The Failure of Success

31 May

Okay, so back when I wrote this post about West Virginia that barely anyone read (and really, who can blame you?) I said that because of the nature of my new job, I would be writing a lot more about the environment.  Well, as bad luck has it (2014 is not the Year of the Rebekah as I had hoped) my job fell through.  Well, I don’t know if “fell through” is really the right way to describe it.  Maybe I’ll tell you the story when you’re a little bit older.  The reason that I mention this is that I have decided that, job or no job, I am going to write some stuff about the environment anyway so take that!

Also I am totally avoiding writing about Elliot Rodger and #YesAllWomen because every time I start to write about it (which now is three separate occasions and, likely, counting) I either end up feeling sick to my stomach or crying in the bathroom.  I am clearly not emotionally prepared for that whole thing.

So, right now I am reading Dan Barber’s new book The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food.  I am only about 50 pages in and already it is so good and I pretty much wish it was long enough that I could read it on and on and on for the rest of my life.  Seriously.  Has that ever happened to you?  It’s like, you read this book and it is so enthralling that you just want to read it on a continuous loop or else have it be like a million pages long and still somehow manage to be interesting?  Well, it’s happening to me now and I am really happy about it.  Do you guys know who Dan Barber is?  So he’s a chef and he owns Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns.  He also was an early advocate for the farm-to-table food movement that has become a central tenet in the whole locavore thing that’s been happening recently.  So the thing that is extra cool about Barber, I think, is that he is one of those people that is always looking to expand his knowledge and improve upon the way that his actions effect the world around him.  If you want to see what I am talking about, and also what got me interested in reading his book in the first place, you should read his New York Times op/ed piece from this past May 17th called “What Farm-toTable Got Wrong.”  It’s actually an excerpt from the book I am reading now! The basic idea of his article, and of the entire book, is that the locavore idea that “eating local can reshape landscapes and drive lasting change” is actually wrong.  Barber says,

“For all its successes, farm-to-table has not, in any fundamental way, reworked the economic and political forces that dictate how our food is grown and raised. Big Food is getting bigger, not smaller. In the last five years, we’ve lost nearly 100,000 farms (mostly midsize ones). Today, 1.1 percent of farms in the United States account for nearly 45 percent of farm revenues. Despite being farm-to-table’s favorite targets, corn and soy account for more than 50 percent of our harvested acres for the first time ever. Between 2006 and 2011, over a million acres of native prairie were plowed up in the so-called Western Corn Belt to make way for these two crops, the most rapid loss of grasslands since we started using tractors to bust sod on the Great Plains in the 1920s.”

What the hell happened?  I mean, obviously there are the social, geographical, economic (etc, etc, etc) constraints that impact most people’s abilities to eat the way they might like to.  And, of course, a lot of people either don’t have access to information, are not interested in making a fundamental change to the way they eat, or do not see a connection between what they buy and what impact that has to the world all around us.  (I know I am totally oversimplifying, and I know there are things that I am not delving into here, but I think maybe I will save that for another day since I think I might be writing about this stuff more often.  Oh, lucky you.)  But the thing that Barber points out is that the way that we engage with the idea to eat more local is fundamentally flawed.  In Barber’s words,

“The larger problem, as I came to see it, is that farm-to-table allows, even celebrates, a kind of cherry-picking of ingredients that are often ecologically demanding and expensive to grow.  Farm-to-table chefs may claim to base their cooking in whatever the farmer’s picked that day…but whatever the farmer has picked that day is really about an expectation of what will be purchased that day.  Which is really about an expected way of eating.  It forces farmers into growing crops like zucchini and tomatoes (requiring lots of real estate and soil nutrients) or into raising enough lambs to sell mostly just the chops, because if they don’t, the chef, or even the enlightened shopper, will simply buy from another farmer.”

So I read that and I had this moment of all these different thoughts.  I will list them here in no particular order:

(1) God damnit.  Seriously, Barber?  Sometimes it feels like no matter what we try to do we are still doing the wrong thing! (At this point I threw a pillow.)

(2) Well, duh, why didn’t I think of this before?  The entire system of everything is based on an understanding of supply and demand and so of course the farmer is going to try and figure out, based off the knowledge of people’s eating habits, what those people are likely to buy and then grow food accordingly.  It makes sense to plant nutritionally-needy plants if that is what people are going to purchase because it is better to actually sell things than to be that asshole farmer* at the farmer’s market with some cow peas or some shit** that no one wants to buy.

(3) What now?!

Luckily for us (or, I guess, right now for me and whoever else is reading this book) Barber does not just complain and act all gloom and doomy.  He (sort of) presents solutions.  The solutions, at least so far, are buried in pieces of information.  What is good for the environment and for agriculture is good for us. But the agriculture that we rely upon now is inherently flawed.  The idea that Barber seems to be espousing is that we work with nature, rather than making it work for us.

So the part of the book that I am reading right now is all about soil.  One of the ways’ that Barber gets into this discussion is a look at the way his own restaurant runs.  He put, over the years, so much energy into trying to run as sustainable and responsible a shop as possible (including eliminating menus and instead telling people of the ingredients available that day) and yet he completely missed thinking about one of the central ingredients in any kitchen:  wheat!  He discovered that every day he was using pounds and pounds of white flour in all manner of food preparation and that white flour has practically nothing in common with actual wheat at all.  It is so bastardized that to eat plain, white flour is practically like eating a handful of chalk.  It’s awful and gluey and flavorless.  But wheat wasn’t always this way!  It used to have its own unique flavor.  And not only that, it used to be perennial and have a super intense root system to match, a root system that more or less allowed the plant to take care of itself.  In its place we planted acres upon acres of the drought resistant “Turkey Red,” an annual with puny roots that need to be fertilized by farmers because the plant cannot feed itself.  Wes Jackson, one of the farmers whose knowledge Barber cites in the book, had this to say upon analyzing a life-sized above and below ground photograph of an old wheat variety versus the Turkey Red:

Pointing to the annual wheat, “Of course, this wheat won out.  Sixty million acres of puny roots that we need to fertilize because it can’t feed itself.  Puny roots that leak nitrogen, that cause erosion and dead zones the size of New Jersey.  This wheat won out, but what you’re looking at is the failure of success.” (Italics mine.)

You guys, that blew my mind.  That line “the failure of success” really summarizes so many of the things I have read about agriculture and the environment over the past 10-15 years.  Sure, we have figured out how to grow more, faster but at what cost?  This idea that, as Barber says, we set out to “conquer rather than to adapt.”  When Europeans came over to North America and violently took the land from those who had lived here for generations, the land they took boasted some of the most fertile soil in the entire world.  Fast-forward to the 1930s and we had one of the biggest environmental disasters in our history:  the Dust Bowl.  That is what happens when we completely denude the soil to the point that there is nothing to hold the topsoil in place.  It simply just blows away.  It’s also what happens when we bend the environment to suit what we perceive as our “needs.”  I am going to quote just this one last thing before I go back to reading the book because I am so incredibly excited to learn more things!  Nature has a way of taking care of itself and yet we fight against it.  We insist on planting monocultures, on developing these insane new weed and pest resistant plants that only, over time, require more and more chemicals to make them grow.  And all the while we ignore what nature is telling us: treat the cause instead of the symptoms.  Don’t spray plants because you see an infestation of beetles, figure out what caused the beetles to come in the first place because pests and “weeds,***” as I learned, tend to attack sick or stressed plants.  If we mother our plants well, they will not attack.  And that requires a certain kind of worldview.

“It helps if your worldview includes the belief that nature knows best.  A plant suffering from an infestation of pests is not a shortcoming of nature; it’s a plant you’re not mothering well.  Either the nutrient balance in the soil is wrong or your crops aren’t being rotated properly or the variety cultivated is wrong for the area — or any one of dozens of other possibilities.  Your job is to figure it out.  Since the chemical farmer has the option of spraying the problem away, he tends not to bother.”

Okay so maybe I am not quite done.  I know I’m not a farmer and I know that it is not an easy life and that figuring out problems and addressing them is difficult and expensive.  I am not judging.  But what I am doing is reading this book and thinking about my life beyond my own purchase of food (which, honestly, I am now feeling is not nearly as responsible as I had previously believed) and to include everything else.  The root cause of so many of our problems is that we are addicted to the quick fix but the thing is that, more often than not, that approach simply causes a higher number of even more complicated problems down the line, problems that we seem to completely ignore, maybe not as individuals but as a species.  Look at what we are experiencing now, environmentally.  The world is actually dying.  Years and years of doing things, and completely ignoring the impacts, have led us to where we are.  Beyond continuing this book, and hopefully writing more posts resulting from what I learned, I don’t really know what to do.  To be honest, I feel very tempted to buy some crazy weird (AKA naturally occurring, unadulterated) variety of wheat and try to make bread.  I’ll let you know how that goes.

*Environmentally speaking probably the smartest farmer of all.

** Cow peas are actually not “some shit” at all but you know what I mean.

*** I learned the actual definition of weed!  Well, according to this one farmer’s Agronomy 101 class: a weed is “anything that grows where you don’t want to it grow.”  Seriously, how ridiculous.

7 Responses to “The Failure of Success”

  1. CJ René June 1, 2014 at 9:41 am #

    awesome! there are some grain farmers at union square and williamsburg markets (well, at least there were like 2 years ago). the freekah is amazing and omg wheat berries. all of the things. anyway! yay! environment posts! and now i have to reevaluate my own pantry.

    • FranklyRebekah June 1, 2014 at 9:54 am #

      I love freekah. Holy cow it is so good.

      • CJ René June 1, 2014 at 9:55 am #

        I know! I am totally recruiting people to the freekah fandom. Seriously, I could eat it every day just made with salt and olive oil.

      • FranklyRebekah June 1, 2014 at 9:56 am #

        I want some right now.

      • CJ René June 1, 2014 at 10:00 am #

        me too. i have to buy it at whole foods though instead of a pierced and tatted farm chick.

      • FranklyRebekah June 1, 2014 at 10:01 am #

        That fucking city…

      • CJ René June 1, 2014 at 10:03 am #

        i say that at least once a day. also i say hehe titties. but not about DC.

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