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Farm-to-Fable: The Limits of Foodie Pilgrims

LAST MONTH A group of Stanford scientists started a food fight when they published a study that found organic meat and produce is not more nutritious than the conventional stuff. Some seized on the findings as evidence that organic proponents have unwittingly drunk the Kool-Aid—there is nothing superior about that $5 organic heirloom tomato but the price. Meanwhile, champions of organic foods poked holes in the study’s methods and said it was beside the point anyway: most people buy organic to avoid consuming pesticides, antibiotics, and growth hormones, and because they are concerned about the environmental effects of dumping chemicals on fields year after year.

This skirmish was a reminder that the mechanics of food production are no longer the preoccupation solely of aging hippies and back-to-the-landers. Food has become a tendentious theater in America’s ever-morphing culture wars. The collected works of Michael Pollan—the most prominent apostle of the new food-awareness movement—have for many become orthodoxy. A central tenet of the Pollan-inflected faith is that our own health is bound up in the health of the food chains that nourish us—a sensible idea that has been taken up, unfortunately, by smug diners who you just wish would order already. The satirical television show Portlandia, which pokes fun at the pretensions of uber-green yuppie hipsters, captured this annoying fetish in a skit featuring a couple at a restaurant who insist not only on hearing the backstory of the chicken on the menu, but on traveling to the farm where it was raised to see the conditions for themselves.

The desire to know where our food comes from isn’t as laughable as that Portlandia shtick presumes. Hell, even I have a yen to visit the CSA (community supported agriculture) farm in Pennsylvania that every week sends boxes of peppers, onions, and eggplants to New York City, where I and other city slickers pick them up at the local YMCA—and I was raised on a farm, so roots and soil are not a novelty. In Harvest, Richard Horan seeks to reap an audience of curious food lovers like me. And his book holds out the promise of a status report on America’s small farmers. Can they make a go of it more easily now that farmers’ markets, CSAs, and even mainstream supermarkets are expanding the reach of organic foods?

Horan decided to set out on a tour of America that would celebrate “the small farms, the organic farms, the family-run farms.” Traveling around the country to participate in the harvest of roughly a dozen crops, he would, Walt Whitman-style, sing the praises of the American small farmer. Since he wanted the book “to be thoroughly and completely upbeat,” his dispatches wouldn’t be muckraking exposés like Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation or, more recently, Barry Estabrook’s Tomatoland, but they promised a worm’s-eye view of the places where our walnuts, cranberries, wheat, grapes, and so on are grown.

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Unfortunately, personality and politics get in the way of Horan’s good intentions. The resulting book says a lot about what is wrong with today’s food crusaders—and I distinguish these from the many thoughtful and hard-working people, some of whom are sketchily profiled in Horan’s book, who are trying to help re-balance a food system that is severely out of whack. Our food choices matter, but the food crusaders are so intent on preaching their gospel that they have developed withering scorn for anyone whose answer to the question “What’s for dinner?” differs from theirs.

From all appearances, Horan spent only a few days at the farms he visited. In most cases, he fails to pass along basic information about how each farm operates, whether it runs in the red or the black, and what the tradeoffs are for folks who opt to farm organically. But he spends pages dissecting the dynamics between him and two comely female farmhands whose attitudes annoy him. He lovingly reproduces a conversation between him and a Mexican farmhand about the relative merits of Eva Mendes and Pamela Anderson. He writes half of his chapter on harvesting wild rice in Michigan with a group of Native Americans in the form of an Indian myth in which he refers to himself in the third person as “the storyteller.” Horan’s mood sours at his final stop. At the last minute, he refuses to participate in harvesting California grapes because he realizes the fruit is for wine, making it “a precious metal, a rare gemstone, a fabulous weekend for Teri Hatcher and friends.”

Horan’s pettiness, self-importance, and plain cheesiness are part of one man’s misguided attempt to carry us along on a personal journey that should have been a journalistic one. But his book also makes for dispiriting reading because it shows how self-righteous foodie elites (and yes, despite that wine remark, Horan is one) have become. Just in case anyone is left wondering who the bad guys are, Horan provides a rant-filled primer early on: “evolution deniers, global-warming pooh-poohers, omniscient-free-market fundamentalists, mountaintop-removal mountebanks, atomic-energy-is-safe beguilers, clean-coal con men, corporations-are-people-too lobbyists, prisons-keep-us-safe fearmongers, cell-phones-don’t-cause-brain-tumors liars, one-hundred-billion-plastic-bags-a-year-is-not-a-problem ignoramuses, guns-don’t-kill-people-people-kill-people misanthropes, a-college-education-is-worth-the-exorbitant-price-you-pay sophists, American-health-care-is-the-best-in-the-world extortionists, the-history-of-the-English-speaking-peoples-is-beyond-reproach magniloquen ...” After speaking with a Kansas wheat farmer he writes, “I now had GMO-seed-is-the-only-way-to-feed-the-world megalomaniacs to add to the list.”

Yes, the Cargills and Monsantos of the world are wrongfully lording it over small farmers, but there are also some non-megalomaniacal scientists out there who argue that GMO crops are a promising avenue for ending world hunger (see, for example, British agroecologist Gordon Conway’s thoughtful new book One Billion Hungry: Can We Feed the World?). They deserve better than Horan’s hyphenated hyperventilation. His hate list introduces a whole raft of opinions on environmentalism, politics, business, and culture that are left unexamined, at least in Harvest.

At one point in the book Horan meets a couple of old cranberry farmers who are global warming pooh-poohers. Here is an interesting paradox (to Horan’s way of thinking, anyway): farmers whose livelihood is threatened by climate change but who see no evidence of it. But there is no chance to learn anything from this encounter. The farmers “really pissed me off,” Horan writes, adding, “I was going to say something pretty nasty, like: Easy for you old farts to say because you get to skip off the stage blissfully ignorant and arrogantly proud that the planet is just hunky-dory. But it’s not. After you’re gone, my generation and my kids’ generation will be stuck cleaning up all the nuclear waste and greenhouse gases and heavy metal contaminants and chemical fertilizers and plastic bags, etc., that your generation created.” Whatever truth there is in what Horan’s saying, his sneering dismissal closes off any possibility for engagement (and, in fact, he says nothing to the farmers).

Perhaps more than ever, Americans are asking serious questions about our food—not only about the merits of organic and local foods, but also about whether the animals we butcher were raised humanely, whether the workers that harvested our crops were treated and paid fairly, and whether organic foods’ higher prices have put them out of reach of all but the “let them eat kale chips” food snobs. These discussions are necessary, urgent, and far from decided.

But many organic and local-foods proponents assume that they have already attained a moral victory, and everyone who buys conventional stuff can go to hell. A study published earlier this year in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science found that exposure to organic foods actually makes people less altruistic. Subjects in three different groups were shown pictures of foods labeled organic (like apples and spinach), comfort foods (like ice cream and brownies), or neutral-seeming control foods (mustard, rice, oatmeal). Afterward, participants who saw the organic foods were willing to spend less time helping a stranger in need, and their judgments of moral transgressions were significantly harsher than those who viewed the other foods. The comfort food group was the most generous. Someone please pass me the double chocolate chip.

Sarah L. Courteau is a writer living in New York City. Her work has appeared in The Oxford American, the Wilson Quarterly, The American Scholar, and elsewhere. Follow: @SLCorteau