Honest Food, Commonwealth


By Brook Le Van






Find the shortest, simplest way between the earth, the hands and the mouth.
— Lanza del Vasto

Whom do you trust when it comes to
your food? As we peruse the aisles of
our favorite grocery stores we rely on labels
and seals of approval to tell us that our food
is safe and how it might have been produced.
Labels such as “certified organic,” “natural”
and “free range” give us a false sense of
trust. Most food in the store has no label
at all, which means it has crept out of the
large-scale, chemically laden, agricultural
abyss. We have relegated trust to “them” —
the government and its officials — who, of
course, have our best interests in mind. Need
I go into detail here about the powerful
agro-industrial lobbyists that work over our
politicians in Washington, 365 days a year, to
preserve and protect their corporate interests?
When you reach for that bag of spinach,
chicken or gallon of milk, do you really feel
safe? Given what has been going on these past
few decades in agriculture, we haven’t been
encouraged to trust the government with
much, and certainly not our health.
At the risk of being offensive, especially
to my conventional farmer friends, let
me point out that America’s governmentsanctioned
food system rewards a lack of
integrity. Farmers are encouraged to use
antibiotics and feed fermented forages and
grain to herbivores, in direct opposition to
their natural diets, nature’s template. Most
ranchers are implanting bovine ionophore
hormones into their steers to make them
grow faster. I am not picking on cattle
ranchers here — the list of abuses is pervasive
across all modern agricultural practices and
too numerous to mention in detail. But
the upshot is that the entire food system
is predicated on shortcutting honesty to
squeeze out ever more profits. How’s your
trust barometer reading so far?                                                                                               It is time we subject our farmers to the same
scrutiny that we would our pediatricians or
babysitters. As a food buyer you must be
courageous and responsible enough to ask
questions. You must know that your farmer
of choice can be trusted.
It is our job as consumers today to find
honest food. Honest food producers ponder
the environmental and moral footprint of every decision,                                                       every activity and every
marketing model. Joel Salatin, Virginia
farmer and author of “Holy Cows and Hog
Heaven: The Food Buyer’s Guide to Farm
Friendly Food,” writes, “Honest food comes
from farmers who respect the wisdom of the
Creator’s DNA, honor the information in the
mind of an earthworm, and appreciate the
beauty of hogs in their rooting heaven.”
When it comes to searching for honest
food, nothing beats being able to look your
farmer or rancher in the eye and ask them
questions or visit their farm firsthand. This
is where farmers’ markets shine. With a little
research and some basic questions, you will
find that most farmers at these markets view
their production as a sacred trust between
their land and your dinner plate. And
those who take such a view and implement
that philosophy through renewal in their
farming practices should be patronized and
What can we do, and what are the questions
we can ask our local farmers, to understand
if we can trust them? Salatin suggests the
• Ask the farmer about her soil fertility
program. Listen for words like “organic
matter,” “cover crops,” “green manures,”
“compost,” “trace minerals,” “beneficial
insects” and “crop rotation.”                                                                                                    • What do the farmer’s customers say? Are
they loyal? Do they come every week to buy?
• Visit the farm. What does it look like?
Does the farmer apologize for everything? Is
there an overall impression of order, effort,
happiness and health? Is this a place you
would want to live? Is this a place that leaves
you recharged, one you want to return to?
• Look at the farmer’s bookshelf. What is he
or she reading? What a farmer is reading is far
more interesting to me than her farm being
USDA “big O” organic certified. Anyone
can adopt the latest lingo to gain market
share. The farmer you are looking for is truly
seeking a different approach and is immersed
in literature on that subject. Is what she is
feeding her mind and soul consistent with
your beliefs? If her magazine rack is littered
with conventional Farm Bureau fare, beware.
• What do the farmer’s neighbors say?
Keep in mind here, too, that neighbors may
think them weird or odd or even hobbyists,
but trustworthy farmers earn a place in the
community regardless.
• What do this farmer’s colleagues say?
Every area has an alternative food system
support group. Is your farmer affiliated with
groups you believe in, that are sustainable,
organic and ecological in name and practice?
Is this farmer seen as a trusted local resource?
Is she asked to teach or speak to community
groups, or write locally on the state of safe,                                                                         healthy farming and local food production?
We are led to believe that we are powerless
to change the systems that affect our lives. In
spite of this, the food system is one place we
can and do have a direct effect. Our choice to
buy differently and to support local farmers
and ranchers connects us to that acreage of
pasture in the farm down the road, to the
grass that feeds the livestock and to the soil
that feeds the carrots, lettuce and potatoes
that in turn feed us.
While the fresh and local food movement
is partly about healthier, better-tasting and
more nutritious food, it is fundamentally
about food that maintains and regenerates
farms and the farmers who caretake them.
You and I, in the food choices we make, can
either move this system in the direction we
want to see, or we can perpetuate the existing
system of industrial, fecal factory fare. We
are partners with our farmers, and together
we build our common wealth. We farmers
know that, and we can’t do it without your
participation. So let’s not wait until Congress
passes the next farm bill to determine what
we eat for dinner. Stop by the market and talk
to your local farmers today. And if we buy
their food, I’ll guarantee our food fear will
turn into our collective good health while we
simultaneously build local circles of trust.

Brook Le Van, driven in life predominantly
by flavor, is the co-founder and director of
Sustainable Settings, a nonprofit, land-based
demonstration and research institute — a Whole
Systems Learning Center — near Carbondale,
Colorado. Sustainable Settings is a place and
program devoted to building positive futures
by curing systems blindness in our culture. It
works to revive local, decentralized food and
energy production and distribution systems, in
an effort to build honest food commonwealths.