That’s the way we’ve always done it

How much can large-scale farmers to change to meet urban consumer demands?

Traditions are thoughtless, lazy, convenient, oh, I could go on. Because you’ve always done something a certain way is not a reason for anything. It’s not an argument. And it’s certainly should never be used to retaliate against new ideas, new ways of doing things, that creep up in the agriculture world.

Before you get angry and think that I, a still green farmer, am chastising all you veterans out there for settling into what I’m sure is an effective, smooth farming routine, know that I am not. I am slapping my own hand.

I’m quick to judge. I come up with answers quickly and confidently, as if every question, every solicited opinion is an attack I must defend. “Bring it on” is my motto.

It was episode two of the Netflix series “Chef’s Table.” This episode featured New York chef Dan Barber, an outspoken advocate for how ecological and sustainable farming systems produce the best tasting food. The scenes were beautifully shot: People with sun hats wearing loose, intentionally rugged clothing, ripping vegetables out of the ground. Barber is an interesting chef, with bold ideas for how farming is best done.

It’s hard to take him seriously. His New York restaurant Blue Hill is wildly popular, but it’s in New York. What do they know about farming? “Ha. I bet nothing,” I flippantly said to my wife while we were watching. She shrugged. She doesn’t pass judgment as quickly as I do, you see.

The episode dragged on. Barber spoke a lot about how the quality of feed the cow eats will determine how the beef will taste. He takes this logic to staggering places. He’s using wheat varieties rarely if ever used for making bread. He’s mixing wheat varieties together to create new ones. And he’s been able to energize the once docile bread consumer around wheat. He started a Bread Lab, where a team of scientists and farmers farm and test different wheat varieties. And he co-runs Blue Ant farms, where much of his food comes from.

He is detailed. He has reverse engineered every food item on his menu, ensuring each process in its creation is as sustainable and ecological as it can be, down to what you use to control bugs and weeds.

But this is a long way from jeans, a ball cap, and a shirt, jumping into a tractor and planting whatever variety seed companies (and the coffee shop) have told you is the best for your climate, your land, and the current market.

My thoughts half-way through the episode: “No chef from the big city is going to tell me how to farm.” As I’m thinking about this I’m filling with pride over the fact that I’m on the ground floor. I’m doing this stuff. He isn’t. I know better.

“I just don’t like how he’s presenting this to the world as what farming should be,” I said to my wife. “It would never work.”

Then the next thing came across my desk: someone sent me a video The Atlantic published. It was about how the world doesn’t have enough farmers. The format was a few minutes of narration and interviews set against scenes of young farmers again wearing sun hats, loose overalls, gators, ripping vegetables out of the ground.

The video idealized what is, in most cases, a very corporate, machine-based process. I often have a knee-jerk reaction to kids picking vegetables on one-acre plots while talking about changing the world.

We play with a plot — my wife’s garden — the way those in the video did, but growing 1,000 acres of soybeans and wheat looks quite different.

Idealism is hard to digest. It was easier in my 20s. Now, it’s quickly associated with immaturity and not yet having the weight of the world on your shoulders. Some of this may be true — and I’m a sceptic — but what arguments did I have?

Yet, that said, and my scepticism aside, saying that such things wouldn’t work on a larger scale because that’s not how it’s currently done is not a great argument. It’s actually a terrible one. We do need more farmers, and perhaps there’s nothing wrong with more city folk working small plots to grow their own food.

Perhaps farmers would be wise to start farming with taste and sustainability in mind, looking into partnerships with restaurants and markets that would appreciate and pay for extra attention to detail.

I’m not saying drop what you’re doing and plant 10,000 acres of organic onions. Heck, I’m not doing that — yet. But tease apart what are real arguments and ones that are just veiled attempts at defending something that boils down to: this is the way we’ve always done it.

By the end of the Dan Barber episode (which, by the way, is part of a series you should definitely watch if you like food) I had moved past the knee-jerk to something a little more stable. I disagreed with him on a few points, and would need some time with others, but it got me thinking, and isn’t that what makes and keeps life interesting.

About the author

Columnist

Toban Dyck is a freelance writer and a new farmer on an old farm. Follow him on Twitter @tobandyck or email [email protected]

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