Dan Barber recently wrote a fantastic opinion piece in the New York Times about all the elements of farming and agriculture that the farm-to-table movement is not addressing, namely, seeing a farm as a complex eco-system instead of a generator of products. What makes crops taste great and grow well is not dependent on a great seed, but great soil, supported by dedicated farming and strategy.
Highlights from the article:
"For all its successes, farm-to-table has not, in any fundamental way, reworked the economic and political forces that dictate how our food is grown and raised. Big Food is getting bigger, not smaller. In the last five years, we’ve lost nearly 100,000 farms (mostly midsize ones). Today, 1.1 percent of farms in the United States account for nearly 45 percent of farm revenues."
"...we were missing out as well, on nutritious foods that are staples of the best cuisines in the world...More challenging is to think about how to honor the other underutilized parts of his rotations — classic cover crops like cowpeas and mustard, which fertilize the soil to ensure healthy harvests in the future...By creating a market for these crops, we can provide more value for the farmer and for our own diets, while supporting the long-term health of the land."
"It’s one thing for chefs to advocate cooking with the whole farm; it’s another thing to make these uncelebrated crops staples in ordinary kitchens. Bridging that divide will require a new network of regional processors and distributors."
"Investing in the right infrastructure means the difference between a farmer’s growing crops for cows or for cafeterias."
I remain skeptical that the food system can change without a widespread re-education about agriculture.
Last week I was asked to speak to a class of first graders in Chicago about restaurant reviews. The 7-year-olds were asked to write about servers, ambiance, and food, all great words and concepts to practice. After chatting about descriptive keywords—"sizzle", "ooze", "zest"—and their experiences in local sushi and Italian restaurants, they wondered what I like to write about. I told them I like reporting on the artisanal movement in New York. Then I asked: "Have you all learned how the food gets to the restaurant?" thinking I could start a conversation about farming, plants, animals, and cooking.
"No we haven't!" The teacher replied. "I hadn't thought of that."
While I was a bit shocked, I really don't blame him. We, as a culture, put such little emphasis on learning how our food is grown, that farming doesn't come to mind for most city-dwelling Americans. We have somehow separated the urban and agricultural landscapes...well, only mentally. Because in reality they're more intertwined than ever.
And what Dan Barber writes about is a perfect example. We, us urbanites, think we're helping the land by going to dinner at a place that touts its farm-to-table produce. But that's doing pretty much nothing to help the larger agricultural dilemmas of this nation (which are HUGE and massively impacting what we eat and the money we spend on what we eat every day).
We can't sit on the sidelines and expect others to fix these problems. It's us, the people who are teaching our children to write restaurant reviews and spend the money on couture meals, who have to look deeper at the issues surrounding our cities and generate an interest in farming—not just how delicious ramps are but how to create nutritious and stable soil through crop rotation—in our kids and ourselves. Nothing will change until we put down our forks, and reassess what foods we should be eating to best support our agricultural system.