Farmer takes a shot at agri-intellectuals

by Luigi Guarino on August 4, 2009

Blake Hurst is a farmer in Missouri, and something of an anti-Pollan:

…we have to farm “industrially” to feed the world, and by using those “industrial” tools sensibly, we can accomplish that task and leave my grandchildren a prosperous and productive farm, while protecting the land, water, and air around us.

The argument is made very engagingly, with hard numbers as well as telling anecdotes, and a real passion for farming:

Young turkeys aren’t smart enough to come in out of the rain, and will stand outside in a downpour, with beaks open and eyes skyward, until they drown.

But sadly, as ever, the debate is framed as either/or, black or white, organic or industrial, no grey allowed, no nuance:

I deal in the real world, not superstitions, and unless the consumer absolutely forces my hand, I am about as likely to adopt organic methods as the Wall Street Journal is to publish their next edition by setting the type by hand.

And yet Mr Hurst admits to some organic-like practices, such as rotations and the use of manure, on his unashamedly “industrial” family farm. I can’t help thinking, not for the first time, what a step forward it would be if we tried not to think in mutually exclusive dichotomies all the time. Anyway, read the whole thing at The American.

LATER: USDA explores the unexplored potential of biotech crops in an organic setting. Talk about shades of grey.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Mike Huben August 4, 2009 at 1:58 pm

Your observation of the black and white framing is excellent: it is a good illustration of the propagandistic nature of the article.

But I wouldn’t be in any rush to compliment them on numbers or anecdotes: the turkey drowning story is an urban myth. His calculations on the amount of table scraps needed for fertilizer make all sorts of ridiculous, inefficient assumptions.

And of course, the techniques that he endorses such as no-till were developed precisely to deal with “agri-intellectual” complaints against loss of topsoil to erosion. And they were developed by “agri-intellectual” researchers at public universities. And it took a whole lot of convincing to get farmers to begin using them.

50 years ago, Hurst would have written a screed against “agri-intellectual” concerns about topsoil loss. He wouldn’t have had the vision to dream that solutions could be found, so he would deny the problem, ridicule the identifiers of the problem, and claim it couldn’t be solved anyhow. Hurst has that same lack of vision for these newer concerns.

The American Enterprise Institute is a propaganda organ for conservative corporate capitalism. They don’t really care about Pollan’s book: all they care about is that they can present another denialist club for bashing liberals and progressives who criticize capitalists for trampling over our health, environment, politics, and culture.

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Blake Hurst August 5, 2009 at 2:12 am

The turkey story is a result of an interview with Mr. Nieman, the incident occurred about 2 miles from my mother’s childhood home, about 10 miles from where we live now. It’s interesting that the word of the farmer who suffered the loss of his livelihood is not good enough. Mr. Niemann has no reason to lie-neither does my mother, who remembers the incident. And 50 years ago, my grandfather was among the first in our community to build terraces to protect the soil on the farm we still farm. The farm produces more now than it did then. That would be the very definition of sustainability.

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Mike Huben August 5, 2009 at 12:57 pm

“It’s interesting that the word of the farmer who suffered the loss of his livelihood is not good enough. Mr. Niemann has no reason to lie […]”

And just how do you know he has no reason to lie? Lots of people lie about how they lost their livelihood. You’re simply providing evidence of your own credulousness: that doesn’t make your story more believable.

If that urban myth was true, we’d have loads of corroboration from amateur poultry raisers, petting zoos, and other sources. But we don’t: all we have are secondhand stories, hearsay.

“The farm produces more now than it did then. That would be the very definition of sustainability.”
Profits for Enron were higher than ever before until a few weeks before the crash. Your “definition” of sustainable is just wrong.

It’s good to know that your grandfather understood sustainability better than you do. But why would you need no-till methods to preveserve soil if you are already terraced?

By the way, I enjoyed your HOG FARM JUSTICE article. It does a good job of presenting both sides without resorting to sneers against one or the other.

How do we get to your TAE Online articles?

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Blake Hurst August 6, 2009 at 4:18 am

Maybe this article will help.
“Turkeys Are, Well, Turkeys”

Turkeys, you see, are so curious they’re dangerous. To themselves. They are, well, turkeys.

But a poultry specialist with the Texas agricultural extension service at Texas A&M University says turkeys have gotten a bum rap in the past for being stupid. Turkeys don’t do stuff like stare up into the sky and drown when it rains because they’re stupid, said Dr. Bill Cawley of A&M — they do it because they’re in love with the world around them.

”If you take them in the wild they are really a pretty tricky bird to hunt. It’s difficult to fool em,” said Cawley. ”It’s not that domestic turkeys are dumb, but they just want to find out what’s going on. They say curiosity killed a cat, but a cat doesn’t have much on them. They’re just curious about everything.”

Cawley said stories that turkeys drown from looking up into the sky when it’s raining are actually true. Turkey farmers have to take special precautions with young turkeys, Cawley said, to prevent the silly little things, who enjoy life so much, from doing a macabre impersonation of Gene Kelly in ”Singing in the Rain.”

”It just happens to turkeys who are about 8-weeks-old,” he said. ”They’ve been inside brooder houses all their lives and, well, they’ve never seen rain before. They just want to look up there and see what’s going on. So when they’re young farmers just don’t put them out that early in the spring.”

We use no till farming along with terraces because terraces aren’t adequate. On our loess soil, terraces fill up with erosion in about ten years. Since we’ve started using no-till, we haven’t had to rebuild terraces.

Don’t know how to access my articles. Most are available at other sites. Might try my name and the Wilson Quarterly for one that will make you just as mad.

Lets assume that you are right, and turkeys will thrive with no more infrastructure than a fence. Then, free range turkeys should be cheaper, rather than more expensive than turkeys raised in confinement. Maybe you should think about turkey farming, what with all you know from the Snopes website. Should warn you that you’ll need a rifle to kill pests, and lots of luck with spring storms and winter blizzards.

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Mike Huben August 6, 2009 at 12:55 pm

I’m not going to continue this here: better to continue over at the
commentsat Reason (a libertarian capitalist dupe propaganda organ.) That’s apparently where you cherry picked the quotation from an article about turkeys. You don’t mention that the other articles cited debunk the notion: that’s a typical dishonest denialist strategy. On its face, we can dismiss that expert as having scientific understanding of turkey behavior because he anthropomorphicizes ridiculously. Nor does he report actually having first-hand knowledge: he’s probably repeating stories as you have.

“[…] terraces aren’t adequate. On our loess soil, terraces fill up with erosion in about ten years.”
Ah. First you cite them as a sustainable practice, then you say they don’t work long. You still confuse sustainable with stopgap. Most likely you also confuse sustainable with uneconomic as well: terraces do work well for hundreds of years in many cultures, but may end up being too narrow for your style of mechanized agriculture. Not to mention expensive to build.

“Maybe you should think about turkey farming, what with all you know from the Snopes website.”
You don’t have to be a fashion expert to point out when the emperor has no clothes. Your snarky sentence is a fallacy called The Courtier’s Reply.

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Onkel Bob August 7, 2009 at 7:09 am

I read that article in a link from Arts and Letters Daily, so it made the rounds among the literate urbanites. Nevertheless, the turkey story is indeed an urban (or more properly rural) myth. As a graduate of an agricultural program, we lost no poultry to rain events. Weasels and foxes, they were a problem, rain – no. Perhaps those in Texas are as bright (or dim) as their human counterparts, ours in the cold Northeast were much more sly.
Pollan is a journalist, not a scientist nor an agronomist. He observes and reports. Sometimes he gets things wrong, but it is an error of interpretation and analysis, not a deliberate action on his part. Pollan tends to embellish and polish with the intention of making the product more readable. Alas, such practices tend to lose the accuracy science strives to achieve.
It’s really amazing how far the anti-intellectual meme has progressed. The USDA was founded as a response for a need to share wisdom and data from diverse sources. It was instrumental in bringing in many of the crops we currently enjoy, the Bahia oranges (navel) were brought to California by USDA actions. The USDA still has a significant research program. Perhaps the most telling point of it all, in 1910 (one of the earliest surveys) families consumed 110 pounds of household grown produce. By 1974, it was less than 1 pound and so the surveys were discontinued. Pollan is right in that growing food close to home, i.e., your backyard, is the best solution of all.

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Robert August 7, 2009 at 8:41 am

I believe that Mike’s ad hominem contributions are a fine illustration of what Luigi referred to as “mutually exclusive dichotomies”.

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Mary August 7, 2009 at 6:30 pm

I’m not particularly a Pollan fan, but I was impressed when I heard him say this recently in his seminar at The Long Now:

Well, when I think about the future I imagine a time where there will not be 1 agriculture system. Where there will be more than one. On a 50 year horizon I don’t see industrial agriculture vanishing. And I’m not even so sure that would be a good thing, for it to vanish. I think, you know, coming up with one solution is another form of monoculture thinking. And that we would make a mistake to throw all our eggs in one basket, whether it was pastured beef or organic agriculture or any number of different things. We need a resilient system, which is to say with many many different ways of doing the same thing.

Monoculture thinking is bad on all sides. Those of us who don’t want to stand at the polar ends and shout are not being heard at all. It isn’t a discussion, it has become a hollering volley. There is rarely anything new or anything even grudgingly conceded from either pole.

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Aaron August 8, 2009 at 8:57 pm

In my personal experience with young turkeys, they tend to be more fragile than baby chicks for about a month; after that time they are a great deal more resilient. In addition, the modern broad-breasted birds are more fragile than the heritage varieties, probably because their bodies are so heavily taxed by the fast growth rate.

In any case, I have never seen turkeys *drown* because of rainfall, but I have seen them take a chill from rain / wet bedding / cold air and expire from hypothermia.

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craig June 18, 2010 at 12:18 pm

Turkeys are very dry though, some farmers pump moisture generating foods into them to make them a more moist dish, to me thats playing god. Were actually having a turkey lunch today! :)
http://www.pearl-scan.co.uk

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