Almost a year ago The New Yorker started appearing in my mailbox. To this day I have no clue who purchased the subscription for me, but I’ve become a bit addicted to the weekly offering. An article by Alec Wilkinson on the new magazine Modern Farming caught my eye. I will admit, I have never read an issue of the award-winning Modern Farming, so what follows is more a rumination on Wilkinson’s piece than anything else.
Like many New Yorker pieces it is as much a character study as anything else, this one of Ann Marie Gardner, Modern Farmer’s founder and editor. The article adroitly compares Gardner to the magazine. One person reviewing Modern Farmer said, “I wonder who the ideal reader is. My assumption is that it’s people who will never farm.” Another remarked, “There was not anything actually written by a farmer.” Both descriptions fit Gardner.
Later the reader is presented with a story of Gardner buying chickens for dinner. The local farmer selling her the chickens slaughters the birds on the spot for Gardner, causing her anguish. At the end, Wilkinson writes, “Sniffling, she wrote a check for $84.93, and took the chickens, which I had to carry, because when she touched them she discovered that they were still warm.”
I’m not going to pretend that I grew up on a farm (because I did not), but I did grow up with family friends who were farmers. I remember quite fondly what a barn full of curing tobacco smells like, but I never spent my summers picking it like my mother or grew up on a farm full of it like her mother.
I do know, however, that at its core farming is about killing some beings so that other beings can live. This is obvious when eating meat—children’s author E.B. White of Charlotte’s Web fame once called hog slaughter first-degree murder while simultaneously acknowledging how delicious bacon tastes. The same can be true for plants, however. Wheat cannot be eaten while it is still alive, nor many other crops. We know this on a visceral level, but why are so many of us still so squeamish when we are reminded that our dinner used to breath and eat just as we do? (My wife absolutely refuses to handle raw meat.)
Do I have a larger point that Wilkinson’s piece does not make? I am not sure. But I do know that farming is trendy right now. Organic produce is all the rage, and so is eating local, slow food, etc. These are not bad things (even if “organic” becomes commoditized like many entities in this country). Cooking reality shows are too numerous to count these days (I happen to be a big fan of Top Chef). Yet if we, as a nation, increasingly care so much about our food, why is historian Matthew Booker researching why many people have “lost faith” in food? Perhaps this “foodie” trend is just that—a trend.
Perhaps we should be less interested in the idea of farming and more interested in what farming actually is. Farming is death. Faming is tedium. Faming is a business. Farming is being confronted with tough choices. It is also many other things, and none of them are inherently bad. Knowing that, it is more than a little strange that the editor and founder of a magazine titled Modern Farmer would go out of her way to get fresh, local chickens for a dinner party and then get weepy because her dinner was slaughtered while she waited (FYI I recognize the gendered element of this portrayal).
Agriculture has become the latest intersection of culture and environment where a great many people in our society feel that they have a stake or expertise (or both). What wilderness was a century ago agriculture is today. That is not necessarily a bad thing. I just wonder if we are concerned about our cultural interactions with agroecosystems because doing so is trendy or because we truly appreciate what agriculture is and the importance it has on the world and our lives. Maybe it does not matter either way.
We all have to eat, you know.