The WHOLE TRUTH about...ORGANIC #3
by Michael Pollan
DOWN ON THE INDUSTRIAL ORGANIC FARM
Get over it, Gene Kahn would say. The important thing, the real value of putting organic on an industrial scale, is the sheer amount of acreage it puts under organic management. Behind every organic TV dinner or chicken or carton of industrial organic milk stands a certain quantity of land that will no longer be doused with chemicals, an undeniable gain for the environment and the public health. I could see his point. So I decided to travel around California to see these farms for myself. Why California? Because the state's industrial agriculture grows most of America's produce, and organic has in large part become a subset, or brand, of that agriculture.
No farms I had ever visited before prepared me for the industrial organic farms I saw in California. When I think about organic farming, I think family farm, I think small scale, I think hedgerows and compost piles and battered pickups—the old agrarian idea (which in fact has never had much purchase in California). I don't think migrant labor crews, combines the size of houses, mobile lettuce-packing factories marching across fields of romaine, twenty-thousand-broiler-chicken houses, or hundreds of acres of corn or broccoli or lettuce reaching clear to the horizon. To the eye, these farms look exactly like any other industrial farm in California—and in fact some of the biggest organic operations in the state are owned and operated by conventional mega-farms. The same farmer who is applying toxic fumigants to sterilize the soil in one field is in the next field applying compost to nurture the soil's natural fertility.
Is there anything wrong with this picture? I'm not sure, frankly. Gene Kahn makes the case that the scale of a farm has no bearing on its fidelity to organic principles, and that unless organic "scales up [it will] never be anything more than yuppie food." To prove his point Kahn sent me to visit several of the large-scale farms that supply Small Planet Foods. These included Greenways, the Central Valley operation that grows vegetables for his frozen dinners (and tomatoes for Muir Glen), and Petaluma Poultry, which grows the chicken in his frozen dinner as well as Rosie, the organic chicken I made the acquaintance of in Whole Foods. I also paid a visit to the Salinas Valley, where Earthbound Farm, the largest organic grower in the world, has most of its lettuce fields.
My first stop was Greenways Organic, a successful two-thousand-acre organic produce operation tucked into a twenty-four-thousand-acre conventional farm in the Central Valley outside Fresno; the crops, the machines, the crews, the rotations, and the fields were virtually indistinguishable, and yet two different kinds of industrial agriculture are being practiced here side by side.
In many respects the same factory model is at work in both fields, but for every chemical input used in the farm's conventional fields, a more benign organic input has been substituted in the organic ones. So in place of petrochemical fertilizers, Greenways' organic acres are nourished by compost made by the ton at a horse farm nearby, and by poultry manure. Instead of toxic pesticides, insects are controlled by spraying-approved organic agents (most of them derived from plants) such as rotenone, pyrethrum, and nicotine sulfate, and by introducing beneficial insects like lacewings. Inputs and outputs: a much greener machine, but a machine nevertheless.
Perhaps the greatest challenge to farming organically on an industrial scale is controlling weeds without the use of chemical herbicides. Greenways tackles its weeds with frequent and carefully timed tilling. Even before the crops are planted, the fields are irrigated to germinate the weed seeds present in the soil; a tractor then tills the field to kill them, the first of several passes it will make over the course of the growing season. When the crops stand too high to drive a tractor over, farm workers wielding propane torches will spot kill the biggest weeds by hand. The result is fields that look just as clean as the most herbicide-soaked farmland. But this approach, which I discovered is typical of large-scale organic operations, represents a compromise at best. The heavy tillage—heavier than in a conventional field—destroys the tilth of the soil and reduces its biological activity as surely as chemicals would; frequent tilling also releases so much nitrogen into the air that these weed-free organic fields require a lot more nitrogen fertilizer than they otherwise might. In a less disturbed, healthier soil, nitrogen-fixing bacteria would create much of the fertility that industrial organic growers must add in the form of compost, manures, or fish emulsion— all inputs permitted under federal rules. Not surprisingly the manufacturers of these inputs lobbied hard to shape the federal organic rules; in the end it proved easier to agree on a simple list of approved and prohibited materials rather than to try to legislate a genuinely more ecological model of farming.
Yet the best organic farmers deplore this sort of input substitution as a fall from the organic ideal, which envisions farms that provide for as much of their own fertility as possible, and control pests by means of crop diversification and rotation. It is too simple to say that smaller organic farms automatically hew closer to the organic ideals set forth by Albert Howard: Many small organic farms practice input substitution as well. The organic ideal is so exacting—a sustainable system modeled on nature that requires not only no synthetic chemicals but also no purchased inputs of any kind, and that returns as much to the soil as it removes—that it is mostly honored in the breach. Still, standing in a 160-acre block of organic broccoli in the Central Valley makes you appreciate why the farmers who come closest to achieving this ideal tend to be smaller in scale. These are the farmers who can plant literally dozens of different crops in fields that resemble quilts and practice long and elaborate rotations, thereby achieving the rich biodiversity in space and time that is the key to making a farm sustainable in something of the way a natural ecosystem is.
For better or worse, these are not the kinds of farms a big company like Small Planet Foods, or Whole Foods, does business with today. It's simply more cost-efficient to buy from one thousand-acre farm than ten hundred-acre farms. That's not because those big farms are necessarily any more productive, however. In fact, study after study has demonstrated that, measured in terms of the amount of food produced per acre, small farms are actually more productive than big farms; it is the higher transaction costs involved that makes dealing with them impractical for a company like Kahn's—that and the fact that they don't grow tremendous quantities of any one thing. As soon as your business involves stocking the frozen food case or produce section at a national chain, whether it be Wal-Mart or Whole Foods, the sheer quantities of organic produce you need makes it imperative to buy from farms operating on the same industrial scale you are. Everything's connected. The industrial values of specialization, economies of scale, and mechanization wind up crowding out ecological values such as diversity, complexity, and symbiosis. Or, to frame the matter in less abstract terms, as one of Kahn's employees did for trie, "The combine just can't make the turn in a five-acre corn field"—and Small Planet Foods now consumes combine quantities of organic corn.
The big question is whether the logic of an industrial food chain can be reconciled to the logic of the natural systems on which organic agriculture has tried to model itself. Put another way, is industrial organic ultimately a contradiction in terms?
Kahn is convinced it is not, but others both inside and outside his company see an inescapable tension. Sarah Huntington is one of Casca-dian Farm's oldest employees. She worked alongside Kahn on the original farm and at one time or another has held just about every job in the company. "The maw of that processing beast eats ten acres of cornfield in an hour," she told me. "And you're locked into planting a particular variety like Jubilee that ripens all at once and holds up in processing. So you see how the system is constantly pushing you back toward monoculture, which is anathema in organic. But that's the challenge—to change the system more than it changes you."
One of the most striking ways companies like Small Planet Foods is changing the system is by helping conventional farms convert a portion of their acreage to organic. Several thousand acres of American farmland are now organic as a result of the company's efforts, which go well beyond offering contracts to providing instruction and even management. Kahn has helped to prove to the skeptical that organic farming— dismissed as "hippie farming" only a few short years ago—can work on a large scale. The environmental benefits of this process cannot be overestimated. And yet the industrialization of organic comes at a price. The most obvious is consolidation down on the farm: Today two giant growers sell most of the fresh organic produce from California.
One of them is Earthbound Farm, a company that arguably represents industrial organic farming at its best. If Cascadian Farm is a first-generation organic farm, Earthbound is second generation. It was started in the early eighties by Drew and Myra Goodman, two entirely improbable farmers who came to the land from the city with exactly no farming experience. The two had grown up within a few blocks of each other on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where they attended the same progressive private high school. They didn't get together until after both had gone off to college in California, Drew to Santa Cruz, Myra to Berkeley. While living near Carmel, killing time before heading to graduate school, Drew and Myra started a roadside organic farm on a few rented acres, growing raspberries and the sort of baby greens that chefs were making trendy in the eighties. Every Sunday Myra would wash and bag a bunch of lettuce for their own use, a salad for each night of the week. They discovered that the whole-leaf lettuces held up remarkably well right through to dinner the following Saturday.
One day in 1986 the Goodmans learned that the Carmel chef who bought the bulk of their lettuce crop had moved on, and that his replacement wanted to use his own supplier. Suddenly they were faced with a field of baby greens to get rid of, greens that wouldn't stay baby for very long. So they decided to wash and bag them, and try to sell a prewashed salad mix at retail. Produce managers greeted the novel product with skepticism, so the Goodmans offered to take back any unsold bags at "the end of the week. None of them was returned. The "spring mix" business had been born.
So at least goes the Earthbound creation story, as recounted to me by Myra Goodman, now a tanned, leggy, and loquacious forty-two-year-old, over lunch at the company's roadside stand in the Carmel Valley. Like Cascadian Farm, Earthbound still maintains a showplace farm and roadside stand, a tangible reminder of its roots. Unlike Cascadian, however, Earthbound is still very much in the farming business, though most of its production land is an hour northeast of Carmel, in the Salinas Valley. Opening onto the Pacific near Monterey, the fertile, sea breeze—conditioned valley offers ideal conditions for growing lettuces nine months of the year. In winter, the company picks up and moves its operation, and many of its employees, south to Yuma, Arizona.
The prewashed salad business became one of the great success stories in American agriculture during the eighties and nineties, a time when there wasn't much to celebrate, and the Goodmans are direcdy responsible for much of that success. They helped dethrone iceberg, which used to dominate the valley, by introducing dozens of different salad mixes and innovating the way lettuces were grown, harvested, cleaned, and packed. Myra's father is an engineer and inveterate tin-kerer, and while the business was still headquartered in their Carmel Valley living room, he designed gentle-cycle washing machines for lettuce; later the company introduced one of the first customized baby lettuce harvesters, and helped pioneer the packing of greens in specially formulated plastic bags pumped with inert gases to extend shelf life.
Earthbound Farm's growth exploded after Costco placed an order in 1993. "Costco wanted our prewashed spring mix, but they didn't want organic," Myra told me. "To them, organic sent the wrong message: high price and low quality." At the time, organic was still recovering from the boom and bust following the Alar episode. But the Goodmans were committed to organic farming practices, so they decided to sell Costco their organically grown lettuce without calling it that.
"Costco was moving two thousand cases a week to start," Myra said, "and the order kept increasing." Wal-Mart, Lucky's, and Albertson's soon followed. The Goodmans quickly learned that in order to feed the maw of this industrial beast, Earthbound would have to industrialize itself. Their days of washing lettuce in the living room and selling at the Monterey farmer's market were over. "We didn't know how to farm on that scale," Drew told me, "and we needed a lot more land—fast." So the Goodmans entered into partnership with two of the most established conventional growers in the Salinas Valley, first Mission Ranches in 1995, and thenTanimura & Antle in 1999.These growers (no one in the valley calls himself a farmer) controlled some of the best land in the valley; they also knew how to grow, harvest, pack, and distribute tremendous quantities of produce. What they didn't know was organic production; in fact, Mission Ranches had tried it once and failed.
Through these partnerships, the Goodmans have helped convert several thousand acres of prime Salinas Valley land to organic; if you include all the farmland growing produce for Earthbound—which has expanded beyond greens to a full line of fruits and vegetables—the company represents a total of 25,000 organic acres. (This includes the acreage of the 135 farms that grow under contract to Earthbound.) The Goodmans estimate that taking all that land out of conventional production has eliminated some 270,000 pounds of pesticide and 8 million pounds of petrochemical fertilizer that would otherwise have been applied, a boon to both the environment and the people who work in those fields. Earthbound also uses biodiesel fuel in its tractors. I expected a field of spring mix to look a lot like the stuff in the bag: a dozen varieties tossed together in happy profusion. But it turns out the mixing comes later. Each variety, which has its own slightly different cultural requirements and life span, is grown in a monoculture of several acres each, which has the effect of turning this part of the valley into a mosaic of giant color blocks: dark green, burgundy, pale green, blue green. As you get closer you see that the blocks are divided into a series of eighty-inch-wide raised beds thickly planted with a single variety. Each weed-free strip is as smooth and flat as a tabletop, leveled with a laser so that the custom-built harvester can snip each leaf at precisely the same point. Earthbound's tabletop fields exemplify one of the most powerful industrial ideas: the tremendous gains in efficiency to be had when you can conform the irregularity of nature to the precision and control of a machine.
Apart from the much higher level of precision—time as well as space are scrupulously managed on this farm—the organic practices at Earthbound resemble those I saw at Greenways farm. Frequent tilling is used to control weeds, though crews of migrant workers, their heads wrapped in brightly colored cloths against the hot sun, do a last pass through each block before harvest, pulling weeds by hand. To provide fertility—the farm's biggest expense—compost is trucked in; some crops also receive fish emulsion along with their water and a side dressing of pelleted chicken manure. Over the winter a cover crop of legumes is planted to build up nitrogen in the soil.
To control pests, every six or seven strips of lettuce is punctuated with a strip of flowers: sweet alyssum, which attracts the lacewings and syrphid flies that eat the aphids that can molest lettuces. Aside from some insecticidal soap to control insects in the cruciferous crops, pesticides are seldom sprayed. "We prefer to practice resistance and avoidance," Drew Goodman explained. Or, as their farm manager put it, "You have to give up the macho idea that you can grow anything you want anywhere you want to." So they closely track insect or disease outbreaks in their many fields and keep vulnerable crops at a safe distance; they also search out varieties with a strong natural resistance. Occasionally they'll lose a block to a pest, but as a rule growing baby greens is less risky since, by definition, the crop stays in the ground for so short a period of time—usually thirty days or so. Indeed, baby lettuce is one crop that may well be easier to grow organically than conventionally: Harsh chemicals can scorch young leaves, and nitrogen fertilizers render lettuces more vulnerable to insects. It seems the bugs are attracted to the free nitrogen in their leaves, and because of the more rapid growth of chemically nourished plants, insects find their leaves easier to pierce.
From the moment an organic lettuce plant is ready for harvest, the rest of its journey from field to produce aisle follows a swift and often ingenious industrial logic that is only nominally organic. "The only way we can sell organic produce at a reasonable price is by moving it into a conventional supply chain the moment it's picked," Drew Goodman explained. There is nothing particularly sustainable about that chain: It relies on the same crews of contract workers who pick produce throughout the valley on a per piece basis, and on the same prodigious quantities of energy required to deliver any bag of prewashed salad to supermarkets across the country. (Though Earthbound does work to offset its fossil fuel consumption by planting trees.)
That conventional supply chain begins with the clever machine Earthbound developed to harvest baby greens: a car-size lettuce-shaving machine that moves down the rows, cutting the baby greens at a precise point just above the crown. Spidery arms extended in front of the machine gently rake through the bed in advance of the blade, scaring off any mice that might find their way into the salad. A fan blows the cut leaves over a screen to shake out any pebbles or soil, after which a belt conveys the greens into white plastic totes that workers stack on pallets on a wagon trailing alongside. At the end of each row the pallets are loaded onto a refrigerated tractor trailer, entering a "cold chain" that will continue unbroken all the way to the produce section at your supermarket.
Earthbound's own employees (who receive generous benefits by Valley standards, including health insurance and retirement) operate the baby greens harvester, but on the far side of the field I saw a contract crew of Mexicans, mosdy women, slowly moving through the rows pulling weeds. I noticed that some of the workers had blue Band-Aids on their fingers. The Band-Aids are colored so inspectors at the plant can easily pick them out of the greens; each Band-Aid also contains a metal filament so that the metal detector through which every Earthbound leaf passes will pick it up before it winds up in a customer's salad.
Once filled, the trucks deliver their cargo of leaves to the loading dock at the processing plant in San Juan Bautista, essentially a 200,000-square-foot refrigerator designed to maintain the lettuce at exacdy thirty-six degrees through the entire process of sorting, mixing, washing, drying, and packaging. These employees, most of them Mexicans, are dressed in full-length down coats; they empty totes of arugula, radicchio, and frisee into stainless steel rivers of lightly chlorinated water, the first of three washes each leaf will undergo. Viewed from overhead, the lettuce-packing operation looks like a hugely intricate Rube Goldberg contraption, a tangle of curving silver watercourses, shaking trays, and centrifuges, blue Band-Aid detectors, scales, and bagging stations that in about a half hour propels a freshly harvested leaf of baby lettuce into a polyethylene bag or box of ready-to-dress spring mix. The plant washes and packs 2.5 million pounds of lettuce a week; when you think just how many baby leaves it takes to make a pound, that represents a truly stupendous amount of lettuce. It also represents a truly stupendous amount of energy: to run the machines and chill the building, not to mention to transport all that salad to supermarkets across the country in refrigerated trucks and to manufacture the plastic containers it's packed in. A one-pound box of prewashed lettuce contains 80 calories of food energy. According to Cornell ecologist David Pimentel, growing, chilling, washing, packaging, and transporting that box of organic salad to a plate on the East Coast takes more than 4,600 calories of fossil fuel energy, or 5 7 calories of fossil fuel energy for every calorie of food. (These figures would be about 4 percent higher if the salad were grown conventionally.)
I had never before spent quite so much time looking at and thinking about lettuce, which when you do think about it—at least in the confines of the world's biggest refrigerator packed to the rafters with the stuff—is truly peculiar stuff. There are few things humans eat that are quite so elemental—a handful of leaves, after all, consumed raw.
When we're eating salad we're behaving a lot like herbivores, drawing as close as we ever do to all those creatures who bend their heads down to the grass, or reach up into the trees, to nibble on plant leaves. We add only the thinnest veneer of culture to these raw leaves, dressing them in oil and vinegar. Much virtue attaches to this kind of eating, for what do we regard as more wholesome than tucking into a pile of green leaves?
The contrast of the simplicity of this sort of eating, with all its pastoral overtones, and the complexity of the industrial process behind it produced a certain cognitive dissonance in my refrigerated mind. I began to feel that I no longer understood what this word I'd been following across the country and the decades really meant—I mean, of course, the word "organic." It is an unavoidable and in some ways impolite question, and very possibly besides the point if you look at the world the way Gene Kahn or Drew and Myra Goodman do, but in precisely what sense can that box of salad on sale in a Whole Foods three thousand miles and five days away from this place truly be said to be organic? And if that well-traveled plastic box deserves that designation, should we then perhaps be looking for another word to describe the much shorter and much less industrial food chain that the first users of the word "organic" had in mind?
This at least is the thinking of the smaller organic farmers who, not surprisingly, are finding it impossible to compete against the impressive industrial efficiencies achieved by a company like Earthbound Farm. Supermarket chains don't want to deal with dozens of different organic farmers; they want one company to offer them a complete line of fruits and vegetables, every SKU in the produce section. And Earthbound has obliged, consolidating its hold on the organic produce section of the American supermarket, and in the process growing into a $350 million company. "Everything eventually morphs into the way the world is." Drew Goodman told me a day had come several years ago when he suddenly no longer felt comfortable manning his usual stall at the Monterey farmer's market. He looked around and understood "we didn't belong here anymore. We're really in a whole different business now." Goodman makes no apologies for that, and rightly so: His company has done a world of good, for its land, its workers, the growers it works with, and its customers.
Yet his success, like Gene Kahn's, has opened up a gulf between Big and Little Organic and convinced many of the movement's founders, as well as pioneering farmers like Joel Salatin, that the time has come to move beyond organic—to raise the bar on the American food system once again. Some of these innovatirfg farmers are putting their emphasis on quality, others on labor standards, some on local systems of distribution, and still others on achieving a more thoroughgoing sus-tainability. Michael Ableman, one of the self-described beyond organic farmers I interviewed in California, said, "We may have to give up on the word 'organic,' leave it to the Gene Kahns of the world. To be honest, I'm not sure I want that association, because what I'm doing on my farm is not just substituting inputs."
A few years ago, at a conference on organic agriculture in California, a corporate organic grower suggested to a small farmer struggling to survive in the competitive world of industrial organic agriculture that "you should really try to develop a niche to distinguish yourself in the market." Holding his fury in check, the small farmer replied as levelly as he could manage:
"I believe I developed that niche twenty years ago. It's called 'organic' And now you, sir, are sitting on it.
MEET ROSIE, THE ORGANIC FREE-RANGE CHICKEN
The last stop on my tour of California industrial organic farming took me to Petaluma, where I tried without success to find the picturesque farmstead, with its red barn, cornfield, and farmhouse, depicted on the package in which the organic roasting chicken I bought at Whole Foods had been wrapped; nor could I find Rosie herself, at least not outdoors, ranging freely.
Petaluma Poultry has its headquarters not on a farm but in a sleek
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