Book Review: Farmacology

As if my reading a book about the connection between farm health and our personal health doesn't already reek of preaching to the choir, I'll preface this first Kiko's Food News book review by admitting that in this case, I'm biased. Farmacology was written last year by a physician named Daphne Miller (bias #1: Daphne is my and my mom's middle name, and my grandmother's first name, so I have a soft spot). Miller was schooled at Brown undergrad and Harvard grad (bias #2: so was my boyfriend Nick, and we think it's a pretty good combo). She visits a handful of farms while researching for this book, one of which is Scribe Winery in Sonoma (bias #3: Andrew Mariani, the owner/vintner, is a friend from my Hayes Valley days). And Miller has a medical practice in San Francisco (bias #4: I was a client back in college, and it helped to know while reading that she puts this "whole person" mentality to work in her San Francisco practice. At an appointment with one of the other physicians there, I was recommended a treatment of lavender oil as an alternative to medicine for a particular health issue, and was impressed with the sliding scale payment options which allow people of broader economic means to see them).

I've been known to say that the American medical community seems too often to not know shit about shit, so I had a feeling I would resonate with this book offering an alternative lens through which to assess and improve health. As a departure from our status quo of black holes between popular medical disciplines, Dr. Miller asserts that just as a whole-system approach is transformative for farms, a shift in focus from 'plant' to 'soil' proves equally valuable for human health. I'll offer here a few facts and vignettes that I found compelling, in hopes that you pick up this quick read to find more of your own. 

Remember Rudolf Steiner, the father of biodynamic farming? Turns out we can send our children to Steiner schools around the world, each located on or near a biodynamic farm and offering lunches sourced from the farm. Researchers have found that suburban children who attend Steiner schools have fewer colds, and suffer less from asthma or allergies, than the control (p. 48). Speaking of biodynamic farming, I find it compelling that whereas organic food, despite its benefits for environmental, livestock and farmworker health, has been found to lack much nutritional advantage over conventionally grown, the same cannot be said of biodynamically grown food: "When researchers have looked at the impact of organic systems on both soil quality and food nutrient levels, they have found that they often fare no better than conventional farms. Sustainable or biodynamic farming, on the other hand, seems to consistently score better on both measures" (p. 49). Of course we need to look beyond the simple organic label when selecting our favorite farms to buy meat and produce from; Miller offers Wendell Berry's (if you eat food and you don't know Wendell, you should--look him up!) favorite question to ask the farmer: "Do you live on your farm?" The answer speaks volumes about the health of a farm, and will weed out the big industrial guys.

That Dr. Miller is a picture of health doesn't hurt her credibility!

That Dr. Miller is a picture of health doesn't hurt her credibility!

I don't think we urban consumers realize that the same farmers who are pumping their animals with antibiotic and hormone inputs often keep a few animals out, to be injection-free, for their families. Miller spends time with one farmer who did just that with his cattle before quitting cold turkey on purchasing soil amendments, animal feed, and injections (which had been costing him so much as to render his farm unprofitable until he did so). When he decided to go au naturel, he cut his herd of Angus beef cows from 1,200 to 700, but with this "lower production, higher profits" model he was able to earn more per pound of beef because he relied on free worm labor and no longer purchased inputs.

Miller draws other parallels that are simple but important. With insights from experts on human and animal stress, she compares one of her patient's overstressed lives, lack of control over his professional day-to-day, and lack of time for exercise with the livelihood of chickens she encountered in very overcrowded henhouses. Just like an office worker who mindlessly snacks his way through an uninspiring work day, the chickens she visited "had nothing better to do than eat all day."

And lessons from soil management are transferrable to cancer prevention and care. Miller proposes we consider cancer not as "a frightening invader that must be eradicated before it kills its host", but "more like a pest in an integratively managed field--it will always be there to some degree, but not so much that it overwhelms the beneficials and destroys the crops. In this we have seen with adaptive therapy, striving for containment rather than eradication is more likely to control the disease in the long run" (157).

In one of the book's last chapters, Miller idolizes older women who have been her role models for natural aging, and says, "I realized that the one thing these idealized older women have in common is that they spend a lot of time outdoors and communicate with weather, animals, plants and soil on a regular basis" (220). Seems I've found my own model in Miller, and I can't wait until I have occasion to buy the seed packets I ogle over at the hardware store and build a small garden lab in my own home to teach me and my family more about our relatedness to its dirt and what grows there.

Field Trip To Full Belly Farm Hoes Down

Communities come in all shapes and forms. We like to talk about how the relationships we build through buying and selling food strengthen our Bi-Rite community–our staff, guests, and food producers. But it’s times like last weekend that remind me how broad our community really is.

For the first time I got my act together to venture northeast of SF to Yolo County, the home of Full Belly Farm, for their annual Hoes Down Harvest Festival. We celebrate Full Belly throughout the year in the form of the amazing melons, squashes, potatoes and more they send us to sell in our produce section. Sam, Anne, Simon and the rest of our staff who make this an annual getaway had raved about how good the air feels up there, but I couldn’t have imagined quite how special this coming together of farmers, cooks, eaters, kids, animals, and every other happy being there could be. 

Highlights of the day included:

  • The parking lot volunteers! These were the first people I interacted with upon arriving, and the grins on these guys’ faces said it all. Talk about pride–from all of the volunteers to the Full Belly staff to the hundreds of visitors, we all knew how fortunate we were to be celebrating this amazing
  • family’s work and land.
  • The farm tour given by Hallie (the daughter of Dru and Paul, Full Belly’s owners, who grew up on the farm and now coordinates the Hoes Down) and farmer Andrew. As we stood in a grove of walnut trees, Andrew talked about the wonder that is soil: how alive it is, how many billions of organisms it contains. When we’re standing on a farm, we may be blown away by fruit trees over our heads or veggie vines at our ankles, but what’s really amazing at Full Belly is the health of the soil underneath our feet. It was on this tour that Simon turned to me and said “This is the part where I start to cry!”
  • The food! Man can the farm crowd cook–I started with an avocado lime popsicle, then moved on to tackle a plate of the most succulent grilled lamb and falafel (around the campfire we plotted a new dish for Bi-Rite–a lamb falafel ball–we’ll see if that comes to pass!)
  • The camping groves: take your pick between pitching your tent under almond trees, walnut trees, and more.
  • Square dancing–they made it look so easy!

And I couldn’t believe that we were swimming on an October day! Wading around in the beautiful, calm river that borders the farm, I felt like one of a herd of human elephants.

The Full Belly crew literally had to push people off the farm come Monday morning; the support of all of us who drove hours to the farm is testament to the relationships they’ve built over the years, and the secret to their success!