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.