The title of today’s post is inspired by this hilariously amazing clip from Portlandia that my friend Lindsey shared with me a few weeks ago. Trust me, you want to watch this first:
I love it because it so perfectly illustrates the problematic aspects of knowing your food source. What happens when you don’t know what’s worth knowing?
In the long run, does it matter whether or not the chicken was named Colin and he had other chicken friends to wrap his little wing around? Could you end up caring about the wrong things?
The grocery store shelves are stocked with cartons upon cartons of eggs with labels as varied as free-range, cage-free, grain-free, and even “happy!” These are words and images, one-dimensional characteristics. It’s nearly impossible to tell which phrases carry the right meaning, which phrase means what we want it to mean. What is the image of a happy hen we have in our minds? The eggs with the cartoon of the happy hen? The Mennonite eggs (because if raised by a particular religious faction, they must be humane)? Who knows?
So often in the face of all this, we shrug our shoulders and buy what’s cheapest. In the face of so much obscured information from industrial agriculture, sustainable agriculture can often seem to inundate us with so much information as to render the facts meaningless. We choose blindly.
I thrive on information. It’s part of what drove me into journalism at first, and ultimately, what pushed me past journalism. The information I wanted was the whole, complex truth, the one that could never be boiled down to mere facts, to a 500-word breezer. I seek more and more and more. I spend a lot of time learning. I write creative nonfiction because I want to explain the facts, to uncover the whole, messy understory.
I wrote a book about food because nowhere is the bloody mixture of fact and truth more difficult or more important. Sometimes you have to get right up in the face of something to understand it – because what you learn there, under the harsh light of facts, is that the truth is nowhere near that simple.
Bartlett Durand sent me an email a few weeks ago to thank me for mentioning Black Earth Meats in this post. He was so thrilled to get to hear the reactions of a person visiting the slaughterhouse, because he almost never gets to, to learn what an outsider, unfamiliar with the industry or the process, sees or hears or feels between those walls.
But he was also so thankful that I had taken the time to research slaughterhouses before and after my trip, that I had compared my experience there to those of other researchers in other kill rooms. Unfortunately, he said, sometimes people who care, their hearts can be in the wrong place:
Just last week we had a neighbor (13 years old) filming an unloading of hogs because she was convinced we were cruel and inhumane. What she was hearing was the “distress calls” of pastured hogs telling each other to “watch out”, but she refused to come closer and actually watch, let alone learn about what was going on. If she had come closer, she would have watched our guys unloading by simply walking behind small groups of hogs and letting them find their own way into the pens. So sad.
I’m most moved by his so sad. Bartlett wants educated consumers. He wants people to know what goes on in this slaughterhouse, during and before the packing process, because he knows that if people see how he treats an animal and how a CAFO treats an animal (not to mention the workers, or the customers, or the meat after it is no longer an animal), he comes out on top.
We have to do more than care about our food. We have to learn about it.
Last summer, when I visited Black Earth Meats, I was working for a few weeks on an organic vegetable farm in southwest Wisconsin called Shooting Star Organics. The husband and wife farm duo, Rink & Jenny, are good friends with one of my graduate school professors. They had a guest house where I could stay for a few weeks, while volunteering casual, inexperienced farm help in whatever capacity they saw fit.
Knee-deep in research about sustainable agriculture practices, organic certification, humane meat-eating and other contradictions, I had a feeling I might be missing an important part of the story by relying only on my own experiences. My new goal was to support models of agriculture that reflected natural nutrient cycles and human health, but the reality was, I had no idea what I was talking about. I didn’t know what it really meant to be a farmer.
What I learned at Shooting Star Organics is this: It’s really hard to be a farmer. You don’t make enough money. You have to put in long, long hours. The work is painful. My back ached with radiating pain after just a few hours bending and straightening to put tomato seedlings in the ground. My knees split from crawling along soil and rock. My palms blistered from hoe-weeding, my shoulders burned from hauling fifty pound bags of fertilizer back and forth across the field.
Dirty doesn’t even begin to describe the layer of slick you get up to your knees crawling up and down the ground of a hoop house that’s just recently been watered, or laying irrigation strips beneath a plastic tarp covering in the eggplant plot. We all know what happens when water mixes with soil. What you might not know is what that combination does to even your heaviest hiking boots when you step ankle-deep in it: sucks the shoe right off your foot, so you come down into the muddy soil in nothing but a gym sock.
But all that dirt and muck—the smudges of it on my face and arms, crusted into my braids—reminded me of the fundamental truth of the farm. All food grows in the ground. Food, when you do it right, comes up out of the dirt of the earth. And sometimes that’s messy.
Farmers markets connect us directly to the place we live. We learn what the soil of our own backyards is capable of growing and when. By buying our food locally, we see this natural cycle writ large across the booths at a farmers market.
But we learn even more about our community than what crops the land can grow there. We learn who our neighbors are and we learn what kinds of products are valuable to them. We learn what kind of music they like and what age they tend to be and what they wear. In these details, we learn who our neighbors are, and what matters to them. For this reason, my favorite market by far is the one in Ithaca, New York.
The Ithaca market has it all: the vibrant produce grown by a swath of dedicated back-to-the-landers or their descendants who drive their biodiesel vans down from the eco-village to stuff bunches of carrots or heads of radicchio into cloth bags; the hippie artisans sporting dreadlocks or tattooed arms, sewing hammocks from hemp or making their own lavender soap; the new urbanite entrepreneurs, giving free samples of their latest Pinot Noir; a variety of ethnic food vendors that speaks to the city’s mixed cultural heritage, Tibetan, Mexican, Sri Lankan, Cuban; free steamboat rides up and down the length of Cayuga Lake.
I think I love the Ithaca market as much as I do not because it’s the best market, or has the most to offer either in terms of fresh produce or crafts, but because it’s the most perfect illustration of what Ithaca is, this wild chaotic city of ex-hippies and young professionals stuffed to the brim with Tibetan monks protesting on the commons, Christian communes running Yerba Mate shops and poetry slams at Juna’s Café on Friday nights. And the Ithaca market somehow manages, with art and nature and food, to communicate all that.
And learning all that about the people and the land around us is the first step to placing ourselves within that giant quilt, the beginning of finding our own identity within the fabric of a place.
Learning the difference between cage-free and free-range isn’t just about being a snobby consumer. It’s not just because one kind of life is better for the hen, or one kind of egg is better at not giving you salmonella, though both of those things are true. It’s because in the pursuit of information, we get closer to the source. When we get closer, whatever the original root of that particular plant, whatever the source of that spring may be, we are forced to face the fact that our food is not separate from us.
We remember that everything we eat comes from land and soil first, that without enough water or sunlight, we would all starve. We remember that we participate in a dozen little deaths, every day. We remember we are one of many, one in a community of neighbors and day laborers and animals and probiotic bacteria and air.
We remember that the truth is so much more complicated than the facts, and maybe that means we are willing to spend a little more time shopping or judging and a little more time listening and learning.
We can all honor Colin however we choose.