Jolley: Bittman wants to celebrate the farmer (at least a few)

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Mark Bittman, the pretend urban farmer who vaguely remembers growing up on an Oregon farm and now writes a foodie blog for The New York Times, is at it again.  He wrote a piece headlined “Celebrate the Farmer!” except he spends little time celebrating the farmer and most of his time denigrating modern agriculture.

He uses the space to call for a major increase in hobby farms and a devastating decrease in the kind of large-scale farming absolutely necessary for feeding a fast-growing world population.

“In short, we need more real farmers, not businessmen riding on half-million-dollar combines,” Bittman wrote. To define “real farmer” he drivels on with, “And if you haven’t seen a real farmer, go visit a one- or two-acre intensive garden; it’s a mind-blowing thing, how much can be grown in a relatively small space. Then imagine thousands of 10-, 20- and 100-acre farms planted similarly: the vegetables sold regionally, the pigs fed from scraps, the compost fertilizing the soil, the cattle at pasture, the milk making cheese ….”

He’s describing the rural environment of the 1800’s, of course, when America was a mostly agrarian country, not the America of today where less than 2% of the population is faced with the daily task of feeding our 312,000,000+ people as well as a substantial portion of the rest of the world.  He’s ignoring the fact that those businessmen riding half million dollar combines are real farmers with the vast majority of them operating businesses that are actually family-owned farms and probably have been for several generations.

He prattles on with, “The naysayers will yell, ‘this mode of farming will not produce enough corn and soy to feed our junk food and cheeseburger habit,’ and that’s exactly the point.”

I’m raising my hand as a naysayer.  I object to his propaganda-driven statement.  The naysayers will correctly point out that reverting to the American farming practices of the 1880’s will not produce enough food to feed all of us.  And large-scale, efficient production is exactly the point of modern agriculture.

What Bittman should be talking about is an increase in market gardens, which Wikipedia describes as “the relatively small-scale production of fruits, vegetables and flowers as cash crops, frequently sold directly to consumers and restaurants. It is distinguishable from other types of farming by the diversity of crops grown on a small area of land, typically, from under one acre (0.4hA) to a few acres, or sometimes in greenhouses. Such a farm on a larger scale is sometimes called a truck farm.”

Those are small businesses (sorry, there’s that term, again) that can easily be spotted around New York City within a few hours’ drive time of farmer’s markets or elite restaurants like Masa, Twenty-One Club or Le Bernardin.  Their existence will make it easier for celebrity chefs to visit early in the morning and hand-pick locally grown arugula and heritage tomatoes and the ingredients for tonight’s duck confit ($79.95, suggested wine accompaniment: Chateau Lafite Rothschild Pauillac 1996: $287).

The moneyed elite of the world’s major cities will always have the cash to enjoy $250 per plate dinners and nosh on exotica like roasted bone marrow.  Bittman can enjoy “a farm dinner in Maine. . .a long table of 60 people eating corn, chicken, salad, a spectacular herb sorbet and other goodies” or attend “a fund-raiser on Cape Cod a week or so earlier, (where) the talk was all about the provenance of the produce and meat rather than the cooking technique.”

The rest of the world, though, doesn’t dine at Cape Cod fund-raisers.  A staggering number of people are facing daily food insecurity (a euphemism for starvation) and saving them requires the most modern and efficient means of production possible.  So I will follow Bittman’s suggestion and “Celebrate the Farmer,” including the hobbyist on the upper end of Long Island but I won’t exclude those that farm a few thousand acres in Florida, Kansas, Nebraska, the Dakotas, Colorado. . .you get the gist.  The market gardener in Long Island can feed a few dozen, maybe even a few hundred Manhattanites who can afford it.  The rest of America’s farmers are busy supplying nutrition to millions.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Chuck Jolley, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.

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SD  |  August, 23, 2012 at 09:34 AM

Hooray for you Chuck! This guy has no concept of how the rest of the world is fed and what it takes to raise a wheat crop in western SD, corn in IA, or soybeans in KS. Should the rest of the country starve so the monied few can eat like kings? Haven't we already tried that 200 years ago?

Normand St-Pierre    
Columbus, OH  |  August, 23, 2012 at 09:41 AM

So well said in just a few words. One additional point often forgotten is that in those nostalgic days of farming, when farmers didn't have combines, GMO seeds, effective pesticides, GPS-based precision ag, etc..., there were in fact many major crop failures that led to famines right here in the United States. One has to read the biography of Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaugh (by Noel Vietmeyer) to be reminded of the dismal wheat crop failures of the late 1910's, and of a corn crop averaging 25 bushels per acre. Borlaugh and his family survived on winter on potato bread because there was nothing else to eat. Modern agriculture is not perfect, its deficiencies are being corrected with time, but it beats and by far other alternatives.

Ohio  |  August, 23, 2012 at 09:54 AM

My Grandfather graduated from high school (the 8th grade) in 1909. 25% of the kids who started school with him had already died. Remember the good old days.

August, 23, 2012 at 03:11 PM

It is easy for him to be critical of us "big business farmers" riding our expensive machinery when he is talking through a mouth full of food!! Producing food was too hard and people wanted an easier life, that is why they moved off the farm and left those of us that are good at it to do our jobs!!

Heart of Corn and Bean Country  |  August, 24, 2012 at 07:19 AM

Your corn and bean farm didn't produce the food in that man's mouth---some little teeny antique-style farm from the 1800's did...and that is precisely his point.

Heart of Corn and Bean Country  |  August, 24, 2012 at 07:50 AM

I own one of those teeny market farms Mark Bittman is so fond of. I can't insure my 400 foot bed of exotic south american turnips and I don't receive government subsidies to grow anything! The only way that my farm survives is because I have access to sell direct to an afflluent, urban, customer base. But isn't it sad that good, healthy, fresh, unprocessed food is only available to wealthier Americans and everyone else has to eat processed, GMO, pink-slime, antibiotic-laced food? I say combine-on my hard working farm friends, because farming is hard whether you are bending over hand weeding a fancy $6/lb lettuce bed or in the cab of your tractor for hours on end. The truism here is that 98% of Americans don't know what it takes to grow food and would starve without the 2% that grow it for them.

Omaha  |  August, 24, 2012 at 12:02 PM

Very well articulated, Chuck. Thank you very much.

Shawn Linehan    
Portland  |  August, 24, 2012 at 12:03 PM

Don't we all want healthy food? Isn't there a solution where the small farmer and big farmer are not pitted against each other, but working together?

the west  |  August, 25, 2012 at 09:30 AM

excellent point, Cindy. there is actually room for both and room for improvement in both - less focus on processed garbage and lower process for the good stuff the big guys shouldn't denigate the noobs doing the elete small garden farms, they should try some of the produce! and the small folks need to understand the large scale IS needed for the large scale population that must be fed. choice and diversity are good. the dynamics of the competition should have an end result of impfovement all around, not putting one side out of business. we should ALL be working together. we are the 2%. occupy the soil!

Iowa  |  August, 25, 2012 at 11:04 AM

Cindy, as someone who works in modern agri-business and also someone that has a large garden at home I appreciate your hard work and point of view. I think a key point you made is selling direct to "affluent, urban customers"; for the rest of the lower and middle class Americans modern production is the only way to produce food that is affordable. We simply do not have the land base to grow all of our food and meat on small plots. For example, if all cattle were grass few, there would only be enough beef to feed the most affluent 10% of the population.

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