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December 08, 2014

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The Third Plate

If you haven’t yet read Dan Barber’s new book The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food, you should. This is not a book review but it needs to be said that Barber is a wonderful writer who can tell an important and complicated story as easily as chatting over dinner with old friends.

The setup of the book is that three different “plates” can symbolize the evolution of food in America. The first is what many of us were raised on: meat and potatoes. The second plate is where we are now: more progressive ideas such as grass-fed, heirloom, and farm to table. The third “plate” is about serving up a delicious meal that “begins to reflect what the landscape can provide”.  That is where Barber captured my attention – the place where “The Third Plate” merged with the philosophy of Wild Idea Buffalo Company.

Though Barber admits to knowing nothing about the Great Plains, he includes the deterioration of grasslands on a list of ills brought about by a sick agricultural system – along with eroding soil, falling water tables, collapsing fisheries, and shrinking forests. He rightly connects the environmental crisis with the menus in white tablecloth restaurants and a food system that is more about the system than about the food it produces.

The book is full of enlightening stories of the maiming effects to ecosystems from monocultures of corn and wheat, and the assault on the ancient and sacred labyrinth of bio-diversity. Fighting these effects and the system that creates them are all imperatives that have shaped the evolution of Wild Idea Buffalo Company. Barber relates his efforts to fight these same effects at his Blue Hill Restaurant at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture. At first glance, Wild idea Buffalo Company – connected to many thousands of acres of remote buffalo country – has little in common with a supper-inventive, gourmet restaurant on an 80 acre farm dedicated to small scale, sustainable farming. But when you look closer, you find the missions of both to be very much the same.

One of the memorable stories in the book is about the love and care taken by the livestock manager at Stone Barns farm, when he moves the sheep from one pasture to the next. It mimicked the grazing pattern of our buffalo, except the buffalo make their own decisions about when to move. The fertility of New York sheep pastures must be thousands of times greater than our humble Great Plains, so it follows that instead of dealing with pastures of tens of thousands of acres the livestock manager at Stone Barns farm likely deals in football field sized pastures. The most notable similarity between Stone Barns farm’s moving of sheep and our moving of buffalo is the way the animals react to the fresh pasture – they love it, they need it, it is in their genes. The most notable dissimilarity is the fact that the fresh pasture at Stone Barns Farm is “managed by man”. The vegetative composition of the pastures at Stone Barns is likely a selection of annually planted tame grasses. Wild Idea pastures are mostly made up of the perennial, deep-rooted grasses evolved to thrive in drought conditions. In fact, what was left out of the entire book, “The Third Plate”, was the realization that, in a few parts of the North American continent, there are places that remain, to a large extent, the way they were when Europeans first began to alter the environment.

One of the stories in the book, that was news to me, was the way the structure and function of wheat has been MANipulated, and the way processing the seeds with modern machines changes their nutritional value. The ecological disaster that followed these “improvements” is a phenomenon that most people on the Great Plains are sadly familiar with. Factory farming has conspired to create a perfect storm of devastation for the Great Plains. I had no idea how old style wheat – the staple of life – became modern wheat – the nutrition-less staple of what passes for bread in modern America. What I knew about wheat was that modern cultivation takes huge sections of bio-diverse grasslands, and in a single season, turns it into a monoculture most akin to a desert.


Oddly, the part of the book that most reminded me of my home was the part about the sea. It is easy for me to see the Northern Great Plains as a huge body of water with habit edges between every vegetation type, shoals along the ridges, huge expanses of intense fertility, habit types to match the needs of a thousand species, and the wind standing in for ocean currents. I can see the buffalo as akin to the Bluefin tuna – which Barber eloquently describes as buttery rich with precise habitat needs that leave it vulnerable to exploitation. I have said the same thing about our buffalo except for a few vital differences. The first difference is that, unlike the Bluefin tuna, buffalo are not on the brink of extinction. Buffalo are back on the Great Plains in meaningful numbers because millions of acres of their original habitat, though threatened, are still intact. The second difference is that, paradoxically and again, unlike Bluefin tuna, the more free roaming buffalo that Americans eat, the more free roaming buffalo there will be.

As with the Bluefin tuna, and most of the foods in “The Third Plate”, the health of the environment predicts the health of the species supplying the food. Wheat, lambs, and Bluefin tuna each tell a different part of the story of our relationship with our food and the environment that supports us. Buffalo, raised as closely to the way they evolved to live are, at least for the next decade or so, unique among our modern food sources. The husbandry of such buffalo does not have to be a sad story where factory farming alters the buffalo’s nature as it altered the nature of wheat. Here is a chance for a win-win scenario, where both our environment and human health benefit. The secret is to view buffalo not as an individual species to be manipulated by industrial agriculture, but as a symbol and keystone species of an ecosystem that, despite innumerable, mindless assaults, has so far, endured.

For that reason I urge Dan Barber, and everyone else who cares about the future of food, to leave open a small corner of their Third Plate for free roaming, large landscape, American buffalo.


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