Young Farmer’s Conference

Stone Barns

I love conferences, but strangely enough I never leave them feeling very happy. I guess that’s because the type of learning that I value so much, which happens at these conferences, is also the kind that brings up tough questions about everything.

Broilers....Cornish Crosses

I’m not even sure where to start talking about my experience at Stone Barns because there was so much packed in to those two days. I’d been to Stone Barns before to tour the farming operations. I was particularly impressed with the pigs, which they forage in the lush forest. I remember not being very impressed with the broiler (that’s meat) chickens though. They were nearly featherless and pathetic looking, almost like giant walking carcasses with tiny heads and black beady reptilian eyes. They were on pasture in movable coops, but they clustered together looking bored. They were nothing like the egg layers a few pastures over with their beautiful plumage and curious expressions. I had just met the Cornish Cross, the variety of chicken we are all familiar with without even knowing it.

Its neat white carcass with plump oversized breasts is pretty much what all of us are eating when we eat chicken. It’s interesting that Stone Barns would opt for this type of chicken rather than a more hardy heritage breed, but it underscores the fact that local/organic agriculture is diverse and includes plenty of people concerned with business ideals. And in most business calculations, the Cornish Cross wins. It might even be more sustainable because it converts feed into meat better than any other bird which isn’t sullied with pigmented feathers or weird muscling.

Egg layers

But it’s a bird that doesn’t have much personality and I’ve heard pasture farmers complain bitterly that they would rather die on a hot summer day then walk a few meters to get water.

I think it’s too bad that these days Jonathan Safran Foer is the voice saturating the media with questions about eating meat. It’s good that people are thinking about it, but too bad that someone with relatively limited agricultural experience is the dominant voice.

I was reading this interview with him this morning:

MJ: Another thing I wanted to ask you about is hunting. Do you think hunting is a more humane alternative to factory farms?

Jonathan: How is it humane? In a slaughterhouse they all go really quickly — hunting they don’t

MJ: Well, it’s humane in that the animal has led a good life up until the time of death.

JSF: But that doesn’t make hunting good. It makes the fact that the animal had a good life up to that point good. And those aren’t our choices. I’d rather get lethal injection than be hanged, but actually I’d rather have neither. People often set up these false choices, these false dichotomies, and it’s not like we have to do either of them.

I thought about that as I slaughtered my first chicken. It’s pretty hard to say that an animal’s death will be one way on another. Many hunters are able to kill animals instantaneously and many of those working in slaughterhouses make painful mistakes.

And maybe it’s not very scientific, but I think there is something wrong about eating food from an animal that is so far away from actually being an animal. As my chicken struggled weakly to escape, I thought about how it would never ever survive in the wild. It was more machine than animal.

I thought about being a vegetarian over the next few days. In the past I’ve been dismissive of that choice because the egg layers on Stone Barns go through that exact same slaughterhouse when their time is up. But those egg layers sure looked more vital.

There is also the issue of health. I personally struggled on a grain and legume heavy diet as a vegetarian. I dabbled in raw veganism and my stomach problems subsided, but I had very little energy. Finally, I added in meat to that diet and felt great. In fact I was able to go off medication that doctors told me I would have to take for the rest of my life.

It would be nice to stop having to buy expensive grass fed animals and just pick up a package of tofu and a bag of beans, but until I find more foods that are vegetarian and don’t obliterate my stomach, this will remain a reality. The food they served us at the conference was 95% vegetarian….I unfortunately felt quite sick from it, which was the only complaint I would levy about the experience.

And there are other realities too, such as how crops are supposed to be fertilized. The farmers on the conference told me universally that their goal was to have a sustainable system where grass feeds animals and animals feed the grass (and other crops) through compost. Without this compost where is the fertilizer going to come from?

Fossil fuels. Luckily, Wes Jackson of the Land Institute was there at dinner to tell us what fossil fuel fertilizer has wrought: the giant “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico.

People ask me how we are supposed to feed everyone with the kind of diet I eat. First I tell them that I hope others don’t have my own limitations, but Wes Jackson made the valid point that feeding people and animals with annual grains isn’t going so well either. His plan as a geneticist is to develop perennial wheat, sorghum, and sunflower because perennial grains do not require environmentally devastating fertilizers and tillage.

Perennial grain agriculture already exists though, it just requires grazing animals since humans can’t eat those grasses. And farmers in the room worried aloud about the possibility of Jackson’s crops becoming super weeds. It’s, after all, naturally-bred crops, not GMOs, that have become super weeds in the past.

Besides that, the archaeological evidence is that dependence on grains has been deleterious to human health. The bones of excessively grain-dependent humans (including ourselves) are warped with deformities, though some of those are now accepted as normal such as the inability of our jaws to accommodate our wisdom teeth.

There are many alternatives to grains though. According to a A Movable Feast: Ten Millennia of Food Globalization by Kenneth Kiple, some of the healthiest bones archaeologists have found were the Native Americans on the coast of California who ate primarily seafood and acorns. In the permaculture workshops by Connor Stedman and Ethan Roland, we learned about such treecrops and farmers who are trying to revive tree-based agriculture.

Coming home, I feel like a diet that is right for me would include animals that lived with dignity, as well as a diverse variety of local vegetables, fruits, and nuts. Death is only one day and while it’s important to debate it, I strongly disagree with Foer that hunting is not a good choice. Wild game is healthier for humans and the environment, especially given problems with invasive species (wild boar) and overpopulation (deer because humans have pushed out predators).

The argument that vegetarianism is the most sustainable diet falls apart in the face of the realities of agriculture. Whether it’s pigs or potatoes, modern agriculture is unsustainable. The world already has the capacity (though through unsustainable grain agriculture) to feed everyone decently even if us Americans continue to chow down on chicken, but unfortunately hunger is a problem of access rather than capacity.

Stone Barns pigs love compost and live in the forest

The animals I eat do not eat human-food anyway, they eat grass( or trash in the case of pigs). Farmer Steffen Schneider of Hawthorne Valley farms discussed livestocks role in his Biodynamic Livestock Nutrition class. Steffen’s farm is a closed system where his cattle produce all his fertilizer- that for the grass they eat and enough additional to fertilize all his vegetable crops as well. As a biodynamic farmer he is constantly thinking about his animals, body and soul, and how to nourish them so they can nourish his land and the humans that live on it.

The argument about cruelty is truly a more difficult one and why I believe everyone who chooses to eat meat should confront the blood-splattered walls of a slaughterhouse at some point.

The least gruesome picture in the album

Even though I’m not squeamish, it was definitely a difficult experience. The first animals I ever processed were these wild rabbits up on a farm in Wisconsin. It surprised me for exactly the opposite reasons the chicken slaughter did. It was fairly bloodless and it felt like these animals were part of a harvest rather than an act of violence. They lived their own lives on the farm and were full of muscle because of it.

It’s a very different process to shoot an animal compared to putting the chickens upside down in “kill cones” so their heads struck out and slitting their throats. As I eviscerated them I found they had almost no muscle and tiny underdeveloped organs. They didn’t fight or run. How much vitalty can one expect to get from eating such an animal? I don’t regret learning about how to slaughter them, but it makes me think twice about ordering chicken wings again.

In the end my diet is not about individual animals though, it is about what sort of food system I want to support. A vegan diet can definitely support a food system that is damaging and unsustainable as a whole and a carnivorous diet can support one that isn’t. Carnivore and herbivore is a false dichotomy.

Hailing farms such as Dan Barber’s Blue Hill as a paragon of the “goodness of farms,” Foer went as far to say that Barber “..treats his animals better than I treat my dog.” And still, Foer would “not endorse these kinds of farms,” because even the most conscientious farms are part of the “system” of meat-eating, which is generally wrong. As an analogy,

It’s not the system of meat eating I support, it’s the system of sunlight, grass, and good compost that I support, rather than oil, synthetic fertilizer, and soil erosion.

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