Thursday, May 6, 2010

Rabbit-fed pigs and farmers as teachers

Eric's comment does not stop my uncontrollable giggling. My step-mother comes over to see why I'm hysterical. She agrees with Eric - it is funny, but not funny enough to explain why tears of laughter are literally coming out of my eyes.

I'm reading a passage in Michael Perry's excellent book _Coop: A Year of Poultry, Pigs and Parenting_. I gave the book to my step-mother for her birthday, and during a family visit (note blog silence) from which we returned last night, I finally read it.

Now I read a lot of the "How We Done Moved to a Farm and Made Fools of Ourselves" genre of literature, because people give them to me and lend them to me, and I'm one of those people who will read anything. Some of them, like Perry's missive, are good. Some of them are dreadful (I will try to refrain from naming names here.) There are sub-categories to the genre - "How my wife/husband dragged my behind to the farm and I learned to put up with it" (_Hit by a Farm_, _Stronger than Dirt_), "How I bought a farm and actually didn't do any farming but hired other people to do it and wrote cute stories about animals" (_50 Acres and a Poodle_ and various books by Michael Korda and Jon Katz_), "How we Farm Very, Very Seriously and Work Very, Very Hard" (_Harvest_ and the totally luminous and wonderful _Seasons on Henry's Farm_.)

When the books are good, I often read them not for the charming stories of the pet rooster or the melodic prose about tomatoes, but for the odd recognitions of common reality - the things people who farm (or sort of farm) know but other people don't, or even secreted tips about how to do things. From _Seasons on Henry's Farm_ for example I recently got a new idea about how to start broccoli seedlings that I plan to steal and I smiled with recognition at the stories about how the farmer actually gets all the seconds - the tomatoes with the bird pecks and melons with soft spots. I actually learned to preserve food precisely because during the years we ran our CSA, I don't think I ever ate a perfect tomato. Ate plenty of good ones, though.

But back to my irrepressible giggling about Michael Perry's book. Somewhere in the middle of his book, which is as much family narrative as farm book, summer comes and rabbits begin to overrun his family farm. Perry goes out and shoots them to protect their garden, but can't decide what do with the dead rabbits. He remembers that he was told never to eat summer rabbits, because of the risk of Tularemia, but his country-upbringing left him with a deep aversion to shooting anything he was not prepared to eat (this is one of the best ethics of rural life, and nearly every young hunter I know has a story of eating something they shot by accident or stupid youthful intent, and that a parent forced them to consume - literally eating crow is an excellent moral lesson in its own way.)

Unwilling to feed them to his family, Perry finally gives the dead rabbits to the pigs. Pigs, being omnivores, devour them with bright delight and enthusiasm. Perry observes that he is not easily grossed out, but that watching it was pretty disgusting. The description alone is worth the book.

But the part that set me rolling on my Mothers' couch was not that unappetizing bit, but Perry's meditation on the possibilities of this food source. After all, he observes, in summer he has a nearly unlimited supply of cottontails roaming his property and eating his lettuces. This free food then could be set to supply protein to his pigs, which could then be marketed as fed on truly local, home produced feed.

Perry observes, however, that he anticipates trouble at the farmer's market. While "grass fed beef" offers up an unmistakable visual image of green pastures and bovine contentment, the same does not arise from the image of "rabbit-fed pork." It was his suggestions of possible marketing slogans that sent me into hysterics.

You probably think this is funny, but not that funny too. And you may be right, but the reason it tickled me so much is that I've spent a lot of time in the last near-decade trying to explain food to people, and I can see precisely how this would go over at most of my local farmer's markets. I can envision myself with my banner advertising "locally produced and sustainably raised rabbit-fed pork." I can see the kind shoppers figuring "rabbit fed...does that mean they are fed on lettuces and dandelions like can't mean..." and coming over to see. I can see myself putting up a poster board, like many fellow farmers have of the steps in production, with pictures of me holding up a .20-.20 and pointing it at the rabbits, and the recoil of horror by many kindhearted folks who don't like guns and don't quite grasp that they are a basic tool of the trade out here.

I can see the expressions of horror growing as the next picture shows me proudly holding up a dead cottontail. And then the shot of the pigs...well, let's just leave it there. What's funny about this is that it involves actually marketing the parts of agricultural life that most farmers wisely try and leave out of the discussion, recognizing the limits of their audience. Because the bucolic day to day life includes many things that make people unfamiliar with agriculture look horrified - and the best way to make suburban or urban affluent audiences happy is to leave those bits out when we can. We run into too many people who still are grasping that yes, all eggs come out of some bird's butt and yes, so do my nice, grass fed ones.

The ignorance that people have about their food is starting to soften - in 2003 when our CSA began, we often had to explain to people that no, we don't raise strawberries all year round and that certain things will only be available at certain times, and yes, eggs really do come from chicken, even when they come from the store and the beef is not born in styrofoam packaging (you think I'm joking, but I'm not!). Those conversations still go on but less often, and more and more people recognize obscure vegetables or can ask about how animals are raised. But there are still fundamental barriers. A number of times, for example, I have had people ask me whether the meat birds I raise for sale were raised as vegetarians.

I understand what people are asking, and I don't blame them for it. They know that cows really are supposed to be vegetarians, that feeding cows bits of other cows and the old belief that "protein is protein" has turned out to be wrong, and they assume that's true of chickens as well. But what they don't know is that chickens are omnivores - probably because most of them have rarely ever seen a chicken, much less what they eat.

Chickens do eat grass, and ours gets plenty of pastures and plenty of vegetables, but they also eat bugs, the occasional rodent or small snake, and any meat scraps they can get their hands on. Given a choice between kale and a baby mouse, my chickens will take the mouse with enthusiasm and delight. The only way to raise vegetarian chickens would be to confine them. Left to themselves, if one of my other chickens dies, my hens would cannibalize it (we don't leave them to themselves on this subject, but not because we don't want them eating other chickens).

Pigs also have a taste for meat. Consider the scene in the film The Wizard of Oz where Dorothy falls into the pigpen, and Bert Lahr's farmhand, helping rescue her, has heart palpitations and has to sit down - proof that he is a coward. Modern folks wonder what the big deal was about Dorothy getting all muddy - but the reason Dorothy's fall is rightly frightening is that had she not been able to get out, the pigs would have devoured her.

Most of us choose not to know that sort of thing - that pigs happily eat meat of any kind, including human, and that along with table scraps and fresh produce, raw cottontail would make a perfectly nice supplement to a pig's diet. Given the wild abundance of rabbits, I can't see why they shouldn't be fed to pigs, and would happily go and buy Perry's rabbit-fed pork (except, of course that we don't eat pork) - but I would be one of a very few people who didn't turn away in horror.

I am on record as believing that the de-industrialization of our agriculture is both wise and inevitable - I do not believe we will have the wealth, the energy resources or the ability to absorb the outputs of our present agricultural model over the long term, and that because such a transition is necessary, we'd be better off doing it sooner than later, and more gradually than not. I believe in the necessity of that transition, and I also believe it is viable to drop the energy intensiveness of our agriculture dramatically while still feeding people - the argument is largely laid out in _A Nation of Farmers_ although I've come to some refinements on that take since the book was written 3 years ago.

But what I don't believe is that this will take us back to a world of perfect purity, to what I think many of my customers and most customers are looking for. For this reason, I'm not an organic purist, for example - I think it will be necessary to reduce inputs, but I don't expect that reduction to go to 0 anytime in the immediate future, and given tough enough times, I can certainly imagine circumstances in which I'd be pretty grateful for a few bags of 10-10-10. I admire farmers who produce food organically, and I do so myself and have for years - but I know it is easy now when the Agway is just over the hill, and make no promises of absolute purity. 90% organic would be fine with me. I patronise not the organic orchards far from me, but the local ones - the ones trying to reduce pesticide use, trying to bring in new, disease-resistant varieties, and most of all, trying to make a living at a business that suffers even more than average from vagaries of weather.

A friend of mine sells fruit - and this is a damned hard way to make a living in our climate. She sprays as little as she can, and not at all whenever possible, and uses mostly organic materials - but she can't get a reliable crop of peaches or apples every year without using a few things that aren't organically certified, and she depends on that money. Every time she goes to market, she explains, no, she's not organic, but she's getting closer every year, and points out the things that aren't sprayed at all, and explains what she does use and why. And every year a few people roll their eyes at her and say they are off to buy organic peaches from far away. I can understand, I really can, and who knows their necessities. I also know that if she doesn't stay in business, there will be no low-spray local peaches, and probably never any organic ones. I buy hers. I think more would stay if they understood how hard it is to deal with fruit tree diseases in our climate and region.

A woman I asked recently asked me how I felt about cows being fed on bagged old bakery bread - she observed that couldn't be natural, which, of course, it isn't. But she is headed for the country, has thought about this stuff and was thoughtful when I argued that I felt that raising some animals on food waste, particularly in and near populated areas, was essential if we're going to create resilient cities. I know many people object to the idea of meat chickens raised on conventional food scraps, preferring pricey organic bagged grains. Me, I think if we're concerned about sustainability, we're going to have to raise some of our protein on the waste of our own communities - and that disdaining a chicken fed a few doritoes, along with vegetable scraps and bread - is a little strange given that most our bodies contain the residue of a few doritoes as well, no matter how purely organic we are most of the time ;-). We do not eat without any blood, contamination or imperfections - asking farmers to feed our animals that way is a false choice.

I am all for pasturing animals - we all know that feedlots and CAFO agriculture is pretty bloody horrible. There are no animals that deserve to live the way we raise them in industrial food systems. I raise all my animals on pasture, and since well managed pastures with high levels of organic matter can sequester almost as much carbon as forests and support more diverse wildlife than almost anything but forests and wetlands - including many endangered species that depend on open grassland that are not mowed constantly - I think pasturage is a wonderful thing. I live in an area that grows grass well, and everything else less well - my property is wet, steep and rocky, and its best use is the conversion of grass into meat, milk and eggs.

At the same time, however, as in some ways I live the bucolic ideal, I also live in the grubby world of blood and mess - when an animal dies on my farms, if it is suitable for human consumption and its death certainly not from any risky cause, we eat it. If not, we toss it to the dogs, or the coyotes, or the chickens. When we butcher, entrails go to these creatures as well. I raise some animals simply to feed to other animals - my extra red worms go to the chickens as a winter protein supplement. The cute bunnies on my porch love when my children push dandelion greens to them, but their offspring will be butchered and eaten by my dogs, to reduce my dependence on the industrial pet food system. My "grass fed dogfood" is good - but I also know that my dogs roam the wood eating random horrible things they find. Of course, some of them probably ate grass too...

My tools include hoe and shovel - and guns, which are kept carefully locked away, but come out when the sheep are threatened (I do not shoot coyotes, since I benefit more from having predators in my ecosystem than I lose from their predation, but I do make loud noises to scare them away) or when I have to put down an injured animal, or when groundhogs dig under my garden fence.

This is the part that most people who have bought food from me would prefer not to think about. The blood and guts, the imperfections, the hard choices, the ugliness and the fact that there's nothing pure about my work. In _A Nation of Farmers_ Aaron and I quote Clayton Brascoupe who says "When you farm, at the end of the day, your hands are dirty, but your hands are clean." And that's true, as far as it goes. You do good work, and your hands get dirty with the complexities of farm life, but cleaned by the fact that you are as honest as you can be about them. But honesty only gets you so far - they are still awfully messy. And the choices are going to stay messy - and complicated and hard as we attempt to deal with the reality that our current system won't last. What we get in the future will have trade offs and hard realities to it too, no mistaking - and things that most folks may not like to think too hard about.

And I guess that's what made me laugh so hard in Perry's narrative - the way he so perfectly put his finger on what would have to change for a customer to come walking gaily into his farmstand and ask that he give him five pounds of that rabbit-fed bacon. We've begun to teach people some of the truth about where their food comes from, but it is only just a beginning, and it is a long trip to get a whole picture. That day may even come - it depends on the quality of teaching that farmers and cooks and people who write about food manage to do.

Most people don't go into farming to become teachers - but that is just part of the job. Particularly if you are growing something unusual or doing it in a new (or old) way, you have to teach people why what you do or what you grow is something interesting or tasty or better for the planet. It isn't easy, and most of us don't hold a candle to Madison Avenue when it comes to advertising our wares. Still, I take hope from the fact that Madison Avenue has been able to sell so much bad tasting, bad for you junk, and am working up that photo display for when rabbit-fed pork becomes all the rage.

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