The future of food and farming will look a lot like our past


As winter’s icy hands again strangle most of the country, I toss another log in the stove and grab the stack of old newspapers, aging magazines and new books that has grown tall during winter travels.

The newspapers take little time. No trick to reading a two-weeks-old daily newspaper: headline … headline … recycling bin.

The magazines are more of a meander; they take more time, more wood and more naps.

Finally, near the bottom of the pile are two books I had hoped to read earlier; one purchased late last year by daughter, Mary Grace, the other sent by its author, a friend, a month ago.

A couple of cold Saturdays of popcorn munching and sentence-crunching take me through both.

Local foods

Interestingly, while the first was written by a renown chef with little farming knowledge and the second by a nationally-known agronomist who was never a chef, both books focus on the straight line that once connected local farming to food and farmers directly to local eaters.

That now nearly-gone route, each predicts, likely will re-emerge in the future as the simplest, tastiest route between farmers and consumers. The Keeney Place: A Life in the Heartland, is by Dennis R. Keeney, the one-time Iowa farmboy and, now, a retired Iowa State University agronomist.

It’s an easy-to-read memoir of his upbringing on a small, diversified Midwestern farm of the 1940s and 50s and his intellectual journey off that farm and, decades later, his spiritual rediscovery of his deep roots to its ethics and “place.

Balancing act

Increasingly, Keeney’s journey became a decades-long balancing act that weighed what his academic training taught him about agronomy, economics and policy against what his boy’s heart increasingly whispered to him about family, farm communities and a rural life.

After a distinguished teaching and research career at the University of Wisconsin, Keeney finally bridged the two by becoming the first director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University.

It was a homecoming, often rewarding, sometimes challenging. (Go to for more information on each book, their authors and other observations.)

Unlike Prof. Keeney’s non-academic book, Chef Dan Barber’s book, The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food, could be a textbook for students both at Iowa State University and the Culinary Institute of America.

At its core, Barber’s book is a journal of his search for where tomorrow’s good farming will cross paths with tomorrow’s good eating.

It’s that crossroads where Barber finds his “Third Plate.”

The first plate is how we Americans have eaten most of the last 50 years: a “corn-fed steak with a small side of vegetables.”

The second plate is “where we are now … farm-to-table” with its grass-fed steak and “heirloom carrots grown in organic soil.”

But just as the first plate evolved into the second, the second will evolve into a “third” as farmers and farming change, Barber expects.

New direction

This change will reflect the “need to grow nature,” a farmer tells Barber, the executive chef of Blue Hill, one of New York’s most revered restaurants.

That third plate then, imagines Barber, will feature “a carrot steak dominating the plate, with a sauce of braised second cuts of beef.”

Most of the book follows Barber on his quest to discover and learn the art and science — the “agriculture” — of his vision of this new nature-centered farming.

Since Barber also serves as executive chef at Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture near Tarrytown, NY, however, he is uniquely positioned to not just theorize about tomorrow’s plate; he can both stir the pot and the public about food’s future.

And like scientist/ thinker Keeney, chef/thinker Barber thinks that future lies somewhere in the deep, fertile past.


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Alan Guebert was raised on an 800-acre, 100-cow southern Illinois dairy farm. After graduation from the University of Illinois in 1980, he served as a writer and editor at Professional Farmers of America, Successful Farming magazine and Farm Journal magazine. His syndicated agricultural column, The Farm and Food File, began in June, 1993, and now appears weekly in more than 70 publications throughout the U.S. and Canada. He and spouse Catherine, a social worker, have two adult children.



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