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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.