This is Part III of my summary review of The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan (The Penguin Press, 2006). In this book, Mr. Pollan traces the history of four meals partaken by himself and his family, from their inception on the farm or in the woods to the actual meal itself. In Part I, I summarized the author's "industrial meal," which chronicles the rise of the corn empire and how corn pervades much of what we eat, beginning in an Iowa cornfield and ending up at McDonald's. In Part II, I reviewed the author's look at what he terms the "industrial organic" meal, which follows organic food from the farm to the author's local Whole Foods, and speculates that large-scale organic farming may not be what you'd think it should be. Now, in Part III, Mr. Pollan visits a completely sustainable farm in Virginia where grass is king. Or, in his terms, the "pastoral meal."
Part III: Pastoral
This is not the first time I had read about the Polyface Farm in Virginia. Many years ago, an article in Smithsonian magazine talked about the unique farming methods of Joel Salatin and his family, including mobile chicken coops and rabbit hutches. As Mr. Pollan found out during his week visiting and working at Polyface farm, the Salatins raise many more things – cows pigs, turkeys, tomatoes, corn, mixed berries – but according to Joel Salatin, first and foremost he is a grass farmer. Mr. Pollan also found out that you don’t make the mistake of calling Joel Salatin an organic farmer – he is “beyond organic.” As Mr. Salatin states, “Why should we dumb ourselves down to a lesser level than we are?”
The author’s week at Polyface was full of other revelations as well, from the unique ways the animals do most of the farmwork to (and this is a theme throughout this book) the impact of government regulations. But it all starts with the grass.
Pastoral Grass – Nature’s Salad Bar
The author calls it an “intensive rotational dance,” with grass as the “verdurous stage.” Cows graze a small part of the field, then are moved daily to another location in the field. Chickens are moved into the freshly grazed area to do the cleanup work, nibbling the short grasses and the larvae found in the cow patties, in the process spreading the cow manure throughout the field. In a few weeks time, after the grasses have regrown, the cows will come again to graze and the process repeats. From spring through fall, this process will repeat enough times to produce some 40,000 pounds of beef, 10,000 broilers, and 35,000 of the richest eggs one could find. This is all from around 100 acres of pasture.
But aside from the production, this process has another benefit- it is completely sustainable. The cows, by only grazing in a small part of the pasture each day, eat down all the grass, and spread the seeds with their hooves. Moving them also puts them in an area free of their own droppings, and away from any potential parasites. The chickens, by spreading the manure and adding their droppings to the mix, replenish the soil with nitrogen and other nutrients, eliminating the need for fertilizers. The process also helps eliminate parasites, which eliminates the need for insecticides.
As for the grasses, they thrive under this scenario. Grazing in this manner helps the grass to grow and the grass seeds to germinate, thereby yielding more and more grass. But it isn’t a simplistic process. The Salatins are constantly checking for just the right time for cows to graze the pasture - if the grass is left to grow too long, it becomes less palatable to the cow. And then the pasture gets undergrazed, resulting in continued growth of less desirable grasses. And you need to know the cows as well – a lactating cow, for example, eats twice as much grass. But if you get it right, your productivity goes through the roof. The amount of grass a cow can eat in a day is called a “cow day.” Most conventional farms average about 70 cow days per acres. The Salatins? They get an astonishing 400 cow days per acre. As Joel Salatin puts it, “In effect, we’ve bought a whole new farm for the price of some portable fencing and a lot of management.”
The symbiotic relationship between the cows and the chickens (and the grass) is only the beginning. Rabbits are raised in portable raised hutches where they can be wheeled out to the pasture during the day (so their droppings can also help feed the land). But when not in the pasture, they are suspended over a deep bed of woodchips in a shed. This would normally result in a strong presence of ammonia (from rabbit urine) that can actually adversely affect the health of the rabbits. But here, the chickens become sanitation engineers again. Chicken poke and scratch through the woodchips looking for earthworms, and in the process break down the rabbit pee and bedding into a rich compost that attracts earthworms, which then feed the chickens and encourage them to scratch through the bedding. And the process repeats.
And then there are the pigs. If there is one thing that pigs are good at, it is rooting with their snouts. And Polyface Farm takes advantage of this. In the winter, when the cows are confined to an open-ended cattle barn, the Salatins leave the manure from the cows in place, instead of mucking it out. Every few days, they cover it with woodchips and straw, and they also add a secret ingredient – corn kernels. As this “ground cover” builds up over the winter (up to three feet high according to the author), it heats up and begins to compost. The heat also begins to ferment the corn. And fermented corn is a particular delicacy of pigs. In the spring, when the cows are put out to pasture, the pigs are brought in. By rooting through the “ground cover” to get at the corn kernels, they also turn over and aerate the compost. New heat is created, pathogens are killed, and rich, compost is ready to use in short order.
Government Regulation - or not?
One of the pervasive themes in this book is the presence of the USDA and their regulations. To quickly summarize the author’s thoughts here – conventional agricultural regs are mostly meant to promote the growth of corn (Part I), and, once USDA was forced to set standards for organic farming, regs were set to favor the industrial organic farmer (Part II). But what about the “beyond organic” farmers, like the Salatins? Well, they just don’t fit the mold. Case in point – chicken processing. The Salatins process their chickens in a completely open shed, which does not fit with the USDA regulations that set procedures for washing down walls and providing all doors and windows with screens for ventilation. That’s kind of hard to do when you have no doors, windows, and walls!
USDA regs also prohibit the selling of a processed food product in an area zoned for agriculture, as the Salatins are. To get around this, the Salatins, after humanely killing their chickens, have their customers personally select and bag their own chicken – by doing so, customers are considered to have bought a live bird, which the Salatins have slaughtered and processed as a courtesy. Selling chickens in this manner saves customers up to a dollar a pound as opposed to sending them off to be processed.
The author also recounts the story of Bev, who had invested much into opening a small meat processing plant that catered specifically to Virginia’s grass farmers. After going through all the hoops needed to obtain the necessary permits to open, he was shut down shortly after opening when USDA pulled their inspector from the plant. The reason – he did not process a sufficient amount of meat to warrant the inspector’s time. Or, as the author says, he wasn’t “sufficiently industrial.”
Rooted in the stories about government regulation is the notion of transparency. Simply put, the meat processors on the industrial pathway, both conventional and organic, refused to provide the author access to view their processes. The Salatins, on the other hand, are completely transparent – there are no walls, and anyone is welcome at any time to see the farm or how the chickens are slaughtered humanely. It is why people will drive hundreds of miles to get a chicken from Polyface Farm as opposed to their local grocery store. And it is why chefs throughout Virginia swear by Salatin food.
In keeping with the local nature of Polyface Farm, the author did not bring the food back to his home in California (indeed, you can by lots of things from the Polyface Farm website, but the one thing you cannot buy is the food.). Instead, he made a meal for some friends in the area. From the Salatin Farm- chicken, eggs, and corn. From a local produce stand, some fresh greens. And even a nice bottle of Virginia wine. Pricewise, the chicken and the eggs were comparable to prices found at Whole Foods.
The interesting thing about the main ingredients of this meal is how they were all interrelated. In the industrial food chain, everything was, essentially, derived from corn. For the Polyface meal, everything was derived from chickens – the birds, the eggs, and even the corn, which was grown in manure derived from the chickens.
As the author states, the meal he made – brined grilled chicken, fresh roasted corn, and a chocolate soufflé – was a meal he had made countless times at home. And yet, this was different, simply because of the foods used. The chicken tasted like, well, chicken, with no need for additional seasoning. And the soufflé was richer than any other he had made.
Of the three meals so far, this one was the only meal where the author was able to follow the food evolution from farm to the table. Nothing hidden, nothing forbidden. Nothing added.