LittleField Notes Prodigal Sun & Food Ethics

LittleField Notes Prodigal Sun & Food EthicsLittleField Notes: Prodigal Sun & Food Ethics

by Ryan Foxley of Arlington, WA
photos by Joe D. Finnerty

Prodigal Sun

As I sit down to tap out these words I can’t help but notice the silence. For the first time in two weeks there is no rain pelting the roof, no sound of the downspout working overtime, no roar of the swollen river. With eight inches of rain in two weeks every depression in the lower pasture is full of water, one pond flowing into the next creating a new system of tributaries. Nights I’ve fallen asleep to the roar of the raging river through the open bedroom window. But now… silence.

And the sun, that rare and pleasant orb, is making one of its infrequent winter appearances. Around here we welcome it like the prodigal son returned. We are tempted to be unforgiving, to hold a grudge for staying away so long and being so fickle; but when the bright rays shine all is forgiven and we welcome it back with love and forgiveness. We soak up our vitamin D; enjoy its brilliance on the green grass and be thankful to be graced by its regenerative presence.

Mid January, and despite still being in the depths of winter, bulbs are coming up and certain buds are swelling. A few early birds chirp. Canada geese and ducks have taken up residence on the rain-swelled pasture ponds, happy to find a place to winter without snow and ice. I know how they feel.

Work involves mostly fixing broken things, hauling manure and feeding livestock. There is always a list of items that need fixing: the bent handle on the spring-tooth harrow; the lately acquired John Deere #4 mower needs the cutter bar shortened to make it a Fjord friendly machine, fix the busted up grain box in Oley’s stall, install new grease cups on the little four foot garden disc, find out why the one horse grain drill is bound up, dismantle the parts tedder so the parts are accessible next summer and the bulk of it can be gotten out of the rain, replace the wooden diagonal bracing on the wagon with angle iron for more rigidity, shim the hold downs on the other John Deere mower so I can use thicker modern knife sections since I have had such a devil of a time locating the old ones. There are more projects of course, some of which will get put off until next winter, or the next.

I was talking with an old-timer some years ago about the seemingly endless nature of work on the farm and he said “Yep, when yer done yer dead.” I guess I best not complain about new projects; they may be all that’s keeping me alive.

Food Ethics

To my great delight a sizable portion of the general eating public has over the past few years decided to begin to care a great deal about where their food comes from. This is good for small farmers. It bodes well for the future of the planet and leaves me hopeful. People seem to be taking Wendell Berry’s words to heart that “eating is an agricultural act;” that with every forkful we are participating in the act of farming.

God bless these well-intentioned folks, but I don’t envy the sea of words and rhetoric that must be plowed through and understood to simply make good choices about what to cook for supper. Here is a sampling of some of the jargon you will hear when you start talking food: organic, free range, fair trade, hormone free, cruelty free, RBGH free, local, heritage, open pollinated, natural, bio-dynamic, GMO free, traditional, wild crafted, shade grown, grass fed, pastured, sustainable. You’ve got to have a PhD in abbreviations and a buzzword handbook to go to the grocery store these days.

Unfortunately, in a heavily industrialized food economy, these labels have become necessary, not so much for small farmers mind you, but for the industrial players – yes. It is true that distinctions must be made between the good, the bad and the toxic. There is in my mind a sliding scale of food morality, a food ethics pyramid if you will, that takes into account all the factors that go into the production of a given product. Small-scale local farmers are at the top while the multi-national food corporations are at the bottom. There is a vast middle ground occupied by all manner of players trying to get their voices heard and their products sold.

If local and small-scale farmers hold the moral high ground, then corporate farms have laid claim to the moral wasteland. They are increasingly being called out for their fraudulent, soil killing and inhumane practices. The big food corporations know this – and it makes them nervous. Why else would they fight the labeling of food products which contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs)? Why else would Big Dairy vehemently insist that consumers buy their line that there is no scientific proof that milk from hormone injected cows is any different than milk from non-treated cows? These giant corporate “farms” fear an eating public with a conscience. They fear full disclosure lest their dirty ways be exposed for what they are. They insist on holding fast to the lie that all food is created equal.

Here is what our pyramid of food ethics looks like: At the top is the food grown in one’s own back yard. You walk out the back door with scissors in hand, bend down and snip perfect baby lettuces, pluck plump crisp radishes and head for the kitchen and enjoy salad bliss. No workers or soils were exploited; no refrigerated semi-trucks needed, no sprays or giant tractors necessary; just the sweat of your brow, homemade compost and a little love.

Just down a notch on the pyramid is food grown by friends and neighbors. This food comes mainly from CSA programs and local farmers markets and that anonymous neighbor who leaves three or four 18 lb. zucchinis on your front porch in the middle of the night. This is the food grown by small farmers and gardeners who care about their soils and their communities. This food is highly ethical. It is the principal way in which communities have fed themselves since the dawn of agriculture.

Once we get down to the next level in the pyramid the game gets more complicated. Now you have large operations selling to middlemen, processors and large grocery chains. This is where the labeling mentioned above kicks in. Walk into a supermarket and the choices are seemingly endless. The labels that a company affixes to its products are a means of distinguishing one product from another similar product. Labels are one more way to draw a customer’s attention to a product from the vast array of supermarket choices. However these labels will only help a shopper to the extent that they are knowledgeable about the various labeling claims. If someone wishes to buy beef will it be corn fed, grass fed, organic – or some combination thereof? If the consumer wants to make an informed choice, they must have a certain degree of knowledge. They not only need to know the difference between grass fed and grain finished beef, but also what importance may be attached to the distinction.

In our family one of the main items that we cannot grow for ourselves is coffee. The coffee we buy is label heavy: shade grown, fair trade, organic, single source. A highly regarded local company roasts our coffee. Portions of its profits are sent back to help fund schools in coffee growing communities. Coffee snob that I am, I get to drink freshly roasted gourmet coffee and feel good about it. The labels in this case help me know what kind of farming practices were used to produce a product a half a world away.

LittleField Notes Prodigal Sun & Food Ethics

Your Story

I bring this whole topic up because as a farmer, or as one dreaming of becoming a farmer, you will frequently face these kinds of questions both from yourself as you develop your business and from your customers as they decide whether or not they should buy what you have to offer. Should you jump through the hoops and go to the expense and trouble of becoming certified organic? How about Demeter certified biodynamic? Should you call your produce natural? Poison free? And when someone approaches your farmer’s market stand and asks you why you aren’t certified will you have an articulate answer that satisfies a skeptical, if well intentioned customer?

Without rambling on (whole books have been written on this subject) I want to point out that the issue of food labeling, farming practice and certification is not black and white. We live in an immensely complicated world that seems to get more so every year. As a result it is of vital importance that modern small farmers understand how they are going to gain the trust of the eating public. Consumers are increasingly savvy and they will expect you to be able to sell them on your story.

Small farmers who sell direct to a local market should not need a third party certifying agency. This gets to the heart of the labeling and buzzword overload that exists in our current food climate. When local people buy local food, questions of trust and integrity tend to take care of themselves. In all the years I sold at farmer’s markets and restaurants I never had a single customer not make a purchase because I lacked certification. I always told my customers that my certification was my name and phone number on the label. “Call me,” I would say “come and see the farm for yourself.” A few did. No one questioned my integrity. And if my integrity had been in question you can bet I would not have stayed in business long.

Your certification is your commitment – your visible commitment to your community, to your heritage breed, to your grandfather’s old world seeds, to your children and your children’s children, to your land. Your story, demonstrating your commitment and integrity, will be a powerful antidote to the corporate/government dominance of our food supply.

When our family sold produce at the Jackson Hole farmer’s market we prominently displayed a poster with pictures of the farm: the horses at work, naked toddlers in the garlic, the hoop houses, barn. We usually had a kid or two with us. Smiles on our faces. We chatted with folks and put a friendly face behind the food. It was all part of our real life story – our “certification.”

Your story is powerful. Tell it. Live it.

LittleField Notes Prodigal Sun & Food Ethics