In a kinder, gentler world, the eating public would not insist on such succulent meat at such cheap prices, demands that fuel intensive commercial farming practices. — Kelly Stewart of the UC Davis Anthropology Department as written in The Davis Enterprise.
The store-brand chicken I just bought from the supermarket for dinner smells awful. After tearing open the plastic wrap, a combination of sharp and sour along with some terrible, heavier undertone hits me square on. The colored plastic wrap was obscuring more than a bit of yellow discoloration around the edges of the pink flesh. I suppress my gag reflex, wrap it all up, double-bag it and drive back to the store.
A lazy consumer I am at times, and only at this point do the questions I should have asked before buying the chicken start to cross my mind: Where did this stuff come from? How long has it been since it was processed? How long has it been sitting in the grocery store? Is that why it was on sale?
A lot of the trance of being in the grocery store is that hardly anything looks like what it's actually supposed to be. Loaves of bread are wrapped in brightly colored plastic sleeves; ears of corn are processed and sealed in tin cans with paper labels; apples and potatoes are abstracted into pyramids of endless produce; rump roasts get tucked prettily into Styrofoam trays with cellophane pulled tight and shiny, completely disguising their not-so-distant past as cow butt muscles.
At customer service, the clerk smiles at me. "Hi," I say. "I need to return this package of chicken …" I hand her the bag. "It just smells awful."
She peeks into the bag, doesn't seem too surprised by my dilemma. "OK!" she says brightly. "I'll take care of this. Why don't you just go on back and pick out another one for yourself."
I think about the terrible stink, wonder how much better another package might be, and say, "Um, no thanks. Can you just refund my money?" She does so without missing a beat, and I return home thinking macaroni and cheese sounds like a much better idea for dinner that night.
The idea of a local economy rests upon only two principles: neighborhood and subsistence. In a viable neighborhood, neighbors ask themselves what they can do or provide for one another, and they find answers that they and their place can afford. This, and nothing else, is the practice of neighborhood. This practice must be, in part, charitable, but it must also be economic, and the economic part must be equitable …
A viable neighborhood is a community; and a viable community is made up of neighbors who cherish and protect what they have in common. — Wendell Berry, "The Idea of a Local Economy
It's autumn in Lane County farmland: Territorial Highway is a black ripple of east-west ribbon, clear for miles in either direction. Farm houses and wood barns with tin roofs sit snug against an evergreen backdrop with gold-yellow-orange in the pockets of turning leaves. The sky is clear, drenched in sunlight rich and viscous as honey. The quiet out here is just about perfect; you almost can't help but break it by laughing out loud, if only to be a part of the whole joyful, autumnal shebang.
I'm standing in the gravel driveway of Laughing Stock Farm talking to proprietor and farmer Paul Atkinson about Wendell Berry, philosopher, poet and essayist. Atkinson is an ardent proponent of creating and sustaining a local economy, where a community takes care of its land and feeds and cares for itself before exporting any goods or services too far from home. Berry's writings embody much of what Atkinson sees as a sort of life philosophy.
As a consumer, and a consumer raised in a suburban, working class household, my reflex has always been to shop first for price, second for quality — and to shop not amidst these farmlands, but in the modern grocery stores that tout "convenience" and "value."
But bad chicken stink has me wondering about these qualities. In the essay "The Idea of a Local Economy," Berry describes the consumer like me as one who "does not know the history of the products that [she] uses. Where, exactly, did they come from? Who produced them? What toxins were used in their production? What were the human and ecological costs of producing them and then disposing of them?"
I confess, I have not always thought these questions through. Only in the last five or six years of living in grocery-progressive Eugene have I learned the ins and outs of tofu and tempeh, organic and non-organic, locally grown and shipped in from Timbuktu. But I still buck a little at cost. And because of this, Berry reasons, I am complicit in the chicken stink. In my complacency and desire for "more, cheaper," I concede to industrial farming practices; I give my A-OK, to the overproduction and unavoidable abuse therein of commercially farmed birds; to having these birds processed and shipped miles and miles to be held in hopefully-cold-enough storage for hopefully not too long before being sold en masse beneath the fluorescent glow of the mega-mart meat counter. I have, it seems, been part of the problem.
Berry cuts me a little slack, but it's slack found only in my own ignorance: In my fluorescent grocery store trance, Berry determines that the consumer like me is "amid an astonishing variety of products … denied certain significant choices." In such a state of economic ignorance, he writes, "it is not possible to choose the products that were produced locally or with reasonable kindness toward people and toward nature." So ignorance got me chicken stink, but maybe the stink will set me free, jolt me from the easy, lazy trance.
So here I am doing a walk-through at Laughing Stock to observe how a small, local farm operates. Beneath the long-sleeved coveralls he wears to work in, Atkinson has on a forest green Laughing Stock T-shirt, canvas work pants and knee-high rubber boots. He is of medium height and lean in build; both his skin and straight hair show touches of tan from work in the summer sun.
Atkinson lives on the 50-acre property of Laughing Stock Farm in the upstairs level of a bright, woodsy two-story house with his wife, who is a school teacher, and their young son; his mother tends the ground floor of the house, which was built with lumber planed from trees grown on the property.
Atkinson would chide me a little for my grocery priorities. He might say that I should be able to know who I'm buying from, that I should be able to look that person in the eye as a neighbor and community provider, and that that is a trust. And if I'm going to look at the price of groceries, he might say, I ought to be looking at the true price of the items. It takes a significant investment of time and capital to produce a dozen eggs, or a roasting hen, or a turkey for Thanksgiving dinner. I am deluded if I believe that a dozen eggs can really be produced for the 79 cents they cost on sale at the grocery store.
To pay that 79 cent price tag undermines the smaller scale farmer who must charge a price true to the nature of the work: the food and shelter for the laying hens, the labor to tend and care for them, the work involved in gathering, cleaning and packaging the eggs for market. At Laughing Stock, there are nine cows to look after; a handful of goats and sheep; 40 to 50 pigs and piglets at any given time; hundreds and hundreds of turkeys and chickens. Up until a year and a half ago, when he could afford to pay a decent wage for part-time help, Atkinson tended to all of this work himself. About half of what Atkinson feeds these animals is locally grown whole grain, along with excess milk products from Springfield Creamery (Nancy's Yogurt) for protein; he imports the corn and soy parts of the feed, but is consciously trying to be less dependent on such imported elements.
Atkinson loves farming very much, though he admits as we walk past the cattle loafing area in the barn — a space about 15 feet wide by maybe 30 feet long layered with two years worth of dung, hay, dirt and cobwebs, all destined for compost — "You're always behind."
Atkinson raises hens for eggs, as well as turkeys and pigs to sell as meat. He's built himself quite a reputation, providing pork the last 18 years to Alice Waters' renowned Chez Panisse Restaurant in San Francisco, as well providing meat and eggs to local eateries such as Marche and Sweetwaters at The Valley River Inn. He keeps a few goats and head of cattle to help tend the pastures, which have remained chemical free for at least 25 of the nearly 40 years his family has been on the land.
Atkinson, who has farmed for most of his 51 years, says, "I've been an activist for more than 30 years — in the past mostly on land use issues. Our best farm land was disappearing, so I've been a strong supporter of Oregon's land use laws." He has watched and fought as high-quality agricultural soils in urbanized areas have been destroyed by development, affecting an agricultural industry already in the community. "Only 1 percent of Lane County soils are Class I [top grade] soils," he says. "Yet Gateway Mall and the new hospital site are located on land containing these soils, and west Eugene has industrial and commercial development on land containing Class I and Class II soils."
But land is only one part of the picture. "I've been involved in land issues over the years," he says. "And I've watched the best farmlands disappear anyway." In the last 10 years, particularly the last six or seven, he decided to move beyond just advocating for sound land use laws. "The solution," he says, "isn't at the governmental level. I mean, the government could kind of verify it — that people here support their own farmers, support their own land protection. But, people have to make individual decisions that will say, 'This land, this community, is ours to take care of.'"
"Government isn't necessarily supporting local farming," Atkinson says. "You might see on the news that the governor is going on some agricultural foray with the farm bureau people to Asia, say, to sell vegetables or to sell seed. But as far as the more sustainable, smaller farms, they seem to be overlooking them to a large extent."
He does watch for moves in the right direction. "Something the government did do," he says, "and that came from the federal level, is a program where they had vouchers for seniors to go to farmers markets. That's the direction we ought to be talking about so people at the local level get to share the good through their purchases." Government, Atkinson explains, could be decidedly more proactive in its support of small local farms by insisting that hospitals, jails and school lunch programs buy a certain percentage of their food from local growers.
"Instead," he continues, "government generally talks about how we have the cheapest food in the world, and government policies are built around that — that's what's important."
More than any other institution, the American industrial animal farm offers a nightmarish glimpse of what capitalism can look like in the absence of moral or regulatory constraint …
In the same way that we can probably recognize animal suffering when we see it, animal happiness is unmistakable, too … — Michael Pollan, "An Animal's Place," The New York Times Magazine, Nov. 10, 2002.
The care for things of the natural world are constant themes for Atkinson. I can see it as we walk the along the garden to the cow pasture. His mind is constantly working at a different or more efficient or hopefully better way to do things. And always in the forefront of his concerns is the stewardship of the land: "You don't own the land," he says emphatically. "You only hold title to it."
Atkinson makes a clear connection between his work as a farmer and his spiritual beliefs, rooted in Roman Catholicism. He has advocated for and worked with community supported agriculture (CSAs), and is particularly excited about the work he is doing with the Rev. John Pitney of the First United Methodist Church for congregational supported agriculture.
He doesn't seem to have any mushy attachments to the animals on his farm, though he does talk to the pigs, and he is gentle with the turkeys and hens as we move about during their feedings. The animals seem content — whether it's chickens trotting and clucking in the cow pasture, or turkeys gobbling and strutting in the next field over, or mama sows lolling in the hay bed or scratching their sides against their wire-fenced pens. I know that the turkeys will go to Greener Pastures Poultry soon to be butchered and processed for Thanksgiving, and there are always more orders for pigs than Atkinson can fill. But I can say with all confidence that at this moment these animals have a fine life.
During my first visit at Laughing Stock, I get to help as Atkinson and his son Ansel clean eggs for sale at market. Ansel and I rinse the eggs in soapy water and they travel a conveyor system to Atkinson, who packages them in cartons. When I have to leave, we all shake hands, and Atkinson hands me a dozen eggs of my very own.
I look him in the eyes and know that my conversion is inevitable (though it requires buying better less often, given that moderation is key when cost is still an issue). I've seen the hens that laid these eggs, and I've read about the hens that lay the 79-cent eggs. It really has to be no eggs or local eggs when you know the difference.
Since the stink incident, we haven't had store brand chicken. I've indulged twice in organic varieties that do, indeed, taste more like chicken than anything I've ever bought; which begs the question: What have I been eating all these years? I'll be thinking about this very carefully on every grocery trip from here on out.