Farmageddon is a story of hope; that common sense measures are all we need to avert the coming crisis in our food system. That was the message for my debut appearance at the Decatur Book Festival in Atlanta, Georgia, the biggest independent literary festival in the US.
I was proud to be introduced by renowned journalist and author, Maryn McKenna who sketched out Georgia’s history as the birthplace of industrial chicken farming; if Georgia were a country, “it would be one of the biggest poultry-producing nations in the world”, she said. Maryn herself is a writer with more than a passing interest in factory farming; her forthcoming book will explore the role of antibiotics in farming and the threats posed to our health: definitely one to watch!
As I took to the stage, what truly touched me was to see one of the most inspiring farmers I know amongst the 250-strong audience; Will Harris of White Oak Pastures. I spent time at Will’s farm when researching Farmageddon and saw how getting animals out of the factory and back on the farm can work spectacularly for people, animals and the planet.
A fifth generation farmer, I remember Will telling me how “nature abhors a monoculture”; that’s why he now runs cattle, sheep and chickens on rotational pasture. Big animals (cattle) are followed by smaller animals (sheep) followed by poultry, each of them feeding on the land and returning manure to it in their own fashion.
It hadn’t always been this way. Will’s family used to farm industrially. “It was all about pounds of beef produced and nothing about the quality,” he told me. He admitted he found the industrial way exciting and that he and his father were good at it. They fed the cattle grain and used hormone implants to make them grow faster. Antibiotics were mixed in feed and pastures doused with chemicals. But Will grew disenchanted with the artifice of it all. When he took over the business from his dad, he dispensed with the props of intensification, bringing the farm full circle to what is now a celebrated model of environmental sustainability, animal welfare and good food.
Farmageddon was never just an expose of what’s gone bad; it was also a search for signs of hope. I discovered they are often all around us; here small acorns in need of nurturing; elsewhere thriving oaks. I felt privileged to see fields in Argentina dancing defiantly with butterflies in contrast to their lifeless pesticide-soaked GM neighbours. I watched chickens roaming woodlands in China and animals being treated right on extensive farms in Britain and Europe. I found so much more than the few scattered crumbs of comfort I was expecting – and often on my own doorstep too.
But it was in Georgia, USA, that I saw something so compelling I just had to use it for the opening scene of the book’s solutions chapter. How touched was I that the man behind that place had made the eight-hour round trip to be with us in Decatur. Will, thank you!
Grateful thanks too to everyone who gave me such a warm welcome to the festival; to the organisers for having me, to Maryn McKenna for her wonderful introduction, to former festival president and co-founder, Alice Murray for all her support, to Compassion’s extremely dedicated US director, Leah Garces, and to everyone in the audience who came out to join the conversation. Heartfelt thanks and all best wishes.
Next stop on the Farmageddon Tour: 2nd September – Atlanta, Georgia, USA: Emory University, Ethics Center, hosted by Food Studies Group, 4.00pm