Farmers: What Do You Think Of Pollan's Ideas?
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
Writer Michael Pollan famously advises eat food, not too much, mostly plants. And don't buy food you've seen advertised on TV. And that's just the kernel of his ideas about the American food industry and American agriculture in his enormously popular books, including his latest, "In Defense of Food." Last month the University of Wisconsin-Madison gave that book to all incoming freshman and urged professors to discuss it in class, which as you might suspect set off a Donnybrook in a heavily agricultural state.
A lot of farmers challenge Pollan's work as a direct attack on them and how they work. Some ideas of his may be appealing, they say, but unrealistic, others just ill-informed. Today we'll talk with Michael Pollan and with two working farmers who deal every day with the practices that he criticizes.
Later in the program, Farhad Manjoo of Slate on the international phishing ring broken up by the FBI and his practical ideas on how to protect our terrible passwords.
But first, the omnivore's debate, and we'd like to hear from farmers today. If you're familiar with Pollan's critique, is it accurate, are his proposed solutions practical? 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our Web site, that's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. And Michael Pollan joins us now from the studios on the campus at the University of California at Berkley. And nice to have you back on the program.
Mr. MICHAEL POLLAN (Author, "In Defense of Food"): Thanks Neal, good to be back.
CONAN: And remind us, if you would, the critique of American farmers.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. POLLAN: How much time do you have?
Mr. POLLAN: Let me start though by alluding to something you said in your set-up, because I don't think it was true. You said I was critical of American farmers. Now, some farmers have taken what I say that way. But in fact, you know, I can't defy anyone to see - find things I have actually written that are critical of farmers. I am critical of various practices and I'm very critical of a system, a set of incentives that really forces farmers to plant monocultures and to consolidate and get bigger, and leaves them with very few choices in the way of either markets to sell their products or ways to grow them.
And that's very different than saying you're critical of farmers. It really is a system that I'm critical of and it's a system that's been designed by other people and is the result of the kind of farm policies we have in our country. I think that's an important distinction.
CONAN: Farmers themselves have few choices?
Mr. POLLAN: Well, very often they do. If you're growing corn and soybeans in the Midwest, you know, there's one buyer of your product, that's the grain elevator in town. If you want, as farmers have told me, if you want to try to do something else, if you want to grow some broccoli or some tomatoes, you run into all sorts of problems. The first is that under the farm policies, you lose your subsidies as soon as you get out of corn and bean land. The second is, who's going to buy your food? So there are many farmers who are interested in changing what they're doing, who see that growing lots of corn and soy is - it doesn't really work that well for them either, I mean that their farm income has been falling.
We had a spike last year and that this system doesn't really serve their interests either. But it's important to understand that there is a counteroffensive underway right now from the agribusiness lobby and that that is trying to depict this critique - and it's not just my critic, it's the critique in "Food Inc." and Eric Schlosser's work and a whole lot of other people - as an attack on farmers, and that that is the agribusiness hiding behind farmers, as far as I can tell.
CONAN: How can you - well, you've explained that people are forced into this. Some of these farmers - why don't we bring a farmer on to speak for himself, all right? Let's bring another voice into the conversation. Blake Hurst is a farmer in Northwest Missouri with six other family members. He grows corn and soybeans on 4,500 acres there. His family also raised cattle for many years. They don't do that anymore though. He recently wrote an article for The Journal of the American Enterpriser Institute called "The Omnivores Delusion - Against the Agri-Intellectuals," and among them Michael Pollan. And he joins us from the studios of NET Radio in Lincoln, Nebraska. And it's good to have you on the program. Thanks very much for taking the time.
Mr. BLAKE HURST (Farmer): Thank you. It's good to be here.
CONAN: And you have choices in what you do and how you do it?
Mr. HURST: Well, certainly I do. The road goes right by my house. I can get on it and leave at any time. I can put different products on it and sell them at any time. I choose to grow corn and soybeans because that's - which first of, I challenge the monoculture - corns, grass, soybeans are a legume. We rotate them year after year. That allows us to now use, you know, we use absolutely no insecticides because different insects attack different crops. So first off, I do not believe I'm in a monoculture. My friends in Southern Missouri grow rice, wheat, cotton, corn and soybeans. So they have lots of variety in the things they grow. But I'm not trapped at all. It's a free society. I choose to do what I'm doing. I'm proud to be doing it and I enjoy it.
CONAN: And when you read Michael Pollan's work - I read your article and you said he's depicting you and other farmers as being, well, either dupes of commercial interests or, well, not so bright.
Mr. HURST: Well, yeah. I mean, he says I'm - the agribusiness is hiding behind me, like when I wrote the article Monsanto was in the room with me. I mean, you know, my wife helped me sound out some of the big words, but other than that, I did it on my own, and I'm not a tool of anybody.
CONAN: And the other farmers that you know, and other people in your district, they're doing the things that they are doing presumably because that's the best way to make a living?
Mr. HURST: Yeah, yeah. And farming is a competitive industry. And whether I'm raising broccoli or corn or soybeans, the profits that come back to me will always be the level of profit that the margin the last farmer is willing to accept. So, it tends to be a competitive business. Yes, I wish I received more from my grain. Yes, I wish my income is higher. But I enjoy what I do and clearly if my income was not high enough, I'd get another job.
CONAN: And Michael Pollan, as you look at the statements by Mr. Hurst and others, I don't think he's part of a - he did write for a conservative journal. But is he part of this concerted attack you're talking about?
Mr. POLLAN: Oh, I don't know that. I can't say whether Blake is writing as an individual for himself or is, you know, part of something larger than that, obviously. I don't question his motives in writing that piece at all. I'm just saying that what's going on around the country right now, and the efforts to, you know, silence my speeches on college campuses where there are agro-business interests involved, which is happening, you know, as you said in Madison, there was a lot of protest and in the…
CONAN: Well that was after handing out the book to every student, every freshman is hardly…
Mr. POLLAN: …right…
Mr. POLLAN: …which the Farm Bureau in Wisconsin had a big problem of and with it. And it was very interesting. What happened there? They bused in several hundred farmers, all wearing green T-shirts that said, In Defense of Farmers. And they were expecting to hear a very different Michael Pollan, I think, than they actually heard because when they left, they were surprised that what I said didn't conform to what the Farm Bureau was telling them I said…
Mr. POLLAN: …which is to say, I was talking about how to build new agricultural markets, so that they could diversify. I was talking about figuring out ways to get more of the consumers' food dollar into their pockets. Right now, 90 percent of the consumers' food dollar goes to middlemen, processors, marketers. And that in the kinds of alternative agriculture that we're beginning to be talked about in this country, there are great opportunities for farmers. And I think, a lot of farmers, whether they take those opportunities or not, the fact that there are now these new markets, whether it's for organic or pasture-raised livestock or, you know, farmers' market food or all these other kinds of things, these are great opportunities for farmers who had less choices in the past.
And you know, when the farmers left that hall, they were kind of surprised, and I talked to some ag-journalists who said, yeah, we were on the bus with them going back, and they said they really didn't find as much to disagree with in what you said than they expected. And so I think that there is something of a caricature being drawn here, and that's fine.
You know, the other thing I want to say is that I really welcome this debate that's getting started. You know, it is long overdue, and Blake is definitely part of that, and he wrote a really cogent, powerful contribution to that debate and he raised some really good critiques of alternative agriculture, which is to say, do we have enough farmers to do it? Will it be productive enough? Will we be able to make food - will we be able to change without raising the price of food?
These are really key questions for the alternative food movement, and he honed right in on them, and there are no easy answers. But having this political debate about where farming and food are going in this country is exactly what we need, and I'm delighted to see it being joined.
CONAN: Blake Hurst, could there - I'm sorry, go ahead.
Mr. POLLAN: Yeah, well, I want to - you know, I think that reading a lot of the comments and stuff on the Web about my article, it's clear I did not do one thing very well, and that is, as the old joke goes, some of my best friends are organic farmers. I mean, I am absolutely - let a thousand flowers bloom. We grow flowers on our farm. I actually sell them at the farm. I sell directly to the consumer. I think it's wonderful that there's new markets and new kinds of food being raised, and it's fun for us to leave the farm and go to a restaurant where someone's cooking something different than we might receive at home.
But the point I would make is that there are environmental costs to turning our back on technology. I guess that was the point of my article. In other words, we farm no-till farming, which we are only able to do because of chemicals or because of pesticides that we use, and that cuts our erosion probably down to 20 percent of what it was 30 years ago, when I began farming.
Now, we may choose to move away from technology, and the consumer is going to make that decision in the final analysis, but she needs to know, the consumer needs to know, that there's environmental costs to farming, as the critics of farming would have us to do.
Mr. HURST: Well, I guess I would just say to that is, I assume when you talk about no-till farming, are you talking about using Roundup Ready crops, so you don't have to plow?
Mr. HURST: Yeah, we do, although you can do it without them, but yeah, we use Roundup Ready beans, not corn but beans.
And it is absolutely true that Roundup Ready soy has helped with erosion in the Middle West. There was a huge problem with soil just disappearing from our farms. But it's very important that even when you point to an achievement, and that is in my view the one achievement of Roundup Ready soy, that you take a clear-eyed view of the costs of these technologies, because there really are tradeoffs.
The high productivity of American agriculture has had costs, environmental costs, pollution costs, the amount of nitrogen that washes off of fields that ends up in the Mississippi and creates a dead zone in the Gulf that's now the size of Massachusetts. So you know, there are achievements, and there are costs.
CONAN: We're going to have to…
Mr. POLLAN: Exactly.
CONAN: We're going to have to resume after a short break. That music means we're coming up on a post. So gentlemen, stay with us. Michael Pollan, the author of, most recently, "In Defense of Food"; and Blake Hurst, who farms corn and soybeans on 4,500 acres with six other members of his family in northwest Missouri. Both of you stay with us please. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Most of can agree that we should eat healthier, lots of vegetables and fresh produce, fewer processed foods. The debate is in the details: where we get our food, who produces it, and how. Is it practical to eat only fresh, local foods grown organically?
We'd like to hear from farmers today. Are these proposed solutions practical for you? 800-989-8255. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Our guests are Michael Pollan. A young reader's edition of "The Omnivore's Dilemma" will be published next week. And Blake Hurst farms 4,500 acres with his family in northwest Missouri. He wrote the opinion piece "The Omnivore's Delusion," against the agri-intellectuals for the July issue of the Journal of the American Enterprise Institute.
Let's get a caller on the line, and Adam is calling us from Rhodelia in Kentucky. I hope I'm pronouncing that right.
ADAM (Caller): Yeah, that's correct. Yeah, I'm a farmer. This is my third year. I'm actually considered a young farmer, even though I'm 29, on a beef cattle farm that's been in the family for quite a while, and I just started diversifying into vegetables and mushrooms as well as Pasteur-cultury, and we're now grass-finishing our beef, also direct marking and sales through CSA and farmers markets.
CONAN: I'm sorry, what's the CSA?
ADAM: The CSA is a program where members pay up front for a season of vegetables. So they get a delivery each week. I raise over 40 different vegetables, and…
CONAN: So that sounds very local then.
ADAM: It is. The idea is that it really connects the customer, the consumer, to their food because they understand what's in season and when it's available. and so my comment is really just about the differences that's being made between organic and conventional farming, is that organic has a much higher cost and that it's not as productive, necessarily. And I just kind of have a - definitely don't believe that that's true with animal agriculture because I've seen with our -finishing our animals on grass that we have a much lower input, and that's through fossil fuels and making hay, if we are able to finish our animals on pasture that we keep the animals on year-round. And I think that's true with the chickens as well - the animals, just because they're able to consume 25 to 30 percent of their needs, their nutritional needs out of the grass, clover and insects that they find on the pasture.
So that again brings our feed costs down. And I think that's kind of a myth that organic agriculture is not really productive or efficient because it actually uses natural systems and biological systems to enhance its productivity, and that's not taken into account at all in our conventional view of agriculture.
CONAN: Adam, when we go to the store, if they sell organic produce or organically raised meats, as you do, they're always more expensive.
ADAM: Well, yeah, then they're not subsidized by the federal government, as most of the food and also the processors and the grain-buyers and all these things are subsidized by our taxpayer money. That's not the case with organic food. It's actually more in line with the true cost of food is going to be.
CONAN: The true cost, so we're paying - not paying enough, in other words.
ADAM: Yeah, I mean, I'm taking a lot of what Michael said already, you know, that this is - we're not really - we don't have any idea what food actually costs in terms of not just labor but actual inputs of money, and that's well off-base with the rest - what the rest of the world actually understands where - how their food is - how their food is made and what it actually takes.
CONAN: Let me ask…
ADAM: In this country we're far from that.
CONAN: Let me ask Blake Hurst about the role of subsidies in the economics of your farm.
Mr. HURST: We accept subsidies. We're involved in farm programs. I would point out for the last several years, they have played a very small part in our income, play almost no part in the decisions we make. Last year my total direct farm payments were about three percent of my gross sales. So you know, I'm not sure that they changed the price of grain very much, that they affected the decisions I made. Well, I'm positive they didn't affect the decision I made on the farm.
I would point out that there's a - everyone talks about local - local sales and local farming, and we need to remember that not all of us are able to have - sell directly to the consumer. Within a 30-mile radius of my farm, there's probably only 6,000 people. It's almost impossible for me to have the kind of relationship with the consumer that the caller is talking about.
So that's a very good thing for people who live near urban areas, and I commend them for it. But for those of us that live where I do, what I raise is going to have to get on a truck and go to the city. It's just almost impossible for it to be consumed any other way.
CONAN: Michael Pollan, are the subsidies a big part of the conversation?
Mr. POLLAN: Yes, subsidies are a big part of the conversations. You know, in Blake's case, the fact that he received so little last year probably reflects the fact that grain prices were at record levels. If you go to Iowa in an average year, though, farming comes about 40 percent government payments.
So it is for most, you know, commodity farmers in the Middle West, a big part of the equation, and I think it does limit their freedom of operation and, you know, whether that is driving down the cost of grain is a very complicated question.
I mean, a lot of people argue that even if you got rid of them, grain prices would still be low and keep falling because farmers have a lot of incentives to overproduce.
Mr. HURST: Could I interject? I mean in - in Mr. Pollan's book, "Omnivore's Dilemma," he seems to be lamenting the changes in farm policy that happened in the late '80s and early '90s. In other words, before then there was - the government literally set the price. Now the government, the market clears. The government does not set a floor under the cost of our - or the cost.
So I think Mr. Pollan is correct. I mean, I think, and most farmers would disagree with me, but I think he is correct. I think that farm subsidies, the way they are now, probably do make the price of grain lower than it would be without them, less variable. Our incomes are less variable, and yes indeed, in low-price years a larger part of our income comes from farm subsidies. But I think he's right about that. I have no disagreement.
I don't think that we want to go back to where we were in the 1970s. There was huge amounts of problems caused by those programs as well.
Mr. POLLAN: Well, that's true, but you know - I mean, we're going to scare people off by talking about farm subsidies.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Mostly me.
Mr. POLLAN: All right, Neal, move on.
CONAN: All right. I wanted to thank Adam for his phone call and introduce another farmer on the program. Troy Roush farms corn and soybeans on 6,000 acres in central Indiana, also vice president of the American Corn Growers Association. He joins us from the studios of member station WFYI in Indianapolis. And we know you've gone to some effort to be with us today. We appreciate it.
Mr. TROY ROUSH (American Corn Growers Association): Hi, Neal, thanks.
CONAN: I know you've been listening to the conversation as well. Are the kinds of things we're talking about practical to - the kinds of things Michael Pollan's talking about practical for farmers to do?
Mr. ROUSH: Well, practical in what sense? The big question, and both Michael and Neal…
CONAN: Blake. Blake's - I'm not the farmer.
Mr. ROUSH: Blake, I'm sorry. You're Neal.
CONAN: I was born with a black thumb. I grow nothing.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ROUSH: Blake alluded to this, is whether or not we can, in fact, feed an ever-growing population in a post-peak oil world, and that perhaps is the big question.
CONAN: And how does that impact how you farm on your farm?
Mr. ROUSH: We in the last couple years have become very cognizant of energy costs because it drives a lot of our input cost, namely fertilizer. And you know, we manage that as best we can. But as we've looked at this going forward, you know, we're starting to ask questions.
What's going to happen when oil returns to 100, $150 a barrel? How are we going to manage that on our farm and be profitable?
CONAN: And the questions are hard to answer, aren't they?
Mr. ROUSH: Well, they've very difficult to answer. Therefore that's what I find so intriguing about Michael's book, is this discussion of cover crops and widening out our rotations and utilizing animal manures and such to try to get away from the more industrial type of farming that we now do.
Mr. HURST: But have you? Are planting half your ground to legumes every year and raising corn the next year?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ROUSH: I'm experimenting. I'm learning. I'm working with a lot of cover crops. It's a difficult process, and it's a learning process.
CONAN: Because that restores nitrogen to the soil and reduces the amount of fertilizer you'd have to use the following year.
Mr. HURST: Yeah, but the problem is that our growing season does not allow us to grow a cover crop from the time one year is harvested until we plant the next year. So we have to grow the cover crop without - so we don't grow corn for a year, grow a cover crop, and then come back with corn, which is the way, of course, my grandfather farmed in the '30s. And he would take hay off of the cover crop to feed his cattle. And the problem is that doesn't provide as much nitrogen as my crop needs, and I lose income for a year. So I'm using twice as much labor and twice as much water and twice as much land to raise the same amount of corn. And so there's environmental cost to all - and, of course, I'm tilling the ground four or five times both years. Where in my system I use now, I'm telling you at all. So there's erosion costs. There's land cost. There's water cost, and there's labor cost. I guess that is some of the three percent of the United States nitrogen - or three percent of our energy goes into making nitrogen for crops. So it's a very small part of our energy use.
CONAN: Let's get Josie on the line. Josie's calling us from Boise.
JOSIE (Caller): Yes, hi. I want say how honored I am to be on the show.
CONAN: Well, that's very kind of you to say.
JOSIE: I am organic farmer in Boise, Idaho. I'm lucky enough to be an urban farmer. My husband and I farm 33 acres within the city limits. And this year, we're expanding to a 60-acre model so that we can put it into (unintelligible) systems, just like we've read in "The Omnivore's Dilemma." And so it's such an honor for us to have people like Michael Pollan writing books about exactly how we farm.
CONAN: And as you say, this is a very small farm, an urban farm. And are the principles that he endorses easier for you because of that?
JOSIE: I think it's easy because I am six miles away from downtown Boise. So I don't have to use any days to truck my food into the city. Also, I'm very accessible to the community, so I can teach classes and have dinners. I can have greenhouse sales, which really help. But my - I have tried to run our whole farm in the black with no loans. And right before the show came on, we were having a heated discussion about a new barn. And I don't think we can afford the whole barn this year. And he doesn't think that we should just build half a barn. And so I said, you know, can we just put the post where maybe it's going to be built?
And I think farmers - no matter what type of crop they're growing, commodity, organic, diverse, CSA - it's a tough road to hoe. There's not much money in farming, no matter how you're growing or what you're growing.
CONAN: I think you can get universal agreement on that.
I just have to ask one quick question, Josie: Do you make - is this your principal source of income?
JOSIE : This is our principal source of income. We're very, I guess, lucky to have this be our principal source of income. This is our seventh year. We run a CSA farm with other different markets. We grow about 120 types of vegetables, herbs, fruits, flowers and pastured poultry that we run them through our covered crop. And we're figuring it out without taking out loans. And it feels really good to not have that, like I know a lot of my large farming friends have.
CONAN: Well, Josie, thanks very much for the call. Good luck to you, and I hope you get the whole barn built.
JOSIE: I hope so, too. Thanks so much.
CONAN: Okay. Bye-bye.
Mr. POLLAN: Neal could I - might I jump in?
CONAN: I just want to say one thing, that you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION FROM NPR News.
Go ahead, please.
Mr. POLLAN: Yeah. No, I think it's very interesting to hear this conversation and listen to Blake talked about the challenges of extending his rotations and the experiments that I know Troy is doing on his farm. The fact is, that's what we need is the spirit of innovation. And we need to build a safety net on the farmers so they can do it.
What Troy said is exactly right. We are going to need to be able to learn how to farm without so much fossil fuel. We're going to have to learn how to use the sun again. It doesn't mean turning back the clock. It means coming up with a broader definition of technology, a really ingenious rotation for the Midwest, represents exactly the kind of technology we need. It's just a sophisticated as a Roundup Ready seed.
And, you know, if you go to Argentina, they have a very interesting rotation. They do an eight-year rotation. They'll do five years of cattle on grass, they'll rotate them around their pastures. And then they'll do three years of grain. And they find if they do that, there's so much fertility in the soil, they don't need to use any nitrogen for three years of grain. They also don't need any herbicides. You know, that means putting animals back on farms. That's a radical change from where we are.
Mr. HURST: But…
Mr. POLLAN: But this is the kind of work that, you know, ingenious farmers like Blake and Troy and the woman who just called will be figuring out, and hopefully they'll get a little help from the agricultural schools.
CONAN: Go ahead, Blake.
Mr. HURST: Well, I mean, the nitrogen problem is a problem. I mean, that is the problem. That is the question. I mean, where does the nitrogen come from? Those cows don't produce nitrogen out of the air. The only nitrogen they can leave on the ground is what they take from their diet. And so how can they grow three years of corn without adding nitrogen? Well, either there's been - I don't know. I mean, I - you know, are they growing enough legumes in their rotation to get nitrogen for three years? I don't know. I mean, it's like a work on my farm. I'm sure of that.
Mr. POLLAN: Have you tried it?
CONAN: And - but I did want to ask you if that future that Troy was talking about, where oil goes to 110-$150 gallon a again - a barrel, excuse me - again, if that is indeed our future, and some people believe it is, what's that going to do to your costs?
Mr. HURST: Well, it's going to make them higher, which means that food costs are going to have to go up. Mr. Pollan, in his book, quotes another book about nitrogen, says 40 percent of the world - people that are alive today in the world are there because of the ability to synthesize nitrogen from the air using energy.
We have to have the nitrogen. We can't get it any other way if we're going to feed population we have today or the 50 percent increase in population that we're looking at over the next 50 years. That's the only - I mean, there is no other answer.
Mr. HURST: And we're rich in America, and we can experiment. And we may choose to do things differently, but most of the world is going to have to have commercial nitrogen in order to feed their population.
Mr. ROUSH: Well…
Mr. HURST: I think…
Mr. ROUSH: Go ahead, Troy.
Mr. POLLAN: Well, and I know…
CONAN: Well, and we just got a minute left, so go ahead.
Mr. ROUSH: Sure. I think we got to step back and take a look at this nitrogen question. And the first question we perhaps should ask is: Do we as American farmers in need to be producing 13 billion bushels of corn? We're feeding corn to cattle. That's not necessarily the prudent thing to be doing. What Michael proposes is we put these cattle back on the pastures.
CONAN: And Michael, we'll give you 30 seconds for the last word.
Mr. POLLAN: Well, you know, nitrogen is the big question, but I would not give up on the idea that we can figure out systems, ecological systems to feed ourselves. We don't know the answer. We don't know for sure we can feed the world more sustainably. But we sure are going to have to try.
CONAN: Interesting questions that all of you raised. And it's interesting to me that, indeed, there's a lot of the same questions being asked in different ways by all of you. Thank you all very much for your time today.
And Michael Pollan is the author of, "In Defense of Food." And this week, young reader's edition of "The Omnivore's Dilemma" is going to be published. We thank him for his time.
And Blake Hurst, who farms corn and soybean on 4,500 acres with six other members of his family in Northwest Missouri, joined us today from NET Radio in Lincoln, Nebraska. And Troy Roush, who farms corn and soybean on 6,000 acres in Central Indiana and is vice-president to the American Corn Growers Association at the studios of member station of UFYI in Indianapolis. Both of them went way out of their way to join us today. We thank them so much for their time.
Coming up, after the FBI breaks up a massive online phishing ring, how can we protect ourselves? Tech columnist Farhad Manjoo joins us.
It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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