Daisy Chains and Milkmaids; An Open Letter to Michael Pollan
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not dissing you. But…
Ok. If I ever have the fortune to meet you again, I’ll buy you a drink, or maybe even a whole meal. I owe you. Nobody else, besides Alice Waters, has done so much to promote the sort of small-scale, sustainable farms that people like me are trying to create. Take our CSA program, for instance. CSA stands for community supported agriculture. The basic idea is that a community of people who want local farms to survive put their money where their mouths are and support those local farms by underwriting their production costs. In return for their faith and investment, the farmer pays them back with weekly “share boxes” of the harvest. The consumers get food they can trust and they get to know that they’re doing their part to preserve the vitality of their own local foodshed. And the farmer? Well. Besides having committed customers to count on, CSA means that we can do an end run around the banks, and these days, when a gun in hand isn’t even enough to get a loan from a bank, that is some powerful ju-ju. But, Michael, you know all that.
CSA is a hard sell to consumers used to buying food in a supermarket. My wife and I have run a CSA for eleven years now, and every week since the beginning I’ve written a newsletter to my vegetable subscribers to explain what we’re doing on the farm. Little by little our CSA program grew, mostly because of the vegetables and the service we offered, but partly because I was getting the word out. I was on the radio four times a week in our local area, I wrote for newspapers, I answered every phone call I got from every reporter in a prompt, civil and informative manner. I entertained school groups, and basically worked my ass off to promote local, organic, sustainable agriculture. Over the years I saw measurable, incremental success. Then you published An Omnivore’s Dilemma. Public interest in our CSA surged, and the number of our subscribers doubled. Poof! A wave of your wand and our farm went from being economically marginal to truly sustainable overnight. So no, I’m not dissing you. But still….
Oh, and I shouldn’t forget the impact you’ve had on farmers’ markets. I don’t do the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market anymore, at least in part because our CSA program sustains us now, but if I had a dime for every person I met at market who was turned on to fresh, local, organic, sustainably produced food by you, I could buy myself a bucket of caviar from Tsar Nicoulai inside the building. Which brings me to fancy restaurants. When In Defense of Food came out I noticed a whole new wave of excitement from the public, including professional cooks who were invigorated about rethinking their approach to food and their commitment to helping the small-scale, artisan producers that supply them. About 85% of my income comes from our CSA program, but the other 15% comes from restaurants in San Francisco, and their well-being is important to me. The cooks that support us are happy about what we do, and they count on the patronage of thousands of consumers, some of them who are definitely going out to eat at establishments that they know are pushing a local, organic, sustainable agenda. These are exciting times to be involved in food, and you’ve had a lot to do with building that energy, so what’s not to love about your work?
I’m thinking now about the article you wrote recently for the New York Times titled Farmer in Chief. (Everybody should read this. It’s an open letter to the President Elect on the subject of agricultural policy.)
I read it and was I was amazed. It is the most cogent, comprehensive, wide-ranging essay I’ve ever read about agriculture in a paper, and I have to read all the ag rags. You tie together America’s oil addiction to our health, our diet, the farm environment, our landscape, our national security, world hunger, and global climate change. Your essay is easy to read, but dense in meaning, and almost every single paragraph could easily serve as a jumping off point for a whole article of its own, or even a book. You’re not content to merely bitch and moan, either. You offer concrete suggestions for a comprehensive, holistic cure for the catastrophe that confronts us; the re-solarization of farming and the re-localization of food. You make sense. Plants and animals need only the sun and each other to grow, so why have we invented a system that eats oil and spews CO2? I’ve been waiting for someone to say these things. My attempts to write about oil or food security have attracted no attention. You are a magnificent writer and a great intellect, and you’ve chosen to focus your efforts in an arena where you can create positive change, which is why I was sad to see what you didn’t say in your article.
You write, “Post-oil agriculture will need a lot more people engaged in food production– as farmers and probably also as gardeners.” You say this will create “tens of millions of new green jobs.”
I read that, and paused. So I read your essay again. You never mention farm workers.
It’s different to be a farm worker than a farmer or a “green worker.” I know. I was a farm worker for years before I ever became a farmer. I understand “green worker” to be someone employed in the emerging green technologies and practices. To me, “green” sounds “whiter,” than farm labor, almost “white collar.” But even if everyone with a yard ripped it out and put in a garden it would still take millions of farm workers to keep our agriculture going, and right now an overwhelming number of them are from Latin America, and most of those are undocumented. These “aliens” have no legal right to work to feed us, and yet we count on them every day. Farm workers are seemingly invisible, even apparently to you, and whatever exposure they do get is usually when they’re invoked as scapegoats by right-wing talk radio hosts who should know better than to spew invective with their mouths full.
It’s an interesting oversight, but I can’t imagine you left the farm workers out intentionally. The role of the farm worker is simply too much of a symptom of and poetic metaphor for of the chaos of our food system for a man of your learning not to notice. The industrial corn economy and the fuel-centric worldwide distribution system that gives us such cheap grain and meat in the US is an engine of destruction for small-scale farms and semi-communal ejido farms in Mexico. It is precisely because Mexican peasants can’t afford to buy corn and beef in their own country, or compete with multi-national food corporations and sell their produce to their friends and neighbors in Mexico, that they come here to work. Changing our food policy is key to unlocking the dungeon that is our immigration policy.
I keep reading that the US is having an economic crisis right now, and I can hardly believe it, because my own little farm stays busy. People have to eat; they don’t have to subscribe to cable, buy an RV, or go on a vacation, so farms are the last businesses to see the effects of a slowdown. I’ll know this country is in some deep shit when I see people from the suburbs ride out to my farm on their bicycles three or four days running to beg for work. I’ve seen that plenty of times from Mexican farm workers, but in the years I’ve spent in the fields I’ve never seen one native-born citizen come looking for a “stolen job.” In fact, one of the things that make the politics of immigration so toxic is that the screaming and howling comes from a poisoned place in our minds, totally divorced from the facts on the ground.
Let me show you some pictures. I carry my camera with me all the time, and when I see something that interests me I shoot. These are pictures of harvest crews in the Salinas Valley flying the Mexican Flag from their mobile porta-potties. Most of these pictures I took yesterday in the strawberries, but a few are from the lettuce fields, and stored in my computer I’ve got scads more, taken all around the Salinas and Pajaro valleys on various farms over the last several years. I took the pictures, in part, because I always fantasized about putting them on a cd and shipping it off to Rush Limbaugh.
“Look, Rush!” I’ve wanted to say. “Do these people look documented to you? They’re working in the fields farmed by big Republican corporate donors. The guys that pay the guys that pay these farm workers put Reagan signs on the edges of the fields in the 80s, Bush signs in the 90’s and 00s, and now there are McCain signs out there. So stop all the squalling about kicking the aliens out, or stop eating the food they pick! Better yet, go on a politically correct diet and eat only what you can verify yourself has been picked by legal workers! And don’t count on the smooth assurances of compliance to all local, state and federal codes from the corporate farm owners! Does it sound like too much work to verify the political status of your food? It’s actually really easy— just buy only food that’s been shipped here from another country, because when the foreigners that pick the food are in another country they aren’t illegal aliens, are they? You’ll be able to swallow your Argentine steak with pride! That, or you could buy a steak from a cow that was killed in the US and put your considerable rhetorical talents to promoting a comprehensive reform of immigration that takes our dependence on foreign workers into account, starts treating them like guests and stops treating them like shit.”
I’d be happy to confront “El Rushbo,” in a no-holds-barred grudge match, which is why I was sad to see that you didn’t connect the dots between the consequences of our food policy and the distress of our Mexican neighbors to the south and down the street. You’re usually the guy in my corner. Maybe you just want to be heard, and you didn’t want to screw up the impact of your piece by raising up evil spirits. Your essay was framed as a letter to the President, or Farmer in Chief, and you know that nothing sours political discourse in America so much as the mere breath of a word like “dependence.” We Americans are hell on wheels about our independence, but nobody wants to hear about our dependence on millions of Mexican nationals. Even bringing up the subject of our dependence on others is enough for some people to brand you “Un-American.” (I loved how you framed sustainable values in your essay as “true conservative values.” and I dug the stuff about the White House Lawn too.) And speaking of Un-Americans, I’ve got a funny story for you.
One of my dearest and oldest friends from all they way back when I was 14 is Porn Queen, sex educator, activist, dancer, writer, and general feminist loud-mouth, Nina Hartley. (She had a part in Boogie Nights, if you’re a Hollywood film buff) Anyway, Nina has always encouraged me to write and she laughs at my stories. So one time, when I wrote an account of a young couple that had slipped across the border illegally she wrote me to tell me the story had moved her, and she asked to feature it on her web site.
“Of course,” I replied.
As kids, Nina and I used to sit together on the school bus and talk about all the great things we would someday do. Today, she has a much wider forum than I, (She’s like the Michael Pollan of swingers with books, videos, and lectures on college campuses.) so I was pleased she liked the piece I’d written. I was happy she wanted to share her spotlight with me. I see myself as a frontline missionary/fighter in Alice’s Slow Food Jihad, and I relished the opportunity to witness to the sex crowd. Later, when Nina told me that she’d received hate mail when she posted my story I was charmed. My piece was matter-of-fact about the ongoing reality of illegal immigration and I’d chosen to present the young couple in a human, not an alien, light. Just this once I’d shown up my Porn Queen to be a little naïve. In Nina’s line of work, hate mail comes with the territory.
“But organic farmer-writers?” she said. “You guys are loved, aren’t you?”
“Sure we are,” I told Nina, “as long as we stick to the established narrative.”
It’s true.You wanna talk dirty? Golden showers, daisy chains and milkmaids are triple x, but if we start talking about who picked or slaughtered your food and we’re going to be taken as truly obscene. Maybe that’s why you didn’t include the farm workers, Mr. Pollan, out of decency. Next time? The drink offer stands.
copyright 2008 Andy Griffin
Michael Pollan’s article that Andy is writing about
Andy’s article about spinach archived on Chez Pim (thanks to Pim for archiving this!)
Andy’s account of a border crossing
Andy’s oil article that got hate mail
Flags photo essay with 4 photos of various fields
Michael Pollan’s website
Chez Panisse Foundation