A brief primer on what "Pasture-Raised" is, what it isn't, and the term I actually prefer.
We were at our local farmers market a few months ago and Allison noticed a new winery. She saw their name, "Forest Edge Vineyard," walked up to them and asked if they were permaculture people, since, who else talks about Forest Edges? Turns out that this couple has been practicing Permaculture since before it was cool.
We have a running joke with our Friend A. where every time we are doing something he finds to be crazy, but secretly thinks is amazing (my interpretation), he says, "That's so Permaculture" in a slightly accusatory tone. We laugh at how crazy some things we do sound and move on. This is near the top of our list of crazy (awesome) so far.
From the beginning of our own education in farming, we have loved to impart what we're learning to others and to grow alongside the many curious and intrepid people that are working to produce food, eat more healthfully, restore landscapes, serve those in need and build community.
Our permaculture foundations class is designed to give students confidence to look at their back yard, farm or apartment balcony and have some idea of where to start or where to go from here. For those whose thumbs are already decidedly green, this class will be an introduction into the particular principles and approaches that distinguish Permaculture within the landscape of sustainable and organic approaches to food production.
Allison and I are just about to hit our two year anniversary of living here. It's both incredibly encouraging and sobering to see what's been accomplished so far. When we moved here two years ago, you couldn't see off the property in any direction. It was dark and closed in. There was no usable garden space. The place was covered in poorly located ornamental plantings and about half of the property was unusable for anything meaningful whatsoever. There was a pile of trash 6 feet tall, blocking the door to the shop. Blackberrys were swallowing the landscape and rubbish was littered everywhere.
Allison and I are admittedly nerds in many ways. When we get interested in something we'll read at least 5 books about it. So having our librarian friend find scholarly articles on Permaculture for us is definitely more exciting than it should be. She sent us an article called Permaculture for Agroecology: Design, Movement, Practice and Worldview by Rafter Sass Ferguson & Sarah Taylor Lovell, published in 2012. It was unusual in that it was an academic article written by people outside the Permaculture world looking, mostly, at what Permaculture might have to offer the transition to Agroecology.
Remember the first time you went to the store and saw that label? You know the one: organic. There was something mysterious, earthy and even elite about the word. You didn't see it much at first. It was just on a couple items. The milk. The eggs. A package of granola. You may have been enticed, but then you saw the price, and thought, "That is sooo expensive! I'm not buying that." So, for awhile, you politely ignored the milk. Even though it just looked...whiter.
Then, one day, a friend raved about some organic this or that they bought. Or, somebody told you that non-organic milk is 70% puss because of all the antibiotics. Or, maybe you tasted something organic and just felt like the quality was better. And slowly, organic entered your life, and became a good friend, a comfort, an oasis in the food deserts of our lives. For awhile, you felt just a little bit like you'd arrived. The price? You can't put a price on health and quality.
Now organic has entered our lives so completely that the language has all but lost it's meaning. Everything can be found in an organic version: toothpaste, chips, bananas, ice cream, chocolate, coconut milk (yes, you buy that now), peanut butter, yogurt, etc, etc. So, what does organic actually mean then?
A simpler time
As industrial farming developed and food became big business - I mean HUGE business - farms had to continually adjust their techniques to do things on a larger and larger scale. Large scale harvesting created straight line fields built to be planted and harvest by machine. Loss of soil fertility because of overuse of the land and a lack of soil building techniques demanded the development of synthetic fertilizers. Issues like disease, weeds and pests that arose because of mono-cropping required larger and larger quantities of herbicides, pesticides and fungicides.
For a long time, we just accepted this as doctrine. This is how it MUST be done to have a sustainable business that feeds the world. Nobody much questioned it. We went to the store, bought whatever was there and didn't ask a lot of questions about where it came from or how it was produced. It was a simpler time.
Along came Organic
Then, a group, a small group at first, of farmers and foodies and environmentalists and academics and various combinations of the above said, "there has to be a different way." After all, there have always been farms that didn't do it the conventional way, and the world managed to feed itself for millennia before RoundUp, so why can't we go back to that. They were concerned with the care of the earth and producing healthy food and so "Organic" was born.
Some producers stopped using the bad poisons and went back to trying to produce food using organic methods, like natural fertilizers using animal bi-product instead of synthetics. Or they began raising their beef on pasture without antibiotics instead of on feed lots. There are a thousand other minor or major adjustments that people have made in the quest for Organic and there are USDA standards to get the certification. Many of these farms were already doing these things and just started marketing it and some traded over, especially once they saw the economic opportunities.
Organic becomes a brand
The organic label is not entirely meaningless. Some standard is better than no standard. And, there are certain things you can be fairly sure of when you buy organic. What you can almost never be sure of however, is that what you are buying is sustainably produced or that it does not still exploit humans or deplete soil health or water resources or is necessarily more nutritious. The one thing you can be sure of is that they probably didn't use poisons, but even that's questionable.
Organic has become a brand as much as anything. It is a way to raise the price of an item. The reason places like Wall Mart sell Organic and that classic food companies like Kraft have bought up organic brands, is because it's big business. When big business gets involved the drive for better profit margins is reasserted and practices move further and further from sustainability.
We're not saying that all Organic has gone this way, but what we're saying is that knowing how your food was produced is still extremely opaque and the peace of mind that comes from the Organic label is only a modest comfort.
All this raises the question, "What is sustainability?" Simply put, it's whether your energy in matches your energy out. In other words, how much energy did it take to produce that carrot you're eating. Where did the water come from? How much human labor and of what kind? Fossil fuels? Soil amendments? Most systems, even Organic ones, require large input from somewhere off-site.
This has worked, in part, because those inputs have been inexpensive enough to justify. They work on a balance sheet and can be economically sustained, but not ecologically sustained. Eventually, one will catch up with the other.
This Ted Talk, by chef Dan Barber, is one of the best (and most hilarious) descriptions of what sustainability means, using the example of fish farming. It's also a fantastic example of a permaculture system, even though they don't use the word. Watch it!
Sustainability, for it's part, is not easy to achieve. For any farm to have sustainable and ethical human, water, soil building, feed, and all other resources, there has to be an incredible amount of thought that goes into how the system functions. As the Ted Talk describes, you must become an expert on the relationship between elements to have your energy in and energy out match.
Sustainability, a break even energy audit, is hard to achieve, but that's not even the goal. The goal is to have a surplus. The goal is to have your energy out far exceed your energy in. That's what it takes for a system to sustain itself and those that rely on it (like people).
The goal of going beyond basic sustainability to being able to support life on a system, means that Organic doesn't go nearly far enough. It is not enough to simply stop using poison. The system has to change dramatically if we are to move from being predatory in our environment to productive. And, this might be what we need to feed the world in the longer term.
A New Vote
In the last post, we talked about how to vote with your dollars to feed the kind of system you actually believe in. We don't think that vote is about continuing to grow the Organic brand. We believe it means a move toward sustainable local food systems.
So, how can you vote with your dollar? Put it into local farmers through direct trade. You might be surprised by how much is available in your area. Farmers markets are proliferating, CSA's are becoming widespread and buying a whole beef, or a hog is so much easier than a decade ago. if you can have direct interaction with your farmer you can ask questions like:
How was this carrot produced? Do you use sprays? How do you build your soil? What kind of conditions are your animals kept in? How do you feed them?
Honestly, we have not reached true sustainability yet. It will take some years to get the system to a healthy enough place that it can sustain itself and produce a large enough surplus at the same time. We are headed that way though, and that's probably what you want to look out for. The people that care and that are trying to get there. That's how we've tried to vote these last years and we commend you to the same!
What's the deal with GMOs?
Some of you may, or may not, be aware of the battle going on in Oregon right now over GMO labeling. Essentially, after the next election Oregonians will either know when there are genetically modified ingredients in the things we buy at the store, or, we will all remain in blissful ignorance.
Attitudes toward the issue range from, "I demand to know what's in my food," to "knowing what's in my food will destroy agriculture and the economy forever," to "just let me eat my burger in peace you hippie." But it's completely legitimate to ask, "What's the big deal about GMO's?"
Some of those who are for labeling worry about potential health impacts from GMO foods. Some people just don't like to eat things without knowing what's in them. Others are philosophically opposed to GMOs, for a variety of reasons. We are in the "all of the above" camp, but I think the philosophical arguments about the use of GMO's in agriculture are among the most convincing and underrepresented.
The whole debate reminds me of another debate in our history: cigarette labeling. The big tobacco companies poured tons of money into research studies and campaigns to bolster their argument that smoking wasn't that big a deal. Big Ag is similarly pouring insane amounts of money into studies, advertising, lobbying, etc. in order to make us feel like it will be the end of the world if we label GMO foods and that there is no reason to fear them.
For us, this issue is a microcosm of a much larger, much more pressing issue that often gets sidelined by a debate that focuses on whether GMO's are safe to consume. Namely, our food system is absolutely unsustainable and destined for a major crash if we continue the way we are going.
Forgive my doomsday pronouncement. I'm not quick to apocalyptic rhetoric, but there are some very concerning trends in agriculture right now that have left us very vulnerable. I'll boil it down to one idea: Bio-Diversity.
Why we must have Bio-Diversity
GMO's are designed to enhance traits that will increase yields, protect against various pests, diseases, weeds or some other trait that's deemed beneficial. They exist because mono-crops exist. One of the most prominent examples of GMO's (and mono-cropping) are corn and soy that have been modified to be resistant to RoundUp, so they can be sprayed more aggressively to control weeds and increase yields. This example can help us understand why the problem is so significant (I"m not even touching the reason we grow so much corn and soy to begin with, that's another post).
The weeds are now becoming resistant to RoundUp and it's requiring more and more to have the same effect. It's the same thing that happens when we overuse an antibiotic to treat a certain kind of infection. It's much better to support the health of the whole immune system so it has the capacity to do it's job.
Bio-diversity is like the worlds immune system.
Historically, problems like weeds, pest and disease were answered through bio-diversity. Farming was in service to the needs of a local community, so mono-cropping was not the norm. You can't feed an entire people with only corn, they need diversity in their diet. So people planted poly-cultures, many different kinds of plants and varieties of those plants.
Growers had a massive bank of genetics to draw from. If one variety of apple was being attacked by a certain fungus, you could select for the varieties that were resistant to it, and increase the genetic pool while you were at it. You made the fruit stronger, not the fungus. And, since apples were not the basis of your entire diet (or agriculture economy, "cough, cough, corn"), it wasn't the end of the world if you lost all your apples. You could just eat a persimmon instead.
Planting poly-cultures and cultivating diversity within species helps create a system that can sustain itself. It is the basis for a healthy food system that can feed whole communities and deal with inevitable set backs.
Now we are in a highly tenuous and insecure situation. So much of our land has been given over to mono-crop and so much of our own diversity is being lost, that a single disease could do enormous damage to the Ag economy and our food security.
By requiring GMO labeling (a practice already common in 64 countries) eaters have the opportunity to put their money into the sort of system they actually want to support. Along the way, they also have the benefit of knowing whether they are eating food that's been altered in a test tube, is likely to have been sprayed A TON or is contributing to the reduction in bio-diversity. This will give people the ability to, as they say, vote with their dollars.
But if you have the option of voting with your dollar, you might start to wonder where you should place that vote. That's a journey we've been on for awhile. It started with not buying things that had corn and soy in them, then buying food from farmers, making things from scratch and, at the end of the day, we bought a farm.
We don't expect everybody to buy a farm, so what does it look like for the average Joe and Jane out there to support the kind of food system they believe in?
That's our next post, and I'll give you a hint, it's not buying Organic.