Economics News

John Abell explores economics of organics

January 6, 2009
Sustainable food resources will be a top issue in years to come

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John Abell

Economics professor John Abell's senior seminar class took hands-on learning to the next level during the fall semester. The group fed pigs and talked at length with the owners of a local organic farm.

When Economics professor John Abell was planning his senior seminar class for the fall of 2008, he knew Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma would provide lively discussions in class.

But he wanted more.

“I wanted something other than just a classroom experience,” Abell said. “I have always felt that our educational process needs to provide real-world experiences. It is too easy — almost a cop out — especially in economics, to assign a textbook, stand in front of a chalkboard, lecture, give tests, and call that an education. At a minimum, I try to assign interesting books like Fast Food Nation , or The Omnivore’s Dilemma , to augment the usual classroom fare.”

Pollan’s book discusses the nation’s approach to food from a variety of perspectives. Most people are familiar with food labeled commercial or industrial. Industrial food is mostly petroleum-based and centered on a small collection of heavily subsidized crops such as corn, soybeans, and wheat. The highly processed versions of these crops appear in stores like Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, and Kroger in forms such as Pop-Tarts, Big-Macs, and Twinkies.

Pollan also introduces what he refers to as “industrial organic.” Industrial organic food is sold in stores like Whole Foods and Trader Joes. The food is indeed produced without chemical additives, and the chickens may roam freely, but, he suggests that the food is not as wholesome as people are led to believe. For instance, the bagged lettuce likely traveled by truck all the way from Watsonville, California. The asparagus might come all the way from Chile by airplane. And only a handful of the thousands of free-range chickens at Petaluma Poultry in California, after having been cooped up in a football-sized pen for five weeks, might, if they are intrepid, take a peak out of a small door for a few minutes during their last two weeks before being “processed.”

Finally, Pollan introduces his readers to Joel Salatin and the concept of “beyond organic” farming. Salatin describes himself as a grass farmer. He raises beef cattle and chickens on a small Virginia farm using a closed-loop system. This means the sun provides the energy to the grass, the grass provides nutrients to the cows and chickens, the animals’ waste fertilizes the grass, and the cycle begins afresh. Food from farmers like Joel Salatin is available primarily in local farmers’ markets.

Abell, a faithful Saturday customer at the Lynchburg Community Market, realized he had never visited any of the farms where the produce he bought was grown. And he assumed that most of his students had never seen first-hand the inner workings of a farm.

“Taking my students to a farm just felt like the right thing to do,” Abell said. “I wanted to visit a working farm that was similar to Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm. I wanted a farm where we could see for ourselves what the concepts of free-range, grass-fed, and organic were all about. I assumed — rightly for this group of students — that most people have little contact with the places where their food originates. For the majority of Americans, food simply comes from the grocery store.”

As the culminating activity for the class, Abell and his students recently drove to Faith Farm in Green Bay, Virginia. The farm, owned by Paul and Brenda Lawler, was a much shorter drive than Salatin’s Polyface Farm in Swope, Virginia. The Lawlers sell pastured beef and chicken, along with eggs

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