Photo: Jim Franco
Greetings From the Non Bar-Code People, Michael Pollen, Mother Jones May/June 2006
reprinted in The Viand Zine, Issue 2, 12 May 2007
The following is an excerpt from “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan. For the complete article, go to motherjones.com May/June 2006 issue
I might never have found my way to Polyface Farm if Joel Salatin hadn’t refused to FedEx me one of his chickens. I’d heard a lot about the quality of the meat raised on his “beyond organic” farm, and was eager to sample some. Salatin and his family raise a half-dozen different species (grass-fed beef, chickens, pigs, turkeys, and rabbits) in an intricate rotation that has made his 550 hilly acres of pasture and woods in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley one of the most productive and sustainable small farms in America.
In Joel’s view, the reformation of our food economy begins with people going to the trouble and expense of buying directly from farmers they know—“relationship marketing,” the approach he urges in his recent book, Holy Cows and Hog Heaven: The Food Buyer’s Guide to Farm Friendly Food. Joel believes that the only meaningful guarantee of integrity is when buyers and sellers can look one another in the eye, something few of us ever take the trouble to do. “Don’t you find it odd that people will put more work into choosing their mechanic or house contractor than they will into choosing the person who grows their food?
I met several of Polyface’s parishioners on a Thursday in June as they came to collect the fresh chickens they’d reserved. It was a remarkably diverse group of people: a schoolteacher, several retirees, a young mom with her towheaded twins, a mechanic, an opera singer, a furniture maker, a woman who worked in a metal fabrication plant in Staunton. They were paying a premium over supermarket prices for Polyface food, and in many cases driving more than an hour over a daunting (though gorgeous) tangle of county roads to come get it. But no one would ever mistake these people for the well-heeled, urban foodies generally thought to comprise the market for organic or artisanal food. There was plenty of polyester in this crowd and a lot more Chevrolets than Volvos in the parking lot.
I asked Joel how he answers the charge that because food like his is more expensive, it is inherently elitist. “I don’t accept the premise,” he replied. “First off, those weren’t any ‘elitists’ you met on the farm this morning. We sell to all kinds of people. Second, whenever I hear people say clean food is expensive, I tell them it’s actually the cheapest food you can buy. That always gets their attention. Then I explain that, with our food, all of the costs are figured into the price. Society is not bearing the cost of water pollution, of antibiotic resistance, of food-borne illnesses, of crop subsidies, of subsidized oil and water—of all the hidden costs to the environment and the taxpayer that make cheap food seem cheap. No thinking person will tell you they don’t care about all that. I tell them the choice is simple: You can buy honestly priced food or you can buy irresponsibly priced food.”
When you think about it, it is odd that something as important to our health and general well-being as food is so often sold strictly on the basis of price. Look at any supermarket ad in the newspaper and all you will find in it are quantities—pounds and dollars; qualities of any kind are nowhere to be found. The value of relationship marketing is that it allows many kinds of information besides price to travel up and down the food chain: stories as well as numbers, qualities as well as quantities, values rather than “value.” And as soon as that happens, people begin to make different kinds of buying decisions, motivated by criteria other than price. But instead of stories about how it was produced accompanying our food, we get bar codes—as illegible as the industrial food chain itself, and a fair symbol of its almost total opacity.
TO TALK TO THE CUSTOMERS and farmers working together in Joel Salatin’s corner of the country to rebuild a local food chain is to appreciate it is a movement and not merely a market. Or rather it is a novel hybrid, a market-as-movement for at its heart is a new conception of what it means to be a “consumer”—an attempt to redeem that ugly word, with its dismal colorings of selfishness and subtraction. Many of the Polyface customers I met (though by no means all of them) had come to see their decision to buy a chicken from a local farmer rather than from Wal-Mart as a kind of civic act, even a form of protest. A protest of what exactly is harder to pin down, and each person might put it a little differently, but the customers I met at Polyface had gone to some trouble and expense to “opt out”—of the supermarket, of the fast-food nation, and, standing behind that, a globalized industrial agriculture. Their talk of distrusting Wal-Mart, resenting the abuse of animals in farm factories, insisting on knowing who was growing their food, and wanting to keep their food dollars in town—all this suggested that for many of these people spending a little more for a dozen eggs was a decision inflected by a politics, however tentative or inchoate.
Why should food, of all things, be the linchpin of that rebellion? Perhaps because food is a powerful metaphor for a great many of the values to which people feel globalization poses a threat, including the distinctiveness of local cultures and identities, the survival of local landscapes, and biodiversity. When José Bové, the French Roquefort farmer and anti-globalization activist, wanted to make his stand against globalization, he used his tractor to smash not a bank or insurance company but a McDonald’s. Indeed, the most powerful protests against globalization to date have revolved around food: I’m thinking of the movement against genetically modified crops, the campaign against patented seeds in India (which a few years ago brought as many as half a million Indians into the streets to protest World Trade Organization intellectual property rules), and Slow Food, the Italian-born international movement that seeks to defend traditional food cultures against the global tide of homogenization.
So much about life in a global economy feels as though it has passed beyond the individual’s control—what happens to our jobs, to the prices at the gas station, to the votes in the legislature. But somehow food still feels a little different. We can still decide, every day, what we’re going to put into our bodies, what sort of food chain we want to participate in. We can, in other words, reject the industrial omelet on offer and decide to eat another. This might not sound like a big deal, but it could be the beginnings of one. Already the desire on the part of consumers to put something different in their bodies has created a $14 billion market in organic food in the United States. That marketplace was built by consumers and farmers working informally together outside the system, with exactly no help from the government.
Shopping in the Organic Supermarket underwrites important values on the farm; shopping locally underwrites a whole set of other values as well. Farms produce a lot more than food; they also produce a kind of landscape and kind of community. Whether Polyface’s customers spend their food dollars here in Swoope or in the Whole Foods in Charlottesville will have a large bearing on whether this lovely valley—this undulating checkerboard of fields and forests—will endure, or whether the total economy will find a “higher use” for it. “Eat your view!” is a bumper sticker often seen in Europe these days; as it implies, the decision to eat locally is an act of land conservation as well, one that is probably a lot more effective (and sustainable) than writing checks to environmental organizations.
“Eat your view!” takes work, however. To participate in a local food economy requires considerably more effort than shopping at the Whole Foods. You won’t find anything microwavable at the farmer’s market or in your weekly box of organic produce from the CSA, and you won’t find a tomato in December. The local food shopper will need to put some work into sourcing his own food—learning who grows the best lamb in his area, or the best sweet corn. And then he will have to become reacquainted with his kitchen. Much of the appeal of the industrial food chain is its convenience; it offers busy people a way to delegate their cooking (and food preservation) to others. At the other end of the industrial food chain that begins in a cornfield in Iowa sits an industrial eater at a table. (Or, increasingly, in a car.) The achievement of the industrial food system over the past half-century has been to transform most of us into precisely that creature.
All of which is to say that a successful local food economy implies not only a new kind of food producer but a new kind of eater —one who regards finding, preparing, and preserving food as one of the pleasures of life rather than a chore. One whose sense of taste has ruined him for a Big Mac, and whose sense of place has ruined him for shopping for groceries at Wal-Mart. This is the consumer who understands—or remembers that, in Wendell Berry’s memorable phrase, “eating is an agricultural act.” He might have added it’s a political act as well.
ON MY LAST DAY ON THE FARM, a soft June Friday afternoon, Joel and I sat talking at a picnic table behind the house while a steady stream of customers dropped by to pick up their chickens. I asked him if he believed the industrial food chain would ever be overturned by an informal, improvised movement made up of farmer’s markets, box schemes, metropolitan buying clubs, Slow Foodies, and artisanal meat-processing plants. Even if you count the Organic Supermarket, the entire market for all alternative foods remains but a flea on the colossus of the industrial food economy, with its numberless fast-food outlets and supermarkets backed by infinite horizons of corn and soybeans. “We don’t have to beat them,” Joel patiently explained. “I’m not even sure we should try. We don’t need a law against McDonald’s or a law against slaughterhouse abuse—we ask for too much salvation by legislation. All we need to do is empower individuals with the right philosophy and the right information to opt out en masse.“And make no mistake: it’s happening. The mainstream is splitting into smaller and smaller groups of like-minded people. It’s a little like Luther nailing his 95 theses up at Wittenberg. Back then it was the printing press that allowed the Protestants to break off and form their own communities; now it’s the Internet, splintering us into tribes that want to go their own way.”