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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Month: October 2009

A Wisconsin Farmer’s Response to Michael Pollan, Part II

(Stewards of the Soil—continued from previous post)

My son (a UW-CALS graduate) is an agronomist. He has modified and developed a spreadsheet enabling farmers to credit their soils with nutrients from crops (legumes like alfalfa and soybeans) and manure (it is not a waste product), thereby reducing input costs from commercial fertilizer.

Respect for the land is the foundation of responsible and productive agriculture anywhere in the world. American farmers work hard to be stewards of the soil.

There Is Nothing Simple About It

Mr. Pollans “it stands to reason” argument about “chemically simplified soils” producing “chemically simplified plant” is name calling combined with junk science at best. Those of us who work the land as the basis of our livelihood have learned that there is nothing ‘simple’ about the soil or whatever plants grow in it. We have learned to use management practices that take into account the complexities of soils and plants. If we didn’t, we would not have farms that have been sustained over generations of use.

Farmlands are routinely tested field by field for macro and micro nutrients, pH, and organic matter. Farmers apply fertilizers (commercial or ‘homemade’ like manure) only as needed. How many lawns get fertilized with the benefit of chemical analysis based on correct soil sampling methodology? Even Mr. Pollan’s 10’X20’ vegetable garden will eventually diminish in productivity if he does not treat it “like a bank”.

He also characterizes commercial fertilizers as “harsh”, specifically citing nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (N, P, and K). More name calling combined with junk science. Commercial formulations of fertilizers as used by farmers are usually applied following soil testing. No more than is absolutely needed for successful crop production is typically used.

They are configured in chemical compounds readily useful to plants, not in pure elemental form. Upon application, these compounds enter the root zone for plant use.

Soil Is Organic

Mr. Pollan throws around the word ‘organic’ the way he insinuates we farmers throw around manure. We can argue about a definition for the word ‘organic’ until the cows come home. Regardless of any definition, all farming is, arguably, organic if that farming begins with the soil. One textbook definition of soil is, “a medium for plant growth”. Healthy and productive soil is often characterized as a living breathing entity. Such a soil typically includes various sized particles, water, air, organic matter, microbes, animals like earthworms, and chemical compounds containing elements like N, P, and K.

Most plants cannot function in an ‘inorganic’ (concrete, steel, plastic) environment. Some soils, as those in deserts, can’t sustain food production for large human populations. If some farmers choose to limit the use of agricultural inputs as fertilizers and pesticides, then call it ‘organic’, and go on to convince some of the people most of the time that their production is worth a premium price, good for them!

Moderator’s Note: This is page 2 of 5. Read the rest: A Wisconsin Farmer 2010-25-09.pdf

The discussion generated by Mr. Pollan’s book has certainly been an opportunity to explore some issues pertaining to food and food production. The opinions I have ventured here are my own, but are probably shared by others in production agriculture. Here is my own variation on the Pollan Theme:

Eat responsibly. Eat together. Be grateful for abundance. Thank a farmer.

On, Wisconsin!
George H. Roemer
UW-CALS Class of  ’70

Food For Thought: Weekly Online Book Discussion

Are you unable to attend one of the scheduled book discussions but want to get involved in the conversation?

Want to connect with people from all over the UW campus and the greater Madison community?

Join us in a virtual book discussion on the Food For Thought Posts in the Go Big Read Blog!

Each week, we will be posting a new topic for discussion on the blog, and followers are encouraged to participate by responding in the comment section below each post. Feel free to use and expand on these questions in your own book discussions. Have a great idea for discussion topic? Let us know! Contact the Go Big Read Program at gobigread@library.wisc.edu.

Food For Thought: Topic for Discussion Week of October 26, 2009:

Pollan claims that the Western diet has been replaced by nutrients.

What does he mean by that?

When he uses the term “nutritionism,” to what is he referring?

A Wisconsin Farmer’s Response to Michael Pollan, Part I

As a third generation Wisconsin dairy farmer and a UW College of Agricultural and Life Sciences graduate, I enjoyed the opportunity to participate in Chancellor Martin’s GO BIG READ initiative.

Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food is an interesting and provocative book. Several of his ideas have merit for consideration, particularly that of family meals at appointed times with limited snacks in between. He has been clever enough to site numerous studies and individuals supporting his points of view. He also, unfortunately, uses labels (reductionist science, nutritionalism, monocultural agriculture) to trivialize and demean that portion of the food industry upon which the very existence and security of this country depends. His commentary seems to generally follow the anti-animal, anti modern agriculture rhetoric accepted by a public increasingly removed from the source of it’s food supply.

Here are some observations and opinions on several of Mr. Pollan’s views. They are given from the perspective of one who has had some “hands-on” agricultural experience on three continents and half a dozen different countries over the course of a 50+ year relationship with production agriculture and agribusiness.

Privileged America

Americans spend less of their take home pay (under 10%) on food, than just about any other nation on earth. This allows us to have available comparatively generous amounts of disposable income for non-food items. What would life be like in your sphere of existence if it required 30% of take home pay to purchase food for yourself and a family? What about 50%? Americans are privileged to have the most abundant, diverse, safe and economical food supply in the world. Modern day production agriculture makes this possible.

Stewards of the Land

This unique status has not always existed, and is in fact, only a fairly recent phenomenon.

Mr. Pollan does have it right in asserting that it all begins with the soil. Here is a brief example of an evolution in American production agriculture typified by soil management practices on our own Wisconsin farm, located in the rolling and rock strewn hills of the ‘Kettle Moraine’.

Grandpa plowed the land with horses, working up and down the hills, when he and grandma first began farming here around 1900. The farm was 40 acres, a typical size at the time due to land survey procedures and the fact that this size was about the limit a man and a team of horses could work in one growing season.

Dad, upon the purchase of neighboring farmland and mechanical horsepower, established contour strips across the hills and planted grass waterways to slow down and divert excess water during rainstorms. To this day, they still hold soil in place and allow for crop rotation. He also drummed into us a simple philosophy: “Soil is like a bank, if you want to get something out, you must put something in!”

I introduced and promoted ‘conservation tillage’ and ‘no-till’ cropping practices to the family farming operation. These methods disturb very little topsoil during planting season. This further reduces erosion, preserves organic matter, conserves soil moisture, and saves considerable time and fuel when planting crops.

Moderator’s Note: This is page 1 of 5. Read the rest: A Wisconsin Farmer 2010-25-09.pdf

The discussion generated by Mr. Pollan’s book has certainly been an opportunity to explore some issues pertaining to food and food production. The opinions I have ventured here are my own, but are probably shared by others in production agriculture. Here is my own variation on the Pollan Theme:

Eat responsibly. Eat together. Be grateful for abundance. Thank a farmer.

On, Wisconsin!
George H. Roemer
UW-CALS Class of ’70

Moderator’s Note: The full essay, A Wisconsin Farmer 2010-25-09.pdf, includes the additional sections “There’s Nothing Simple About It,” “Soil Is Organic,” “Monocultural Monopoly,” “How Now, Contented Cow,” “Laced or Unlaced,” “Anti What (or Whom?)” “Jambo, Bwana! (Hello, Mr.)” and “Pay More, Eat Less.” Additional installments will also be posted to the blog.

Crossroads of Agriculture, Food and Health: Today!

All are welcome to attend today’s WIPOD symposium: Crossroads of Agriculture, Food and Health.

The event’s keynote address, by Angela Tagtow, will be “Cultivating an Ecological Approach to Food and Health.” Other presentations will cover sustainable agricultural standards, pest management tools, industrial food logistics and food distribution systems.

For more information, see the symposium agenda.

The conference is co-sponsored by UW-Madison and the Wisconsin Prevention of Obesity and Diabetes (WiPOD). WiPOD’s mission is to reduce the prevalence and health impact of obesity in Wisconsin.

Date: 10/28/2009
Time: 1-5pm
Location:
Microbial Sciences Building, Ebling Auditorium
1550 Linden Drive
Madison, WI 53706-1521

Can Biotech Cure World Hunger?

The New York Times series “Room for Debate: A Running Commentary on the News” for October 26th is on the topic “Can Biotech Cure World Hunger?” The feature includes commentary on a central question by a group of experts approaching the topic from different perspectives. In this case, Paul Collier, economist, Oxford University; Vandana Shiva, activist and author; Per Pinstrup-Andersen, professor of nutrition and public policy, Cornell; Raj Patel, Institute for Food and Development Policy; Jonathan Foley, University of Minnesota; and Michael J. Roberts, economist, North Carolina State University are the experts.

They address a set of questions that have come up in connection to campus discussions around Go Big Read: What will drive the next Green Revolution? Is genetically modified food an answer to world hunger? Are there other factors that will make a difference in food production?

This Spring, we will wrap up our first year of Go Big Read with a day-long food summit with a number of distinguished speakers. These will be among the topics addressed by a distinguished speaker and UW faculty. Stay tuned for details!

Sarah McDaniel
Go Big Read

Food For Thought: Weekly Online Book Discussion

Are you unable to attend one of the scheduled book discussions but want to get involved in the conversation?

Want to connect with people from all over the UW campus and the greater Madison community?

Join us in a virtual book discussion on the Food For Thought Posts in the Go Big Read Blog!

Each week, we will be posting a new topic for discussion on the blog, and followers are encouraged to participate by responding in the comment section below each post. Feel free to use and expand on these questions in your own book discussions. Have a great idea for discussion topic? Let us know! Contact the Go Big Read Program at gobigread@library.wisc.edu.

Food For Thought: Topic for Discussion Week of October 19, 2009

Pollan quotes the words of writer and farmer Wendell Berry: “Eating is an agricultural act.”

What does Berry mean, and why is his message so important that it is included in both In Defense of Food and in Pollan’s previous book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma?

Calling All Bookgroups!

Want to discuss In Defense of Food with your own private bookgroup?

Madison Public Library lends book discussion kits of this title (and many others!) to area public library cardholders.

To request a kit to be picked up at any public library within the South Central Library System, call 266-6300.

We’ll ask for your library card number and the number of books you like to borrow. You’ll be able to pick them up a few days later at your local library.

Video now available of Michael Polan’s Lecture!

Did you miss “In Defense of Food” author Michael Pollan’s lecture at the Kohl Center on September 24th?  Maybe you were able to catch it but wish you could refer back to it to remember some of the parts that stood out to you.

Now you can watch an edited version of Michael Pollan’s lecture “In Defense of Food: The Omnivore’s Solution” which he presented at UW-Madison on September 24, 2009.

You can also click here for a transcript of the lecture.

These files can also be found archived on the Go Big Read website on the Resources Page: http://www.gobigread.wisc.edu/resources.html

FDA Reviews Food Labels such as “Smart Choice”

In his September 24th talk, Michael Pollan talked about the way foods were labeled as healthful in ways that are misleading. The example he gave was the “Smart Choices” Check Mark on a box of Froot Loops, which are nearly 44% sugar.

The Los Angeles Times published an article today entitled, “FDA Clamps Down on Nutrition Labels on Food Packaging.” The article discusses nutritionists’ role in influencing these types of programs, “Smart Choices has emerged as a lightning rod among some nutritionists, who say its ratings are too lax and intended to give processed foods undeserved nutritional standing.” The article quotes NYU nutrition profession Marion Nestle, “I think Smart Choices was the final straw for the FDA. The idea that its check could go onto Froot Loops made it clear that the bar had to be set higher. [….] Good for the FDA.”

Food For Thought: Weekly Online Book Discussion

Are you unable to attend one of the scheduled book discussions but want to get involved in the conversation?

Want to connect with people from all over the UW campus and the greater Madison community?

Join us in a virtual book discussion on the Food For Thought Posts in the Go Big Read Blog!

Each week, we will be posting a new topic for discussion on the blog, and followers are encouraged to participate by responding in the comment section below each post. Feel free to use and expand on these questions in your own book discussions. Have a great idea for discussion topic? Let us know! Contact the Go Big Read Program at gobigread@library.wisc.edu.

Food For Thought: Topic for Discussion Week of October 12, 2009

Does the way we eat in the United States say anything about the character of the American people and, more broadly, this country’s shared values?

How is In Defense of Food a statement about American culture and life?