Omnivore’s Dilemma: Polyface Paradise

The second part of Michael Pollan’s book Omnivore’s Dilemma, which is about Big Organic, starts with Pollan in a field looking at grass. After this quick intro, we are quickly whisked away to Organic Land, where liveth Whole Foods, Cascadian Farm and Petaluma Poultry. The term “organic” according to the US Department of Agriculture is “a marketing tool. It is not a statement about food safety. Nor is ‘organic’ a value judgment about nutrition or quality.” To this anodyne bureaucratese, I’m sure Pollan and Joel Saladin would agree. Joel Saladin, a self-described “Christian-conservative-libertarian-environmentalist-lunatic farmer”, is owner of Polyface Farm and Pollan’s Virgil in the Land of the Locotarians. After the Supermarket Pastoral tour, we’re back in a Polyface field in a chapter entitled Grass: Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Pasture.

Monday

As the son of “one of the great indoorsmen”, Pollan has to wonder “how much do you really see when you look at a patch of grass?” Green? monotonous? Something which reminds “us of our existential puniness”? Lying prone, the good Professor is given the introductory lecture in Grass Farmer: 101. First point. Underline. You may not know anything about grass, but a cow does. It’s dinner, and breakfast – the day job.

“She sees, out of the corner of her eye, this nice tuft of white clover, the emerald-green one over there with the heart-shaped leaves, or, up ahead, that grassy spray of bluish fescue tightly cinched at ground level. These two entities are as different in her mind as vanilla ice cream is from cauliflower. two dishes you would never conflate just because they both happen to be white. The cow opens her meaty wet lips, curls her tongue …”

salad-bar-beef

salad-bar-beef

“Joel calls his pastures the salad bar …”, and now the Second Point. Underline. The Law Of The Second Bite”. Plants do energy economics. After a herbivore’s munch, the cropped grass plants will sulk for a couple of days, and then stage a comeback in a “blaze of growth”. Note all the anthropomorphizing comes from your author, not Pollan, not Salatin. Joel showed Pollan this blaze when he “ pulled a single blade of orchard grass, showing me exactly where· a cow had sheared it the week before, …”, which had “a kind of timeline, sharply demarcated between the dark growth, predating the bite, and the bright green blade coming after it.” Joel can even do a graph for you: “The important thing to know about any grass is that its growth follows a sigmoid, or S, curve …”.

To be a good grass farmer is to exploit this grassy behavior. and being an Old Testament kind of guy, Joel has a law to clarify things: The Law Of The Second Bite, “never, ever ‘… violate the law of the second bite’”. To do so damages the grass plants and consequently its team of fungi, bacteria, bugs and assorted vertebrates. Cows naturally know this: it’s their wild behavior. Humans unfortunately are prone to taking shortcuts: “If the law of the second bite were actually on the books, most of the world’s ranchers and dairy farmers would be outlaws …”. The downside of being a good grass farmer is it takes work; of the brawny kind and of the brainy kind. “As Florida rancher Bud Adams once told [Pollan], ‘Ranching is a very simple business. The really hard part is keeping it simple.’”

Prof. Pollan then spent an invigorating afternoon tossing hay bales in the barn with Joel’s two twenty-something apprentices. He admits that the “… afternoon had left me bone tired, sore, and itchy all over from pricks of the chaff, so I was mightily relieved when Joel proposed we ride the four-wheeler to the upper pasture where the cows had spent their day”, to see Joel’s “postindustrial enterprise” in action.

Joel carefully monitors and records “the grasses in several dozen paddocks, which range in size from one to five acres, depending on the season and the weather”, which he uses to calculate cow days. A “cow day … is simply the average amount of forage a cow will eat in one day.” It’s not an exact science, “a cow day is a good deal more rubbery than, say the speed of light …” because it has to factor in season and weather for the grass, and the cow’s “size, age, and stage of life: A lactating cow, for example, eats twice as much grass as a dry one.” Joel calls it “management intensive”.

In the upper pasture, eighty or so of Joel’s girls were waiting corralled by portable electric fences. “The fence plays the role of predator in our system, “Joel explained, “keeping the animals mobbed up and making it possible for us to move them every day.” It took the men “no more than fifteen minutes to fence a new paddock next to the old one, drag the watering tub into it, and set up the water line.”

Meanwhile, the “cows that had been lying around roused themselves, and the bolder ones slowly lumbered over in our direction, one of them – “That’s Budger” – stepped right up to nuzzle us like a big cat. Joel’s herd is [a] … somewhat motley crew …” Unsurprisingly, Joel “doesn’t believe in artificial insemination or put much stock in fancy genetics. Instead he picks a new bull from his crop of calves every couple of years, naming him for a celebrated Lothario: Slick Willie had the job for much of the Clinton administration.”

Then, “The moment had arrived. Looking more like a maître d’ than a rancher, Joel opened the gate between the two paddocks, removed his straw hat and swept it grandly in the direction of the fresh salad bar … . After a moment of bovine hesitation, the cows began to move …” “The animals fanned out in the new paddock and lowered their great heads, and the evening air filled with the muffled sounds of smacking lips, tearing grass, and the low snuffling of contented cows.”

Pollan recalled his meeting with his steer, 534, in the C.A.F.O. feedlot: “The difference between the two bovine dining scenes could not have been starker.” Polyface Farm is not just cute, it’s way more efficient by “… as much as four hundred [cow days] per acre; the county average is seventy.” Salatin notes, “In effect we’ve bought a whole new farm for the price of some portable fencing and a lot of management.” It’s ecofriendly as “pastures will, like his woodlots, remove thousands of· pounds of carbon from the atmosphere each year”. When Salatin bought Polyface Farm, it was a “gullied wreck”. Pollan’s chorus voice wonders, “how could it come to pass that a fast-food burger produced from corn and fossil fuel actually costs less than a burger produced from grass and sunlight?” Simply put, by trashing consumers, tax payers, domestic animals, and the planet. Pollan notes: “As I neared the blessed, longed-for end of my first day as a Polyface farmhand I must say I didn’t feel at all the way I normally do after a day spent laboring in the information economy.”

Tuesday

Pollan might be, in his Berkley professor avatar, a runner; anyway he keeps himself fit, which I suspect wasn’t a lot of help keeping up with one tough hombre and his lads who are as fit as Olympians. It must have taken a good deal of resilience to prize himself out of bed, that morning; his reward was another day in paradise.

“As I stumbled up the hill, I was struck by how very beautiful the farm looked in the hazy early light. The thick June grass was silvered with dew, the sequence of bright pastures stepping up the hillside dramatically set off by broad expanses of blackish woods. Birdsong stitched the thick blanket of summer air, pierced now and again by the wood clap of chicken pen doors slamming shut.” Today, Pollan will meet and get to understand, the second shift of the Polyface crew: the chickens.

Chicken Pollock

Chicken Pollock

He made his way up to “two figures – the interns, probably – moving around up on the broad shoulder of the hill to the east, where a phalanx of portable chicken pens formed a checkerboard pattern on the grass. … Directly behind each pen was a perfectly square patch of closely cropped grass resembling a really awful Jackson Pollock painting, thickly spattered with chicken crap in pigments of white, brown, and green.”

The chicken yards move every day, just like the cow pastures. Grass can cope for a day with chicken pecking and “hot” (nitrogenous) chicken poo. The chickens get “fresh grass, along with the worms, grasshoppers, and crickets they peck out of the grass, [which] provides as much as 20 percent of their diet”. The grass and Joel get their fertilizer. How nice you might think, but the chicken poo has another trick up its sleeve.

In the next pasture, was  a Joel invention which Pollan was “eager to watch”: “The Eggmobile”. “It’s, one of Joel s proudest innovations; … a ram-shackle cross between a henhouse and a prairie schooner”, the home of the laying hens. “‘In nature you ll always find birds following herbivores’, Joel explained, when I asked him for the theory behind the Eggmobile. ‘The egret perched on the rhinos nose, the pheasants and turkeys trailing after the bison-that’s a symbiotic relationship we’re trying to imitate.’” He has no need for pesticide; he leaves it up to his “sanitation crew”.

Four days ago, the chicken yard had been cow pasture. It is covered with cow pats, the stuff you can find in the cesspools of a CAFO. One is a toxic waste and the other a valuable resource: difference is that this cow product has been visited by one of the smallest on the Polyface team.

When Ogden Nash dashed out his couplet:

“God in his wisdom made the fly
And then forgot to tell us why.”,

he was speaking as a townie.

It’s all in the timing: “’Three days is ideal. That gives the grubs a chance to fatten up nicely, the way the hens like them, but not quite long enough to hatch into flies.’ The result is prodigious amounts of protein for the hens, the insects supplying as much as a third of their total diet-and making their eggs unusually rich and tasty.”

Opo_Terser_-_Female_Tabanus_Horse_Fly_(by)_By Thomas Shahan [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Female Tabanus Horse Fly By Thomas Shahan

Joel releases “An eager, gossipy procession of Barred Rocks, Rhode Island Reds, and New Hampshire Whites” who attack the cow pats by “doing this frantic backward-stepping break-dance with their claws to scratch apart the caked manure and expos[ing] the meaty morsels within.

“Unfolding before us, I realized, was a most impressive form of alchemy: cowpatties in the process of being transformed into exceptionally tasty eggs.” Joel is characteristically humble with this, one of his quotidian miracles: “I’m just the orchestra conductor, making sure everybody’s in the right place at the right time.” Pollan – and we should be – blown away by it. “Here we come to one of Nature’s wonders and maybe Farmer Salatin’s most productive workers: the blow fly. They do on Earth what Trip Tucker’s recyclers do on The Enterprise. They literally turn shit into chicken.” Had Nash visited his countryside, God would have told him the why of the fly.

After a visit to another “shademobile, called the Gobbledy-Go”, and other bunch of avian pesticides – the turkeys – it’s thankfully lunchtime.

To illustrate another example of the usefulness of cow poo, Pollan recalls for us his first visit to Polyface and the cattle barn. “The barn is an unfancy open-sided structure where the cattle spend three months during the winter …” Joel leaves the cows’ output in situ and scatters straw and wood chipping to soak up the liquid and make a steady floor. “As this layer cake of manure, woodchips, and straw gradually rises beneath the cattle, Joel simply raises the adjustable feed gate from which they get their ration of hay; by winter’s end the bedding, and the cattle can be as much as three feet off the ground. … There’s a secret ingredient, Joel adds to each layer of this cake: a few bucketfuls of corn.

Over the winter, bacteria and fungi go to town on this goo, turning it into prime manure, and fermented corn kernels. The only problem is how to dig it out? Solution: “’… There’s nothing a pig enjoys more than forty proof corn and there’s nothing he’s better equipped to do than root it out with his powerful snout and exquisite sense of smell. I call them my pigaerators,’” Salatin said proudly.”

Pigs in Shit

Pigs in Shit

Salatin let the pigs have at it, and the two sat “on the rail of the wooden paddock, watching the pigs do their thing …” They were “buried clear to their butts in composting manure, a bobbing sea of wriggling hams and corkscrew tails …”. Pollan’s writer’s side is never completely quiet but on this occasion his word smithy got jammed and could only come up with “happy as a pig in shit.”

A factor in the failure of the smooth operation of Pollan’s copy machine, recall he teaches journalism, had something to do with what happens to those “corkscrew tails” in the big wide world of a pig CAFO. Pigs are smarter than many dogs and they comprehend the vile conditions they live in. Piglets get just ten days mother time “(compared with thirteen weeks in the wild)” and then are put on “drug-fortified feed” “because they gain weight faster”. This leads to the “porcine ‘vice’ of tail chew”. The piglets like to chew the tails of other piglets. The other piglets will let them, because they are as unhappy as a pig can get. The gnawed tail frequently becomes infected, and these infections may lead to septicemia and death of the pig. So far, so horrible. Pollan has so far been keeping to the don’t ask, don’t tell understanding a writer has with the great general public on matters concerning growing and raising food.

In the first “Lord Of The Rings” movie, “The Fellowship of the Ring”, Frodo finally makes it to the Last Homely House at Rivendell. Once he has recovered from the fight at Weathertop and a Morgul-blade cut, he spends some quality time with his uncle Frodo , the Hobbit who found The Ring in The Hobbit. Bilbo gives Frodo an Elvish mail shirt made of Elf silver and his Elfish sword, Sting. While Frodo is trying on his new kit, Bilbo wonders whether he might see The Ring just one more time. When he does, for a moment his face switches into a ravening bug-eyed monster. This is Pollan’s bug eye moment.

The way to cure – what a euphemism that is – “the porcine ‘vice’ of tail chewing” is to rip it off, mostly,. “using a pair of pliers and no anesthetic”. The point of the exercise is to make the stub of the remaining tail so sensitive that the piglet has to defend it. It’s all USDA recommended yet “a hog hell … smoothly paved with the logic of industrial efficiency”, for “’a protein machine with flaws’”. It’s enough to make you swear off pork, (which it has).

Wednesday

When you fondle that slab of frozen white meat in a supermarket, stamped chicken, what springs to mind?

I’ll give you a second.

Chickens may not pay taxes directly, but recently someone killed the animal whose remains you are clutching. Pollan has the same problem.

“Today promised not to be about the ecstasy of life on a farm. Today was the day we were ‘processing’ broilers or, to abandon euphemism, killing chickens.” Pollan “managed to get up right on time-5:30 A.M., to be exact and to make my way to the broilers pasture ”where he would assist the interns in “catching and crating the three hundred we planned to process immediately after breakfast.”

Chicken Wrangling for Professors

Using a big plywood paddle, apprentice Daniel secured a bird, and grabs “a flapping bird by one leg and flipped it upside down, which seemed to settle it. Then, in a deft, and practiced move, he switches the dangling bird from his right hand to his left”. Once he has five in his left hand they are stuffed into a crate, apparently no worse for the experience.

“’Your turn’, Daniel said, nodding toward the cornered mass of feathers remaining in the pen. To me, the way he‘d grabbed and flipped the chickens seemed unduly rough, their pencil legs so fragile-looking, Yet when I tried to coddle the birds as I grabbed them, they flapped around even more violently, until I was forced to let go. This wasn’t going to work.” He ended up copying Daniel, gathering the birds into “a giant, white pom-pom” and stuffing them  into carry crates. His judgement on this initial part of the experience is “I could see why doing it as fast and as surely as possible was best for all concerned.”

Joel slaughters the birds on the farm “and would slaughter his beeves and hogs here too if only the government would let him.” His dictum on the subject: “’The way I produce a chicken is an extension of my worldview.’” The birds are killed in “a sort of outdoor kitchen on a concrete slab, protected from (some of) the elements by a sheet-metal roof perched on locust posts. Arranged in an orderly horseshoe along the edge are stainless steel sinks and counters, a scalding tank, a feather-plucking machine, and a brace of metal cones to hold the birds upside down while they re being killed and bled out.”

The arrangement affords Joel a deal of satisfaction. “’When the USDA sees what we’re doing here they get weak in the knees,’ Joel said with a chuckle.” The USDA slaughter house manual assumes walls, the one on Polyface Farm doesn’t have any. Joel’s rejoinder to any “USDA inspector conniptions” about this “plein-air abattoir” is “the best disinfectant in the world is fresh air and sunshine. Well, that really gets them scratching their heads!”

The true irony here is although “Polyface can prove its chickens have much lower bacteria counts than supermarket chickens (Salatin’s had them both tested by an independent lab)”, and those lower counts presumably translate into lower human exposure to the bad ones, the USDA regs. don’t care. This is possibly because: “That would require the USDA to recall meat from packers who failed to meet the standards, something the USDA, incredibly, lacks the authority to do”. If you think that’s a tad wrong, Pollan relates a full blown Saladin exposition on the subject. “It was a little early in the day for a full-blown prairie populist stem-winder, but clearly I was going to get one anyway.” Perhaps that was Joel’s way of encouraging Pollan on the next part of his adventure.

He joined the killing crew dispatching the birds, carefully and efficiently. He wondered “Could they smell the blood on Daniel’s hands? Recognize the knife? I have no idea. but the waiting birds did not seem panicked, and I took solace in their seeming obliviousness.” He dispatched birds himself, and saw once the birds “came out of the scalder [they looked] very dead and soaked – floppy wet rags with beaks and feet.” Yet there was still majesty in death: “The viscera were unexpectedly beautiful, glistening in a whole palette of slightly electric colors, from the steely blue striations of the heart muscle to the sleek milk chocolate liver to the dull mustard of the gallbladder”. The experience clearly moved Pollan who concluded; “In a way, the most morally troubling thing about killing chickens is that after a while it is no longer morally troubling.”

Saladin, and maybe Pollan, clearly think that the Polyface way is better than either Agrobusiness or Big Organic. They are many who agree with Saladin in principle: José Bové, Roquefort farmer, M.E.P. and McDonalds demolisher, or Carlo Petrini, founder of Slow Food, or “Sally Fallon, the “nutrition expert and cookbook author” of the Weston Price Foundation or the folks at Eatwild.com, or Joel’s numerous fans among the chefs of Charlottesville, or the discriminating citizens who pay “a premium over supermarket prices for Polyface food, and in many cases driving more than an hour over a daunting (though gorgeous) tangle of county roads to get to it.” The direct Polyface customers are: ”a remarkably diverse group of people: a schoolteacher. several retirees. a young mom with her tow-headed twins, a mechanic, an opera singer, a furniture maker, a woman who worked in a metal fabrication plant in Staunton. … no one would ever mistake these people for the well-heeled urban foodies generally thought to be the market for organic or artisanal food. There was plenty of polyester in this crowd and a lot more Chevrolets than Volvos in the parking lot.“

When I first read Omnivore’s Dilemma, wifey and I were exploring the little towns around Austin. When we discovered Round Rock and ROUND ROCK DONUTS, that was a good day. Many of those little towns were charming but neglected; the town squares lined with deep, cool emporia. I could see, come the apocalypse, a group of Saladin acolytes buying the broken land around one such, and establishing a Free State of Joel.

The historic jail at Gonzalez comes with a gallows for dispatching ne’er-do-wells, with the side benefit of educating the drunk tank or parties of misdemeanoring teenagers. 3D print shops could make any piece of modernity you could wish for, including droids, drones and Ironman suits for kitting out a militia. Power would come from the sun. Everything would be locally grown or locally made. Perhaps half of the land might be rewilded, becoming home to traditional Native American ways of life.

That Agrobusiness will end is in no doubt, although it would be nice if it were done with care and compassion, which is unlikely with the myopic Mammon worshippers currently in charge.

A patchwork quilt of Free States of Joel would be as troubled as current times. America has a tradition of marriages between religion and greed, which dates back to the Salem witch trials. On the small screen it is exemplified by Jimmy Baker, who is still, amazingly, in business. In addition, this vast country hides a host of fundementalist backwaters, a few of which are ruled by perverts like Warren Jeffs.

The main problem with a Polyface solution to human nutrition is: What to do with cities? Joel is not interested. Cities are essential to any growing culture. They provide relative safety for the outliers of human diversity. The concentration of humanity promotes complexity, exploration of cultural traditions, and a welcome to new ideas.

The current situation is clearly nuts. Let’s get to work and fix it.

 

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