Poop to Table

We all want to know where our food comes from, right? Or anyway we find it soothing, when dining out, to see a list of farms on the menu. That way, we can pretend that every item on our plate – even the Tater Tots! – was grown by a jolly hipster with a pitchfork.

One Brooklyn eatery is building its brand around providing patrons with even more information about their food’s origins – some might say, too much.

The first thing you see, when you step through the door of Poop to Table, is a series of vitrines displaying different kinds of shit: goose turds like splurts of olive-green oil paint; tidy piles of goat pellets (think clumped-up Raisinets); a greenish-brown mound of “road apples” (horse crap); a cow patty the size of a dinner plate. On the wall above the display is a circular arrow inscribed with the steps in the cycle of life: Eat. Shit. Fertilize. Harvest. Eat some more.

Anna Brown, 36, Poop to Table’s founder, owner, and executive chef, is no stranger to exhibiting shit. As a sculpture student at Pratt, she gained notoriety by installing a luxury port-a-potty on the quad, featuring red velvet walls, radiant floor heat, and a marble seat. The catch was that poops dropped into a clear glass chamber, in one corner of the stall, for all to see. She called it “Everybody Shits (Sometimes).”

After graduating with honors, Brown headed north to apprentice for the summer on a biodynamic farm near Red Hook, New York. There, her interest in poop broadened and deepened. Making her daily rounds – mucking the barn, feeding the chickens, mowing between orchard rows – she found herself pausing to admire one perfectly formed shit-pile after another. “It was like each animal was a sculptor, doing the Andy-Warhol multiple thing, but not to make money, or build some brand – just to authentically express its unique identity. Like, hey world, here I am! And I’m beautiful.”

That fall, when she returned to Brooklyn, Brown found that she could no longer self-consciously make art objects. Her next step, she saw, was to collaborate with farm animals on a more organic creative process – by starting a restaurant themed around their poop.

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After examining – and Instagramming – each specimen on view in the foyer, I entered Poop to Table’s busy dining room (rustically appointed with a sawdust floor and real soot staining the exposed brick) and settled onto a stool at a table for one. Perusing the menu (printed on card stock made from elephant-dung), I noted that the dishes were grouped not by course, but by the type of poop used to fertilize their star ingredients. Eager for the varieties of scatalogical experience, I chose one dish per section: macadamia-crusted squash blossoms (goose), paprika-steamed beets (cow), cover-crop porridge (horse), and dandelion stew (goat).

Each was excellent in its own way. But in a sense this medley of savory delicacies was merely a prelude to the main event: sampling from the list of sweets, labeled “Humans.”

That’s right, humans. We poop too. And our poop can be useful.

Did you know that for centuries, in rural China, farmers competed for travelers’ “night soil” by erecting supremely inviting privies by the side of the road? Who needs a blackwater system, when you can feed your crops “the other black gold”?

Sure, the food at Poop to Table is good. But the real reason the place is packed, night after night, is that it offers the farm-fetish set the only chance they may ever get to shit in an outhouse. And the roughage-rich menu, combined with free refills on coffee (cockatiel), ensures that most patrons will indeed go home with the hippest selfie ever.

In a far corner of the back yard stands a weathered wooden shack, sided with mill ends. A hand-lettered sign on the door reads, “Welcome to the Poopenheim. Donations gratefully accepted.” (To avoid shutdown by the health department, Brown registered the outhouse as a museum, with a single interactive exhibit; in her Pratt days, she fended off hygiene complaints by proving that poop is a form of speech.) Inside, there’s a toilet seat attached to a bench concealing a five-gallon bucket; there’s also a supply of coffee husks, for covering your offering once you’re done.

The rest of the yard is dominated by a half dozen wire enclosures (where the poop, covered with straw, rots untouched for a year or more) and bed after bed of kale, Brooklyn’s national vegetable. The “humanure” (as it’s called, once it composts) feeds the kale, which the cooks – in a bid to elicit contributions from those who’ve yet to give – use as the base for every Poop to Table dessert.

Eager to do my part – and bag that selfie – I ordered “The Steamroller” (kale truffles, made with super dark chocolate), promising myself I’d return sometime for “The Green Tutu” (kale chiffon pie) and “The Scrubber” (steamed kale topped with toasted hazelnuts and a drizzle of maple syrup). Sure enough, as I washed down my last bite of truffle with a gulp of “Smooth Move” herb tea, I felt a welcome rumble down below.

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The day after my meal at Poop to Table, Brooklyn was drenched by torrential rains. After the sun came out, I headed to Haz-Mat Whole Foods (the one plopped down on a brownfield, at Third Avenue and Third Street) to sip kelp-kale kombucha on a patio overlooking the Gowanus Canal. Pinching my nose against the stench of combined sewer overflow (poop to table, in a different way?), I pulled out my phone and studied the image I’d captured of my moment of glory on that backyard throne.

Damn, I looked hip! Yet I felt sad. Soon the kelp-kale would work its magic, and I’d rush for the nearest flush toilet. Most of us care where our food comes from. But who cares where it goes?

What Wants to Grow, Will Grow

I first participated in food-growing in 1998, at the Reevis Mountain School of Self-Reliance. That August, I stripped “Green Ice” seeds from bolting lettuce, picked figs, gathered cucumbers that looked like lemons. For the next eleven years or so, I helped others grow food, never fully understanding the decisions they made, or bearing responsibility for my mistakes. Then, in 2009, I designed, installed, and tended two gardens of my own, in Manhattan: one on the roof of a shipping container at Revolution Rickshaws (my husband’s business, which used to occupy a storefront across the street from one of the Lincoln Tunnel’s many mouths), the other a few blocks away in our light-starved, concrete-covered, ghost of a backyard. In 2011, when we moved to Brooklyn, we gained sun and space; for four years we tended an explosion of green, yielding lots to eat.

These home gardens were sort of a joint project; my husband and I did collaborate on major improvements (like procuring a truck-load of organic compost granting us the revelation of soil abundance); he did keep the plants alive, and the food harvested, when I wasn’t around. But mostly, I gardened alone. By the time we were ready to leave Brooklyn for Beacon, in March 2015, growing food at home had morphed from joy to chore. So I found homes for our soil, beds, tools, planters – and grieved only a little, that spring, when I saw seeds sprouting, starts filling out, in others’ beds. Soon enough, I found new outlets for my inner peasant: volunteering at Common Ground Farm, and fruit-hunting all over town (I found black-cap raspberries, mulberries, juneberries, wineberries, apples, pears, peaches, grapes – even a local persimmon, with a bite out of it, on somebody’s fence). Working at the farm returned conviviality to food-growing; gathering fruit reminded me that abundance doesn’t always reward hard work – sometimes it springs from willingness to notice, receive, and be grateful. Neither pursuit required that I labor long hours alone, or stay chained to the hose.

This past winter, we moved into a house. Acquired a homestead. Yet I’ve felt no desire to cultivate annual crops (my husband has – he’s getting a chance to make decisions, observe results). Instead, I’ve enjoyed watching – and eating – what’s arisen unbidden: amaranth, oxalis, lamb’s quarters, ground cherries. Soon we’ll harvest gooseberries (but not strawberries or raspberries) from plants a friend gave us; I’m glad to know that one plant is happy where it is, tending itself. The other two may bear next year. Or croak.

While neglecting our berries in Beacon, I was, for a couple hours a week, tending the garden attached to the Earthaven neighborhood where I was staying. Yes, the old bewilderment arose – what am I doing? and why? – but also the trust that I’d understand eventually, with greater investment, in the ripeness of time.

Eric Herm Interview, Extended Version

My interview with Eric Herm, conducted in December 2012, appears in the 2015 edition of the Greenhorns’ New Farmer’s Almanac. Below I’ve posted the extended version.

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When fourth-generation West Texas cotton farmer Eric Herm badmouths Monsanto, he knows what he’s talking about better than most. In 2005, he talked his dad into planting more than 1,000 of the family’s 6,000 acres in Monsanto’s Roundup Ready cotton seed. Then he did some research on Monsanto and its products – and took off running in the other direction. By 2009, he’d weaned all 6,000 of his family’s acres off chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Since then, he’s been working towards phasing out chemical herbicides, and has been experimenting with growing cotton according to organic standards. He’s become an advocate for farming practices that treat nature as a partner, not an adversary, and an opponent of strip-mining the soil for corporate profit. Herm, 39, is the author of two books: Son of a Farmer, Child of the Earth: A Path to Agriculture’s Higher Consciousness (Dreamriver Press, 2010) and Surviving Ourselves: The Evolution of Community, Education, and Agriculture in the 21st Century (Dreamriver, 2012). He blogs (blogged? may blog again?) at sonofafarmer.com.

Zuman: You’re a fourth-generation farmer. Your family has been farming in Texas for almost a century. When and why did your family start using chemicals for fertility and pest control? Did your father or grandfather have doubts about adopting and using the new methods? Have they ever expressed regret over their switch to industrial agriculture?

Herm: No, they’ve never said they regretted it, I think because it was so gradual. When they first started having problems with weeds, I don’t think a lot of farmers understood why weeds grow, why insects were destroying their plants – they were just looking for quick fixes. I think education and lack of awareness is our main problem, in agriculture. A lot of young men who started farming in the early 1900s didn’t really know much. They were just looking for a good, simple life. They didn’t get a whole lot of schooling in farming. You learned what your dad knew, what those around you knew. Everybody knew the same things ’cause they were all in it together. Nobody was fulfilling that role of teacher. In stepped the corporations, in the early 1900s. These companies – the Monsantos and the DuPonts – were war companies. They were making bombs and bullets and chemicals for war. After World War I, they had all this stuff left over and they sold it to farmers! And the farmers were like yeah, okay, we’ll use it, it makes the insects go away. This is great, this is magic! They refused to ask – can this stuff hurt us? Is it bad for me, is it bad for the land?

I don’t think any of those guys questioned it. They just knew it worked, and they could see the results fast. If you don’t study the soil and the plants, if you don’t know how things work, you’re not gonna put in the time or the labor or the thought it would take to solve those problems naturally. You want the quick fix.

My father and grandfather have never really expressed regret. They just say why they did it. They used to have to replant their crops because the weeds took over.

I try to learn as much as I can from organic farmers. They’ve been growing organic cotton in Texas for twenty years. It takes a lot of hard work, but also a lot of creativity and innovation. We’re losing that ability to innovate because we’re depending on corporations and their products to solve our problems.

Zuman: What exactly do GM crops do to the soil, the ecosystem, the bodies of humans and animals who live near them and ingest them?

Herm: They degrade the soil. We see superweeds developing in our neighbors’ fields. They can’t kill them with Roundup anymore because they’ve become resistant to glyphosate. Looking at fields that have been planted in Roundup Ready crops, year after year, is like looking at a sick old person who’s hooked up to an oxygen tank and still smoking cigarettes. No one seems to make the connection. That’s what we’re dealing with now. And now they’re coming out with new poisons and new seeds. Seed that’s resistant to 2, 4-D is the next strain they’re gonna push on the market in a couple years. That’s gonna be even more destructive, ’cause it’s such an aggressive herbicide. It kills all broadleaf plants. We’ve already experienced problems with Roundup drift from our neighbors. It made our plants sick. They wouldn’t grow for three weeks. Drift from 2, 4-D would completely kill our plants. It’s that much more aggressive.

Zuman: How do your neighbors – the other farmers in your area – react to the new herbicides, the new technologies, the failure of the technologies that were supposed to save them? How do they go with this technological flow?

Herm: Why do they keep buying into it?

Zuman: Yes.

Herm: It’s denial. All these guys have completely changed their infrastructure to farm this way. They’ve invested hundreds of thousands of dollars to farm this way. They’ve done away with a lot of equipment that they don’t use anymore. They go out and buy these $200,000 SpraCoupes, or the big spray rigs – John Deere’s 120-foot-wide boom. They go out there and they can spray their crops and be done with it. It’s hard. I always say the ego’s a hell of a thing to overcome, and farmers – we’re stubborn. A man’s stubborn as it is but a farmer [laughs] – he’s that much more stubborn. And it’s hard for us to change when we’ve bought into something that we see as an easier way. A lot of these guys are able to do so much more. They’ve got a lot more freedom because they don’t have to be working as much as they used to. That convenience thing is really difficult to overcome. They’re able to go play golf, or go to the lake, or do whatever they want, late in the summer, instead of being out there hoeing weeds and cultivating, like we are. Most people don’t want to work a lot harder these days. When you’ve got something that’s making it easier for you, you want to keep going with that. So they keep putting all their faith into these companies and their latest and greatest seed. They have become totally dependent on them to come up with the answers.

Zuman: You no longer use genetically modified seed of any kind. What convinced you to stop? Describe the moment you realized your experiment with genetically modified cotton had failed.

Herm: Well, I don’t know that it failed. It was just a conscious choice. We’d only done it two years, and we didn’t see that it was making higher yields for us. We looked at it from a business point of view. It wasn’t increasing our yields. But it was a consciousness that caused us to stop. I look at that decision now – it’s been six years since we made that decision – I look at our soil – and even though we’ve been in a two-year major drought, our fields are in better shape than ever. We have less weeds than ever. We have less insect issues than ever. It just verifies that decision that we made, how much healthier our soil is and how much healthier our crops will be, in the future.

Zuman: Currently, is all the cotton you grow certified organic?

Herm: No. I only have one field that’s certified organic. We don’t own most of our land, we rent most of our land. When I wanted to go organic I couldn’t talk anybody into doing it. I went out and bought my own land so I could. Now that that’s fully certified, I’m slowly convincing my family and my landlords, this is doable. They can see that I’m able to keep the weeds under check, and they can see that I’m not gonna have less yield as a result. I’m just letting my work speak for itself. You can talk all you want, till you’re blue in the face, and you’ll never convince anybody of anything. It’s a lot easier to convince people once they see results rather than words.

Zuman: So, financially, your certified organic land is working out.

Herm: Yes. If it rains! [Laughs] If it doesn’t rain, none of my ideas work. A lot of farmers want to tell you that there’s no way you can do it organically. They convince themselves of that without even trying it. I have the benefit of twenty years’ experience of fifteen or twenty other farmers who’ve been doing it. I have them to learn from and lean on. It helps give me confidence and inspiration that yeah, I can do it too.

Zuman: You recently had a problem with drift from Monsanto cotton.

Herm: Yes. We had probably three hundred acres on four different fields that suffered from drift from Roundup from our neighbors. Like I said it doesn’t kill the plant – it just won’t grow for three or four weeks. It’s basically trying to process all the poison out of its system, before it can kick in and start being a plant again. I filed reports with the Texas Department of Agriculture. When I did that I became very unpopular. About fifteen different neighbors had to submit their spray reports to the Texas Department of Agriculture to show when they sprayed, what day, what time, the conditions and all that. I made them mad! But they weren’t near as mad as I was. They were killing my plants, or weakening them. My organic field is two hundred and fifty acres and probably fifty to sixty acres of it was hit. It killed some of those plants ’cause I’d just planted them. They’d been above the soil for less than forty-eight hours, they were just babies, just seeing sunshine for the first time. My logic was that I’ve gotta reach these guys somehow, because they’re hurting us, they’re preventing us from farming in a healthy way. What they do impacts us. I think I got my point across – people talk. They don’t tell me directly, but you hear things. At least they know now that I’m willing to fight back and not just say, hey, please watch out. I’m willing to take the next step. The sad part is, you’re looking at neighbors who are gonna have to get into court cases with each other, because some guys don’t want to ’fess up that they’re the ones who sprayed. They’re gonna blame the guy next to them. That’s why I get the TDA involved. They can police it, they can find out who did what on what day.

We had to destroy all of our cotton this year because of the drought. If you want to collect crop insurance, you have to destroy the crop. We do that purely for financial survival. If it wasn’t for crop insurance, we would not be in business right now. I don’t know if there’d be any farmers in West Texas, because we have droughts so often! But these last two years, it’s been the worst it’s probably been since the 1950s. The 2011 drought was the worst on record, ever. We had about three inches of rain the whole year. So you’re dealing with drift from your neighbors and weather, you’re dealing with all these different elements that are out of your control. Even when you bust your ass and work as hard as you can there’re still other things that come in and can really hurt you.

Zuman: I’m wondering about what makes you different. You traveled down the path of using chemicals and GMOs, and then you came back, because of a change of mind, a change of heart. Is that change replicable? What would it take for others – farmers who have taken that road, who are doing industrial agriculture – to do the same? To come back, like you did? Maybe a lawsuit is part of it, maybe some regulatory authority coming down on them is part of it – but what would it take for them to feel the need to do something different?

Herm: For a lot of guys it’s going to have to be economical. Economics is unfortunately the major motivator for a lot of people. The sad part is, most farmers want to be good stewards of the land, they want to be. But we’ve been brainstained to do things the easy way. And a lot of farmers are resentful because they were ignored for so long. Nobody cared. Farmers were suffering a lot in the 80s and 90s. You look at the American Agriculture Movement, which happened in the late 70s – nothing really happened as a result of that. A lot of these guys fought, they sacrificed a lot, and they didn’t see any benefit from it.

Zuman: What were they fighting for, during that movement?

Herm: They were fighting for parity pricing, which basically means that they would get a fair price for their crop, what it was worth.

Zuman: As opposed to?

Herm: What’s dictated by the market. In commodity crop farming, you’re putting all your eggs in one basket, because the price is manipulated so much by big companies. They can pretty much set it at whatever they want. Four, five different companies control everything in agriculture, from seed to harvest. Whether it’s ADM or Cargill or Monsanto, they’ve got so much power and persuasion, they dictate a lot of the prices, and have for decades. When farmers were trying to get parity pricing, they saw that they were getting like fifty percent of what their crop was worth. That was a gradual decline from the Great Depression. When the New Deal came in and started subsidizing the farmer, it sounded like a good idea. And people still hear about subsidies for farmers and think, why do farmers get subsidies? But really everybody’s getting subsidized – that’s what’s kept our food and our clothing so cheap for so many years. We were getting 55 cents a pound for our cotton just a few years ago. My great-grandfather was getting 47 cents a pound in the 1950s, and his tractor cost him about $1500. Now a tractor’s over $120,000. You look at what we have to spend to make that crop – it just doesn’t add up. They throw in the subsidies to make it look like a sweet package. But we wouldn’t need subsidies in agriculture if we got parity pricing, if we got the fair market value of our crops. You make me Secretary of Agriculture in this country [laughs] and I can change things – but we don’t seem to want to solve problems. The people in charge just create more problems because they’re trying to satisfy the people who have all the money.

Zuman: You’re saying that farmers did try to change the path they were being forced to travel down, it didn’t work, and now they’re just trying to hang on?

Herm: They’re just playing the game, Yeah, a lot of them are just hanging on. Most of these guys are in their fifties and sixties and they’re just trying to make it till they retire. They’re not gonna try to buck the system at this point. They’re tired, and they just want to do their job and be able to live their life. That’s why I think it’s up to guys like me in the younger generations to really fight this fight.

Zuman: Some say we need chemicals and genetically modified seed to “feed the world.” That we’re being elitist and impractical if we don’t back these technologies. What do you think of this argument? How successful has chemical farming been, to date, at feeding the world, especially the poor?

Herm: Do you want to feed the world, or do you want to nourish the world? You look at everything from livestock to ourselves, and yeah, we got plenty of food out there, but the quality is bad, because we’ve got sick soil. Our soil’s been bombarded with chemicals and synthetic fertilizer. We’re not growing healthy crops, for the most part, so we’re not gonna be healthy people. That’s just one of their gimmicks, it’s one of their sales pitches that they use to reach most people. Somebody can pick up a magazine and see that and be like, “Yeah! Feed the world! That’s what we gotta do!” We don’t take the time to ask, how are we going about that?

Zuman: Whose sales pitch is it? Who are “they”?

Herm: The chemical companies. The Monsantos, the DuPonts, the Dow Chemicals, the ADMs, the Cargills. Who’s making billions of dollars off our food? That’s who “they” are. Big companies see a lot of mergers, whether it’s banks or airlines or whatever – same has happened in agriculture. And when you’ve only got a few companies that control the food from seed to harvest, you have corruption. They make decisions that benefit themselves, not everybody else.

Zuman: What’s the interplay between those large companies and government?

Herm: It’s a revolving door. Michael Taylor, who’s basically considered the food czar in this country, was a Monsanto employee for twenty years – vice president of public policy, an attorney. They’ve got key players in all the right positions. You know how Goldman Sachs has all the economic people in the White House and in our government? Monsanto and other companies have this revolving door between them and the FDA, the USDA. Those people have a lot of influence on policy.

Zuman: What would it take to nourish the world?

Herm: The desire. We need to start looking at crops as seed, as soil, as an extension of ourselves, as life, as energy, instead of a dollar sign or a commodity. We need to start making that connection back to nature, instead of seeing eating as something we do in between stop lights.

Zuman: California’s Right to Know proposition, which would have required food companies to list genetically modified ingredients on product labels, was recently defeated despite initial polls showing overwhelming support. One argument Monsanto and company used to defeat the measure was that it would raise the average family’s grocery bill by $400 per year. Whether or not this argument is true, it seems to have resonated with the public. Why do you think Americans are so obsessed with paying as little as possible for food?

Herm: I have no idea. [Laughs] It makes no sense. People want to spend as little as possible on their food, but we’ll go out and buy a two-hundred-dollar iPhone, or the latest, greatest contrivance or device. I don’t think people make the connection between how much more we’re spending on health care, or doctors and pills, and the weaknesses and illnesses we get from inferior food. Again, it’s that quantity-over-quality mentality. We don’t seem to make the connection: Food becomes us. What you eat can enhance your energy or it can weaken you. We seem to be disturbingly content with the latter, because it costs less. We don’t seem to make the long-term connection that it’s gonna really bite us in the booty later.