THE JUDEVINE MOUNTAIN EMAILITE #51

 

THE JUDEVINE MOUNTAIN EMAILITE: A Cyberzine

An On-line and On-going Journal of Politics and Opinion

#51

25  June 2012

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To be interested in food but not in food production is clearly absurd.

Wendell Berry

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FOOD: Part III

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In This Issue:

DAVID’S NOTES

A review of Wendell Berry’s BRINGING IT TO THE TABLE

STEALING FROM GIANTS

Ben Hewitt

WHAT PRICE FOOD?

Jeremiah Church

A LETTER FROM JAY LORENZ

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DAVID’S NOTES

a review of

BRINGING IT TO THE TABLE: On Farming and Food

by Wendell Berry

with an introduction by Michael Pollan

Counterpoint, 2009

         I’ve got to get something off my chest. In the November 9, 2009, NEW YORKER, Elizabeth Kolbert (born in 1961) calls Michael Pollan (born in 1955) “the Father of the Local Food movement.” This statement is an insult to Wendell Berry (born in 1934) and to Sir Albert Howard (born in 1873) who is the father of all of this. Wendell Berry was advocating for and preaching about all the current hip topics like eating local and organic this and that for decades before Michael Pollan or Barbara Kingsolver (also born in 1955) and so on were out of diapers. And Wendell wasn’t even in diapers when Sir Albert Howard was born. But typical of Wendell Berry, he gives full credit to Sir Albert Howard for being everybody’s progenitor. Too bad Elizabeth Kolbert didn’t do her homework and isn’t as knowledgeable and magnanimous as Wendell Berry. Both Pollan and Kingsolver are Johnny-come-latelys to this movement; they both know it and admit it. Kolbert should have known it too. Okay, that’s out of the way.

First, before anything else, anybody who wants to learn how to write should read Wendell Berry. As Michael Pollan says in his introduction to BRINGING IT TO THE TABLE, “I have learned as much from the construction of his sentences as from the construction of his ideas.” Berry’s prose is elegant and simple. (Can anything ever be elegant and complicated?) It’s Biblical, which is not surprising since Wendell is too.

Second, BRINGING IT TO THE TABLE is a compilation of articles about farming, farms, farmers and food that Wendell has written over the years. Now between the covers of a single book, these essays are essential reading for any interested in food, for anyone who eats. As Wendell says, “To be interested in food but not in food production is clearly absurd.” This book is a kind of Wendell Berry Farming and Food Bible.

There, in the two preceding paragraphs, are two reasons to get this book and read it. I hope you will. It’s a pleasure to read and to think about.

I have a series of quotes from BRINGING IT TO THE TABLE, which I culled from the book while reading it that I am forbidden from publishing because the quotes are too long; they are longer than the usual short quotes allowed in a review and there are too many of them. Each has a category title I made up. I would be happy to send the quotes to anyone who is interested, with, of course, a recommendation to buy the book itself. Write to me at david at davidbudbill.com and I’ll email them to you.

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STEALING FROM GIANTS

by Ben Hewitt

In middle March I walk the upper pasture, stumbling under the weight of a pair of five gallon buckets sloshing sap. The ground is nearly bare; the winter past was a feeble, fleeting thing, almost dreamlike in its rapid passing. Did it really happen? Was I really there? Why, I got the plow truck stuck only once, and two full rows of firewood remain in the shed. I’ll be glad for them come fall.

A gallon of sap weighs eight pounds and I carry ten of them (or maybe nine; I’ve lost some over the bucket rims). Seventy, eighty pounds. Not so much, but the far taps are a quarter mile down the field, hung from the old maples that define the border between our land and Melvin’s. Big, graceful trees, overseers of decades and generations. I think of all the cows that have loafed in their shade. I think of all the storms they’ve survived, all the haying seasons they’ve known. The horse-drawn mowers, then the old Ford’s and Massey’s, and now Melvin’s big Cat that can lay down the entire field in an afternoon. And every year, I take their sap. It humbles me to consider all they have seen and all I has taken from them, as if these somehow juxtapose each other in a way that makes me unworthy of their gift.

I am suddenly glad for the toil of it all: The trudging through the late-February snowpack to drill and tap and hang, and now the daily shoulder-burning haul up the field to the small evaporator, where we’ll boil down to the sweet essence of it all.

Halfway there. I stop at another tree, but of course the buckets are too full. I’ll have to come back.  Down in the valley, I hear the distant whine of a two-stroke engine, either an end of season snowmobile run along some shaded ribbon of snow or an early season dirt bike. I hear the change in tone as gears shift. Dirt bike. It fades into the distance and now I can hear the high-pitched bleating of the lambs in the barn and I know they are running to-and-fro, energized by the warmth and sun and perhaps some instinctual knowledge that soon they will be turned out to the season’s first tender shoots.

This spring has felt more relaxed to me than usual. I’m not sure why; maybe it’s because the winter was so mild. Or maybe it’s simply because I’ve gained another year of perspective, another 12 months in which to consider that things will unfold as they unfold. To be able to work and live amongst my family and farm for another year is an honor so great it leaves me almost breathless, and I’ve come to feel as if I owe something to that honor. I’m not sure what, exactly, but to approach it with as much equanimity as I can muster seems a good place to start.

I heave the buckets off the ground and resume the slow walk home.

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 WHAT PRICE FOOD?

Editor’s Note: On August 10, 2009, I did a commentary for Vermont Public Radio called AFFORDABLE FOOD FOR ALL about the new whole foods movement and who can afford the food and who can’t. It looked back on my 40 years as part of the Back to the Land movement here in northern Vermont and asked some questions. To read the commentary or listen to it (it takes 3:06) go to: http://www.vpr.net/episode/46665/

This following essay by Jeremiah Church is a response to my “Affordable Food for All” commentary on Vermont Public Radio

WHAT PRICE FOOD?

Jeremiah Church

I am a student and farmer in Morrisville, a 23-year resident of Vermont.

David Budbill’s commentary raised my blood pressure because it carries an assumption that I’ve long wrestled with: that local food is more expensive than “conventional food.” I want to challenge this on a few fronts, but first, let me agree with him: it is, in most cases, more money up front.

However:

1. Local food is not ALWAYS more expensive. To give a few examples: Ben Gleason’s Vermont grown and milled wheat flour is less than 1/2 the price of King Arthur’s equivalent. Cabot cheddar trim from Cheese Traders is $3.00/pound. Raw milk is available in my area for $4.00/gallon. Shelburne Orchards sells pickup beds full of apple drops at the end of the season for $50. Granted, these examples are specific and inconvenient, but such are the characteristics of local food. “Specific” means they each retain the character of the place, and “inconvenient” means you might have to go out of your way to meet your neighbor and enjoy better food.

2. Gardening is cheap, and has always been closely aligned with the local food movement. The recent economic downturn led to a tremendous increase in the number of folks gardening across America. Local farmers and organizations offering seed exchanges, gardening know-how, tomato starts, and community garden plots provide a support structure for gardening.

3. Local food is cheaper in the long run. Here is a short list of the unpaid bills of the industrial agriculture system:

  • Federal commodity subsidies: in 2007, the federal government paid $5 billion in commodity subsidies, of which Vermont received $1.8 million. The average state got $17 per person while Vermont got $3.  The commodity structure is so skewed towards enormous industrial farms that states with lots of small-scale ag like Vermont get very little.
    • Solution: Allow Consumers to choose
    • Source: http://farm.ewg.org/farm/dp_analysis.php?fips=50000&yr=2007
  • Illegal Monopoly Profits: Record low dairy prices over the past year have forced Vermont farmers off their land. Meanwhile Dean Foods, which controls 70% of fluid milk in the region, posted a 150% gain in net profits over 2008.
    • Solution:  Eliminate the middle man to give a greater portion of the food dollar to farmers.
    • Source: http://sanders.senate.gov/newsroom/news/?id=8f6da8d9-cfc5-4099-8773-4d8506323bd6
  • Federal/state energy subsidies: It takes about 10 calories of fossil fuel energy to produce 1 calorie of food energy in the industrial system. This energy itself is also subsidized- the federal government paid about $16.6 billion in energy subsidies in 2007. The upshot? Artificially cheap energy allows industrial farmers to continue inefficient practices on taxpayer’s backs.
  • Peak Oil, Mass Extinction, Global Oceanic Dead Zones, Obesity, and Heart Disease: all symptoms of an industrial food system; all of which we or our children will eventually pay for. Why not just eat better now?

Bottom line: local food costs less if you pay the full price for industrially produced food.

4. Americans CAN afford local food. Check out this graph:

Source: http://www.ilfb2.org/fff06/51.pdf.

We spend less than 10% of our income on food, the lowest in the world. The average country shells out 20% of its income on food. Many, if not most, of us can afford better food.   (http://www.ers.usda.gov/Briefing/CPIFoodAndExpenditures/Data/Table_97/2007table97.htm).

For some, access to good food is a real problem. The local food movement addresses food security through the work of Salvation Farms and the Vermont Food Bank in gleaning 88,000 pounds of food from farms in the Lamoille Valley over 3 years, among other ways.  In this way, vibrant farms contribute to food security for all members of a community. http://www.vtfoodbank.org/our_programs/gleaning_program/.

Budbill ended his commentary with the question “How is the sustainable agriculture movement going to get good, affordable food to all Vermonters, rich and poor alike?” The solution has to cut both ways: consumers need to understand that the industrial food system is artificially cheap, and farmers need to continue to work make good food available for everyone. Consumers are waking up to the fact that they pay for their food once at the supermarket, again in their taxes, and again in their health care bills. Local farms have long been a proponent of affordable food, from EFT machines (food stamps) at farmer’s markets, to grow-a-row programs, to community gardens. The continuation of these trends will see a local food movement that serves everyone.

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A LETTER FROM JAY LORENZ

David,

Here is a story that I heard many years ago and is a reflection of the status of modern American agriculture.

Lettuce—grown in California with water transported across a basin from Arizona. The field worker picks off the outer layer in the field. It gets washed where another layer is peeled before being boxed for shipment to New York City. There, the prep cook washes the lettuce peeling off yet another layer. A leaf goes on a plate with a scoop of tuna neatly placed on top. The patron eats the tuna and the lettuce is thrown out. Think of the amount of fossil fuel that was used to grow and transport a vegetable that is essentially water across the country…just to be thrown out.

And another bone I have to pick, this one involving the production of biofuels, particularly ethanol. This is a subject that sees little daylight in daily politics. Commercial ethanol production requires distillation of plant material, typically corn.

What is the energy source for the distillation? Most often it is fossil fuel. Simple laws of thermodynamics: you can’t get a net gain in energy by converting corn to a liquid energy. Think of the amount of fossil fuel energy that goes into fertilizer, herbicides, the production of farm equipment, the fuel to operate the farm equipment, the fuel to transport the product, and then the fuel to distill the product to ethanol. We could reduce our dependence on foreign oil a lot more by just burning gasoline directly in our cars than by using the fossil fuel to produce ethanol.

And would the land-base be better utilized for growing food for people? There can be some justification for ethanol if the energy used in distillation were wood or coal (I can’t burn either in my car). However, I’m not seeing the value in such a trade-off.

How often are business and personal tax incentives used to mask the true costs of our actions?

I know of no right answer for our food and energy issues, but one thing I do know is there is a place for truth and honest discourse.

Jay Lorenz

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CONTRIBUTOR’S NOTES

Ben Hewitt lives with his family in Cabot, Vermont. You can read more of his work at www.benhewitt.net

Jeremiah Church is a young farmer who lives in Morrisville, VT. He has a portable stone oven that he hauls around on a trailer behind his pickup truck to various locations to make pizza for people.

Jay Lorenz met David while studying the ecology of the eastern coyote in Judevine in the mid-1970s. Currently, he is a senior biologist with a leading full-service engineering firm. One of his current projects is environmental permitting of a wind farm in California.

David Budbill is a poet and a playwright and editor of this cyberzine. His website is at: http://www.davidbudbill.com/ 

 

                  Coming in JME #52:

                  Something Political

                  just in time for the election