Barbara Kingsolver's Latest Fiction

Life on the farm ain't always a picnic


The steaks, chops, and roasts in our dining room deep chest freezer were often labeled with the names of the cows and pigs from which they came. About ninety percent of the food I ate growing up came from the pastures, fields, and the garden on my family's farm. The garden was fertilized with manure that I personally shoveled from the dairy barn and our house was heated with wood that I personally chopped and stacked every summer. I know from farming. So I have been some what bemused by the recent spate of pretentious back-to-the-land, eat local books including Michael Pollan's absurdly overwrought The Omnivore's Dilemma and Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon's Plenty. Pollan actually went out and killed an animal and then ate it—just imagine! How deliciously and primitively recherché! The latest of these is the New York Times bestseller, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, by novelist Barbara Kingsolver with help from her daughters and husband.

Kingsolver and her family recently moved to a 100 acre farm near the one in Meadowview, VA, on which I helped slaughter and butcher cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, and where we kept a root cellar filled with potatoes and turnips; 20 or so hives for honey; churned butter, canned cherries, tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, corn, blackberries, and nearly anything else fruit or vegetable that we could coax out of the soil. Beans were dried for winter storage strung on threads above my bed. That was how we fed ourselves year round with trips to the local Piggly Wiggly reserved for picking up essentials like toilet paper and soap. Little did I know that my family's hardscrabble farm would four decades later be at the forefront of a new food fashion trend.

Once ensconced on their 100 acre farm tucked away in a holler in Washington County, Kingsolver tells the tale of how her family decided to spend a whole year trying to eat nothing but what was grown on their farm or could be bought from local farmers. What follows is a sometimes lyrical story of planting, weeding, butchering, and canning. Unfortunately, Kingsolver adopts absolutely every one the modern urban fables with regard to food production, starting with the claim that organic is more nutritious. There is very little scientific evidence for that claim. In addition, organic is not necessarily better for nature since yields are generally lower than conventional farming, which means that more land must be used to produce food.

Reading Kingsolver, one could also conclude that pesticides were created by giant chemical companies whose sole aim was to cause cancer. But even the American Cancer Society agrees that there is "no evidence that residues of pesticides and herbicides at the low doses found in foods increase the risk of cancer." Studies also show that eliminating pesticides could cut corn yields by 30 percent, rice by 57 percent, soybeans by 37 percent, and wheat by 24 percent. Again, that would mean that a lot more of nature would have to be plowed up to maintain the food supply at current levels.

Family farms are not declining because of some conspiracy by industrial ag giants. Actually, what happened is that farmers became so productive that we needed fewer of them. In 1950, 15 percent of Americans lived on farms. Today only 1 percent of us live on farms. The meantime, the output of staples like wheat and corn nearly tripled, while vegetables nearly quadrupled. And the amount of land devoted to crops fell slightly. This dramatically increased agricultural productivity liberated many like me from farm labor so that we could do other work.

Kingsolver also worries about fashionable topic of "foodmiles." She hectors readers about the fact that the food on most Americans' plates travels an average of 1500 miles to get there. "Well-heeled North American epicures are likely to gather around a table where whole continents collide discreetly on a white tablecloth: New Zealand lamb with Italian porcinis, Peruvian asparagus, and a hearty French Bordeaux," writes Kingsolver. "The date on the calendar is utterly irrelevant." She denounces this situation as "botanically outrageous." I think it's just plain wonderful. If it were economically impractical, that lamb and those asparagus spears would stay south of the equator and New Zealander and Peruvian farmers would be poorer.

Kingsolver has evidently never heard of comparative advantage, which is the idea that people are most efficiently employed in activities in which they perform relatively better than in others. Nevertheless, Kingsolver stumbles across the notion when she claims that by raising their own food, her family earned the equivalent of $7500. To her credit, she does go on to admit, "Steven [her husband] and I certainly could have earned more money by putting our farming hours into teaching more classes or meeting extra deadlines, using the skills that our culture rewards and respects much more than food production." If somehow 15 percent of Americans still stubbornly insisted on trying to make a living on farms, we would all be deprived of the other higher value goods and services they produce today. And the real incomes of Americans since 1950 wouldn't have nearly quadrupled, as they have.

I have nothing against farmers markets. In fact, I take it that the country is becoming so wealthy that people can now make a decent living from labor-intensive activities like organic farming. But this kind of farming is essentially an artisanal activity much like basket weaving, potting, and wood working. My wife and I go every week to the local farmers market off Water Street in Charlottesville, VA, or if we're out of town, we go to the one at Dupont Circle in Washington, DC. I am very glad that people want to spend their lives raising tasty Mortgage Lifter tomatoes and Albemarle Pippin apples. And I am also very glad that I don't have to.

Now I would be a liar if I didn't admit that occasionally Kingsolver's prose transported me back to my mom's linoleum-floored kitchen filled with the smell of black cherries being canned. Heavenly. And to my grandparents' backyard eating sweet chilled slices of watermelon on a summer's evening after a hard, sweaty, dirty day of baling and stacking hay. But I also vividly recall the mind-numbing drudgery of farming and the fact that it is possible to get tired of eating pasture-fed steaks week in and week out. I also remember what's like to shear sheep and to smell of the sickly odor of lanolin for a week afterwards. And sleeping in barns in January and February to oversee the lambing. And it's not for nothing that dairy farms are called "penitentiaries without walls." Why? Because you have to milk the damned cows twice a day every day for 365 days a year. If you don't their udders burst.

I'm happy that Kingsolver and her family had a nice little farming adventure, but ultimately, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is another Kingsolver novel; a fiction about how easy and pleasant it is to grow all of one's food.

At one point, Kingsolver makes fun of a vegan movie star who wants to create a safe-haven ranch where cows and chickens can live happy lives and die a natural death. Kingsolver dismissively writes: "We know she meant well, and as fantasies of the super-rich go, it's more inspired than most. It's just the high-mindedness that rankles; when moral superiority combines with billowing ignorance, they fill up a hot air balloon that's awfully hard not to poke." That pretty much sums up how I feel about Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

Disclosure: My sister stayed on the farm and eventually inherited it. She's happy where she is and I'm damned happy where I am.

Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books.

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