Below is a snapshot of where Plovgh members are beginning to organize. Do you see your neighborhood or city or borough on the map? No? Well, here’s where to get started.
Where we went. What we saw. Crops we marveled at.
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This organic nonsense has to stop. I’d like to politely request that those who don’t know agriculture cease writing about it as though they do, stoking an already divisive debate that misses the heart of the problem we face: We’re not sure how we should be growing food, and thus we’re not sure how to eat.
Anyone who suggests that a crop can be raised without the provision of nutrients and pest management should not opine on agriculture. Roger Cohen, I’m talking to you.
Saturday’s opinion piece, shows me just how far off course the discussion of agricultural production has gotten because it spreads misinformation and focuses squarely on the wrong problem. If we continue to debate organic versus conventional, continue to view food choices as an emblem of class, and continue to use the nine billion future people of the world as a gauntlet that the human race must run, we are in trouble because the question is not first about production. It’s about distribution.
We produce enough to feed 1.3 billion more people than we actually do. And that’s in American proportions. In 2000, the USDA reported that Americans consumed almost 2,000 pounds of food per person per year. Meanwhile, 1.3 billion tons of global food production goes to waste each year. Production by any method, standard, or label is not our most pressing problem.
Getting production where it is needed and wanted is another story. We’ve got a billion or so people on this planet consuming too much of the wrong kinds of calories and another approximate billion getting too few of the right nutrients. Most food production happens far from population centers, and timing is everything whether you’re moving kale to market or wheat to a mill, so properly matching supply with demand is tricky. Here we are in 2012, endowed with information and technology that together can make just about any transaction instantaneous. Yet we rely on supply chains that emerged in the 19th century to connect us with our food.
The diversity that agricultural products present complicates matters too. Because of weather, seed variety, origin, soil conditions, and a host of other factors, not every tomato tastes the same and sweet corn from my home state of Minnesota is like corn from nowhere else. I value that distinction in my food.
On the whole, our economy does not.
We produce and consume food within a structure that was built for undifferentiated, commodity products. The processes that move vast amounts of crops from harvest, to processing, to wholesale, to retail, to you keep the producer and the consumer conveniently separated – by about $0.84 for every dollar you spend. The anonymous middle of merchants, distributors, sellers, and superstores has driven consumers to rely on certifications like organic to tell them more about the products they’re buying than anyone else will. Producers, in turn, seek that certification as a way to distinguish their products in the marketplace.
Because so far they are all we’ve had to rely on to see something, anything, through the haze of the modern food system, labels have an inflated value. But don’t let that fool you into thinking that only spoiled rich folks, as Cohen would have it, feel strongly about the short- and long-term effects their food has on themselves, their families, and their environments.
Look at Growing Power, where Will Allen has built an urban farming empire-of-everyman. Look at the Bed-Stuy CSA of Brooklyn, where middle income families subsidize shares so their lower income neighbors can participate in getting food directly from farms. Look at the verdant farmers market culture in northern Iowa. Look at the efforts of farmers in Tchula, Mississippi, to grow food – not corn, not soy, not cotton – to feed their county first, and everyone else they can thereafter.
If anything, the debate surrounding how we produce and move food should unite us. Articles like Cohen’s are a soap box, and soak up our energy with debate when they should instead focus on shared principles: sufficient food to feed our people, production technology and innovation (from nutrient-rich composting techniques and drip irrigation, to GPS systems in John Deere tractors) that facilitate efficient and sufficient food production, soil and water systems that promise years and years of sustained agricultural production, and access for every single person to the abundance that we now know, but that our great-grandparents did not.
The science should focus on how we get there. I’d like to see, for example, a comparison of per-acre nutrient yields and revenue for six different production systems: conventional and certified organic commodity, conventional and certified organic fruit and vegetable under mass production, conventional but diversified fruit and vegetable production, and fruit and vegetable production under what we might call “beyond organic”, “practical”, “sustainable”, or whatever term most effectively conveys the rational approach of a growing number of farmers to use the best means they have to produce a crop that is healthy, high-yielding, and good to eat. Personal experience suggests that the last of these, which takes place right now on small- and mid-sized enterprises, is our greatest hope.
The future may not be organic but it is also not conventional. We should set aside the debate about organics and start identifying at a large scale an alternative path for the production, distribution, purchase, and consumption of the food that we all rely on for sustenance.
This is not Whole Foods, where the shelves are stocked and re-stocked with only the prettiest persimmons. This is not Piggly Wiggly (forgive me, I’m in Mississippi right now), where the farmer goes unmentioned even though his okra is from just down the road. This is not even your local farmers market, where the farmer drives a truckload into the city and half a truckload back to the farm. This is Plovgh, where farmers coordinate with your neighborhood to get their crops right to you.
By that I mean that your time and your place matter. What you can get from the farms depends on where you are in proximity to the farm, what time you want your crops in relation to the harvest timing of the crop itself (sunlight, rainfall, soil health all begin to matter in a most material way), and what the farms’ schedules are (some farms designate a day or two for harvest and market runs so that they preserve sufficient time on the farm to do the production side of the job). For a Plovgh member, this means that what you can get at a Saturday Pickup Point might be different from what you can get at a Monday Pickup Point. What you get in Greenpoint could be different from what you get at The New School.
The farm is dynamic and so is its marketplace. And so, might I add, are you. So, choose your neighborhood, choose your time, and choose your crops.
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This is Mileston, home of the Mileston Cooperative and a group of the most open-minded farmers I’ve met yet.
This is Mr. McLaurin. He’s been growing an abundance of vegetables and fruit on his family’s land his entire life. His thinking about responsible agricultural practices comes not from the catch-phrasing of the oh-so-recent food movement but from farming alongside his parents on the very land he farms now.
This is the Mississippi Delta. The alluvial soil feels like silk compared to the Midwestern and Northeastern soil I’m accustomed to. And how it makes Mr. McLaurin’s turnips grow!
One turnip, one rutabaga, straight from the farm.
Highway 49, on the way back to Jackson.