LEIGH WRIGHT (this article was first published in JANUARY 2013)
The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, written and recorded by The Band in 1969 would immortalize not only the historical event that ripped our nation apart and the struggle that would come in a botched Reconstruction, but also the dying of a distinct era. The southern United States has placed a majority of its stake in agriculture since the very beginning. Down here sugarcane, cattle, corn, peaches, pecans, soybeans, and the king cash crop cotton have always held up our economy. Like football, agriculture is a way of life here. Life changes though. Constantly. Now the modern farmer is caught between the responsibility of feeding an ever-growing, ever-needy population and the newly developed debate of ethics and economics in food production.
This past weekend I drove over to Kinston, Alabama to meet up with my aunt and uncle before heading over to Athens, Georgia for a cousin’s wedding. Kinston is a place where you can leave your keys in your unlocked car if it’s in your driveway and where the blinking caution light next to the post office signifies “downtown”. It’s a wonderful place, simple and beautiful. The history of our agricultural past is littered around the county roads in forms of weather-torn windmills, broken down trucks, and antiquated barns. My uncle and I do not have entirely different views of modern farming; however, I do read books by Wendell Berry, Michael Pollan, and most recently Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. These books are typically not read by modern farmers and for good reason.
Books against the modern farming culture are out there and shine the not-so-pretty light on what it means to actually be a farmer. Most images displayed next to the milk aisles and flashed across TVs whenever a controversial farm bill needs to be passed show the story of bright sunny days on Babe’s farm where pigs get washed in buttermilk before going to the county fair, and homemade pies sit on window sills. None show the 500 x 500 square foot chicken houses that look more like scenes from Animal Farm and a SciFi channel experiment show.
There are horror stories such as the one this week on NPR’s This American Life about a pork slaughterhouse who allegedly was selling pig rectums as artificial calamari; but if you look at our culture’s food history, it is a myriad of events that leave you still rooting for the everyday farmer. My uncle graduated from Auburn University after studying Agricultural Economics. He has been in the industry longer than anyone I know has been in any industry. From growing up hand-weeding plots of land to producing peanuts, cotton, sod, soybeans and cattle, he has watched the gradual procession into “modern factory farming”. He understands the ins-and-outs of farm bills and tax breaks, chemical operations and the amount of nitrogen-to-carbon ratio needed to raise a successful crop. He is a part of the generation that saved millions in China and Russia with GMO-engineered crops and has fed and clothed possibly billions of people as of today because of the work that he does.
The idyllic farmhouses and gentle-natured people that populate rural American towns still exist. They are, however, a dying breed in the traditional terms of farming. In my articles on George and Martha Washington (although they are the exception), I show that they were the ideal American farmers. With their own distillery, smokehouse, gardens, crops, and tannery they were able to be a completely “sustainable” household besides their purchased luxury goods. However, this type of household was, and is, not the norm. The price of protein has not changed much over the decades as inflation has touched almost every other aspect of life, especially farming life. Today more crops are needed for more people, but fewer people are likely to learn what all goes into actual food production.
However, this is not a food production column. It is supposed to be a Southern food history column. Luckily, food is culture and I am fortunate enough to have the slightest connection into the true world of modern food production. This has always been an area of fascination for me since it is an interdisciplinary look into an economic system: culture, socioeconomics, history, ethics, animal rights, etc. I am a firm believer that lessons from our past can benefit us in the future. Lafcadio Hearn, a half-blind Greek/Irish immigrant who once lived in New Orleans around the turn of the 20th century, wrote for a Chicago newspaper. In one of his articles, he recounted the scenes of two slaughterhouses: a Kosher one and a Gentile one. The Kosher slaughterhouse had a much more humane way of killing while in the Gentile factory animals suffered mercilessly. I was ready to convert into Judaism almost immediately when I read Foer’s account in Eating Animals about a modern Kosher cattle factory which had to be closed due to a severe lack of adhesion to Jewish law and was denounced by the president of the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative Movement. As Bob Dylan once sang, “The times they are a-changing”.
Traversing the southern highways and back roads from New Orleans through Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and back again brings a reawakening to a Southern soul. As I drove from state to state I realized again the beauty of our natural and cultural presence. Agriculture is a mainstay and part of everyday life for Americans. It just depends on where you are in the process. Generations before us had very different experiences with groceries, food, and what each represented. Blueberry pies and sweet tea will hopefully always taste the same. How they are produced, managed, and consumed in the future has yet to be seen, but I believe each Southerner understands and appreciates the hard work behind food. We always have because it is our way of life.