I had an opportunity to answer an email query from a young lady yesterday that asked two simple questions: What's so special about organic products? Why do you farm the way you do?
She doesn't know me too well (yet), so I expect that she was quite surprised at the length of the reply. And I rather liked it, so it's reproduced here.
I'm not so big on the organic as I am on the "natural". My chickens are not organic, but they are raised as naturally as I can do it. The milk is organic - which is a subset of "all natural". No dairy that I know of produces "all natural" milk that's not organic.
So why do I practice natural farming?
I grew up on and around farms. My paternal grandfather was a breeder and importer of Percheron's, my dad was a blacksmith and farmer, my maternal grandfather farmed in Johnson County and my step-father (and my mom, of course) rented farms in Shelby County. My wife's father was a farmer who was more or less forced out in the late seventies, but her earliest memories are of the farm. The farm we live on now is adjacent to the house her dad bought in Dover, where she finished out her childhood. She used to play in our creek as a little girl when it was still the Dahoney farm.
I feel that I have a deep and abiding connection to the land.
Now, to say that this is a religious thing would be an over-simplification, but if you'll notice, many, if not most, of the folks involved in the organic, "slow foods", "homesteading" or "all natural" movement are religious people. Not that we all share the same religion by a long shot: I know Christians, Jews, Muslims, atheists and even other heathens and pagans who are caught up in this movement. No, "religious" isn't the right word: "spiritual" comes close, but that doesn't do it justice either.
What we all share is that abiding connection to the land, and the feeling that we are but travelers here, and it is our responsibility to leave this world a better place than when we came into it.
Pumping cows full of artificial drugs to drive down the price of meat is wrong. Filling the landscape with huge manure lagoons is wrong. Keeping 100,000 laying hens in a single building, where they never see sunlight or touch the earth is wrong. Patenting life forms is wrong.
These things are wrong because they're "out of order" - they're wrong because they ignore the natural world, and treat it as an engineering project. If the world is, in fact, naught but an engineering project, then it's God's, and not ours, and we should defer the design decisions to Him or Her, or It or Them: whatever - I'm not just being politically correct here. It's not religious in the denominational sense, it's a "spiritual respect" kind of thing... define the Powers That Be any way you like: it's irrelevant in this context.
I know a little bit about engineering projects: after I left the farm for the Air Force in 1973, I drifted first into electrical engineering and then into software engineering. I was a engineer for over 25 years, not becoming a full time farmer (again) until 2002.
As an engineer, I obviously believe that humans have both the capacity and the right to modify the natural environment - I don't live in a cave and hunt with my bare hands. We are tool making creatures: that's how we were designed. But making tools and using resources doesn't mean we have the right (although we are rapidly developing the capacity) to redesign creation itself. Down that road lies perdition.
One engineering slogan that always stuck with me is the KISS principle: Keep it simple, stupid! Applied to farming, I look at it like this: cattle are bovines which eat grass. Let's put them on pasture and let them eat grass: no human input (beyond fending off predators and treating disease) required. The "over-engineering" agribusiness crowd see it thus: cattle are bovines which eat grass. Let's lock all the cows in a barn, plant the fields with grasses (corn is a grass), harvest and process the grasses into grain, haul it into the barn and feed it to the cattle.
This is not simplicity. It adds variables and complexities that we can only begin to guess at: I think it's the height of hubris to believe that humans can do a better job than the Almighty in designing and defining the Universe, cattle included.
If we applied the same principles to software engineering that modern agribusinesses apply to farming and ranching, we'd have five or six computers in the US, to which everybody would log in from dumb terminals. And when the system went down, or had to be maintained, everybody would be off-line, and no work would get done. It was actually like that in the early days of the Digital Age, but the computer industry has, over the years, decentralized. We realized that many computers could work far more effectively than one. Agriculture has gone the other direction: did you know that 90% of the meat distributed in the US comes from four packers?
Centralization is not always a good thing. Economies of scale sometimes don't.
Now, I no fan of PETA - I am not a vegetarian, and I (obviously) believe that humans are to use animals for many purposes, from meat and milk to eggs, from wool and leather to fur and power (think draft horses). I even support the use of animals in medical testing, although a lot of that is un-necessary and only done to meet government regulations (another topic).
The PETA philosophy seems to be that "use = abuse". I don't believe that - but I will have to confess that many "modern" agricultural practices do abuse our resources - from livestock and plants to the Earth itself. My goal is to insure that while I'm using animals (and plants, and the earth itself) I'm not abusing them.
Every creature is designed for something: mankind, as mentioned, makes tools and modifies the environment. We are predators, hunters and at the top of the food chain. Chickens are, well, chickens. They're designed to reproduce and provide food for the predators - eggs and meat. Cattle start to get multi-purpose: predators (such as us) can eat them (beef) use the hides and horns to make tools and even use them to pull carts and such (oxen).
But to use them most efficiently and effectively, we need to be aware of the animal and it's needs: it's design and it's purpose from it's own point of view. Modern agriculture ignores the natural world in an attempt to remake it.
It's inefficient (over the long haul) because it wastes resources (think of the oil used in transporting grain to feed cattle in feedlots) and it's ineffective because it presents the consumer with dangers about which he cannot be aware (think superbugs). In economic terms, modern agribusinesses are deferring the costs of their operations to future generations: they're turning a profit next quarter at the cost of despoiling the environment a hundred years hence. By which time their shareholders will all be dead and it'll be somebody else's problem.
It's not effective because it produces output that lacks the qualities output produced by more natural methods obtains. Red meat is not, in and of itself, unhealthy. Red meats filled with dangerous superbug strains and various hormones may be. Feeding cattle mass quantities of grain changes the flavor of both the meat and the milk - pastured cattle produce subtler flavors.
Natural products tend to take on the character of the individual animal - my eggs all look slightly different: there's little uniformity. My meat chickens all have different weights - take a look at the whole chickens in the store next time, and note the narrow weight range presented. Uniformity is a hallmark of factory productions: supermarket foods aren't grown on farms, they're produced in factories.
When people tell me "Oh, I'd like to order from you, tell me about your bread. I don't drink milk or eat eggs." I tell them that's because they've probably never tasted real milk or had a real egg. They're utterly (or dare I say it: "udderly") different.
It can be cheaper (in the short run - only because the long term costs are hidden and deferred) to raise animals un-naturally, and consequently natural products cost a bit more. Sometimes a lot more. I can't compete with feedlot cows or confined dairies on price: but I can compete on quality. And that's exactly the focus I'd like to see put on my efforts.
We need to use the resources presented to us with intelligence and grace, not with a sledgehammer and a blunderbuss. We need to leave the world a better place for our descendants - we're all going to die someday, and our children and their children and their children's children will have nothing of us but our legacy, to enjoy or to curse. It's our choice.
And we must choose wisely.