Archive for June 20th, 2009

Farms as Battlegrounds

Sharon June 20th, 2009

I recently attended an event at the farm of a couple who are in the process of starting up a goat dairy.  Those of us visiting were given a tour of the barn, milking parlors and cheesemaking areas as they were being built, and a list of all the requirements by the state of New York for dairy production.  This included separate sink areas in each room for hand washing – it was not possible for the dairy owner to wash her hands in a separate room from the one she milks in, or makes cheese in – each room had to have its own sink, even though they were directly adjacent to one another.  The plumbing alone required multiples drains, into multiple drainfields.  I have no idea what they were spending on these facilities, but if it was less than $40,000, I’ll eat my hat. 

I was speaking at this meeting, and I began my schtick about how important it is for many people to get involved in human-scale agriculture, but as I did, the primary farmer for their household kept observing that it wasn’t very cheap to start a farm for her.  And she is right, of course, if you are speaking of dairy farming.  My CSA was begun with a very tiny investment - we spent $40 on an advertisement, and maybe $60 on seeds and soil amendments over and above our usual purchase –  but a dairy (which is a wonderful industry for much of the Northeast, given our prepoderence of thin soils, steep rocky land and rain) requires start-up costs beyond those available to most people.

Now the reasons for these restrictions is that milk is a potent harborer of bacteria.  Restrictions on dairy go back to early public health measures, and the constraint of tuberculosis and other diseases.  There are genuinely and sincerely good reasons to be concerned about bacterial contamination of milk.  Of course, on the other hand, I can personally hand slaughter and sell, with no inspection or oversight at all, 1,000 pastured poultry birds every single year.  We all know that chicken could never be a source of dangerous pathogens, right?

The point, of course, is that raw meat is dangerous if it is contaminated or not handled appropriately.  Milk is dangerous if it is contaminated or not handled appropriately.  But the two things are not treated in parallel – customers of my poultry are permitted to accept the risk that I might mishandle my birds, and buy and eat them.  Customers of milk, at least in New York, are not permitted to accept the risk that I might mishandle my goat’s milk – in fact, I can’t legally even give milk away to someone who desperately wants it.  That is, there’s very little sense in the laws. 

These goat farmers have to invest an enormous amount of money in order to begin their enterprise.  At the moment, I believe they are milking only 14 goats. I’m sure they want to expand, but how much?  That is, the problem of this enormous investment is that it virtually forces them to grow larger than they might want in order to get adequate return – or to struggle to pay the bills for a long, long time. 

Joel Salatin’s superb _Everything I Want to Do is Illegal_ does a much deeper analysis of the insanity of laws at the national and state level that affect small food producers than I can.  Wouldn’t it be better for all of us not to have to truck our lambs, cattle and goats to slaughterhouses, where they are stressed and exposed to disease?  Shouldn’t humane meat production involve a humane death?  Isn’t the risk of contamination much smaller as I slaughter one lamb, rather than in a place that does 8 an hour?  Is there a risk that I might cause illness by mishandling?  Sure, but we know that happens in the industrial system all the time – your industrial meat permits a certain percentage of fecal matter to get into the meat, after all. Yummy!

 I’m all for people understanding the risks, say of raw milk, farm slaughtered meat or whatever - I’d be happy to require people sign something showing they understood them. But they should be allowed to assume that risk.

Because, of course, regulation always favors larger farms – by definition, our regulations presume industrial agriculture as a norm – which does a great deal to make something so destructive and deeply bizarre normal.  I love milking, I like goats, and I make damned good cheese and yogurt.  And yet, I will never run a dairy – because I can’t afford it.   Nor will many small farmers or young families for whom dairying would be a good career, and a good use of our land. 

My family cooks and bakes extremely well – we used to include bread as a gift in our CSA baskets.  And yet, we could not charge honestly for the bread, because we do not have a commercial kitchen.  I admit, I cannot quite figure out how I might cause food borne illness with bread, which after all, consists of water, salt, yeast and wheat.  I suppose I could hunt up a local source of ergot poisoning, but that seems like a lot of effort. And yet, the law says a commercial kitchen is necessary for me to bake bread.  This is too bad, because many people eat bread, and would rather get it from their neighbor who makes it than from the grocery store.  Others who could use a small supplement would probably appreciate the chance to increase their income by baking.  The local Amish generally ignore these laws, and make a nice supplement selling pies, cakes and bread, but experience intermittent crackdowns and hostilities.

At every level, regulation stands to make it harder and harder to be a small scale producer of food  – whether a farmer or a cook.   And, of course, it makes it harder to be an eater as well. All of those regulations are going to have to be reconsidered if we are going to have a truly local food system, or a local economy for that matter.  The laws that are designed for farms with 800 head of dairy cows simply don’t fit someone with two.  The models designed to prevent diseases that small farmers almost never get, or cross-contamination that isn’t a danger on a small farm don’t make sense - we know that. 

That does not mean we will never see diseases or contamination from small scale producers – we certainly will.  Sooner or later some small farmer will, unfortunately, kill someone - industrial producers kill hundreds of people with contaminated food each year, and tens of thousands by marketing food that harms rather than nourishes.  Eating carries risk – real risk.  We all know that.  We should be free to choose what risks we want to take – whether the risks of industrial food’s health costs and contamination problems, or the potential problems of small producers who have to go into the next room to wash up.  Those who believe that the best and safest food comes from people who have the time to care well for their animals and their land, and the investment in their community to want it to be wholly safe, should be able to choose good, honest, farm food.

Which is why I find it so very heartening that Wendell Berry has taken such a powerful and noble (not that this is surprising – Berry may be the most honorable public personage I know of) stand on the subject of NAIS, one of the crappiest bits of legislation ever proposed (and that is saying something).  He says,

The need to trace animals was made by the confined animal industry – which are, essentially, disease breeding operations. The health issue was invented right there. The remedy is to put animals back on pasture, where they belong. The USDA is scapegoating the small producers to distract attention from the real cause of the trouble. Presumably these animal factories are, in a too familiar phrase, “too big to fail”.

This is the first agricultural meeting I’ve ever been to in my life that was attended by the police. I asked one of them why he was there and he said: “Rural Kentucky”. So thank you for your vote of confidence in the people you are supposed to be representing. (applause) I think the rural people of Kentucky are as civilized as anybody else.

But the police are here prematurely. If you impose this program on the small farmers, who are already overburdened, you’re going to have to send the police for me. I’m 75 years old. I’ve about completed my responsibilities to my family. I’ll lose very little in going to jail in opposition to your program – and I’ll have to do it. Because I will be, in every way that I can conceive of, a non-cooperator.

I understand the principles of civil disobedience, from Henry Thoreau to Martin Luther King. And I’m willing to go to jail to defend the young people who, I hope, will still have a possibility of becoming farmers on a small scale in this supposedly free country.

Thank G-d for Wendell Berry. This is the essence of what we face – whether from NAIS or other legal challenges, from suburbanized zoning laws and other strategies designed to permanently institutionalize the power of industrial food production, and to render the most basic of all human activities – self-provisioning – arcane, alien, difficult and expensive. And if someone doesn’t stand up and make clear how wrong and false this is, we are going to face very deep difficulties indeed. 

Wendell Berry is a national treasure, and putting him in jail would be like pissing on a Matisse.  I hope he never has to go. And yet he’s completely right about the stakes of the matter – and the ability of younger people to stand firm.  I would like to say I will never register a single animal that lives upon my farm.  I know that isn’t true -that if the price of compliance is high enough – not just jail, but long terms in jail, fines or loss of land, I will comply.  I wish I could say otherwise, but if the price were my family’s livelihood and security, I don’t know what I’d do. 

And yet, I won’t comply easily, or quietly, and I hope most of us won’t. In fact, I think the establishment of underground food systems may be essential as we go into much more difficult times.  As states and regions are strapped for cash, they will fight to extract fees and registrations from us. And we will fight to produce food that ordinary people can afford to eat, in the face of terrible threats to the basic food security of those people.  It is a fight, no question.