No other book has ever made me want to be a farmer more (or at all) than The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. No other book has placed such a dark cloud of doom and gloom over such a seemingly simple topic such as food production. I’m of course not talking about two identical models. One model is of industrial agriculture contrasted by pastoral agriculture. In his research Michael Pollan visited farms of both styles, got to know the onsite operations, followed the food to its ultimate destination, and finally ate a meal created with the very ingredients he spent a week investigating.
Michael describes the farm owned by George Naylor, which is of the industrial model, as being fairly easy in terms of manual labor but extremely difficult in the detective work. Detective work usually isn’t something that gets brought up often when talking about farms; here it is referring to the journalistic tracking that Michael Pollan had to do with Mr. Naylor’s staple crop - corn. The difficulty in following a bushel of corn from the Naylor farm is his corn, along with the majority of corn grown in the U.S., will eventually wind up in practically everything we eat and use. He does a fabulous job of painting a picture of this river of corn and how it ebbs and flows throughout our lives eroding any dietary connection we once might have had to nature.
Nature is after all a system based on diversity and here we see an entire nation built on and fueled by a single plant. The carbon in our flesh has even been tested and the findings were we are, after water, predominately corn. I was starting to think that there were too many chapters in this book about corn! It just kept going and going but once I realized how much it is entwined in our lives and how perhaps this is the only account of someone illuminating that truth it started to seem necessary.
As those carbon tests showed we are what we eat, Pollan shows in his book we are what we eat eats. Just as diversity is the spice of life in an ecosystem so too is it necessary for the physical health of animals. We humans know that very well and apply it readily to our own diets but what happens when we don’t allow nature to run its course in the meals of our meals? The nutritional content suffers immensely; to the point where our entire notion of healthy foods is skewed.
An example used by Pollan is our idea of the nutritional content in red meat and fish. It is considered self-evident that an excess of red meat will cause all sorts of health problems. Likewise it is pretty well known that most fish, especially salmon, is rich in the good omega 3 fats and should be a staple of our diets. Omega 3 fats are produced in the leaves of plants while omega 6 fats are produced in the seeds of plants. If a cow was grass fed he would produce a healthier steak than the fillet of a farm raised salmon. This is because that salmon is most likely raised on corn.
One would think that the flip side of this coin would be an organic farm. Well that same person would probably be very shocked to read what Michael Pollan had to say about organic. People might even feel duped by places like Whole Foods. As it is described in the book organic should realistically be read “industrial organic” for the farms and slaughterhouses are hardly different at all. In fact, instead of steering it onto a whole new track the organic rules and regulations only make it that much harder to run a traditional industrial operation.
What the author shows as the antithesis to industrial is pastoral. In this section he visits the polyface farm of Joel Salatin which is reminiscent of a farm you might find in the movie Babe. It is actually a huge relief to read about because up to this point in the book you are starting to question if this kind of farm even exists. In this parallel universe monoculture is a filthy word and the practices found in industrial food production are nothing short of reprehensible.
This model mimics nature therefore it is complex and interdependent; each and every plant and animal are so entwined in each other’s existence it really begs the question ‘what came first the chicken or the egg?’ But that is the whole point of polyface farming.
Only through diversity (and remaining in the local market) can sustainable agriculture be achieved. Or put another way, all of our environmental/agricultural problems start from attempting to create a monoculture ecosystem. Ruminants graze the grass chewing about ¾ of the blade while simultaneously dropping cow pies. The bottom part of the grass that cows do not eat is favored by the chickens that follow in the hoof prints before them.
Around this time the cow patties start to grow ripe with larvae which become extra protein for the chickens. While the chickens scratch around the cow dung they consequently spread the manure for the farmer. This is only a small piece of the pie in terms of the interactions between all species that live and work on polyface. This is also one of the cycles of nature that if left to its own devises extinguishes the farmers need for pesticides and other harmful chemicals.
Salatin could be seen as the conductor while all the other organisms of the farm are the musicians and the instruments; he sees how nature works and makes sure all the conditions are perfect and helps nature along. With his many inventions and quirky optimistic attitude one can’t help but picture a cartoon character. Several times throughout the reading I was reminded of the industrial revolution; and not just because the industrial food chain was born out of it. I found it interesting how the industrial food chain resembled the industrial revolution in conditions only. It was bleak, mechanical, and the conditions the animals are kept in are just horrible and unsanitary.
The mass wave of human innovation and change that came out of the industrial revolution is absent from that food system but are absolutely present at polyface. Obviously this is just one farm so the analogy might be weak but I feel the conditions of this one farm, if recreated and multiplied, could produce some amazing ideas and inspire positive change.