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Peter Dill: A Local, Organic Perspective on Food for the World

Peter DillPeter Dill is a Christian, happily married and father of three teenagers, who combines a Northwest law practice with organic farming. He and his wife, Susan, homeschool their children. Peter is an active proponent of careful environmental stewardship. He was raised in a Seattle suburb, studied at the University of Washington and the Notre Dame Law School, and he never lost sight of his Indiana grandparents’ vision for farming.

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This Conversation took place March 14, 2010, between Peter Dill and Al Erisman in Al’s home in Bellevue, Washington.

Ethix: What are you? A lawyer, a farmer, a community organizer, a politician?

Peter Dill: This is an interesting question, considering the different things I do. I guess I am a city lawyer who returned to my roots and took up farming, and through both, I have bumped into political challenges for which I have tried to bring helpful solutions.

Life on an Organic Farm

Tell me about your farm.

Our farm, which we call Saint John’s Organic Farm, is located in the Payette River Valley near Boise, Idaho. Our farm is 160 acres of mostly pastures and hay fields, and looks like an old-style farm. We have about 100 cows, several horses, free-range chickens, a few pigs, a large garden and orchard, and a lot of wildlife.

We follow organic practices: We maintain good soil health and use natural health care for our cows; we graze our cows (they are never in a feed lot); we do not use any pesticides, herbicides, growth hormones, or antibiotics. For income, we raise certified organic cattle, and we market what has become America’s most political food: grass-fed organic beef and raw milk. We sell our beef and raw milk directly to families in Idaho and we sell our beef to some of Boise’s finest restaurants.

And can you make a living on 160 acres in today’s world?

Yes.

With a lot of work?

A lot of work, a lot of fun, an entrepreneurial spirit, and a model that attracts loyal customers. Let’s remember, though, that when work is with a purpose, well organized and oriented around important things like simplicity and economy and joy, work takes on an energizing character.

We work together as a family. We share more time together than we did when I was practicing law downtown and my family was at home. We already homeschooled our children, so our life really was already somewhat unified. However, the move to farming opened more opportunities for us to teach our children the joy of good work and the presence of God in the land of the living.

That suggests you have some principles of operation. Could you share a bit there?

We come to farming wanting to provide pure and nutritious food for our family and for others, and to respect and care for the earth. The earth is God’s gift, for us to protect and nurture and enjoy. We also came to farming to be a part of a community, to have relationship with customers rather than be anonymous, and to have a relationship with neighbors and respect their rights and needs, and ask them to respect ours.

We recognize that farming sits at the intersection of nature and culture, and it deserves our best care. For more you might see our website [http://www.saintjohnsorganicfarm.com] in a section called “Our Thinking.”

Types of Farming

I have come to the conclusion that there are basically four kinds of farming today: local-organic, organic, traditional, and corporate-industrial. Is that a fair summary?

I would line it out differently. I think it is more accurate to look at conventional and organic farming as one distinction, and with each of those you have either corporate (very large) or family (smaller) farming. Also, the title of traditional farming is in a kind of tug of war between conventional and organic farmers.

Much of agriculture today does not look anything like traditional farming of 100 years ago, or even 60 years ago. And the change in agriculture in the last 30 to 40 years has been overwhelming. The increase in the size of farms, the decrease in the number of farms, the incredible dependence upon toxic chemicals, herbicides and pesticides and chemical fertilizers, the lack of diversification, monocultures, national and international marketing, these have changed the face of farming in our lifetime.

Tradition is what we inherit from our ancestors and what we leave for our heirs. What we see today is dramatically different from what I call traditional farming, except in smaller-scale farms in the organic movement.

I don’t think the planet or we as a people can afford to transport food across the globe.

Thirteen years ago we became the first family-owned organic dairy in Idaho and in many people’s opinion, we were the first truly organic dairy in Idaho. There was an industrial corporate organic farm with 4,000 cows in Idaho, but that corporation has been subject to complaints and people questioned the genuineness of their work. As the first family-owned organic farm in Idaho, we marketed around the southern Idaho region. At that point, we were marketing pasteurized organic milk and grass-fed beef in consumer co-op grocery stores and to a local college. Then we decided to adjust our market smaller, within 25 miles, to simplify and use less energy.

We are choosing to be local because we believe that local agriculture is the path of the future. I don’t think the planet or people in other countries can sustain industrial commercial farming as we currently know it. So, we want to exemplify and encourage sustainable local and regional agriculture.

What do you see as the strengths of your approach?

First sustainability. I think regional and local organic farming is sustainable. It uses less energy and less stuff, that is less processing, less packaging, less transportation, than conventional and corporate food systems. I don’t think the planet, or we as a people, can afford to transport food across the globe the way we are right now, and it will get worse in the future.

And why is that?

Well, the sheer cost added in transportation, the use of fuel resources, pollution from transportation, packaging that generates garbage and pollution, processing that depletes food quality food, premature picking of fresh foods, the abuse of toxic chemicals. We can’t afford any of that.

Regional and local organic foods also avoid the decline in food quality that comes with the whole regime of long distance food transportation and extensive food processing. The decline in food quality with conventional and corporate foods is one of the largest considerations because it impacts our health and way of life. Increasingly, eye-opening research and individual experience is illustrating the connection between non-nutritious processed foods and the diseases of our culture. We can’t sustain the health load that we are suffering from the food that we eat.

Another strength, which I really appreciate, is the strength of accountability, letting people know where their food comes from. I believe it is important to know where food comes from. It will help us and our children defend food quality. It’s a shame that the food industry has become largely invisible and unaccountable to the people who are now merely called consumers. We could react to that term, because we are much more than that. We are participants in culture. I think it is critically important for the food industry to be accountable, and sadly a USDA stamp isn’t worth a great deal these days.

So one of the benefits of local and regional organic agriculture is pure nutritious foods. Another is a better resource stewardship. Another is giving the opportunity to children to learn about the order of creation as seen in farming, to understand where their food comes from, and for all of us to be able to hold accountable the people who provide our food.

The next generation may not want chicken raised in multimillion-bird farms, or hogs raised in farms of 40,000 to 100,000, or vegetables raised on thousands of acres and fruits that are never ripe. They may insist on solutions to environmental problems, individual health problems, and a political process that allows individuals and communities to suffer, because of food system choices that do not have to be that way.

Raw Milk

You said one of your products is raw milk, another area of controversy. There was recent discussion in our local newspaper questioning the safety of unpasteurized milk. First, is yours pasteurized? Second, how do you decide if it is safe?

For a number of years we sold pasteurized milk. More recently we obtained the first retail raw-milk license that Idaho has issued in decades and have been selling unpasteurized milk.

How do you decide if it is safe? How do you decide if any food is safe? I think you have to look at the evidence. Historic evidence, scientific evidence, personal evidence. For thousands of years people have safely enjoyed raw milk. Then, with changes in dairying practices in the last century and this, raw milk problems have arisen. The best way to be sure of safe raw milk is to follow sound farming practices, including practices that virtually eliminate dangerous e coli, which is the scourge of all the food industry. Conventional practices do not do this; it requires insight from old ways and innovation in new ways. Conscientious milk providers do milk quality tests. These are telling. And, medical research on both sides is worth looking at.

Also, look at how you feel when you drink unpasteurized and pasteurized milk. Millions of people cannot drink pasteurized milk; they feel poorly or get sick. This is likely because pasteurizing kills essential enzymes that people need. Our customers include doctors, nurses, lawyers, teachers, farmers, laborers, students, all coming because they believe in the health upsides of raw milk, including fewer medical bills. Doing the math on raw milk sold at our farm during the two stints that our farm provided raw milk, people have enjoyed approximately 5 million glasses of raw milk without incident. That may say something.

Feeding the World

Can you feed the world with local organic farming? In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, someone asked the question: What about the people of the New York City? The answer given was, “Maybe New York City shouldn’t exist.”

Can local and regional organic agriculture feed the world? I think the answer is yes.

There are some wonderful cultural things that happen in New York City, so I wouldn’t say it shouldn’t exist! Also, New York City has a marvelous experience in regional and local organic foods. It would be nice if cities had room for more city gardens, and if the move toward suburbia hadn’t encircled and choked off cities as it has, but we are where we are, and we can think differently going forward.

Your question is, can local and regional organic agriculture feed the world? I think the answer is yes. Sound research and the experience of organic farmers like us support this — although agri-business wants to ignore or discredit it. Production rates and food quality from organic agriculture are clearly able to meet the needs of the world, and it is a deception to suggest that they can’t.

That said, I do not think America should expect to export the food to feed the world. Food for other countries of the world should be grown in those countries as much as possible. And as Americans, we need to become content with what we can grow here, so others can enjoy their produce. It will involve some seasonal adjustments, and more diversity in growing methods to have things that we want year-round. But it can be done, and quite comfortably.

I also believe we should work with local people in other countries to help them redevelop their traditional agriculture methods, to grow country-sensitive crops. This is better than imported seeds and crops that are less appropriate for the place. When tried, this has succeeded far better than nontraditional seeds and the herbicides and pesticides and chemical fertilizers they bring with them, which incidentally many countries of the world have rejected. I would like us to defend local sovereignty and help rather than impose Western methods and products.

Why do you think that industrial agriculture will not feed the world?

Because of the unfortunate defects in industrial agriculture practices.

Can you give me an example of some of those?

To try to transport a farming method that is increasingly problematic to other countries, I think is a mistake.

Dependence upon toxic chemicals, pesticides and herbicides, and chemical fertilizers; and the development of genetically modified organisms that are typically developed to create resistance to herbicides and pesticides, increasingly will fail for the reasons we discussed earlier: impact on environment, impact on human health, and impact on food quality. Yields for gmo’s will also drop, which we are already seeing. This is confirmed by sound research. If these practices are a failure in this country, they won’t be a success in another country, especially countries that have more sensitive ecosystems than ours. To try to transport a farming method that is increasingly problematic to other countries, I think is a mistake. If it is failing here, it will fail elsewhere. And the failure is already seen in terms of human health and environmental impact.

Animal Quality of Life

One of the other things that I have read a fair amount about is a concern for the quality of life for animals being raised. How much of a factor is that for you in thinking about this farming issue?

We look at the whole picture. Respectful care for animals is very important.

Our guiding principles begin with human health and environmental impact, and continue to careful attention to the life of the soil, and animal health and treatment. One key element of humane animal treatment is having them on open, diverse pastures. Our cattle graze year-round. I should say they graze year-round, and we supplement with alfalfa hay in the winter months. We don’t put our animals in feedlot ever, because feedlot existence changes the quality of not only the animal’s life, but also their milk and beef.

Genetically Modified Seeds

What about genetically modified seeds?

Many well-meaning people are trying to develop methods to improve food production and food availability around the world. Food availability is a crisis in some places and there are both immediate and long-term responses that we have to think carefully about. My caution is that genetically modified seeds are not thoroughly tested and have consequences many of us do not want, including its tendency to spread and its attending pesticide and herbicide use. Proponents may be blinded by profitability or by narrow research, but we all need to heed the response from members of our communities and leaders of other parts of the world who do not want their places affected by GMO’s [genetically modified organisms] or polluted with toxic chemicals.

If technology advances are to help, its proponents need to work in collaboration with people in our communities and in other countries, and accept their decisions, not push unwelcome technologies. Many areas can rediscover the traditions of their land to grow region-sensitive crops for their people. This is not only true in other parts of the world, but it is true here. That is one of the reasons that I am drawn to organic agriculture. Organic agriculture is, in my view, the most promising path toward meeting the food needs of people in the future.

You have made several references to science and research. It is my experience, not only in the food area, that every point of view seems to have its own research with very little attempt at looking across the boundaries of the points of view to a broader set of data models and research. Do you feel like this is being done around the questions of genetically modified seeds? For example, do you feel like you are fully aware of what the industrial research people are talking about and they are aware of your thinking, or are you sitting in separate camps unaware or dismissing each other’s research?

Well, it is hard for all of us to admit our failures in open-mindedness. I think you have hit on a reality that research is done selectively and that conclusions are frequently based on assumptions rather than open-minded observation. I have grown up in a generation that heavily depends upon science. Yet increasingly as I look at scientific results, I lose confidence because science isn’t pure science, and by that I mean it refuses to look at certain possibilities.

Are there people in the organic community who are too narrow? Yes. Are agri-business and industrial producers missing the mark? I am sure that happens as well. Is anyone able to look across the boundaries and be realistic about what we are seeing? I hope so. And do I think I am one of those people? I would like to think so, but it takes discipline to see across boundaries.

I don’t look at industrial food producers or agri-business as an enemy. I know some who are very good people. I look with sadness because I see many caught in harmful practices. I know the power of money and the extreme profitability that has come with the centralization of food in the hands of a few, a very few, large corporations in America. I see the defects that arise from the centralization of the herbicide and pesticide industry in the hands of a very small number of entities.

From my experience with the non-corporate organic community, I think many of us are trying to look carefully at sustainable agriculture issues with honest open minds.

Gaining a Common Perspective

Polarization is going on not just politically, but in almost every way. What are the ways out of this?

I think we have to carefully scrutinize our own information and expectations, make honest assessments of practices, meet face to face with people we disagree with, act with humility toward them, and keep the serious debate over important issues going. If we can keep talking about issues, we can often learn things from each other to all our benefit, and our customers can make informed decisions about what they want.

Some would argue that this disparagement issue actually goes both ways. It is certainly true that there is a huge marketing presence for agra industry, which puts a lot of food out there. But there is also a huge clamor among people from the other end of this, the local organic. How do you resolve that tension? Are you suggesting that you don’t feel as strongly as the industrial agricultural people do and that people ought to do the way you would advise?

I feel very strongly about the benefits of organics and the dangers of industrial agriculture, and I hope people will follow the path I follow. I do not have an easy solution to the tension between those like me and the agri-business people. However, I hope we can talk openly with each other. And the heavy-handed practices in the food industry must stop.

For another view, also read “The Ethics of Food: A Corporate Perspective

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