Going organic turns out to make good economic sense, too, according to the Rodale Institute, which has conducted a 27-year study into the benefits and costs of organic farming. And a recent survey by the Leopold Center at Iowa State University finds that the average net return per acre for a CSA farm in the Midwest is $2,467, compared with $172 for a conventional corn crop or $38 for wheat.
This all comes as no surprise to Barber, who understands the logic of an agricultural system based on natural interrelationships between plants and animals. For starters, he points out, traditional livestock farming is based on free solar energy, converted into calories in the form of grass, which in turn is consumed by sheep and chickens. "From an ecological standpoint, feeding grain to sheep or cows has always been absolutely the craziest thing," he says. "They're ruminants; they don't process grain very well. But the system was perpetuated by subsidies, cheap oil, and cheap grain."
At Stone Barns, the sheep's manure fertilizes the pastures and attracts bugs, which the chickens adore. It is also added to the compost heap, along with plants and kitchen scraps. The mature compost, as black as coffee grounds, is rich with nutrients that are absorbed by the carrots, green beans, and zucchini. The vegetables harvested at Stone Barns are not only more nutritious than conventional crops—a $20 million study by the European Union found that organic vegetables have 40 percent more antioxidants and higher levels of beneficial minerals—but also taste better. "The best flavor comes from the best ecological decisions," says Barber. "This isn't just quaint and nostalgic. And it isn't just delicious. It's also a smart, savvy business decision."
But perhaps you're still not convinced it's worth the trouble to change your eating habits. So here's one more reason: your weight. The American industrial agriculture system produces enough calories for every man, woman, and child to consume 4,000 a day (the average man needs 2,500 a day; the average woman 2,000). And despite "lite" and "low fat" claims to the contrary, food marketers don't care whether those calories wind up in the trash or on your hips, as long as they can convince you to purchase your share. Meanwhile, according to the National Institutes of Health, the cost of America's obesity epidemic now exceeds $100 billion a year.
"When I started eating more consciously," says Anna Lappé, "I lost more than 10 pounds. If you pay attention to the food you eat, you start to hear what your body is saying. We're so bombarded with messages about food it's no wonder our internal voice—'I'm full, I want a plum, give me some broccoli'—gets drowned out."
So there it is: a huge, deeply entrenched problem—the American industrial food system—and a million solutions that occur every time you decide what to put in your mouth. Says Jen Griffith, "Eating organically and sustainably is a quiet, daily form of protest. But instead of getting all riled up, you can do something productive and creative and satisfying about it." Or, as Alice Waters puts it, "It's a delicious revolution."
We Hear You!