Tag Archives: Farming

Omnivore’s Dilemma: Polyface Paradise

Joel_Salatin_and_hen by By nick v from washington dc (Joel Salatin) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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.

 

Omnivore’s Dilemma, Part 2: The Idyll of Organic

Idyllic Organic Food

After prizing open the lid of Industrial Agriculture, Pollan will now checks out Big Organic, but before he does, he previews part 3 of his book.

Down on Polyface Farm

We find him taking “the ant’s eye view”, prone in a field in Shenandoah Valley, just an hour’s drive from Jefferson’s Palladian house at Monticello. If Tyson World employs methods like CAFOs and gleaming Rube Goldberg industrial plant, then Polyface’s factories live here, in the dirt. There are the grasses: orchard grass, foxtail, timothy and several others. There are the legumes: red and white clover, dandelion, Queen Anne’s lace and more. Then there are the cast of invertebrates: “eelish nematodes”, “shrimpy rotifers” and Charles Darwin’s favorite – the earthworm. To represent the mammals are moles and woodchucks. The whole lot supported by the biochemical wizardry of hosts of bacteria species and Andy-Warhol-hair-like mycelium masses of fungi. A “healthy soil digests the dead to nourish the living [which is why] Salatin calls it the earth’s stomach.”

Joel Salatin is a “Christian-conservative-libertarian-environmentalist-lunatic farmer” and Pollan’s Virgil. Like Dante, Pollan visits the darkling negative of this organic world-view; not one of weeping trees and simonous popes, but one which has been rested from farm stalls and market garden plots to become Big Organic.

Supermarket Pastoral

Pollan likes “shopping at Whole Foods nearly as much as [he enjoys] browsing in a good bookstore” which “is no accident: Shopping at Whole Foods is a literary experience, too.” Steaks in Walmart may be described as USDA certified; in Big Organic World the “range feed” sirloin steak” was part of a steer who “spent its days “living in beautiful places” ranging from “plant-diverse, high-mountain meadows to thick aspen groves and miles of sagebrush-filled flats.”: a short life but a happy one. There is a lot more where that came from:

  • “wild salmon caught by Native Americans in Yakutat (population 833)”,
  • “heirloom tomatoes from Capay Farm ($4.99 a pound), “one of the early pioneers of the organic movement” and
  • “Rosie” the chicken from Petaluma Poultry “a company whose “farming methods strive to create harmonious relationships in nature, sustaining the health of all creatures and the natural world.”

It seems as wholesome as The Sound of Music.

Tyson World marketing, the kind pumped out by Industrial Agribusiness and can be found in a newspaper or on show at Walmart does not include much about where and how the food on offer was produced. A picture of 534 (Steer Number 534 was bought by Pollan in order to follow his journey from birthing shed to abattoir) standing hock deep in cow slurry does not seamlessly transfigure into steaks sizzling on the barbie. Neither do the details about the chemical plant which made your soda have much yum appeal. Tyson World marketing is about price and a little bit about how your friends and neighbors will think that your food is great.

Vegetables in Whole Foods Market by Masahiro Ihara

Vegetables in Whole Foods Market by Masahiro Ihara

Shopping at Whole Foods or World Market is a whole lot more classy, literate and concerned, which is why the “wordy labels, point-of-purchase brochures, and certification schemes” are there. Indeed, “the word ‘organic’ has proved to be one of the most powerful words in the supermarket”, a Pied Piper which has grown into “an $11 billion industry and is now the fastest growing sector of the food economy. Pollan’s day job is as professor of journalism at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, so words, and wordsmiths grinding out copy purposed to persuade, is very much his brief. And his professional professorial opinion is complimentary, describing “Supermarket Pastoral” as “a most seductive form”. Supermarket Pastoral is Pollan’s term for the artwork of “the grocery store poets”. Their work offers “a landscape of reconciliation” harking back to an Arcady enjoyed by Virgil’s shepherd Tityrus” which Pollan finds “beguiling enough to survive in the face of a great many discomforting facts.”

These facts begin their discomforting with the “full-color photographs of local organic farmers” and “their farming philosophies” decorating the “sumptuously stocked produce department”. All but “a handful” of these spokespersons belong in a long gone past where “they do things differently ”. “That’s because Whole Foods in recent years has adopted the grocery industry’s standard regional distribution system, which makes supporting small farms impractical.” This industry standard means “tremendous warehouses” which are principally supplied by the “tremendous farms” operated by the likes of Earthbound Farms and Grimmway Farms which owns the Cal-Organic brand.

These are big corporations. For example, Earthbound Farms “grows 80 percent of the organic lettuce sold in America.” and they have strayed somewhat from the bucolic idyll that Whole Foods uses for decoration. Pollan “learned, for example that some (certainly not all) organic milk comes from factory farms” albeit where the cows eat “(certified organic) grain”. Organic beef have their own version of CAFOs, “organic feedlots”, where the animals diet includes the oxymoronic “organic high-fructose corn syrup”.

From People’s Park to Petaluma Poultry

On Dwight Way in Berkeley, home to the University of California, is the People’s Park. It’s seen better days. It has become a “tattered camp of a few dozen homeless people”. A few “still [effect] hippie styles of hair and dress” and occasionally “spend time tending scruffy little patches of flowers and vegetables – a few stalks of corn, some broccoli plants”. Yet it was here on April 20, 1969 that the organic movement sprung to life, when the self-proclaimed Robin Hood Commission seized the vacant lot, and went on to plant trees and grass, “and perhaps most auspiciously, putting in a vegetable garden.”

Yup, organic is an LA sixties thing along with environmentalism, feminism, and personal computing. Although we might have a more cynical, jaundiced view of those times and those movements, there was also a lot of genuine passion for good. “In People’s Park … food would be organic, a word that, at the time, brimmed with meanings that went far beyond any particular agricultural method.” As a pop song of that year (July 1969) went “Something was in the air.”

The year before, on December 24, 1968 to be precise, William Anders on Apollo 8 took an unscheduled color photograph which has become known as “Earth Rise”. Rachel Carson’s dire warnings in Silent Spring, published in 1962, had not gone away. It was well known that American forces were using Agent Orange and Agent Blue in Vietnam. The sea off Santa Barbara was black from an oil spill and “Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River had caught fire.”

Earthrise by By NASA / Bill Anders

Earthrise by By NASA / Bill Anders

During 1969, an obscure magazine called Organic Gardening and Farming was catapulted into public awareness by “an ecstatic review in the Whole Earth Catalog”. From now on the sixties zeitgeist would also seek “an alternative mode of production (the chemical-free farms), … an alternative system of distribution (the anticapitalist food co-ops), and even an alternative mode of consumption (“the “countercuisine”).” Taking “you can never do only one thing” as its mantra and the instructions from J. I. Rodale the founder of Organic Gardening and Farming, the movement wished to build “a pastoral utopia in miniature, such a garden embraced not only the humans which tended and ate from it but “as many life kingdoms as possible”. So “organic” meant all this, and was regularly contrasted with regular “plastic food” which was made by the likes of Monsanto and served up by your parents.

So, lots of people, “with a head full of pastoral ideals and precisely no horticultural experience”, attempted to set up organic farms, only to find it difficult and hard work, which explains the “sorry-looking organic produce” “on display in the food co-ops” “for many years. “But [a few] freak farmers stuck with it, following Rodale’s set-by-step advice, and some of them went on to be excellent farmers.”

Cascadian Farm and Gene Kahn

Cascadian Farm Multicolored Carrots by GeneralMills

Cascadian Farm Multicolored Carrots by GeneralMills

“One such notable success was Gene Kahn, the founder of Cascadian Farm,” In 1971, “Kahn was a twenty-four-year-old grad school dropout” from Chicago’s South Side who began “a quasi-communal hippie farm, located on a narrow, gorgeous shelf of land between the Shagit River and the Northern Cascades about seventy-five miles northeast of Seattle.” “Like most of the early organic farmers, Kahn had no idea what he was doing at first, and he suffered his share of crop failures.” His efforts as part of an “ad hoc grassroots R&D effort” got “no institutional support”. Rather “the USDA was actively hostile” “viewing [organic farming] – quite rightly – as a critique of the industrialized agriculture [that it] was promoting.” Recall about this time Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz was setting out to make corn king.

Still the hippies could read and at the top of their reading list was “The Soil and Health” and “An Agricultural Testament“ by the British agronomist Sir Albert Howard, who had spent his life working in India. “This last book may fairly be called the [organic] movement’s bible.” It was written in 1940 and is well ahead of its time. It is technical, devoting “many of its pages to the proper making of compost”, but it is also a philosophical work drawing a web of connection “from soil fertility to “the national health” into a “genuinely holistic concept”.

The concept promoted by Earl Butz et al was originally invented the century before by Baron Justus von Liebig in his Chemistry in Its Application to Agriculture. The good baron had found that fertilizing with just three chemical elements could radically increase crop yield. Those elements are Nitrogen (chemical symbol = N), Phosphorus (P) and Potassium (K). Hence the NPK “designation printed on every bag of fertilizer”. To reduce the complexity of soil and its myriad of organisms to three elements is to stretch the term simplistic beyond any possible breaking point, and Howard would have none of it. “Artificial manures lead inevitably to artificial nutrition, artificial animals and finally to artificial men and women.”

Justus von Liebig

Justus von Liebig

“An Agricultural Testament” was in part written as a critique of the efforts of “England’s agricultural ministry” to introduce NKP into that “green and pleasant land” and many “farmers [had] complained [that] their pastures and animals had become less robust as a result.” “The great humus controversy”, as it was called, actually reached the floor of the House of Lords in 1943, a year when one might have thought there were more pressing matters on the agenda.” “Needless to say, the great humus controversy… . was settled in favor of the NPK mentality” but not before Howard had fired the charge that “history will condemn [chemical fertilizer] as one of the greatest misfortunes to have befallen agriculture and mankind.”

“By the late seventies, Kahn had become a pretty good organic farmer and an even better businessman.” He reinvented the conventional agribusiness wheel. He found that there was more money in processed food than the raw stuff, and then, that it was cheaper to buy the raw stuff from others less evolved. As Kahn said to Pollan: “The whole notion of a “cooperative community” we started with gradually began to mimic the system… . I was bit by bit becoming more of this world, and there was a lot of pressure on the business to become more privatized.” And “that pressure became irresistible in 1990” following the Alar scare.

Alar is a growth-regulating chemical which “the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had declared a carcinogen”. It was the subject of “a somewhat overheated 60 minutes exposé on [the] apple growers” using it and as a result “Middle America suddenly discovered organic. Demand for organic food boomed.” Kahn duly “borrowed heavily to finance an ambitious expansion” only to “watch in horror as the bubble of demand subsided along with the headlines about Alar.”  Kahn had a simple stark choice of bankruptcy or selling “a majority stake in his company – to Welch’s – and the onetime hippie farmer set out on what he calls his “corporate adventure.”

Organic was shorn of the notions of distribution – via co-ops – and consumption – the counter cuisine – to become a niche product “which could be marketed through the existing channels.” So after a gritty slogging match, the USDA came out with its National Organic Standards, and despite people like Joan Dye Gussow wondering out loud “Can an Organic Twinkie Be Certified?”, “Big Organic won”. Cascadian Farm has become a General Mills brand selling “organic TV meals”. The packaging of organic milk “with its happy cows and verdant pastures” shows “a venerable ideal [has been] hollowed out, reduced to a sentimental conceit printed on the side of a milk carton: Supermarket Pastoral.”

EarthBound with Myra Goodman

Earthbound Farm Kale Italia by theimpulsivebuy

Earthbound Farm Kale Italia by theimpulsivebuy

“’Get over it,’ Gene Kahn would say” but Pollan preferred to go get a second opinion. He went to Myra Goodman, a cofounder of Earthbound Farms, “a company that arguably represents industrial organic farming at its best”, and met the “tanned, leggy, and loquacious forty-two-year-old, over lunch at the company’s roadside stand in the Carmel Valley.” Earthbound, “unlike Cascadian Farm, “is still very much in the farming business”. Myra and husband Drew started “a roadside organic farm” while “living near Carmel, killing time before heading to graduate school”. One day in 1986, they were told that their main customer for baby lettuce was letting them go, and they had a shot at selling their lettuce crop as bagged “prewashed salad mix”. “Produce managers greeted the novel product with skepticism” but agreed to their sale-or-return offer. When none of the product was returned, “the “spring mix” business” was born. The spring mix notion went on to dethrone iceberg lettuce “by introducing dozens of different salad mixes and innovating the way lettuces were grown, harvested, cleaned and packed.” Myra’s father, “an engineer and inveterate tinkerer” pitched in with the design for “gentle-cycle washing machines for lettuce.” Earthbound also “helped pioneer the packing of greens in specially formulated plastic bags pumped with inert gases to extend shelf life.”

Then in 1993, “Earthbound Farm’s growth exploded after Costco placed an order”. They needed help in learning how to run a business at this scale, so they partnered with two established conventional growers, “Mission Ranches in 1995 and then Tanimura & Antle in 1999.” Myra explained, “Costco wanted our prewashed spring mix, but [post the Alar episode] they didn’t want organic”, “but the Goodmans were committed to organic farming practices, so they decided to sell Costco their organically grown lettuce without calling it that.” Orders from “Wal-Mart, Lucy’s and Albertson’s soon followed.” They now have 25,000 organic acres” which they estimate has “eliminated some 270,000 pounds of pesticide and 8 million pounds of petrochemical fertilizer”. which is “a boon to both the environment and the people who work in those fields.”

Naturally, Pollan wanted to see the farm at work. He finds the fields are “a giant mosaic of giant color blocks: dark green, burgundy, pale green, blue green” which are divided into “a series of eighty-inch-wide raised beds”, “smooth and as flat as a table top”. “To control pests, every six or seven strips of lettuce [are] punctuated with a strip of flowers: sweet alyssum, which attracts the lacewings and syrphid flies that eat the aphids that can molest lettuces.” It is an industrial operation albeit with a “much higher level of precision – time as well as space are scrupulously managed on this farm”. The machines are supplemented with “crews of migrant workers, their heads wrapped in brightly colored clothes against the hot sun, [who] do a last pass through each block before the harvest, pulling weeds by hand.”

Pollan admits he “had never before spent quite so much time looking at and thinking about lettuce” and has to wonder whether a plastic carton of Earthbound spring mix in a Manhattan Whole Foods would accurately describe what “the first users of “organic” had in mind?”

Rosie’s home

Anchorage chickens by mazaletel

Anchorage chickens by mazaletel

His last port of call was Petaluma Poultry to “meet Rosie, the organic free-range chicken. “There’s little farmland left in Petaluma, which is now a prosperous San Francisco bedroom community”, just the Petaluma HQ “in an industrial park just off Route 101”. But he is taken to see Rosie.

He/she is a Cornish Cross which is “the most efficient converter of corn into breast meat ever designed”. This means the bird grows to “oven-roaster proportions in seven weeks” with the unfortunate side effect (for the birds) “that their poor legs cannot keep pace, and frequently fail.” Rosie lives in something like “a military barracks: a dozen long low-slung sheds with giant fans at either end.” Pollan has to don “a hooded white hazmat suit” to protect the antibiotic-free birds from Pollan’s bugs, and goes in to meet “twenty thousand birds [who move] away from [him] as one, like a ground-hugging white cloud, clucking softly. The air is warm and humid and smelled powerfully of ammonia”. After the birds had gotten used to the humans they went back to chickeny things, “sipping from waterers suspended from the ceiling, “nibbling organic food”, “everything much chickens do except step outside the little doors located at either end of the shed.” Those doors lead to “a grass yard, maybe fifteen yards wide,”  “running the entire length of each shed” which is “seldom … stepped upon” yet is scrupulously maintained” “to honor an ideal nobody wants to admit has by now become something of a joke, an empty pastoral conceit.”

Industrial Organic: the TV dinner and Rosie

 I don’t think that Pollan was anymore taken with Industrial Organic than simple Industrial, which means that the prospect of him enjoying its fare is rather poor.

First off, he tried a Cascadian Farm organic TV dinner. As he “peeled back the polyethylene film covering the dish, [he] felt a little like a flight attendant serving meals”; in some former life, perhaps. “The chunks of white meat had been striped nicely with grill marks” and the “natural chicken flavor” gave the meat “that slightly abstract chicken taste processed meat often has”. Pollan speculated that the creaminess of “creamy rosemary dill sauce” had more to do with “xanthan gum (or maybe the carrageenan?)”  “since no dairy products appeared among the ingredients.” Overall, “the entrée looked and tasted very much like airline food” and “to be fair, one shouldn’t compare an organic TV dinner to real food but to a conventional TV dinner, and by that standard (or at least [his] recollection of it) Cascadian Farm has nothing to be ashamed of, especially considering that an organic food scientist must work with only a tiny fraction of the synthetic preservatives, emulsifiers, and flavor agents available to his colleagues at Swanson or Kraft.”

However, “Rosie and her consort of fresh vegetables fared much better at dinner, if [he didn’t mind saying so [himself].” He did not like the asparagus grown in Argentina. His “jet-setting Argentine asparagus tasted like damp cardboard. After the first spear or two no one touched it”, perhaps because it was “out of place in a winter supper”. “The other vegetables and greens were much tastier – really good, in fact.” Pollan reckons “meat is a harder call. Rosie was a tasty bird, yet truth be told, not quite as tasty as Rocky, her bigger nonorganic brother. That’s because Rocky is an older chicken, and older chickens have more flavor”; so, a cautious one-thumbs-up for the Rosie dinner.

“Rocky and Rosie both tasted more like chicken than mass-market birds fed on a diet of antibiotics and animal by-products, which makes for mushier and blander meat. What’s in an animal’s feed naturally affects how it will taste, though whether that feed is organic or not probably makes no difference.”

“Better for What?”

So, Industrial Organic is better than plain Industrial, but “Better for What?” His “Whole Foods dinner certainly wasn’t cheap”. It cost $34 “to feed a family of three at home. Though [it] did make a second meal from the leftovers.” Is Industrial Organic healthier? According to the US government, no. In 2000, while “inaugurating the federal organic program, the secretary of agriculture, Glickman, said, “The organic label is a marketing tool. It is not a statement about food safety. Nor is “organic” a value judgment about nutrition or quality.” Pollan continues, “Some intriguing recent research suggests otherwise.” Research published in the Journal Agriculture and Food Chemistry in 2003 “found that organic and otherwise sustainable grown fruit and vegetables [contain] significantly higher levels of both vitamin C and a wide range of polyphenols.” Polyphenols “play an important role in human health and nutrition. Many are potent antioxidants; some play a role in preventing or fighting cancer; others exhibit antimicrobial properties.” Pollan does realize that science is a human enterprise and as prone to error as any other: “Obviously, there is much more to be learned about the relationship of soil to plants, animals, a health, and it would be a mistake to lean too heavily on any one study.”

Living creatures are the most complex entities we know of, so anyone “would be hard-pressed to prove [Industrial Organic food is healthier than regular Industrial] scientifically.”  Pollan’s bête noir, Justus von Liebig, he of “the spectacularly ironic surname” wrote that book way back in 1840, when most people still believe living things ran on vital fluid. The term biochemistry was not coined for another 60 years and figuring out the structure of macromolecules, such as hemoglobin or DNA only began in earnest after World War II. That we can understand what a polyphenol is due to the work of people like Liebig, let alone understanding any role that class of chemicals has in living things. The simplicity is all ours.

As Pollan illustrates information from government funded organizations is not necessarily reliable. “Back in the fifties, when the USDA routinely compared the nutritional qualities of produce from region to region, it found striking differences: carrots grown in the deep soils of Michigan, for example, commonly had more vitamins than carrots frown in the thin, sandy soils of Florida. Naturally this information discomfited the carrot growers of Florida, which probably explains why the USDA no longer conducts this sort of research.” It is deeply ironic (and another American Paradox) that it was not left to The Market to sort out issues such as where is the best place to grow carrots. Many things can grow in Florida which are much more difficult to grow in Michigan.

Pollan’s conclusion is that we should “develop a deeper respect for the complexity of food and soil, and perhaps, the links between the two” to get a clear understanding of health issues. I think Pollan would agree that it seems fairly self-evident more careful farming methods with fewer non-biological shortcuts should make for healthier food.

The better for what?

The better for what? question about my organic meal can answered in a much less selfish way: Is it better for the environment? Better for the farmer who grew it? Better for public health? For the taxpayer?” Pollan reckons that “the answer to all three questions is an (almost) unqualified yes. To grow the plants and animals that made up my meal, no pesticides found their way into any farmer’s bloodstream, no nitrogen runoff or growth hormones seeping into the watershed, no soils poisoned, no antibiotics were squandered, no subsidy checks were written.”

The trouble is that most people and therefore most consumers live in cities, “so only a fifth of the total energy used to feed us [organically] is consumed on the farm; the rest is spent processing the food and moving it around. In that respect organic food contributes to our currently unsustainable world. There will come a time to pay the piper.