On milk, farming, and life

This was posted first on our farm blog, The Hedonist Life.

Everyone’s crying over spilt milk, or rather the calves who are sacrificed so that we may drink milk. Dairy farmers are crying over the reputational damage to their livelihood – and it’s not exactly a cushy job commanding six-figure salaries. And it seems to me that everyone is a little bit right, and a little bit wrong, but that there is a clear way forward.

To backtrack, this Animals Australia video which depicts the short life of a ‘bobby calf’ in a manner designed to evoke the most emotion possible managed to upset consumers and farmers equally, from what I can tell. According to the dairy farmers who are commenting on thoughtful blogs such as @milkmaidmarian’s, they don’t send their calves straight to the abattoir, and are acutely conscious of the value of each life they nurture and take on their farms. They frequently make the point that it is the city-based consumers who are too often utterly unaware (and uncaring?) of the conditions under which their food is grown.

I think it’s fantastic that animal welfare groups apply pressure to the livestock industry for humane treatment during an animal’s life and at its death. As an omnivore, I’m frankly not that interested (but also not really fussed) in being told I shouldn’t eat meat – I’ve made my choices thoughtfully and I’m happy with that – but I do want my meat ethically produced.

I also think it’s fantastic that farmers like Marian speak up about their practices, which are different from those displayed in the Animals Australia video. I know the dairy farmer near us has a similar practice – he raises the bull calves to 2 years then sells them for beef (and not for a lot of money, remember, as Friesians are not considered great eating for primal cuts) and the heifers are grown to be more milkers on the farm. I applaud farmers like Marian joining in pressuring for ethical treatment of animals – people like her can help by demonstrating alternatives.

But of course the reason the video exists is because there are apparently 700,000 bobby calves going to slaughter at around five days old – they are ‘waste products’ – and their few days of life entail an existence with which most people are deeply uncomfortable, both for its apparent brutality but also its brevity. I know I’m uncomfortable with the system, and grateful to be in a position to choose organic milk from a farm whose practices I know and trust.

I’m very conscious of the sensitivities in these debates – nobody wants to be ‘that guy who abuses animals’, and ‘abuse’ is far more relative than any of us care to admit. People running intensive animal operations (or CAFOs, aka ‘factory farms’) claim that the animals in their care are ‘happy’, ‘fine’, ‘safe’, or ‘healthy’, but by my definition that’s simply impossible, because I believe in respecting the ‘pigness of the pig’, as Joel Salatin says. So for me, farm animals should be able to graze, dig, forage, scratch and wander in a manner as close to how they would if we weren’t constraining them with some fences and the like as possible. But every time a consumer is happy to buy intensively-farmed chicken (or pork, or beef…), s/he is complicit in the system, and I have been too at times.

But when consumers (or the media or government) cry out in horror over the treatment of animals, they should think long and hard about the precarious position most farmers are in. Farms are at the mercy of the elements, which in this age of climate change has seen Australian farmers cope with constant rounds of drought and floods. Add to this an ever-narrowing range of distribution and retail outlets who control farm gate prices, which have plateaued for years in the face of rising costs of production.

As my limited experience as a producer grows and my interactions with other farmers deepens, I am keenly aware of how difficult it is to simply make a living producing food. And if all the farmers like us are forced out by low prices, consumers will be left with only intensive farms, the same ones where bobby calves are waste products, and pigs and chickens are raised in sheds.

So my thoughts are this: we farmers need to be transparent in our practices and let consumers judge for themselves whether they’re happy with how we treat our animals and the land. The internet is our friend – we can show pictures and tell the stories of our animals (well, slowly slowly until there’s a National Broadband Network, but that’s another post), so long as we are happy with what we’re doing. Those who won’t show us their animals certainly seem to be hiding something, though they protest they’re not. As @greenvalefarm said recently, ‘transparency is the best certification’.

And as consumers, we need to ask questions and listen to farmers. We need to value the people producing our food, both socially and economically. We need to better understand that the reason that farm gate prices may not have been immediately impacted by Coles dropping its price to $1 per litre for milk is because farmers have been getting around 50 cents per litre for over a decade anyway – any extra cash goes into the pockets of processors and retailers (that is, Coles and Woolworths, who have 80% market share in Australia).

I’m happy to pay a lot more than $1 per litre for my milk, but I want the extra to go back to farmers, not to those who would ‘value add’ to a product that I think is best straight from the cow! If you want that too, @flavourcrusader has an excellent alt.milk list on her wonderful blog.

I’m a Farmer (so is my husband)

‘How does it feel to be a farmer’s wife?’

‘It feels great TO BE A FARMER, and ah, I dunno, I’ve been married to Stuart for a bajillion years – feels kinda the same as always to be his wife.’

***

‘I’ll go ask Stuart where to plant this,’ our helper for the day says TO ME and walks away to find him.

***

‘You don’t have the strength or the skills to do what he does.’

***

These are just some of the phrases that have made me despair in these first two months of farming. We came here with a shared vision – to be sustainable, ethical pig farmers. We’d been heading towards this decision for a long time, and once we worked out what we wanted to farm, we spent the year researching pigs – emphasis is on we. We came armed with a reasonable amount of knowledge for city slickers, but also with a huge learning curve ahead of both of us.

I was obviously aware that sexism is an issue in agriculture, I just didn’t consider how it would affect me. As a vocal feminist in academic (and previously secondary education and corporate) spaces, I’m no stranger to sexism in the workplace. But I thought I had a handle on it. Anyone can see from my blog and interactions with me that I (as part of we) have become a farmer – this is the newest phase in my many lives, and I am embracing it wholeheartedly.

So here we are on the farm, learning together. We have a mad menagerie of animals for whom I have largely assumed the leadership. Both of us care for them, but overall, I spend a bit more time feeding them, obsessing about their well being, and drafting a whole farm plan that will guide our paddock rotations and fodder planting schedule. We both spend hours out there working on fences.

Stuart’s dad described this to me as, ‘You’re a planner, and Stuart’s a do-er’. With all due respect, while it’s true that I am more of a planner and Stuart can’t seem to stop doing, I hardly think my planning habits are slowing down my doings, and I am growing the forearms to prove it! Ah, but see, there I go – being defensive. Oh, how I despise being put in this corner.

I have never been anything‘s wife. I’ve always been my own thing who happens to be married.

One of the most exasperating aspects of the seemingly relentless gendering of farmers is the ways in which we do in fact fall into traditional roles. The most obvious one occurs around cooking. I have not given up my role as the primary cook in our house, a role I happen to adore. But it results in me coming in from the paddocks an hour or more before Stuart (and other helpers on the farm) to do meal prep, and consequently less involvement outside, especially when others are here to stay. So visitors witness me inside more, and I feel the need to be there to provide for everyone – compounding both their stereotypes and my frustration.

There are other behaviours that compound the gender roles – Stuart’s background is in building, so of course his skillset while we construct fences, erect new gates, and convert a shipping container into our new bedroom and study is a bit more useful than mine. I therefore defer to him on building matters, which I think is the right thing to do for quality control. 🙂 But this also leads to further assumptions about who is doing what and how much, most of which involve assuming Stuart is a farmer and I’m a homemaker.

Stuart is a lot stronger than me, but in fact very little of the work requires mega-strength, and most can be done by normal strength people such as myself, especially if we work in pairs. Sure, Stuart can lift and carry huge fence posts inhuman distances, but I’d venture to say most farmers actually either couldn’t, or just wouldn’t. They’d use tools rather than brute strength, just as I do.

It’s interesting that nobody ever felt compelled to call me a ‘builder’s wife’ or similar – perhaps partially because our professional identities were distinct? But farming is such a masculine space in Australia – nobody has asked Stuart how it feels to be a farmer’s husband, I can assure you. And it’s such a disenfranchising experience having people fail to see you – in no other profession have people failed to acknowledge me for my work.

Let’s face it, we’re both learning farming skills and we’re both out there building and fixing fences, digging holes, feeding animals, and planting trees and fodder crops. I wouldn’t ask anyone to call me a builder, which I’m not, but I do want the respect of being called a farmer, because I am one.

Welcome to Jonai Farms!

As regular readers are well aware, now we are farmers. And so Jonai Farms must have its own website, of course, where I’ve decided to blog our adventures in farming.

It will be interesting learning which blog is for which post, and occasionally I will simply cross post. So for those interested in all things farming and the rural life, check out The Hedonist Life over at Jonai Farms. 🙂

Rural rhythms…

Rhythms are so much better than schedules. One day might be at a super fast tempo, the next a slow, dreamy waltz. As someone who has never enjoyed regular schedules, I revel in developing rhythms.

In cooking, as in life, rhythms should respond to the seasons. When warmth comes from the sun, it’s the season for light, sharp chopping and cold, crunchy vegetables. When the woodstove warms the hearth, it’s time for slow-simmering stews, endless loaves of bread and a bottomless pot of chai.

Frosty mornings

Jonai Farms is teaching us its rhythms. Frosty mornings call for a hot oven to bake the sourdough that rose overnight as we watch another perfect sunrise.

Bread rising with the sun...
Love that big new oven

Days that can’t break 10C beg for a chai station on the woodstove, which also doubles as a temperature regulator for the nighttime yoghurt making brought on by the endless supply of fresh milk from a local dairy.

Chai station

Perfect spot for setting yoghurt
Real milk

A farmer’s life of physical toil from sun-up to sundown justifies fresh eggs daily on the morning’s sourdough with thick lashings of butter, and sometimes Greenvale Farm‘s most excellent bacon.

A farmer's breakfast

Warm days invite us out for lunches al fresco, but the mercury drop that trails just behind sunset demands enamelled cast iron be filled with luscious lamb shanks, a huge pot of dahl, or cinnamon-spiked chili.

Dinner our first night at Jonai Farms - big pot o' chili

When a big storm knocks out the power for the night, break out the hurricane lamps and shift that osso bucco out of the electric oven and onto the gas stovetop.

Cooking like they used to

A couple days of meaty wintery dishes lead us naturally back to gado gado or palak paneer kofta.

gado gado
Palak paneer kofta, masala dahl & fresh yoghurt

And no matter where we are or what the season, ‘peace and happiness begin, geographically speaking, where garlic is used in cooking’ (Marcel Boulestin).

These are the rhythms making the Jonai happy beyond our wildest expectations of farm life. What a privilege to be both grateful beneficiaries and mindful custodians of the land.

Swimming across Texas

My latest piece on Crikey is up: Swimming across Texas. 🙂

Here are a few bonus photos of our time in vorTexas:

We'll take what water we can find, like so many before us...
West Texan gardening
Off to the Big Texan, Texan style
The Jonai were here - to be painted over momentarily by the Jones...
Cadillac Ranch - 'cos Texas is good at farming cars
Blowout in the RockVan - disaster art. 😉

From field to supermarket, things are amiss

Road Trip USA was envisioned to serve a number of purposes, one of them to visit small, rebel farmers who are concerned enough about the impact of large industrial agriculture to participate in system-wide change through sustainable practices on their own farms. Those we have visited have been generous with their knowledge, and certainly fit Joel Salatin’s criteria that farms should be ‘aromatically and aesthetically pleasing’ – I’ll be posting on some soon…

The first farm we visited was in fact Polyface, which I’ve already detailed. It is a wonderful place, and an inspiration to many new and aspiring farmers such as ourselves. Salatin is not just farming, he’s also combating complacence and acceptance of industrial agriculture as normative through his many books, workshops, and what seems like a lot of time on the lecture circuit. I recommend reading a great post over on ‘Good Cooking for Hard Times’ that outlines some of the consequences of our faith in industrial ag and gives further detail to Polyface.

But I should begin at the beginning. For Road Trip USA, we packed the essential reading for our continued research into sustainable farming, then prepared ourselves for the Land of Processed Food.

When we encountered initial difficulties with the RockVan, you can imagine our surprise in the rather uninspiring town of Springfield, Virginia to find a little diner promoting itself as ‘Farm to Table’ just around the corner from our freeway hotel.

Turns out the Silver Diner is a regional chain that is ‘locally owned and operated’, and while it’s nice to see the interest and effort around sourcing produce locally, I’m really not sure about the ‘natural’ claims nor their ethical credentials after checking out their egg and milk suppliers.

The food we were served fit the bill of most chain fare in the States – large servings smothered in cheese, tasting of, well… fat. Vegetables were in short supply, the pancake breakfast managed to look as though there’s nothing local or natural about it – just what people want, right? I don’t want to knock Silver Diner for trying, but I was struck by how the commercial imperative to cater to the mainstream desire for sameness and quantity seems to be hampering their efforts at really tapping into the ‘farm to table’ movement. Less generously, these people are opportunists dressing up (relatively) local produce as ‘natural’.

But that’s just the first day.

As we’ve traversed thousands of miles across this vast, beautiful country, two of our most common interactions with food and agriculture have been amongst farmlands and supermarkets. Restaurants, while revealing what people eat outside the home, don’t tell you as much about their everyday existence as supermarkets do, and while supermarkets completely obscure their products’ sources, just drive through rural America and you’ll see the often-sad source for yourself.

Much of what we’ve seen evokes a bit of the nostalgic rural idyl – neat rows of corn bursting green across the horizon, the glimmer of red capsicums peeking through deeply verdant fields, circles of golden hay tidily surrounding a homely barn. In Pennsylvania, Virginia and North Carolina, it’s the cavernous old barns in varying states of decay or fresh repair, and if the mid-South is barns, Texas is windmills.

 

Yet if you drive through these fields day after day, week after week, and you have your sustainable and fair-trade agricultural lenses on, what you see is monocultures, dead and dying soils, rubbish-strewn poverty in small farming communities and field-workers’ cottages, and pastures decorated with billboards advertising casinos or treatment for Lupus.

The Mississippi Delta’s relentless monotony of cornfields made me wonder at the outcry against palm tree plantations in Malaysia, when our own backyard is so untidy. Not that I’m suggesting we shouldn’t protest the destruction of rainforests for monocultures, but that we should scrutinise the practices of our own countries more closely (who, of course, are also hugely reliant on palm oil for the gargantuan processed food industry). In case the monocultures don’t give you a touch of dysphoria, there’s the poverty – from run-down trailers to shotgun shacks held together with little more than a Southern Baptist’s prayers, rural Mississippi (which is pretty much all of Mississippi, the poorest state in the US) is poor – like, Flint, Michigan poor.

In Mississippi, what really struck me was the exploitation of labour, as it was pretty obvious that it wasn’t the farm owners’ houses we were despairing at.

But when you get to west Texas, where broad-acre cotton and wheat dominate the landscape, it gets harder to tell who owns what, and our sense was that the mid-sized family farms were the ones under enormous threat from long-term unsustainable practices and the current drought.

There’s spirited debate amongst the farming community here over when they can start calling it of a scale of the Dust Bowl of the 30s, but whether what we’re seeing is that bad or not, it’s very very bad. Whole wheat crops have been ploughed under, cattle sold early, and grain elevators gone bankrupt.

Even the rivers have up and left the state.

 

The detritus of industrial agriculture gone wrong is everywhere – from dead soils to deserted farmhouses, the dust devils are closing in.

Let them eat air - wind farms may be the real future of Texan farming

But from wind springs new life, and just across Interstate 40 from the sad and stinking feedlots outside Amarillo are some of Texas’ many wind farms, a hopeful backdrop to the crumbling disasters of industrial agriculture in America’s midwest. Even the private oil derricks seem relatively harmless as they dredge the last of the land’s lifebloods from under its withering skin.

Lone oil derricks feature in Texan pastures

Yet many argue we must have these monolithic systems in order to feed the world. But what that attitude has given us is a system so broken farmers pay enormous sums to Monsanto to grow tens of thousands of acres of Round-Up-Ready corn to feed ruminants who live out their lives in malodorous CAFOs so we can have 24oz steaks on our plates – in Amarillo your super-sized steak is accompanied by the smell of their excrement in the feedlots just west of town.

You smell the feedlots many miles before you can see them.

And I will point out the obvious – we’re over-feeding the so-called global north, or what used to be called the First World, where now we’re mostly just first in diseases of affluence.

In many of America’s supermarkets, you can’t miss the ‘mobility scooters’ as you collect a trolley. The prevalence of obesity in America is no secret, and the majority of those we’ve seen using the scooters have fit the description. I’m not remotely interested in joining others in fat-shaming – I see no shame in obesity, just higher risk for disease and a diminished quality of life. Yet I can’t help but ponder the motive of supermarkets full of 85% highly-processed food in providing mobility scooters for their customers?

Once inside, you could follow Michael Pollan’s advice and stick to the outer aisles and produce section. And regular readers of my blog will know we go a step further and avoid big chain supermarkets entirely, but for the purposes of research and creativity, we’ve not only gone in, we’ve gone deep.

It starts with a game – try to find a food you know in its original form. Butter? No – oh, wait, yes, some.

'I can believe it's not butter'

Rice? Sure, but almost all instant and flavoured. Cheese? Over there in the dry goods ‘shelf-stable’ area.

Yoghurt? Of course, but I hope you don’t mind artificial flavours and sweeteners, and of course you’ll be delighted it’s all fat free.

Right, so dairy is fat or even dairy free, rice is instant and ‘value added’, and there are typically 3-4 times as many processed meat products as whole. And that’s mostly around Pollan’s supermarket periphery – you should see what’s in the middle. Oh, you’ve been there? So you know there is nothing whole in the middle – it’s entirely made up of ‘ingredients’ created by the wonders of science to befuddle our senses into thinking it’s actually food, marketed as healthier than what we might grow in our own backyards.

The fabulous Zoe recently said on Progressive Dinner Party, I don’t accept that the leap from wheat kernel to bread is the same as the leap from bread to McDonalds‘.

It’s not full-cream dairy making you fat, America. Putting excessive amounts of ‘cheese product’ on highly processed meat products wrapped in highly processed ‘bread’ products served with a side of… well, I don’t know their scientific names… yeah, that and the super-sized sodas and high-sugar cereals, that might make you fat. When even the deli potato salad has High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS), you’re going to get fat.

These processed foods will make us all fat while we blind ourselves to the exploitation of workers who grew and harvested the ingredients that made these ‘foods’ whose origins are no longer recognisable nor traceable. Meanwhile, the workers will continue to die the illnesses of poverty and over-exposure to chemicals, and everyone will get fatter and sadder and act like nobody knows why. And more farmers will continue to leave the land because where is the dairy farmer’s dollar in a product so ‘value-added’ by others down the supply chain it’s no longer primarily made from milk anyway?

Surely the fact that we can eat at the Silver Diner should make us happy? And not having to grow our own tomatoes, add seasoning to our rice, or fruit to our yoghurt – no need to pop our nachos in the oven to melt the cheese? Isn’t it marvellous that we not only don’t have to bake our own bread, we don’t even have to slice it? Those benevolent corporations will even boil your eggs for you.

I guess there really are people who 'can't even boil an egg'. 🙁

Industrial agriculture has made all of us so much happier, hasn’t it? I mean, just look at these tomatoes, right?

This post is linked to Fight Back Fridays – you should check out some of the other Food Renegade posts!

 

A Happy Day at Polyface Farms

Polyface. It’s a name that initially sounded a bit wrong to me – I’m thinking ‘two-faced’ here – but one that we hold in our non-Cartesian selves as ‘Mecca: √’.

It really starts in the beautiful historic downtown of Staunton, Virginia, where a couple of organically-minded cafes and grocers stock Polyface produce. We went into Cranberry’s Grocery and not only secured some luscious Polyface bacon and a big, tender skirt steak, but also organic, unhomogenised milk in a returnable glass bottle and a hunk of raw milk cheese from a local dairy. Raw milk and its products are regulated by state in the US, and the movement seems to be gaining more traction all the time.

How I'd love to see this on our shop shelves in Victoria!

The next morning after a farmer’s brekky of bacon, eggs and day-old sourdough, we drove down locals-only side roads to get to Polyface, which is just a bit southwest of Staunton. As we passed a couple of poultry CAFOs I reflected on what it must have been like for Joel Salatin, the ethical, sustainable pioneer of the region, in his early years as a ‘lunatic farmer’.

Poultry CAFO not far from Polyface

Then I got distracted by how beautiful every single piece of land is there, and how much water there is, and how fertile it is… [NB 20 years in Victoria, Australia has given me a slight drought-twitch].

wildflowers everywhere

And then we were there. We were actually there! But would it live up to our expectations? After all, Joel Salatin is the man who convinced us (from a stage, unawares) that our dream to move to the bush needn’t only be a self-sufficiency opt-out, but one that could help us be part of changes to the food system through contributions as primary producers, and the capacity to earn (some of) a living while doing that.

Stuart has read many of Joel’s books, whereas I, mid-PhD, have only skimmed. As we walked around the property he captioned my view, which was an excellent substitute for a personal tour by Joel, which is currently not an option (I think largely do to over-popularity and his need to farm!). But Polyface has an open-door policy – anyone can come onto the property and wander around to see how they do things – and the farm shop is open Mon-Sat 9-12 (and into the afternoon on Saturday).

We wandered in, unsure of where to start, as the many structures have a similar aspect of charming rural decay – Stuart reminded me of Joel’s credo that a farm that’s too tidy is probably not profitable. Judging by what we saw, the Salatins must be doing okay. 🙂

The first hoop house had rabbits and chickens working together to create fertile soil for planting while fattening up for the table.

Rabbits & chickens eating, pooing & growing

Next we found one of the many barns with the cows’ feeding system on pulleys next to stacks of hay. They winter the cows here, throwing layers of mulch in with the cow manure and sprinkles of corn occasionally. In spring, the cows head out and the pigs come in to turn it all, making a rich compost for crops. Talk about harnessing the power of your livestock.

Cow-feeding system on pulleys

We found some of the pigs in one of them doing their job, or perhaps taking a little break from it…

Nearby we found a couple of sows with their new litters – they farrow in large pens with plenty of nesting material (hay), which not only creates a warm, cosy environment for the new piglets, but makes them less susceptible to crushing by careless new mamas, as was explained to us by one of the former Polyface interns.

Next up, a stroll out into the paddocks to see the meat birds – turkeys and chickens. The young turkeys were contained with mobile electric fencing, and the chickens in ‘tractors’ that are moved regularly to fresh grass. As with any such system (we’ve had the same in our suburban backyards for over a decade), the chooks eat bugs, and weeds and fertilise the soil while getting much of the omega-rich grass into them that gives free range eggs their distinctive deep orange yolks.

Turkeys in the verdant pastures of Virginia
Chook tractors

I loved the ‘eggmobiles’ in the middle of the fields with their noisy, happy layers in and around. It’s a clever system, and one we look forward to implementing on Jonai Farm.

'Eggmobile'

Eggmobile interior

Another highlight was seeing the pigs out in the forest, where as with pasture pigs, they’re rotated regularly. These are very happy pigs, let me tell you, which certainly explains that delicious bacon.

Happy as pigs in a forest 🙂

In one of the structures we found the farm cook – he’s here for four months a year to feed all the hard workers a hearty dinner, usually 24 or 25 people a night. That day he was cold smoking some bacon on the mobile smoker, a huge contraption he told he us he also cooks whole pigs on. Yet another good design for us to implement in Eganstown…

Mobile smoker

We did get to meet Joel briefly, having seen him zooming around in his famous hat on an ATV directing the farm’s many activities earlier. I told him ‘hello’ from Alla at the Lakehouse and that she’d said, ‘may your carrots grow straight’, which is one of Joel’s blessings. He offered his blessings back to her and the Daylesford community, and smiled to hear his influence on us. I gather he hears that a lot actually, as he handles fans like us with affable humility.

The Jonai with Joel Salatin 🙂

We bought each of the kids a Polyface t-shirt (we rarely capitulate to such requests, but this was Polyface!) about the ‘pigness of the pig’ and being ‘future lunatic farmers’.

Mid-tour, we headed back to the RockVan for a quick sandwich of Polyface ham, raw milk cheese and lettuce from Nate & Lizzie’s neighbour in Front Royal they’d given us as a parting gift. After the overwhelming amount of industrial, processed food we’ve seen (and eaten) on this trip, it was a very homely and grounding meal.

Lunatic ham & cheese sandwich

As we approached the farm shop for a few more delectables, we found a crew of local farmers and Polyface interns just finishing the morning’s chicken butchering – 360 birds that day. Unlike so many kids (and adults) who can’t bear to think of where their food comes from, Atticus immediately asked if we could have chicken for dinner.

We bought one of the ‘Freedom Rangers’ already cut up, as I don’t have my cleavers with me, and enjoyed a spectacular dinner of fried chicken up high in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Joel’s philosophy that ‘food production should be aromatically and aesthetically pleasing’ is certainly evident at Polyface. Another bit of wisdom came from Atticus after we visited the pigs in the forest, when he remarked, ‘Farms are about two things: food and fun.’ So long as we keep framing plenty of hard work as fun, I think we may indeed be raising our own ‘future lunatic farmer’.

Between ecotarianism and ethotarianism is conviviality.

As we commence RoadTripUSA, I’m thinking a lot about food. Okay, I always think a lot about food, but there’s something quite specific I’m thinking about and it’s around ‘ecotarianism’, pleasure and conviviality…

In America we’ll eat a lot of good food and a bit of bad food. To judge good and bad I weigh up flavour, texture, ‘wholeness’, seasonality, regionality, sustainability, animal husbandry, workers’ rights, and to some degree, health (though food that’s ‘bad’ for you because it’s fatty, etc, is something I don’t spend much time thinking about regarding our family as our lifestyle of predominantly whole foods nearly always ensures a well-balanced diet – but that’s another post). Making choices that ‘tread lightly’ and treat food and producers respectfully is what I understand by ‘ecotarian’, a fairly new term, discussed on the ABC recently by Cristy Clark.

Like most people, sometimes we compromise our usual principles and eat what we consider ‘bad food’ to greater or lesser extents. Road trips inevitably include some potato chips and sometimes a meal from Subway or a local takeaway, and on Friday nights at home we’ll occasionally order pizza or pick up fish and chips. When we make these choices, we’re still able to avoid factory-farmed pork and chicken rather easily.

When travelling, we usually let our standards slide on ethical meat – we tend to just eat everything as a way of understanding culture better – and that includes pork and chicken that is most likely factory farmed. The traceability issues we face at home are compounded overseas where we’re even less certain of our food’s origins. We continue with our usual habits of not eating too much meat generally, but we do like to try all the local specialties. In America, we’re usually with my family or friends, so keeping to ecotarian principles is pretty easy as we generally know the provenance of the food. However, eating out presents a greater challenge unless dining in one of America’s many wonderful SOLE (Sustainable, Organic, Local and Ethical) focused restaurants and cafes.

This trip to America is different to a visit ‘home’. We’ll be driving through a number of unfamiliar regions, and there’s a world of interesting local dishes I can’t wait to sample, including such nommish delights as pulled pork in the South… but the odds of there being much free-range pork on the menus in Alabama are pretty slim, I reckon. Chicken will pose a similar problem, and thanks to America’s preponderance of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), commonly known as ‘factory farms’, even beef poses an ethical dilemma unless you know the provenance. I could go on about dairy, seafood, fast food franchises, processed snack foods… you get the picture, but I’ll use pork as my primary example given our plans to be free-range pig farmers.

Will we eat pork in the full knowledge that it isn’t from ‘happy pigs’?

Yes, we will.

We won’t eat a lot of it, but we’ll eat it. There are a few reasons why – more than simply ‘I really want to try that because it looks really delicious’, though I can’t pretend that’s not part of the decision-making process. There are a few key reasons why we will compromise our usual ethics, but the core one is conviviality. That is, while traveling, I don’t want to be ‘that person’ who makes everyone uncomfortable by listing all the things we don’t eat, or by turning down food that someone has offered us in their home with, ‘oh, we don’t eat factory-farmed pork’ every time. Such a response not only tells your host you don’t want what they’ve offered, it infers they have done the wrong thing in offering it to you. I would rather leave ethical food discussions to this blog and other writings, and to conversations that are not taking place in the presence of such food.

At home, standards are easy to maintain. We buy or grow the food and we cook it. When in someone else’s home, I don’t ask if the pork is free range if that’s what’s on the menu. In fairness, my friends all know how we are and are pretty unlikely to give us factory-farmed meat, but if they did, I’d eat it. The animal is already dead and cooked at this stage – in my opinion to refuse to eat it is wasteful and disrespectful of the life it gave as well as inhospitable towards one’s hosts.

Mind you, it’s not only when a host offers us something. There’s food on airlines, lack of choice in small country grocery stores and the usual road trip compromises. Or the myriad ‘hidden’ food ethical dilemmas, such as monoculture GM soy in the ingredients or factory-farmed eggs in some muffins at a diner. While our ethic enables us to avoid many such things, we would be miserable trying to completely avoid the horrors of industrial agriculture – sometimes the pleasure principle is achieved by not agonising so much and knowing you’ve done your best.

As I write these things I’m still sorting out the questions around hypocrisy and being complicit in an unethical food system. But the way I’m thinking about it is to understand ecosystems beyond their biological components – to include the social aspects as well.

If farming had not moved outside of ecosystems – as we all know industrial agriculture requires enormous external inputs and must find places beyond their boundaries to process their outputs – we wouldn’t have the severe negative environmental consequences we face today. But in addition to choosing food that comes from a healthy ecosystem, we should generally choose food that is still intricately linked to communities – that both sustains and is sustained by communities. When we conceive of an ethical approach to food this way, we must consider the human social interactions as well as those between humans and other animals or humans and the earth.

I guess rather than calling it ‘ecotarianism’ then, you might call it ‘ethotarianism’, because it’s about a consistent ethic of respect and pleasure. I’ve often said we should all be hedonists – in the tradition whereby one’s driving principle is to seek pleasure, both for oneself and for others, and taking one’s pleasure should not withdraw it from others, whether they are human, animal or vegetable.

But this complicates the question – the choices are in fact even more difficult than simply seeking ethically produced food – because sometimes the pleasure of various participants will be at odds. A clear example is when I’m offered a plate of pulled pork from unhappy pigs by a relative in the South – it’s too late to give that pig a happy life, but I can still be gracious to my host. Wherever possible, I avoid putting myself in such a position, but once in it, choices must be made, and mine will be to eat what I’m offered.

Going Up the Country, Farmers We Will Be!

Less than three months ago, I wrote about our Notice to Vacate and how it galvanised us to action. Farmers we would be. Well guess what, dear readers? We found a farm!

View to the east overlooking the house

It’s a beautiful 69 acres just west of Daylesford with an ordinary little 3-bedroom house on it. We’re putting all our worldly goods into a 40-foot high top shipping container, storing it on the property, and buggering off on RoadTripUSA ’til the end of August. Upon our return, we will convert the container into a parents’ retreat, with bedroom, study and our own bathroom for the first time since kids! Within a couple years we’d like to build a bigger Dream House.

ALL OF THIS IS SO EXCITING I’VE BEEN SHOUTING WITH DELIGHT ALL DAY ON THE TWITTERZ. 😀

We hope to get our first pigs soon after our return, and the first Pig Day (a la the wonderful de Bortolis) will be next winter. Don’t worry, you’ll hear about it. Other ideas include small herds of heritage cattle and sheep, plenty of chickens (we can have roosters finally!), ducks, turkeys… we’re investigating possible crops for small-scale commercial production such as garlic and horseradish as well. And of course we can’t wait to set up a serious permaculture system for our own delicious household growing.

For those wondering, have these months been stressful? UNEQUIVOCALLY YES. Not only has our future accommodation been uncertain since February, we’ve been trying to pull RoadTripUSA together in the midst of that uncertainty. I’m sure it’s just pure bloody-mindedness paired with eternal optimism that got us to where we are…

And let’s add to that list ongoing PhD work (and missed deadlines), a journal article in need of revision after the referees’ reports, CAPA work far more than two days a week (which is what I signed up for and fishbowl-optimist believed would happen) which has seen me interstate a number of times, the normal work involved in keeping a family of five on track plus Stuart’s regular demands of running and further developing Solarvox while still consulting for his old company two days a week… do you want me to stop now? I do. Stop.

In just over two weeks, we will fly away. That original starry-eyed plan where we buy a farm and settle when we get back, so we get to travel for three months rent and mortgage free has amazingly come true. It feels like we’ve done it by the skin of our teeth, but by golly we did it! Farmers we will be! 🙂

National Sustainable Food Summit 2011

The National Sustainable Food Summit was put on in Melbourne 5/6 April by 3 Pillars Network – on their website they say they ‘will be the leading knowledge network for sustainable business in Australia.’

When I saw the event advertised, I knew immediately that I wanted to go. Unfortunately, my $1500 research funding allowance over the duration of candidature from my School at the University of Melbourne was exhausted last year, and I used up my one funding opportunity for an overseas conference and research on last year’s trip to Finland and Italy, so I had to come up with the registration fee myself, which was not insignificant at $655 (the student price) for two days. Given that no papers were printed (for sustainability reasons – not even the program), I honestly cannot imagine why it cost so much except that it must have been a tidy profit-making enterprise for 3 Pillars. The catering was mostly sustainable, ethical food – free range meats, organic milk and the like, but I still think the price was very high, and sadly meant a lot of people who would have had a lot to contribute (such as small, ethical producers?!) weren’t able to attend.

But on to the event! Because it was organised by a private organisation rather than government or higher education, I was unsure what to expect, and even more unsure what the outcomes would be. A Summit implies gathering the best minds to apply to a problem with a view to informing policy, regulation and community leadership. I’m not entirely clear how 3 Pillars intends to pursue the former two, but it’s obvious that they and many attendees are in fact community leaders, and that this event brought a diverse group together to talk about climate change, food security and a sustainable food future.

I’ll leave it to you to ask questions about the sponsors – I was just relieved neither of Australia’s grocery duopoly were on the list, and the diverse representation from across Australia’s food production, distribution, retail and consumption spectrum was important, in my view.

The key messages I took away were simple: we need good policy and regulation to support sustainable food production and recognise the important role farmers play as custodians of our natural resources, the free market has caused private interests to corrupt aspects of the food system for personal gain that is not in the public interest, and we need to dramatically increase the public’s knowledge and respect for food from paddock to plate.

I’ve quite simply typed up my notes as I took them throughout the Summit (I also tweeted a lot of this on the hashtag #SFS). They are not exhaustive, and I do hope I’ve recorded what I heard accurately. Any corrections would be welcome. The full presentations are up on the 3 Pillars Network Event Blog.

Professor Robin Batterham – ‘What does food security mean and why is it important to Australia?’

  • Population is projected to grow from 6 billion currently to 9 billion by 2050
  • A greater proportion of the world, due to increasing affluence, will (want to) consume more meat and dairy.
  • Increases in aquaculture.
  • Markets are fully globalised
  • France is subsidising farmers because they’re part of the environment and need preserving – a precious heritage and future?
  • Points from The Coming Famine by Julian Cribb
    • A price on emissions and rising energy costs will lead to more expensive fertilisers
    • Peak phosphorus is upon us (Cribb argues we passed it in 1989)
    • 70% of ‘blue water’ is already withdrawn from the system
    • More soil degradation and erosion
    • Productivity gains have lessened/plateaued
    • Food prices track fuel/energy prices
    • Food riots track grain prices
  • Australia produces enough food for 60 million people
  • Although Australia produces less than 3% of global wheat supply, we are the 4th largest wheat exporter
  • More droughts and floods (climate change)
  • Increasing price volatility due to global connectivity
  • Increased reliance on imports
  • The UK throws out 3 billion cartons of uneaten yoghurt per annum (use by dates are very bad policy/regulation)
  • Australian expertise in low input agriculture can help us:
    • develop a carbon neutral food sector
    • develop innovative resource management
  • Land planning focus must improve
    • should decrease taxes on peri-urban land still being used for food production

Dr Amanda Lee, Queensland Health

  • Adults eat:
    • 20% too much red meat (yet young women eat too little)
    • 40% too much starch
    • 30% too many refined grains
  • If 35% of the population is overweight or obese, has the free market failed us?

Robert Pekin, Food Connect

  • A reflection – while driving, you see manicured lawns and gardens. On the train, you see backyards, get a perspective of where and how much home food production is happening (not much in many areas?)
  • Fresh produce consumption increases when people sign up with a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) box drop system
  • In a CSA, 55% of the retail dollar goes back to the farmer compared with normal average of 15%
  • We need to shift our focus from purely production to issues around distribution and consumption

Jock Laurie, National Farmers Federation

  • Don’t blame farmers for lack of access and over-processing of food – that’s bad policy and business
  • Bad policy and supermarket wars in the face of increasing costs of production are pinching farmers

Julian Cribb, author of The Coming Famine

  • Farmers must double production (by the 2060s) with:
    • half the water
    • less land
    • no fossil fuels (eventually)
    • scarce and costly fertilisers
    • less technology
    • more climate instability
  • Food stress leads to conflict, government failures, ‘refugee tsunamis’ and inflation
  • Solutions:
    • Develop a new eco-agriculture
    • Urgently develop renewable energy sources for agriculture
    • Increase research and development
    • Fair incomes for farmers
    • Recycle urban sewerage for fertilisers
    • Bio-cultures and algae farms
    • New diet: 23,000 edible plants
    • Rehydrate, revegetate, re-carbonise
    • Teach respect for food

Kirsten Larsen, Victorian Eco-Innovation Lab (VEIL)

‘Future Scenarios for Food? Victorian Food Supply Scenarios’

You really have to have a look at the full report to appreciate what an excellent bit of research this is from VEIL. I can’t do justice to the scenarios they propose here!

  • Adjustment scenario – net food availability decreases
  • Control scenario – food stability
  • DIY scenario – mixed results

Michael McCallum, Global Foresight Network

  • Transactional thinking and effort won’t get us there
  • People have short-term agendas
  • We need transformational thinking
    • Understand why (the shapers)
    • Deconstruct assumptions
    • Focus on where we need to go beyond now (transcendence – transformation is required)
    • Reconstruct meaning and new systems
    • Design integration pathways
    • Drive a change agenda at speed (urgent)
  • Fundamentals of the new curve:
    • resilience – adaptability – sustainability – future focused

Consumption break out session

‘Obesity and climate change are two huge market failures’ (UK)

  • In January 2007 (Australia) 78% of people were concerned about the environment
  • Now it’s 60%
  • Concern rarely translates into action
  • A higher tendency towards green consumption generally leads to decreased consumption
  • There is no consistent market segment that exhibits more sustainable behaviour – higher levels of knowledge correlates to less behaviour change?

Local food economies break out session

  • When the population rapidly increased and food availability decreased in Cuba, people moved to cities – so the government invested in rural areas to draw people back out.
  • Overly strict food safety is a barrier to local food production and distribution, including things like food swaps (pig days, etc)

Dr John Williams, Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists

  • Must increase production while decreasing impact on the environment.
  • Must make farming mimic natural ecosystems – they must generally be closed systems
  • Pricing food for sustainability:
    • Reward the provision of ecosystem services (by farmers)
    • Need investment in the economic valuation of ecosystem services
    • Reward farmers for sustaining the land as a matter of public good
    • Cost of food doesn’t include the cost of maintaining natural resource base
    • Need government to create/adjust policy that creates incentives for sustainable practice and costs to the environment being internalised
    • Need market and trade policies that remove perverse subsidies
    • Regulatory framework to ensure food production does not lead to damage to natural resources and environment
    • Need an Australian Standard for sustainable agriculture for local and imported goods

Dr Tim Flannery, Chief Commissioner of the Climate Commission

  • To address issues of an increasing population you need to address education and women’s rights in the developing world – alleviate poverty and you address population issues

Michael McCallum, Global Foresight Network

  • Beyond an economic lens
  • Pressures in current systems deliver poor returns
  • Opportunities:
    • producing with constraints
    • food cycles not waste
    • focus on optimising high nutrition
  • Reconnect people with food
  • Accelerate knowledge and dialogue to deliver a new system

Richard Hames, Asian Foresight Institute

  • We became ‘consumers’ in the 1920s – an audience member suggested we should be ‘food citizens’ rather than the more passive ‘consumers’
  • Australia21 is setting up a Sustainable Food Lab
  • Beyond today’s worldview:
    • Production – increase biodiversity, sustainable practices, conserve ecosystems, local and organic investment
    • Environment – resilient design, protecting diversity, valuing ecosystems, stewardship, adaptability
    • Consumption – not more, but healthier, national food reserve, greater equity, education and information

‘60% of the world’s investments at the moment go to weapons’

  • Our opportunities:
    • Move swiftly to a steady state, low carbon economy using existing technologies
    • focus new investment on climate change adaptation
    • Conserve biodiversity and increasing nutritional diversity
    • Build resilience into the supply-demand cycle
    • Increase investment in sustainable rural farmers
    • Less the power and profit motives of Food, Inc (entire supply chain of big agro-industry through to retailers)
    • Embed sustainable practices – biomimicry, permaculture
    • Move from profit motive as a social priority to other forms of value
    • Legislate unintended consequences out of the system

Waste break out session

  • Sustainability Victoria survey
    • 40% of household waste is food
    • Households report they throw out $2000 worth of food per annum
    • That’s 8L/week per household of food waste
    • 700,000 tonnes, or 7% of waste in Victoria
    • Identified four broad groups of people: Zealots, Planners, Triers and Wasters in order of minimal to maximum food waste. Education programs should target Triers.
  • Katy Barfield, Second Bite
    • 7.5 million tonnes of food wasted per annum in Australia
      • ‘leakages’ and surplus food
      • pre-harvest
      • harvested – inefficiency/quality rejection
      • post-harvest
      • retail
      • edible
    • 1.2 million people in Australia are regularly at risk of not having enough food
    • We need to value food waste
      • economic value – food donors save on landfill, possible tax savings; real $$ value to community programs
      • social value
      • environmental value
      • health value

Don’t just ask ‘how do we produce more?’ but also ‘how do we effectively redistribute food throughout the system?’

Michael Velders, ARUB

One person’s urine provides enough NPK to fertilise 400-500 square metres of agricultural land

Ideas

  • there should be a total ban on organic waste to landfill
  • hospitality must separate all waste – compost and re-saleable/useable
  • triple bottom line reporting
  • ‘humanure’ should be accepted – ban on any sewerage into the sea

Michael Raupach, PMSEIC Expert Working Group on Energy-Water-Carbon (EWC)

PMSEIC – 2010 – ‘Challenges at Energy-Water-Carbon Intersections’

  • Connectivity challenge – trade, media, education, information
  • Resilience (from Resilience Alliance)
    • can recover from disturbances and shocks
    • can adapt by learning
    • can undergo transformation when necessary
    • resilience is a product of evolution
  • Finite planet and connectivity challenges require new foci:
    • integrative thinking
    • holistic education (eg food knowledge)
    • holistic innovation
  • Recommendations from the PMSEIC Report
    • Consistent principles for the use of finite resources:
      • ensure markets transmit full, linked, long-term costs to society
      • require resource accounting to be comprehensive and consistent
      • make markets work with non-market strategies
    • Develop and implement smart network methods
    • Build EWC resilience in landscapes
      • joint food, fibre, water production
      • innovative new technology (eg algal systems)
      • viable farms and rural communities
      • increase resource efficiencies and yields
    • Build EWC resilience in cities and towns
      • increase energy and water efficiency
      • recycle water with energy cogeneration
      • improve microclimates
      • change behaviours to reduce demand
      • stop sprawl with good planning, incentives
      • increase urban food production
    • Develop integrative perspectives
      • enhance incentives for integrative research
      • implement a new core research effort
      • ensure stable and ongoing delivery of essential information
      • a new education paradigm (Earthcare?) – preschool to adulthood, food awareness

Brad, CSIRO

  • The public welcomes supply chain transparency, but then tackling environmental issues head on such as by pricing pollution, etc, is a very hard sell
  • Different forms of reporting available – not everything needs to be on the label
  • Perhaps on the label should include – carbon, water and land?

There’s a lot of information here, and many conversations to have about it all. I’ll pick up some of the threads in future posts. Thanks to 3 Pillars Network for putting on a very stimulating and informative Summit!

If you’re interested in Sustainable, Organic, Local, and Ethical (SOLE) food, you should check out Fight Back Fridays at Food Renegade. 🙂