The most beautiful farm I have ever seen is probably Willow Creek Farm, a small piggery at the southern end of the Baraboo Hills in central Wisconsin, a green, lush patch of rolling slopes and leafy trees tucked into a narrow valley. The pigs, sleek, compact Berkshire hogs that glow like spoiled pets, eat the corn that Tony and Sue Renger grow on the lower slopes of the farm, corn that is fertilized with the composted waste of the pigs themselves. When it is warm enough, the pigs wander out of their barn and up to the top of their grassy hill, where they forage on the odd acorn or hickory nut that may have fallen off the trees. In spring, the slope explodes with wildflowers. The pigs have the best view in the valley.
The farm sells much of what it produces to l’Etoile, a superb Madison restaurant that is often called the Chez Panisse of the Midwest, and at the Saturday farmers market that lines the square around the Wisconsin state capitol. The farm is small — it raises just as many pigs, a few hundred, as its acres of corn will support. When you taste the pork, which is fairly lean, but dense and full flavored in a way that no supermarket pork will ever match, there is a sense of place, of the autumn sunshine, and the sweet water and the wood smoke in the air. Winemakers call this sense of place terroir, and Renger’s pork is as rooted in its geographical particulars as any $120 bottle of Pernand-Vergelesses.
Still, when customers at the market ask the Rengers if Willow Creek pork is organic, they shake their heads: No. The farm may be based on the soundest principles of sustainable agriculture, and the Rengers are sure to leave the land in better shape than they found it, but the equipment to toast and grind soybeans, a small part of the pigs’ diet, is expensive, and Tony Renger is occasionally obligated to feed his animals soy meal that has not been certified organic. And many farmers (not Renger) complain that the amount of paperwork required to certify even a small farm as organic is prohibitive, enough to keep a full-time employee busy for most of the year.
But giant organic farms, the corporations that keep our local supermarkets stocked with Horizon milk, Stonyfield Farm yogurt, cage-free eggs and Cascadian Farm frozen lasagna, find the cost of organic certification is proportionately small enough to be a rounding error. Organic food is the fastest-growing sector in the otherwise static food industry, and Wal-Mart, Altria
and Archer Daniels Midland want in. The process of certification is designed to make things easier for the Organic Valleys of the country, not for the Rengers or Northern California’s Niman Ranch — or, necessarily, the earth.
Ever since reading Michael Pollan’s new book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, where he demonstrates that the American body is composed mostly of cheap corn, and in which he visits a Virginia farm whose food web is even more intricate than Willow Creek’s — also Bill Buford’s Heat, where the author essentially gives up a job as The New Yorker’s fiction editor to move to Tuscany and learn how to butcher hogs — I’ve been thinking a lot about this stuff.
Organic grapes grown in Chile and flown to California are sold as organic, no matter the huge cost in petroleum. Huge organic-poultry factories, whose chickens have probably never walked more than a foot or two from their cages, sell their chickens and eggs as organic and free-range. Your favorite potato guy at the Hollywood Farmers’ Market, on the other hand, the man who personally grows, harvests and washes the delicious, thin-skinned fingerlings that you buy from him each week, isn’t certified, and probably will never be.
So for the most educated consumers in the United States, the ones who buy most of their produce at the farmers market, limit their consumption of mercury-rich tuna and make an extra stop at Whole Foods each week specifically to pick up the hormone-free chicken, a trip to the supermarket becomes an extended philosophical exercise, a weighing of one set of values against another. Are the omega-3 oils in the Atlantic salmon beneficial enough to excuse the hideous pollution of fish farming, or should I pay the extra 10 bucks a pound for the wild salmon from Alaska? Should I get the conventionally grown Oxnard tomatoes or the organic cherry tomatoes flown in from Mexico? Is the pleasure of the supple texture and amazing smokiness of Nueske’s bacon excuse enough to steer away from the flabbiness of organic nitrite-free bacon? Um, maybe.
What we eat, in a literal sense, is what we are, and at the moment Americans tend to be fat, sick and awash in greenhouse gases.
“The best evidence that organic standards really do mean something,” says Marion Nestle in her excellent new book, What to Eat, “comes from the unrelenting efforts to weaken them.”