May 17, 2015

Birds and Bees



Wendell Berry was chosen to deliver the Jefferson Lecture by the National Endowment for the Humanities a couple of years ago. He gave one of the most moving and profound speeches I have ever heard anyone give, entitled “It All Turns on Affection”. (You can find it on the web.)

In it, Berry says:

“. . . if we offend gravely enough against what we know to be true, as by failing badly enough to deal affectionately and responsibly with our land and our neighbors, truth will retaliate with ugliness, poverty, and disease.”

His words rattle around in my head almost constantly, but come to the surface of my consciousness every time a new crisis in agribusiness rears its head. In recent years, there are several new crises that won’t seem to go away, and the birds and the bees are the latest poster animals for our failing to deal affectionately and responsibly with our land.

The most recent news reports claim that more than 30 million chickens, mostly laying hens among 16 states in the Midwestern US, are infected with avian flu and will have to be destroyed.  The virus, not infectious to humans or other mammals, is reportedly spread by wild, migrating waterfowl such as ducks and geese. Apparently poultry in the Midwestern states are more likely to be infected because the migrating birds spend more time on farmlands up there than they do in the South; also, the fact that so many factory-sized laying hen barns are up there.

For example, according to Food and Water Watch, the average Iowa “egg producer” is home to about 600,000 hens. In Nebraska, the average egg farm has about 1 million hens. With the exception of two or three states where it’s illegal, laying hens live in wire cages, usually suspended off the ground, whose size is dictated by (minimum) floor space standards more or less overseen by the federal government. So most of the 270 million laying hens in the US get about 70 – 90 square inches (yes, inches) of “floor” space. Said floor being a wire mesh cage bottom.

By the way, 90 square inches is much less than a square foot.

These luxurious, indoor cages are commonly known as “battery cages”. (As in assault and battery?) Battery cages have been illegal in Europe for years.

Laying hens in such large “production systems”, as they are unaffectionately known, also have their beaks clipped off; this is because they are in such tight quarters and in such large numbers that the egg “farmers” want to eliminate hens exercising their natural “pecking order”. (For real – as in most natural systems,  chickens live in hierarchies and dominant hens peck other hens to assert their position. Of course, egg farmers can’t have any such thing going on in their most unnatural bowers of 1 million birds under one roof.

Here I must stop and re-examine Berry’s poignant verse from above: “. . if we offend gravely enough as by failing badly enough to deal affectionately with our land responsibly . .”

Is it a grave enough failure to cage hens, permanently indoors, with no beaks, in wire prisons allowing less than a square foot of space for their entire lives? Is this in any remote sense a way to deal affectionately with the land, or the things in and on the land?

Are we failing badly to consider this sort of “egg production” to be, truthfully, taking care of the land? Is concentrating 1 million birds in a relatively small facility a truly neighborly act?

I don’t think so. Au contraire, it seems that the recent outbreak of bird flu in US poultry is an indicator that truth will retaliate with ugliness, poverty, and disease. The practice of concentrating so many domestic birds in one place is not sustainable, truly. And the truth is that when a disease strikes that’s not controlled by the antibiotics fed to these chickens, the result will always be ugly.


Similarly, the nation’s honeybee is another poster bug for Berry’s prediction of the consequences of grave offenses against the land. Several NGOs have reported over the past 5 years that these important parts of our food system have been declining in numbers at an unprecedented rate. Most recently even our US Dept of Agriculture acknowledges that honeybee numbers appear to have declined by more than 40% in recent years. I have written earlier in this blog about Winchester Farm’s first-hand experience with this.

Concerning the bees, there are two offenses inherent in our food system, as I see it.

The first is eerily akin to the “egg production facilities” mentioned above. That is, our farming is now dominated by large operations that grow food in monocultures – whether it be corn, cotton, almonds or apricots. In order to achieve efficiency in mechanical farming (that is, reduce labor), growers must focus on one crop per giant field. In these fields, herbicides get rid of the weeds that formerly provided cover and blooms for honeybees and other beneficial insects. And pesticides get rid of insect pests as well as bugs that aren’t pests. Like honeybees.

According to the LA Times newspaper, one large almond grower has 63,000 acres of trees and must import 3 billion bees to pollinate his trees. Some years ago, I watched a documentary wherein a single beekeeper had trucked approximately 1 billion (with a “B”) bees to California almond groves. Within 2 weeks, almost all his bees were dead. Fingers pointed to pesticides as the likely culprit in the massive bee die-off.

Research has shown pretty convincingly that the class of pesticides called neonicotinoids has played a role in the decline of bees. In California’s almond and fruit orchards, “neonics” are widely used. These chemicals affect the central nervous system of insects and cause their death, or at least paralysis. The same is true for Florida’s citrus groves. I heard one citrus grower interviewed last week. He allowed as how if citrus growers didn’t use neonicotinoids, then Americans would have no citrus.

I wonder how we had citrus before the advent of these chemicals?

As in egg farming, beekeeping has ceased to be an art, but rather has become a consolidated large-scale scientific enterprise. There are about 212,000 beekeepers in the United States, and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) describes 200,000 of them as hobbyists, and another 10,000 as “sideliners,” or part-time beekeepers. Commercial producers, those owning 300 or more colonies, number about 2,000 and produce about 60 percent of the 300 million pounds of honey extracted annually in the United States. There are an estimated 10 million colonies of domesticated bees in the US. Or at least there were before 40% were lost in the last few years.

All this does not account for the fact that bees are a part of nature; up until the industrial revolution, man and bee cohabitated in a mutually beneficial manner. But nature puts a limit on how much she can be contained, just as she puts a limit on to what extent she can be excluded from our food system. It appears that we cannot restrict the natural cycle of bees in favor of penning almost unimaginable numbers them up in order to sustain our lust for abundant, cheap food from unhealthy monocultures. Likewise, we cannot continue to farm fencerow-to-fencerow in fields sprayed with chemicals that preclude any semblance of biodiversity and expect wild bees to prosper.

These abuses in our monocultures and of our pollinators are just more examples of Berry’s grave offenses against which truth is already retaliating. Understanding that we all must have affection for the natural world, and respect its limits, is the first step in shifting the paradigm









As usual, Berry is right.




May 3, 2015

Good Work


I have been helping the Memphis Center for Food and Faith for a few years now. Noah Campbell, the exec director, has dedicated his life to quietly working in the community (mainly, but not only, the faith community) to make people more aware of the value of a local food system, for lack of a better phrase.

This value, of course, is not measured in dollars, but rather in bringing people together as a community, taking care of the land and reviving the definition of good work to include true agri- culture – that is, nurturing the soil.

Part of Noah’s work has been to hatch BringIt Food Hub, which begins its second year of aggregating and distributing locally grown food thru Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) deliveries to paying customers and this year, free to needy families. Winchester Farm provides eggs and produce to BringIt.

Noah told me the other day that in order for the food hub to be self-sustaining – that is, not having to rely on grants and other donations for revenue – it will take more than 1,500 acres of farmed land near Memphis to produce a sufficient quantity of food to be sold.

Coincidentally, Mother Jones magazine published an article suggesting that, if (or when) California’s vegetable growing regions run out of irrigation water, the Mid South’s renowned “cotton ground” would be ideal to replace California soon to be deserted farm land. That idea sounds compelling, but it could take years to heal the land and find true farmers, rather than agribusinessmen, who would be willing to learn the new-old ways of what was once called “truck farming”, or growing vegetables.

At any rate, just a couple weeks prior, I led a group of folk from Memphis and Colorado on a tour of Winchester Farm. They were all interested in our experience in dealing with the lingering effects of chemical-based farming on our soils. And how we use livestock as the key part of rotating “crops” on our land.

One man on the tour recently bought a large agribusiness operation near from Memphis. He was somewhat interested in changing his ways of monoculture cropping and reducing the use of chemicals. We began discussing the merits and demerits of small scale farming, which this man also expressed an interest it.

I opined that I agree with Wendell Berry, when he says that the main goal (or at least consequence) of industrial agriculture is to eliminate human labor from the process – to replace humans with machines. I suggested that, as I wrote in an early blog, the elimination of human labor over the years resulted in hundreds of thousands of farm hands being forced out of rural areas and into big cities where most end up in poverty.

I suggested that there is a need for a resurgence of small farms where more sustainable methods can be used to form, in aggregate, a more local food system. This would provide small growers a chance to make a reasonable living doing good work.

I must say I was mortified when my guest uttered this:

“People don’t want to do that kind of work. That’s why most of the organic produce sold in America comes from Haiti. That kind of work is for Haitians.”

He went on to estimate that in the future, technology would allow for harvesting fruits and vegetables to be done with robots.

“Wouldn’t it be a better job to be sitting at a computer controlling robots harvesting than to be out in the field doing the work?’

The premise was shocking to me, there out in the sunshine with these people, smelling the cattle and feeling the sunshine and soaking in the energizing colors of spring green-up. But robot-picked food is obviously not unsettling to most urbanites. Sadly.

Upon reflection, it seems to me that Noah’s estimation of the large number of acres needed to support BringIt Food Hub with locally grown vegetables is not the only or biggest challenge here; clearly the biggest challenge is finding enough people who place a value on working the land.


April 1, 2015

Living Water, Dead Water



Not too many years ago, the Tennessee state government paid about $10,000 an acre for a couple thousand acres of farmland right off I-40 near our farm. It is part of a planned industrial “mega site”, whose intent is to attract large industry in order to create jobs and “grow the economy”. The project needs a water and sewer system, which require a plan to be approved by the USEPA.

The current plan is to burrow a sewer line underneath the Hatchie River so that the future sewage can be treated in Brownsville. And then the treated sewage would be put into the Hatchie River, under which it flowed through its new burrow. The area of the Hatchie is home to parts of the Hatchie National Wildlife Refuge. The Hatchie is the only river in West Tennessee that the US Corps of Engineers has not ruined by straightening its channel. It is designated a scenic river by the State.

The USEPA is supposed to take into account the direct and indirect consequences of burrowing under a state scenic river like the Hatchie, as well as, putting treated sewage and industrial waste into the same river. This is proper economics: that is, there are more costs to “growing the economy” than just the cost in dollars of burrowing, paving, wiring, plumbing, drilling, building, etc.

One of the main costs, which bureaucrats have yet to understand how to calculate, is the long term health of the water in the Hatchie River and the fish and other life that depend on the health of the water in the Hatchie River.

One need only to look 40 miles to the west to understand the long term cost of unclean river water. People younger than, say 40, have never seen the day when one could eat fish out of the Mississippi River as it runs through Memphis. So that generation may assume that the river water has always been laced with agricultural and industrial chemicals sufficient to make the flesh of the fish unfit to eat. Imagine that – the second largest river in the world right in our back yard, and it’s so polluted that the fish are poison.

Likewise, if there are any fish in the Memphis portion of the Wolf River, their flesh is tainted – with mercury, PCBs, chlordane, bacteria or other bad stuff. If, that is, there are any fish in those waters.

So, too, for the Loosahatchie River. And Nonconnah Creek. And Cypress Creek. And North Fork Forked Deer. And the Duck. And . . . .

The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation samples about half of the 60,000 miles of all the rivers, creeks and sloughs in the state. In 2012 they found that about 10,000 miles of them are polluted to the point that they are severely impaired or do not support aquatic life at all.

Lifeless rivers and streams.

The evolution of how this abominable situation has come to pass follows a familiar pattern – thoughtless, though maybe not intentionally malicious, consequences of measuring profits in farming or industry on immediate, visible expenses and income. When we rush in our actions to make money and fail to think on and contemplate what lingering and unseen costs to nature and neighbors might be, them we fail to properly care for the health of our neighbors and land.

The major religions of the world all teach us to revere water as a most important part of our physical beings. After all, our bodies are 66% water. Americans, however, seem to have taken for granted for too long how fortunate we are to be able to turn on the tap and have clean water. At the rate we are turning living water into dead, our children and theirs may not have such a luxury.