Saturday, May 8, 2010

"The Omnivore's Delusion"

Most of us have read Stephan Pollack's excellent book, "The Omnivore's Dilemma".

I run a small, organic farm in Tennessee. This is my fifth growing season and I can tell from my experience that what I know now versus what I knew then is a gulf too wide to fathom. For small family, or organic farming, to be viable economically the price of food would have to rise dramatically (IMHO). Considering that 11% of American's are on food assistance, and another 10% are hanging on (off?) by a thread... well, I don't see that as the solution the people will find most appealing.

Of course, sometimes things don't go the way people might like.

More soon.


PioneerPreppy said...

Nice article Greg,

I am surprised I missed it last year.

The author is spot on about the poultry farming. If I travel less than 30 miles South of my place just about every family farm has a large poultry shed now.

The cover crop part of the article has some merit but he did fail to mention the CRP benefits for longer term rotation of cover crop planting or allowing it to run fallow for a few seasons. Of course that also means no production from that field.

He was also right about the predator aspect on poultry but I was a bit confused by his weasel example. I have never even seen a weasel in Missouri, I think I have read that there are some here but raccoons are the primary danger to chickens and turkey and they can do some serious damage. I have seen a raccoon kill dozens and dozens of poultry in one night just to kill them.

The energy needed for farming is the key. No amount of alternative energy sources can replace diesel when we talk about combines and other farm equipment.

Anonymous said...

Weasels kill lots of chickens in PA. Part of the reason we decided not to have them, we are friends with some farmers, and people who are more in the lines of Mr. Jeffer's in terms of having lots of animals/homestead type set-up. Weasels are pretty damn good predators, and coyotes, wild dogs, and even sometimes cats prey on chickens around here--and of course the Chicken Hawks as well--all over the place around here.

Making money of farming is rough indeed, and organic farming is even tougher. For all the money and time and energy I put into our gardens/trees etc each year, there is no way it comes close to being as cheap as if I just bought organic food myself--if you calculate my time in $'s, even at a paltry wage. Given, i consider it a hobby, I continue to do it, with some season's being more worthwhile then others. Of course, besides potatoes and some of the easy storing crops, much of the food we don't eat or give away, either rots, or we can it--although canning takes up some serious time, so we try to give away as much as possible (although we keep the peppers and other easy freezing veggies).

We know one couple who makes money with an organic farm, they have multiple of the hoop greenhouses, and without growing veggies in the winter--they would make almost nothing. They are debt free, have grown children, and can afford to make a very small income--so it works for them--but it would work for almost no-one else.

As food prices rise, more and more people will be less picky about "organic" IMO, just based on financial necessity. Maybe within a few years our food growing will actually be a financial benefit to us, for now its just a psychological one, and something to do as a family.

The cash crop farmers around here are broke as a joke, most of them are in their late 70's and know more than I could hope to learn, reading all the books I've read, going to master gardener clinics etc. I do suggest the old book "square foot gardening" by Mel Bartholomew and the Old Country wisdom book as two things to check out for people looking to pursue this hobby.

BTW: Gun buy back program in Chicago, guess Chicago will be OK after all Bur? I'm sure all the gangsta's will be lining up to get $75 mastercard gift cards for their guns. What a joke.

Dan said...

I really don’t see the advantage in an organic garden; however there are huge benefits to incorporating organic elements into your garden, like guano for micronutrients. It has to be in the ground if it’s going to get into the plants and then into you. The plants also seem to do better than if you just do N-P-K. Similarly pesticides are really nifty when you have problems, but applying them as a prophylactic is nuts.

Stephen B. said...
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Stephen B. said...
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Stephen B. said...

Part 1: I was really put off by the idea that going organic means going back to "1930s technology to raise food." To suggest that organic and sustainable farming methods have stood still since then and that all the advances in agriculture have been in the conventional and industrial farm sectors is both highly arrogant and just plain insulting. Nobody is going back to Dust Bowl techniques of raising food, conventional or not. Just taking apple growing as an example (because I have a bunch of trees), there are all manner of new cultivars that require little, if any spraying for fungus and other diseases that affect apples. Then there are a whole host of bio-rational pesticides such as BT for caterpillars, Spinosad for other bugs, entrapment methods, fertilization and pruning methods that lessen disease and insect pressure... There's lots of things organic or near organic growers can do - things that I do - to grow pretty nice, if not perfect apples, in a part of the country that is known to be pretty tough for apple growers. The idea that if I give up the Malathion and Imidan sprays means that I must go back to 1935 is just plain ignorant. It's nearly impossible to grow just apples around here and make a financial go of it, but that's true of conventional growers as well. The ones that do manage it have retail farm stands that sell a whole manner of other products, not all raised at their farms, sell hay rides and field trips to schools, as well as host mainly U-pick operations to save labor. I doubt using or not using conventional chemicals and other conventional techniques (whatever that is for apples) is going to make much of a financial difference either way in and of itself.

It's much the same for many other crops I'd imagine. Farmer Hurst also seems to cherry-pick, if you will, what he wants to credit to the domain of conventional farming, and what he wants to pin on organic. By this I mean if it is obviously good, it must be conventional. Chemicals, tractors, etc. are all good of course, but so is nitrogen cropping, such as soybean rotations, planting modern plant varieties and the like. Well, organic farms do this too, but he seems to want all the credit for conventional farming, leaving organic advocates with the loser methods he disdains. That's a pretty lame point of view.

Stephen B. said...

Part 2: I'm not surprised that this was published by the American Enterprise Institute because, a lot like their peer, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, they often have something of a knee-jerk reaction to anything pro-environmental they hear, and while there is often a good amount of truth to what they say, these right-wing think tanks often go way too far and throw the baby out with the bathwater, such as they're doing here. They seldom miss a chance to get one dig in after another, such as the idea that organic folk somehow think that farming and gardening isn't dirty or bloody....that it's all Old MacDonald-nice, or that advocates for sustainable farming want farmers to live a 1930s lifestyle as well.

Sorry.....wrong, wrong, and wrong, but it is typical ranting from the extreme Right that sees any questioning of technology as blathering chatter of the cafe o'laite set.

In any case, while organic farming is tough, I'm still trying to imagine what corn farming 3000 acres is going to look like in another 15 to 20 years as the diesel fuel and cheap nat. gas-derived fertilizer goes up in price 400%....600%....or perhaps more? He goes on at length attacking Pollan for the latter's idiotic ideas on composting, but Hurst himself doesn't explain what he's going to do when his conventional fertilizer nitrogen sources aren't available anymore either. Sharon Astyk and Aaron Newton in their writings have much to say about this, and I suspect that their analysis, will play out over the next 2 decades with a fair amount of accuracy as I just cannot imagine how the likes of farmer Blake Hurst or his family is going to continue on farming on the scale he alludes to in his essay.

westexas said...

"We had everything but money," A suggested guidebook for the "Greater Depression"

Stephen B. said...

There are so many people in this country on one kind of food assistance program or another not because food is so expensive, but because people now spend so much of their income in other areas such as taxes, housing, cars, insurance, etc.

Cheap energy allowed cheap, industrially-raised, oil and gas-subsidized food to shrink as a percentage of most families' outgoes and one way or another, that will probably change back some.

Yeah, people won't like this new change back at all.

Greg T. Jeffers said...


I run an organic farm - and mostly just for fun.

I am sure that these organizations had an agenda, and I am sure he cherry picked... and I am sure Pollack cherry picked in his book, and I am sure that his kindred organizations had an agenda...

Welcome to 1984. Sorry, 2001. I mean 2010...

Thankfully, we now had the blogsphere where we can analyze stuff unconstrained by Political Correctness.

Greg T. Jeffers said...

I should have said fun and profit. I might garden for fun, but the other stuff has to make a profit or I don't do it.

Anonymous said...

Another reason for cheap food in this country are the huge subsidies that are given to the farmers from outright cash to all the support of the land grant universities and extension services.
Our Missouri farmer didn't talk about that. I wonder how deeply he's sucking on the Fed teat.
And calling pesticide contamination a matter of conscience? I'd call it a matter of cancer.

Dan said...

If he is taking the government advice he isn’t doing too well. He may get bumper crops with the advice -just like everybody else, but alas growing the exact same thing as everybody else. I’d reckon nothing sucks more than a bumper crop that’s nearly worthless.

jeff said...

Who is Stephen Pollock? Michael Pollan wrote The Omnivore's Dilemma. I love the blog by the way, keep it up!

Greg T. Jeffers said...

I stand corrected... I had a Stephan King/Michael Polack brain fart.... (though what they have in common I have NO idea!)

Greg T. Jeffers said...

dear unknown anon:

We welcome comments from regular readers using nicknames or registering.

I had too many people coming to the blog and leaving unpleasant and besides the point commentary... not that your comments were unreasonable - please use a nickname (that you stick with) if you wish to join the discussion.