A Digest of The Omnivore’s Dilemma Part 3: Polyface Farm
“All Flesh is Grass”
“Mother earth never attempts to farm without live stock; she always raises mixed crops; great pains are taken to preserve the soil and to prevent erosion; the mixed vegetable and animal wastes are converted into humus; there is no waste; the processes of growth and the processes of decay balance one another; the greatest care is taken to store the rainfall; both plants and animals are left to protect themselves against disease.” —Albert Howard, An Agricultural Testament
The Dance of Grazing
Meet Joel Salatin, the “hero” of Pollan’s book, and a man who describes himself as a “Christian-conservative-libertarian-environmentalist-lunatic farmer” who “descended from Virgil through Jefferson with a detour through the sixties counterculture” and specializes in “management-intensive grazing”, also known as “rotational grazing”. Salatin is a genius because on his farm, the animals do the hard work, and they love it as much as we do. Joel operates a grass farm called Polyface Farm (because it’s a “farm of many faces”) where different species do what Pollan poetically calls “an intensive rotational dance on the theme of symbiosis.” So instead of man-made fertilizer and pesticides, for example, he employs hens.
According to Salatin, soil is the earth’s stomach, so he grows a variety of grasses and let’s the grass-eaters do their thing. It’s really that simple. And if it sounds like it’s not a new idea at all, you’re right, it’s not. It’s just the exception in contemporary America. As Pollan quotes Salatin, “‘it is exactly the model God used in building nature.’ The idea is not to slavishly imitate nature, but to model a natural ecosystem in all its diversity and interdependence, one where all the species ‘fully express their physiological distinctiveness.’” All the yielding seeds, all the creepy crawlies, all the beasts of the field.
Salatin has never bought a bag of fertilizer, and yet he serves over 2,000 families, 25 restaurants, and 10 outlets on his 500-acre farm, making over $400,000 annually.
Rather than treating his farm like a commodity business, in which to be successful one must be the least-cost producer, Salatin sells an exceptional product. Instead of a factory mentality of sell-the-most-stuff-as-cheap-as-possible, farms like his value skilled labor, slow and valuable growth, product variety, local patrons, and the bonus of free energy (solar).
Solar Energy: The Oldest and Best
Joel calls his grass nature’s photovoltaic panels. Although the animals do most of the work just by grazing, walking and defecating, the hard work for him is moving the cows daily from one close pasture to another, making sure they get fresh grass each day, but not eat enough to kill it. His irrigation is simple: Reliance on rainwater combined with ponds he dug at the tops of the hills. A pasture actually has more energy than a cornfield. Only if we dump money and petrol (metaphorically) on a cornfield (and risk unhealthy eating and practicing cruelty to animals) can we get more calories quicker, which means selling more of it cheaper. But we spend too much energy in the process, and the calories come with health hazards.
“You can’t regulate integrity,” is Salatin’s motto.
If customers value being able to see for themselves what the practices are, this promotes a direct link to the farm, rather than a questionable rating on questionable laws given by a questionable government. Salatin slaughters his livestock for anyone who wants to see it. Okay, let me rephrase that, so it doesn’t sound sadistic. Many factory farms go to great lengths to prevent anyone from viewing or recording the process of raising and slaughtering their livestock. Except the government, who doesn’t care as long as it gets done. But Salatin wants you to know what goes on in his farm, including how the animals are butchered. So if you want to make sure he does it in a clean, quick, humane way, you can. No shame. The irony is that Salatin’s slaughter breaks all kinds of USDA regulations for slaughterhouses. How does he get away with it? No walls, no slaughterhouse. The USDA rules apply to a place full of potential mishaps Salatin doesn’t have to worry about. Nature is the best disinfectant.
“The USDA is being used by the global corporate complex to impede the clean-food movement,” he explains. “They aim to close down all but the biggest meat processors, and to do it in the name of biosecurity. Every govt. study to date has shown that the reasons we’re having an epidemic of food-borne illness in this country is centralized production, centralized processing, and long-distance transportation of food. You would think therefore that they’d want to decentralize the food system, especially after 9/11.” He’s got a point: Terrorists have yet to strike at our corn and meat industries, and if they did, it would hit us hard. Wanna fight terrorists? Stop bombing and eat local.
No Shipping; Instead, Relationship Marketing
Salatin is such a purist when it comes to locavorism that he refuses to ship his food beyond his local markets. If you want it, you come and get it. Find a local farm like his near you, he would say. Or start one.
Salatin believes in what he does, and fights for it to be sustained. If we don’t, he says, “your grandchildren and mine will have no choice but to eat amalgamated, irradiated, genetically prostituted, bar-coded, adulterated fecal spam from the centralized processing conglomerates.” He advocates farming techniques that redeem the land, the community, and our bodies from our “disconnected multinational global corporate techno-glitzy food system” with its “industrial fecal factory concentration camp farms.”
The man does have a way with words. Must be the grass.
Or the literature. The man is acquainted with Wendell Berry for sure.
Joel talks about his book, Folks This Ain’t Normal
Now really take a look at this guy. If you’ve long dismissed that this holistic natural farming stuff is for hippies, Salatin looks like your right-wing-cowboy-good-ol-boy-family-man type. Well, he’s no right-winger (he’s actually Libertarian), but he and his customers are not just some hippy commune. Don’t let politics and stereotypes distract from what is a very universal plea to the values of people across belief spectrums.
The Bible says a lot about farms and farming. Most of Jesus’ parables are agrarian in nature, a backdrop for a moral teaching because God made the earth and intended for man to keep it, and the wisdom of the kingdom is reflected in and rooted in the wisdom of the earth. The purpose of the parables was to teach spiritual principles, but they mean nothing without the physical principles they grow out of.
And God saw that it was good
God made his creation, saw it was good, and planted man and woman into a garden. He gave them every herb and seed, and Adam was charged with naming the animals, which requires getting to know them. We need to be well acquainted with the creations of God we work with, and mimic the pattern of creation God set forth. Is it not an offense to God to make shortcuts that damage creation?
The Sower Sows. Then what?
The parable of the seed cycle is often overlooked by being sandwiched between the parables of the sower and the mustard seed in Mark 4. All three are great parables. Jesus lays out a well-known process: “A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.”
Not much here, right? The immediate comparison to the growth of the kingdom and the role the spirit plays is important, but for now notice the wisdom of the soil Jesus calls on. The man’s job is to sow and to harvest. I mean, there’s usually some maintenance and such to be done, to each plant its own, but the biggest work comes in the sowing and reaping. The “magic” of nature does its own. We don’t make weather, we don’t stretch the plant to growth, we don’t make it bud, bloom and blossom. In ancient times less was known about the microscopic operations in seeds, and great trust was put in the natural process to take us from here to there. The sower doesn’t have to cast fertilizer, for there are beasts about.
Christian perspective: “Tree Killers!”
“Are the trees your enemies, that you should attack them?” God asks his people (Deut. 20:19). This rhetorical and ironic question revealed that God cared so much for the trees of the land he promised Israel that even when they were besieging a city they couldn’t chop fruit trees down to make siege weapons. While claiming the land they were promised, it would have been counterintuitive to destroy part of that land. The “scorched earth” philosophy was forbidden by God in this covenant, even while he permitted war. We might make fun of hippies who camp out in a single tree to save it, but deforestation is a serious problem. Farms need forests to surround them in order to be sustainable. Salatin’s farm has to be completely surrounded by forest to be sustainable. For every tree chop, we must look ahead to the consequences. It’s not just about grass, but also about trees.
Christian perspective: All Flesh is Grass
Isaiah posits in his prophetic utterances that”All flesh is grass” (40:6). Oh sure, he was talking about mortality, about the transitory nature of life. But why choose grass as a metaphor? And why refer to “all flesh”? Isaiah uses a powerful image that people in his time would be attuned to. All beasts either eat “grass” (plants) or eat animals that eat “grass”, and all animals eventually die, returning to the dust, the dirt, the soil, the grass. He doesn’t just say that all flesh returns to the earth, but that it returns to grass, a living organism around which this resolves. All beings live and die, participating in this cycle. All flesh is tied to grass, lives like grass, and dies like grass.
It’s a connection we don’t really get any more. To us, flesh is flesh, vegetables are vegetables, meals are meals, and whatevers are whatevers, and what we buy at the store might be this or that, or something else, and we’re not really sure what exactly twinkies are made of, or how the cheese wrapped with the jerky in the twin jerky/cheese stick pack can sit there without being refrigerated.
In fact, the name “Adam” in Hebrew is a play on words for the word for the red, ruddy loam in the places where the Israelites settled. In the Genesis narrative they are told that they are formed of the very earth, in a way, even the very local earth. It’s a reminder that their flesh is tied to the fertile soil. All flesh is soil.
But in America, all flesh is corn.
Do you think Polyface Farm is too idealistic and/or Utopian?
Is his farm possible to emulate by enough people to feed the world?
Salatin still has to raise “industrial” birds to sell because he hasn’t yet figured out how to make money otherwise. He admits freely that this is the one regret he has about his farm, that his chickens aren’t truly free range. How could he raise free range chickens and still make a profit? Know anyone who’s done it?
See part 4, where we compare this pastoral to the “supermarket pastoral”