  They were followed in the fourth season by the tragically orphaned seven-year-old Timmy Martin and his adoptive parents but even Lassie's legendary exploits on the farm ended after eleven seasons.

Bittman and his Bitty buddies should continue to herald the sustainable/organic market gardens of the twenty-first century.  Modern agriculture needs all the proponents it can gather, even if many of them are riding a wave of ag-faddism and might close up shop and head back to the big city in a few years when the hard work and financial uncertainty finally wear them down.

But this “holier than thou, more sustainable than thou, more organic and ethical than thou” nonsense has just got to stop.  The practitioners of the type of agriculture that floats Bittman’s urban boat have to accept what they are: modern day market gardeners filling a pricey little niche.  They’ll also have to accept that what they do has no chance of feeding the billions of people that belly up to the world’s dinner table every day.  That’s a job best left to modern farming practices and the ethical people who work the land 365 days a year.

Chuck Jolley is a free lance writer, based in Kansas City, who covers a wide range of ag industry topics for Vance Publishing.

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NY  |  August, 26, 2011 at 06:09 AM

I say this very thing every week when I sell at farmers markets, hoping that by chance someone will listen and understand and GET IT. Some do, typically the further away from the city they are. Some never will, and will continue to look down their nose at my 'conventional ways' while continuing to pay triple the price for beans that are 'biodynamically raised'. I can only imagine the damage we've done to our land in the 75 years we've been farming *big sigh*

Texas  |  August, 26, 2011 at 10:12 AM

Or on the other hand Chuck - you might just turn off your knee-jerk cynicism and "only Corporate America knows best" attitude for 5 minutes and learn a thing or two about what exactly "sustainable, organic and ethical" means. (And no, they're not cuss words.) My family has run a poor man's ranch in S. Texas for 5 generations - we're pretty far removed from those "modern practices" (whatever that means) you so stirringly praise. Thank God indeed for the small farmer/rancher doing their "sustainable, organic and ethical" thing!

Indiana  |  August, 26, 2011 at 10:26 AM

Will: I couldn't have said it better. I've been producing about 20,000 lbs. of quality beef a year for 30+ years. I would qualify as one of those "kooks" who should just get out of the way of those "Modern" ag practioners who use hormones and antibiotics to boost their gains. But where would my customers (neighbors who farm the "modern" way) go to get their beef for their families?

Indiana  |  August, 26, 2011 at 10:26 AM

Will: I couldn't have said it better. I've been producing about 20,000 lbs. of quality beef a year for 30+ years. I would qualify as one of those "kooks" who should just get out of the way of those "Modern" ag practioners who use hormones and antibiotics to boost their gains. But where would my customers (neighbors who farm the "modern" way) go to get their beef for their families?

Kansas  |  August, 26, 2011 at 10:30 AM

Hey, Will, You must have misread my editorial. There was nothing in there about "only Corporate America Knows best." There was something in there about Mark Bittman not knowing what's best and a plea for people in ag (at every point along the line) to not try to gain a marketing edge at the other guy's expense. And there was another note about the ethics involved. From your note about being far removed from modern practices, I'm guessing you're plowing with mules, fertilizing with chicken manure and taking your produce into town on the back of a horse-drawn wagon? Using Bittman's definitions, is the guy down the road who uses a John Deere and checks in with his local extension agency from time-to-time operating unsustainably, non-organically and unethical? I don't think so and that was my point.

C. Andrews    
Chicago-Kansas  |  August, 26, 2011 at 11:19 AM

it's your job to challenge and don't dance too lightly

Aimee @    
St. Louis, MO  |  August, 26, 2011 at 02:38 PM

Thank you, Mr. Jolley. The attitude you described trickles right on down to the consumer. We encounter the same self-righteous claims that conventionally-produced food is somehow not "organic" and "sustainable" and is inferior to the produce of what you call the modern day market gardeners. It's confusing and does a real disservice to both farmers and the folks trying to put food on the table for their families. Keep talking, man.

Aimee @    
St. Louis, MO  |  August, 26, 2011 at 02:40 PM

I wrote about this holier than thou attitude in food and how it impacts families back in June. It's been my most widely read post by far. Here's the link if you're interested:

Kansas  |  August, 26, 2011 at 04:09 PM

Aimee, I rad your Milk Wars column. Nice writing. The woman who said she saw Food, Inc., 'freaked out' and immediately changed her diet represents the kind of blind, non-thinking reaction to 'agit-prop' that drives me crazy. She let Kenner do her thinking for her. We need people to see propaganda like that for what it is and think about it critically. Some of it was accurate, a lot of it was unscientific nonsense.

Chicken man    
somewhere  |  August, 26, 2011 at 05:01 PM

hey, don't knock that chicken manure fertilizer, it really works!

Oscar Bernardes    
Brazil  |  August, 26, 2011 at 05:31 PM

i loved your article. I am a farmer and cattle raiser in Brazil, coming to New York frequently. Last time there was a big event at Columbus Circle, against industrial Farming. My wife and I also read these beautiful pieces of lack of knowledge, you described well. We always ask ourselves how the world would be fed, if all of us farmers, around the world, just decide to go 100% organic. Only people who never had to make a life out of farming, and hopefully a profit, can preach what these dreamers propose. Please write to NYT, peaching to us believers will not change things. We also have plenty of dreamers in Brazi . Thanks Oscar

Lorraine Lewandrowski    
Upstate NY  |  August, 26, 2011 at 06:40 PM

Mr. Bittman's July 5, 2011 NYTimes article "Banned from the Barn" in his Opinionator column states he was not allowed to visit pig farms in Iowa and only one farmer would let him and his film crew in. Contact The Public Editor, Arthur Brisbane, of the New York Times to straighten this out. If you do twitter, Mr. Brisbane can be tweeted to at @thePublicEditor Otherwise, give him a call right to his office at the New York Times in New York City.

Canada  |  August, 26, 2011 at 11:01 PM

And here is the comment I sent re: Mr. Bittman's "Banned in the Barn" article, not knowing until now that a whole line up of tours had been arranged. That makes the man even more unethical than I outlined in my response to him: As a journalist I find Mr. Bittman's attempt to "get his story" as one that smacks of the News of the World spying fiasco and at odds with journalistic ethics. Frustrated by his unsuccessful attempts to get into barns legitimately, and unsatisfied with what he did see on the one tour provided him does not justify sneaking onto people's property. By his own admission, "I could’ve been arrested for trespassing." Journalists are no more entitled to break the law than any other citizen and no one is ever required to cooperate with journalists. It is frustrating but that is the world that ethical journalists must work in. While I am not a proponent of the so-called "ag gag laws", Mr. Bittman's actions simply reinforce why these laws are being proposed. If the shoe were on the other foot, and it were Mr. Bittman's property rights and privacy being violated, I wonder if he would still feel the ends justify the means.

Kentucky  |  August, 27, 2011 at 11:51 AM

The debate rages on.... Regardless of whether Bittman is ethical himself or not, there is no question that the "sustainable/organic" movement is a reaction to some reality. How much, seems to be the debate, which I don't intend to continue here. Nor will I comment on the ethics of journalism, except to say that investigative reporting is one of the bedrocks of our democracy isn't it? But more to the point. In all this discussion about sustainability, feeding the world, and horse-drawn carts, no one seems to remember the Amish and Mennonites. Here are communities that are sometimes practicing agriculture in the "nineteenth century", sometimes quite "modern", but following a continuity of sustainability and often also part of the "commercial" world. While no Amish/Mennonite businesses are as large as Cargill, ADM,, they frequently serve a wider market than the local farmers' markets. How do they do that? What do they know that we haven't talked about? Let's learn a little from people who have been practicing family agriculture as cultures, yet have not always distanced themselves from the "modern" world. I welcome more information from those communities.

Kansas  |  August, 27, 2011 at 02:41 PM

Robert, I think Mennonites and Amish are the best definition of market gardeners. They feed themselves first, then sell the surplus. If all farming was done their way, we would probably fall back to the numbers of the early 20th century when one farmer grew enough to feed maybe a few dozen people and it took the work of a majority of our population to produce enough food to feed us all, not withstanding the more than occasional famines. Today, the vast majority of Americans have no concept or relationship with agriculture but, fortunately, one farmer can feed approximately 150 people.

CJ Oakwood    
Illinois  |  August, 27, 2011 at 10:35 PM

Organic Farming is a only takes 3 years of no-chemical to turn a piece of land back to "organic: status.....give me a break. Personally, natural farming practicies are a little more always is better out of YOUR patch!

Kentucky  |  August, 28, 2011 at 11:20 AM

Chuck, I think you should study the Amish and Mennonites a little more closely. While the traditional groups we are familiar with are indeed much like market gardeners, there are businesses among the less traditional that market their milk products and sometimes meats to a wider market, sometimes even national. I don't suggest that they have the "answer", but I do believe that if we leave them out of the equation we are doing ourselves a real disservice. What we have now is a sterile debate that centers on Big Agro vs. small farm organic production. While I accept that there is room for plenty of variety, the middle ground, which I argue includes the more entrepreneurial Amish/Mennonites, deserves more attention than you, or anyone else for that matter, has given it.

Kansas  |  August, 28, 2011 at 02:32 PM

Robert, I have studied them and they do have a nice business model but I don't think it's replicable on the scale needed to feed the world. First problem: their businesses tend to be operated by a close-knit family group which almost assures a limit to its size. Second: even their larger businesses producing food or (in this area) furniture, tend to shy away from the modern production methods that are necessary for the mass production needed to supply the demand.

Melissa Behr    
Madison, WI  |  August, 29, 2011 at 10:21 AM

We need more constructive, less inflammatory discussions of these complicated topics. Three things that crossed my mind as I read the Jolley article were that it would be fun to play with Mr. Jolley's last name as he has with Mr. Bittman's; that most people including farmers were much thinner in 1950 than we are now - is there a possible link to modern agricultural practices?; and that organic dairying seems inhumane to me at times - to not take advantage of modern drugs to treat sick calves or cows deprives those cows of comfort. Humane treatment of animals should be at the forefront of animal agriculture. It should be bigger than organic or sustainable. It is the ultimate in ethics.

Jean Kautt    
Bloomington, Indiana  |  August, 29, 2011 at 10:44 AM

Chuck, you are one scary freak. As a Kansas farm girl from 80 miles south of Kansas City, I now live in a college town of 100K, where our farmers market just broke a record with 11,000 attendees Saturday. I always feel pity for someone who hurls emotional accusations at someone and uses language like yours and quote marks around real things, as in "heirloom", in an attempt to discredit the opinions or ideas of someone else. Have you looked at a seed catalog this millennium? Have you watched even one documentary on industrial food production? Are you aware of how the Farm Bill works and whom it really supports? I will be doing everything possible to counteract your ignorance, which shines like a beacon in this article. I wonder which Big Ag firm owns you...

Kentucky  |  August, 29, 2011 at 12:00 PM

I don't want to beat this horse too much more, so just let me respond this way. You talk (again) about "feeding the world". As some of the respondents have indicated, this tends to be interpreted as the "corporate" model of food production. I don't think most would argue that small farm organic production can be morphed into feeding the world, but even there corporate organic farming for some products produces for a national market (as you well know). The real problem with the debate has to do with societies feeding themselves, not we fortunate producing mass quantities of sometimes questionable produce to "feed the world". Frankly, I see this as a red herring. What the world needs is more business models like the Amish/Mennonites WORLDWIDE so that local production can feed the world. As I've said on this forum before, I recognize there are times when people cannot feed themselves, but most truly successful developmental projects concentrate on self-sufficiency, not importing outside food, which simply continues the dependency seen in various parts of the globe at times. So just because some Amish/Mennonite businesses are "operated by a close-knit family group", not all are, and certainly the MODEL they represent could be duplicated in many parts of the world if cheap credit was available to locals (yet another issue we seem to ignore here). Let me repeat: this is a bigger issue than just Big Ag vs. small farm "organic" production, and solutions come from listening to many players, not just concentrating on a couple.

family farmer    
indiana  |  August, 29, 2011 at 04:30 PM

I would like to follow up with the post on organic animal ag... could someone please tell me how you treat diseases like respiratory disease or foot rot without antibiotics? And how having rules that limit treatment for internal or external parasite can be good for animals? This is a serious question, not trying to dish organic..

nebraska  |  August, 29, 2011 at 10:36 PM

bi11me. Your facts concerning farming agricultural damage to the environment may be urban myths. For example, a confinied animal feeding operation, sometimes called a "factory farm" is required to store all the water running off from a 25 year rain event. Compare that to many small cities that carefully train the waste water treatment plant operator to start dumping raw sewage at the outfall as soon as it starts raining or the Cityof New York which dumps raw sewage into the ocean all the time.

Kansas  |  August, 30, 2011 at 09:22 AM

Jean, Who helped you develop your uncritical thinking? Do you actually believe all the nonsense spouted by mocu-docs like "Food, Inc.? I saw it and found it to be a clever concoction of some truths, half truths and outright anti-science garbage. Because I tend to reply to people in the same tone that they use on me, take a course in civility and then try your commentary again. Your attack is scary-freaky. May I ask which mis-guided organic organization owns you?

Grateful Aggie    
WV  |  August, 30, 2011 at 01:15 PM

Chuck, your insights are spot on and many, many of us share your frustration with the effete Mark Bittmans of the world. If it were not for efficient modern farmers, descended from many generations of successful progressive farmers, naive hatemongers like Bittman would be too busy grubbing for roots and berries to write food snob opinions for the NYT. Keep fighting the good fight Chuck. Thank you for keeping reality focused before us in the face of so much emotional anti-agriculture treachery. Your work is truly appreciated!

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