Monday, April 26, 2010

Sell Out or Opt Out

The last couple of readings have focused on different ways the terms sustainable and organic have been applied on small farms and large farms, organic and conventional, but another interesting dichotomy that kept being alluded to was “sell out” or “opt out.” The idea of “selling out” by compromising one’s integrity, morality, or principles in exchange for money, success, or mainstream appeal is a common accusation of musicians on their way up, but most people would laughingly dismiss the notion that yogurt could sell out. Gary Hirshberg, the “CE-Yo” of Stonyfield Farm, doesn’t take such criticisms lightly (and he’s heard them before). In a 40 minute interview (here on youtube) entitled, Selling Without Selling Out, he defends Stonyfield’s partnership with Wal-Mart and their purchase (or 85% ownership) by Groupe Danone, the French food giant. In his writing in Food, Inc. (excerpted from his book Stirring It Up: How to Make Money and Save the World), Hirshberg described his life-shaping realization that “[He had] to become Kraft” because only large powerful businesses with enough “cash and clout” could popularize sustainable and organic food. On the other hand, Joel Salatin, the lecturer, author, and farmer behind Polyface Farms, has a completely different philosophy. He sees Polyface as a true alternative farm for the consumer who chooses to “opt out” of a corrupt and unsustainable system. Joel is no more likely to sell to Wal-Mart than he was to FedEx as steak cross country to Michael Pollan (He is featured in The Omnivore’s Dilemma as well as Food, Inc.). So what does it mean to opt-out? Did Stonyfield sell out or just “opt-in,” and which approach is more successful in the long run?

I don’t need to reiterate all the problems with the current industrial chemical-based agricultural system and both Hirshberg and Salatin understand these problems well. On paper, the missions of Stonyfield and Polyface are much aligned; to provide high quality, tasty, natural products produced in an environmentally and socially responsible way. It is in the approach each business takes that separate their philosophies. Hirshberg writes as an idealist who has long since turned the corner to realism. “In the late 1970’s…we built a solar-heated greenhouse that used no fossil fuels, herbicides, pesticides, or chemical fertilizers. Yet it produced enough food to feed ten people three meals per day, 365 days per year” (Hirshberg 49). 30 years later, in the aforementioned interview, Hishberg says, “We’re not going to get rid of capitalism…Wal-Mart…Dow Chemical…GE…or the others...let’s not hold out for absolutism.” This is not to imply a compromise of ideals, only a belief that the whole system can’t be changed and “the only way to influence the powerful forces in this industry is to become a powerful force" or as he later reiterates in language fitting of a yogurt mogul, Stonyfield can’t rid the world of these forces, it can only “inoculate them…convert them with a different ethical code.” But certainly many of the pastoral ideals of the original organic movement, small scale (or “correct-scale”) and local commodity chains were sacrificed in the growth that turned organic food into a multi-billion dollar industry. “Stonyfield already gets strawberries from China, apple puree from Turkey, blueberries from Canada, and bananas from Ecuador. It's the only way to keep the business growing.”

Joel Salatin would turn that last statement around and ask, “Why does the business have to grow?” He rejects the “Wall-Streetified numerical growth, growth, growth objective” and considers governmental regulations to be a major obstacle to small farmers like him. Polyface Farms does not even fit the governmental standards for “organic” (although internationally shipped fruit and dairy farms with thousands of corn fed cows can still be organic). “Perhaps the most empowering concept in any paradigm-challenging movement is simply opting out…it’s actually the most realistic and effective approach to transforming a system that is slowly but surely killing us.” "We don't need a law against McDonald's or a law against slaughterhouse abuse--we ask for too much salvation by legislation. All we need to do is empower individuals with the right philosophy and the right information to opt out en masse." In Declare Your Independence, Salatin puts forth a simple and empowering message to opt in to the nonindustrial food system by seeking out and supporting local food and embracing seasonality through CSAs, MBCs, and personal or community gardens. “So much can be done right here, right now, with what you and I have.”

When I first started to notice the huge philosophical dichotomy between Hirshberg and Salatin, I assumed that I would agree with points from both sides; personally fitting somewhere in the middle of the opt-in/opt-out realist/idealist spectrum. However, after rereading both pieces in Food, Inc. and listening to both men speak, I think that the Salatin opt-out rallying cry is not only more beneficial to farmers and consumers in the long run, but more importantly, it’s not as difficult or idealistic as it might at first sound. “For some, it may be having one family sit-down, locally-sourced meal a week. That’s fine.” Wal-Mart is certainly not going to disappear, I agree with Hirshberg, but finding the “organic” products there that also donate some profits to environmental causes (as Stonyfield does) is more difficult than just cooking one local meal a week. Stonyfield hopes that by expanding into more supermarkets and giving consumers the option to purchase organic, it will replace conventionally prepared yogurt slightly more harmful to the environment aiding the slow reformation of the current food system with “big organic;” ironically even less sustainable than the “industrial conventional.” Michael Pollan even discusses the “supermarket pastoral” as its own literary genre; flowery PR descriptions that are carefully crafted to make consumers feel good about their purchases. It has been almost two years since I personally bought a tub of organic yogurt in a supermarket, but only two days since I last bought yogurt at the Farmer’s Market. It was really tasty and convenient. I didn’t do it consciously as a proactive political statement, but opting in to your local nonindustrial food system doesn’t have to be.


  1. I am intrigued by the line near the end about buying local yogurt at the farmers market - "tasty and convenient." People often say that shopping for more sustainable food is inconvenient, time consuming, etc. But when I shop at the farmers' market I rarely think of it as an inconvenience, because it is so much more fun than shopping at the supermarket. I wonder if others have this experience. I imagine there are many circumstances in which going to the farmers' market would be very inconvenient (if you have to work Saturday morning, for example). Maybe there are ways to make shopping for sustainable food more convenient for everyone.

  2. I definitely think the local farmers market's hours (and personal schedule) contribute hugely in this regard. Where I lived while on co-op down the block from a (highly reviewed!) farmer's market (, but it was only open Wednesdays and closed at 6. I would make it home from work by 6:30 (at the earliest) and never even knew of the market's existence. In a neighborhood filled with young working people, it seemed like strange hours.