Making Meat, the Writer's Pitfall, and Online Interaction With Readers

Finally, a good example of the way website/online interaction can inform a writer's work! (*1)

A couple of days ago, I commented on a New York Times op-ed piece about land use and meat supply. You can read my comment here, but what’s relevant is the point I made about farm land: Farmers compete with city folks for land. What’s farmland now may, in ten years, contain houses or office buildings, a shift in land use typically identified as “urban sprawl.”

A person identifying herself as Louisa commented on that blog entry. Here is her comment:

Not quite…it’s not land vs. urban spaces, which are actually pretty efficient, but land vs. SUBurban spaces, with all the sprawl that entails. I live in a small town surrounded by farmland. Every year, more farmland is bought up by developers to turn into another grossly oversized subdivision filled with 4,000 sq ft houses- whose owners then turn around and lobby for nuisance laws that are aimed at, among other things, farm smells and sounds. After moving out into the country because it’s “so picturesque.” So yes, we do need to have the conversation about what kind of agricultural system we want. But we also need to have a conversation about what kind of living space we want, and whether we want to do more to protect farmland from becoming suburban sprawl.

I am grateful that Louisa took the time to read and comment (more grateful than she probably knows!), but as important, her comment reminded me that I need to beware of the writer’s pitfall: Don’t assume readers know what you mean. I’ve spent so many years working on the meat book that I tend to write/think in shorthand and make assumptions about what readers know and don’t know. In this case, I should have been more clear about the relationship between farming methods and urban societies.

First to her comment: She’s correct: The more houses, office buildings, and gas stations we build, the more likely we are to use what was once farmland. As I type this, I’m sitting in a house that is sitting on land that was part of a farm just twenty years ago. So, yes, I’m aware of the “urban sprawl” part of the equation. (And, because I live in Iowa, I’m also aware that, as Louisa points out, when people move to houses like mine, they often complain about rural smells and sounds.) (*2)

But I failed to make a more subtle distinction. Americans have chosen to live “in town” rather than “in the country.” Nearly 80% of us live in “municipalities” of one kind or another. Only two percent of us work as “farmers.” So that two percent has to figure out how to make food as efficiently as possible. If we shut down all the Ames, Iowas, razed the “sprawl,” and forced everyone to move to, say, Manhattan or Brooklyn, we’d still have the same equation: Nearly all of us would rely on a tiny minority to make our food.

But even if the agricultural two percent suddenly had access to farmland once devoted to houses and office buildings, it’s unlikely they would decide to send their cattle, hogs, and chickens out into the “pasture” to range freely.

Why? Because those are labor-intensive forms of agricultural production, and we’d still have just 2% of the population making the food. That’s a primary reason that farmers back in the 1950s embraced confinement as a way to raise livestock: they faced a serious labor shortage. They didn’t have enough “hands” to raise livestock the “old-fashioned” way. If they wanted to keep farming, they had to figure out how to do it without additional labor.

Why was there a labor shortage? Because after World War II, farmers’ sons and daughters decided they wanted to live in town, not on the farm. So --- as those sons and daughters left the farms, they became part of the “urban majority” who relied on farmers to produce food for them. But those farmers, in turn, were left short-handed and in need of ways to make their operations more efficient. (*3)

So when I write about the connection between life in an “urban” society and systems of farming, I need to be more clear about what I mean. City folks are not farmers. They rely on others to grow food for them. In an urban society like ours, most people have CHOSEN not to be food producers. The people who do produce the food are then faced with a quandary: How to make enough food for everyone?

It’s perhaps worth repeating the point I made in that blog entry: When a people choose to live in an urban society rather than an agrarian one, they also enjoy the benefit (luxury) of time for intellectual work. The farming two percent make it possible for the rest of us to sit around and invent iPads and smart phones, blog, write critiques of the food system, or whatever. We can engage in "other" work because we don't spend time growing or preserving food.

Again, the physical form of the urban setting is irrelevant. Sure, if we all moved to Manhattan, we'd free up land for farming. But it's unlikely we'd have more FARMERS. We'd still have 98% of the population living in an urban setting, and two percent making the food.

So. Memo to self: in the manuscript of what is becoming a “real” book, I need to be wary of skipping A so I can get to B.

Again, many thanks to Louisa for her help. __________________ *1: We writers hear this all the time: We can engage with readers! (Yes, of course.) We can use feedback from readers to shape our work! Umm. Okay? Maybe? Not sure. And I've been one of the doubters. But now I "get" how interaction can, in fact, shape my work.

*2: Indeed, that conflict was one of the first ideas that came to me when I decided to write this book. See this blog entry I wrote for Powell’s Books six years ago.

*3: Another point is worth mentioning: Even those “young” people who chose to stay on the farm were no longer willing to work 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year. They were even more willing than their fathers and mothers to embrace labor-saving tools and systems of production, including livestock confinement.