Thursday, May 13, 2010

Rice field of dreams

I recently spoke with a rare breed indeed: a sustainable rice farmer in southwestern Louisiana. For those of you unfamiliar with The Deep South, it is a region known for many things, but organic farming is not among them. (A friend finishing up a degree in agriculture at LSU was lamenting earlier today that not a single stall at the Baton Rouge farmers' market offers organic produce. Not one, not in these parts.) Racial tension, fried twinkies, grits, the Blues, okay. But composting and integrated pest management? Hardly. I am bummed that I learned of the farmer and his rice operation, west of New Orleans by about a four-day bike ride, too late to visit. (If I am to make it back to DC in early July, I need to start moving north. I don't want mom and pop Vincent to start giving me a hard time about pushing my return date back... again.) But after our phone conversation I have determined that the next time I am in Louisiana -- and I do hope to make my way back to the sweet, sunny South again -- I will make it a point to spend at least a week or two learning and working (and cooking) with Kurt Unkel.

Seriously, I have come across few others as articulate and thoughtful on matters ranging from food production to agricultural policy to cooking. (Okay, maybe I am a little biased because our conversation included a recipe exchange, but I'm telling you, the driving force behind Cajun Grain is a food activist in the making, whether or not he knows it.) The anomaly of a 3rd generation southern rice grower told me about his decision to convert his fields to meet organic labeling requirements a few years ago, and while he's not sorry for the transition that produces a superior brown jasmine rice -- superior in terms of flavor and nutritional value -- he is fighting an uphill battle to scratch out a living. Ah yes, once again I come across a farmer trying to do the right thing while barely making ends meet for his family. (At just under $35 for 16 pounds of his amazing rice delivered to your door anywhere in the country, he's not a price gouger by any stretch. "Good food at a fair price" was the impression I got during our talk. I know it's delicious because I picked some up at Hollygrove Market last weekend. And I'm totally ordering a shipment when I get back to DC.) He may not make a lot of money, he chuckled as he confided, but with pastured beef and pork supplementing his organic produce and rice (third after oats and quinoa, in terms of nutrition), at least he eats well. And the smattering of grad students and interns who have come to work with him eat well, too. He has built his field and, slowly, they are coming.

Kurt believes in nurturing people and the land through responsible, sustainable growing practices. But the means to designate the way he's been doing things, I learned, is in jeopardy. It was this renegade farmer with his charming drawl and passion for homegrown tomatoes who told me about legislation that is currently up for discussion that means to define and standardize "sustainable agriculture." (If you've been following my periodic rants about inane "education standards" set by disconnected state-level administrators, you can probably guess how I feel about a checklist for "sustainability standards" set by large national interest groups like the Farm Bureau.) If it is what Kurt thinks it is -- an expensive standardizing of requirements and broadening of criteria reminiscent of the USDA's certification process for organics a few years back -- the farmer argued that the term "sustainable," which fundamentally informs his day-to-day practices and which his loyal customers support, will be rendered meaningless.

I am not a policy wonk. I just don't have the head (or the stomach) for it. But I do think there is something wrong with a system that discourages farmers from practicing *actual* sustainability (managing soil and water, minimizing chemical and fuel inputs) in favor of a labeling system that, at the very least, lets agribusiness off the hook ("oh sure, we compost some stuff and, um, use lower octane fuel for our enormous tractors") and misleads consumers ("oh, well that must mean the company has my health and the health of the planet in mind"). Ha! Heck, under such criteria, GMOs like Roundup-Ready crops might be conceivably considered "sustainable" because they cause less soil erosion from weed killing machinery traffic.

Has anyone heard about this piece of legislation?? I'll be darned if I can find accurate, timely information on it, but it hardly seems like the kind of thing the passionate food advocate and grower would just make up. From what Kurt related during our conversation, they may well get away with it, as all of the voices involved in the policy discussion represent, or have ties to, large-scale conventional agriculture. The farmer confessed that he's about ready to stop using the term "sustainable" altogether, just as farmers like Joel Salatin have abandoned "organic" certification labels for what they are calling "beyond organic" -- a shorthand for a philosophy and set of practices that prior to this latest policy debate Kurt Unkel might've termed... "sustainable."

In the end, the rice farmer and I agreed that labels are on their way to becoming meaningless, that the only way to truly know what's in your food is to shake the hand of the farmer who grows it. (Or at least talk with him on the phone. Or, of course, grow it yourself.) I look forward to a continuing dialog on the matter of sustainability certification as it develops. In the meantime, it warms my little heart that there are farmers like Kurt out there in rural Louisiana growing good food and educating those willing to listen, and amid the changing agricultural climate continuing to do things [insert replacement term for "sustainably" here]....

Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thanks for your comment! Just making sure this isn't spam.... Thanks for your patience. :)Ibti