On a summer visit back to the farm here where I grew up, I think I figured out the central problem with modern industrial agriculture. It’s not just that it produces unhealthy food, mishandles waste and overuses antibiotics in ways that harm us all.
More fundamentally, it has no soul.
The family farm traditionally was the most soulful place imaginable, and that was the case with our own farm on the edge of the Willamette Valley. I can’t say we were efficient: for a time we thought about calling ourselves “Wandering Livestock Ranch,” after our Angus cattle escaped in one direction and our Duroc hogs in another.
When coyotes threatened our sheep operation, we spent $300 on a Kuvasz, a breed of guard dog that is said to excel in protecting sheep. Alas, our fancy-pants new sheep dog began her duties by dining on lamb.
It’s always said that if a dog kills one lamb, it will never stop, and so the local rule was that if your dog killed one sheep you had to shoot it. Instead we engaged in a successful cover-up. It worked, for the dog never touched a lamb again and for the rest of her long life fended off coyotes heroically.
That kind of diverse, chaotic family farm is now disappearing, replaced by insipid food assembly lines.
The result is food that also lacks soul — but may contain pathogens. In the last two months, there have been two major recalls of ground beef because of possible contamination with drug-resistant salmonella. When factory farms routinely fill animals with antibiotics, the result is superbugs that resist antibiotics.
Michael Pollan, the food writer, notes that monocultures in the field result in monocultures in our diets. Two-thirds of our calories, he says, now come from just four crops: rice, soy, wheat and corn. Fast-food culture and obesity are linked, he argues, to the transformation from family farms to industrial farming.
In fairness, industrial farming is extraordinarily efficient, and smaller diverse family farms would mean more expensive food. So is this all inevitable? Is my nostalgia like the blacksmith’s grief over Henry Ford’s assembly lines superseding a more primitive technology? Perhaps, but I’m reassured by one of my old high school buddies here in Yamhill, Bob Bansen. He runs a family dairy of 225 Jersey cows so efficiently that it can still compete with giant factory dairies of 20,000 cows.
Bob names all his cows, and can tell them apart in an instant. He can tell you each cow’s quirks and parentage. They are family friends as well as economic assets.
“With these big dairies, a cow means nothing to them,” Bob said. “When I lose a cow, it bothers me. I kick myself.” That might seem like sentimentality, but it’s also good business and preserves his assets.
American agriculture policy and subsidies have favored industrialization and consolidation, but there are signs that the Obama administration Agriculture Department under Secretary Tom Vilsack is becoming more friendly to small producers. I hope that’s right.
One of my childhood memories is of placing a chicken egg in a goose nest when I was about 10 (my young scientist phase). That mother goose was thrilled when her eggs hatched, and maternal love is such that she never seemed to notice that one of her babies was a neckless midget.
As for the chick, she never doubted her goosiness. At night, our chickens would roost high up in the barn, while the geese would sleep on the floor, with their heads tucked under their wings. This chick slept with the goslings, and she tried mightily to stretch her neck under her wing. No doubt she had a permanent crick in her neck.
Then the fateful day came when the mother goose took her brood to the water for the first time. She jumped in, and the goslings leaped in after her. The chick stood on the bank, aghast.
For the next few days, mother and daughter tried to reason it out, each deeply upset by the other’s intransigence. After several days of barnyard trauma, the chick underwent an identity crisis, nature triumphed over nurture, and she redefined herself as a hen.
She moved across the barn to hang out with the chickens. At first she still slept goose-like, and visited her “mother” and fellow goslings each day, but within two months she no longer even acknowledged her stepmother and stepsiblings and behaved just like other chickens.
Recollections like that make me wistful for a healthy rural America composed of diverse family farms, which also offer decent and varied lives for the animals themselves (at least when farm boys aren’t conducting “scientific” experiments). In contrast, a modern industrialized operation is a different world: more than 100,000 hens in cages, their beaks removed, without a rooster, without geese or other animals, spewing out pollution and ending up as so-called food — a calorie factory, without any soul.