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.