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Exile on Jones Street

By Kirk Ross

After a long weekend of negotiation between my conscience and my palate, I’ve finalized an internal agreement to give up corporate pork.

I know, I know, it seems impossible given the general pervasiveness of wonderful barbecue — not to mention that we are at the dawn of another grilling season. But based on a long-running concern about the economic and environmental consequences of massive hog operations and after spending a good deal of time of late hanging with farmers and the evangelicals of the Slow Food movement, I’m convinced that the price I’m paying for what’s coming from the packing houses of Smithfield, Hormel and others is far too high.

The amount on the package of those little Boston Butt steaks I’ve mastered may be $1.79 or less a pound, but the cost we’re all paying for everything from exploiting immigrant labor to the loss of small, family farms to the environmental impact of hog lagoons and what flows from the sluices into the Cape Fear and other rivers is dear indeed.

Politics and pollution have long led me to reconsider sending my dollars to the meat-packing industry, but it took walking the land with a farmer to push me into doing something about it.

My epiphany came about a month ago, standing atop a muddy row planted in kale with Stanley Hughes, a farmer still making a go of it on a hundred or so acres of fertile ground near the Orange-Person county line.

Hughes, owner of Pine Knot Farm, has converted most of the land he works from tobacco production to organic sweet potatoes, collards and other crops, along with some hogs, chickens and cattle. He’s performing exactly the kind of economic conversion the state says it wants and preserving family land and a way of life in an environmentally responsible way.

Most of us have forgotten what it’s like to have a deep connection to a piece of land. I got a quick reminder of that when I asked Stanley, whom I knew had grown up in the area, if he was from “around here.” I made a little circle with my hand when I asked the question and was imagining that to mean the general vicinity of Hurdle Mills, NC. Stanley replied “Oh, no,” then pointed to a house a couple hundred yards away. “I’m from over there.”

Driving away about an hour later that exchange stuck with me. Distance is all about perspective, and how distant most of us are from where our food comes from — distant in place and distant from responsibility for the consequences of what and how we eat.

Though there is plenty of talk about respecting our farm traditions, if consumers remain addicted to what Homer Simpson likes to call “cheap meat” all the rhetoric and good wishes in the world won’t help grow the ranks of farmers like Stanley. If we want to respect our land and farm traditions, we’ve got to change habits.

I’m fortunate to have alternatives and there are hopeful signs that a lot of other folks throughout the state will soon see them as well. In reaction to many of the concerns listed above, there is a growing trend in agriculture that is moving against the swift, corporate farm current. In our farmers’ markets we’re seeing more and more meat producers. A local meat club in which you order once-a-month directly from the farmer has also started up.

So, so long Smithfield. (My conscience even rejected a proposed “emergency barbecue clause” during drives to the beach.)

Yup, it costs more, but there’s something immensely satisfying about writing that check directly to a farmer. At least I know where my money’s going. Well, give or take a couple hundred yards or so.

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