Tag Archives: Polyface Farms

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 1: Children Of the Corn

Cow
Michael Pollan

Michael Pollan

Michael Pollan is the Philosopher of Foodies. He starts his book, “Omnivore’s Dilemma”, with a simple question “What should we have for dinner?”, and comes up with interesting food for thought. He has the temerity to do something that most people do their best to ignore, and something that the food industry, which he charts, dissects and skewers, does its best to encourage. He writes, “Much of our food system depends on our not knowing much about it, beyond the price disclosed by the checkout scanner”. Ignorance is bliss, you might say.

I think it would be fair to say Pollan’s point of view could be summarized by a quote from the hero of part two and three of the book, Joel Salatin: “Don’t you find it odd that people will put more work into choosing their mechanic or house contractor than they will into choosing the person who grows their food?” (page: 240)

The plot of the Omnivore’s Dilemma (not a catchy title in my opinion) revolves around preparing four meals.

  • A McMeal which was gobbled up in a moving car. It was adequate. Pollan had his guilty Big Mac and fries. He could persuade his wife to take a salad, and his 11-year-old son had the McNuggets which “taste like what they are, which is nuggets, du-h”. We get introduced to George Naylor, Pioneer Hi-Breed’s 34H31, Earl “Rusty” Butz, and a brockle-face calf called Steer Number 534.
  • A Big Organic meal came care of Whole Foods, and consisted of roast “Rosie” chicken, roast veggies – “yellow potatoes, purple kale, and red winter squash, steamed asparagus, and a spring mix salad”; followed by organic ice cream and organic blackberries.
  • This is contrasted to the locatarian fare which was mainly from Polyface Farm located in rural Swoope, Virginia. The food was roasted corn, roast chicken again, and lemony rocket salad washed down with a peachy Viognier out of VA. The wine was an “unexpectedly fine wine”. Dessert was chocolate soufflé.
  • The stupendous final meal, its ingredients all handmade or plucked and killed by Prof. Pollan justifiably proud of his achievement wrote the dinner up in a Berkeley-style menu.
Pollan's Menu

Pollan’s Menu

Our omnivorous dilemma

Our omnivorous dilemma is AKA “What should we have for dinner?” We humans are omnivores capable of eating a surprisingly wide variety of food. This includes comestibles that some folk swear are delicious, healthy and nutritious, such as Japanese Natto, or Cantonese chicken feet or tripe from Morpeth, but to me are as appetizing as cold sick.

Koala Bear

Koala Bear

What to eat does not trouble animals with a more restricted diet, say a Koala Bear. “The koala doesn’t worry about what to eat: If it looks and smells and tastes like a eucalyptus leaf, it must be dinner.” For most people for most of history the choice of what to eat was limited to what there was, and during famines, what might keep body and soul together for another day. Even in the good times and the good places consumption was guided by custom and etiquette. It is not surprising that the cuisine of the great courtly cultures of the world – China, India, France, Turkey/Greece – features lots of little dishes drawing inspiration from the good wife cooking for her peasant family. For example Crêpe Suzette was invented by Henri Charpentier, He learned its crêpe and fruit elements from his foster mum. The alcohol was added by the Parisian restaurants of the Fin de siècle, the flame by chance, and the appreciation by the then Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII (1841-1910) of England, and guests. Or that was Henri’s story.

By stu_spivack (Preparing the crepes auf flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Crêpe Suzette by stu_spivack

Those times are still the daily reality of most people today, but large and growing proportion of us have moved on to modern life and modern eating. Instead of selecting available foods from a market and cooking them according to family recipes, we have advanced to the food aisles of the supermarket. And they are extraordinary. I wonder what a gifted Renaissance man like Erasmus would have made of the cornucopias we visit every week or so. There are “canyons of breakfast cereals and condiments”, “freezer cases with “home meal replacements” “, “broad expanses of soft drinks and towering cliffs of snacks”. I recall wandering around a Target in Denver being quite overwhelmed by the size of its food section and especially by the size of some of the packages. As most of the packages and brands were new to me, I had a problem deciding what to buy for my meal for one. I’m not alone in this. “Our bewilderment in the supermarket is no accident; the return of the omnivore’s dilemma has deep roots in the modern food industry …”

Supermarket

Supermarket

Pollan maintains that as we modernized we have been cut off from traditions which have been systematically tested over hundreds of years. Now we have a food industry instead. It may be shocking but the executives at Tyson, Walmart, and Whole Foods are mainly interested in running profitable businesses, and their next bonus; they are not necessarily the best folk to ensure our welfare. In theory that welfare is provided by a plethora of laws and agencies. Unfortunately, the science that underpins these laws and guidelines has only had a couple of hundred years to figure how to grow and maintain a human, compared to the thousands afforded to cultures. The Illiad tells us that the young blades at Nestor’s court at Pylos cooked kebabs in the hearth of the king’s throne room Moreover, as Big Tobacco showed us, science can be brought for a price.

Adrift from a distinct food culture, and our concerns multiplied by Madison Avenue and the latest research, we are prey to fads. So a book like the Atkins diet can radically alter eating habits by demonizing pasta and bread and replacing the food pyramid as people’s go-to reference, for a while. Meanwhile we are all getting fatter and dying unnecessarily from so-called diseases of affluence, while we read the labels and wonder “What is “natural grill flavor” or TBHQ or xanthan gum?”

Pollan recognizes this as a cultural problem, and writes: “We show our surprise at this by speaking of something called the “French paradox,” for how could a people who eat such demonstrably toxic substances as foie gras and triple crème cheese actually be slimmer and healthier than we are? Yet I wonder if it doesn’t make more sense to speak in terms of an American paradox—that is, a notably unhealthy people obsessed by the idea of being healthy.”

By U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communications Specialist Robert J. Fluegel [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communications Specialist Robert J. Fluegel

[It’s interesting that a worldly wise, well read, West Coast professor like Pollan should find the notion of an American Paradox odd. Does he think that paradoxical behavior is something that only other nations do? In America, I see paradox everywhere. It’s the only Western country where any old lunatic may arm himself – they are nearly always men – in order to shoot up a school, movie theatre, whatever. And there’s never a stout NRA member to return fire.]

Pollan’s answers his question by following the clues “that, I found, reach all the way back to fields of corn growing in places like Iowa.”

Why Corn (Maize)?

Pollan writes, “I invariably found myself in the same place: a farm field in the American Corn Belt.”, because “There are some forty-five thousand items in the average American supermarket and more than a quarter of them now contain corn.” including “things like Gatorade and Ring Dings and hamburgers …” and there is a good reason for this. Corn, after its seeds have been lovingly synthesized and protected from all manner of ills, produces more calories per square foot than pretty much any other food crop. This is due to its unique biochemistry, its “C-4 trick” as Pollan calls it.

There is no such plant as “natural” corn. Like nearly all our foods, humans have developed it from an unprepossessing original, in corn’s case a plant called Toesinte. Native Americans capitalized on variant plants in which a genetic mutation had wrapped the seeds in a tough husk. The tough husk prevents the corn from propagating naturally, but what would be a death sentence to a wild plant was a bonanza for humans. From then on, we unnaturally selected those characteristics which pleased us, up to and including “the biological equivalent of a patent”. It so happened that frequently the offspring of two varieties of a plant is bigger and better than either of its parents. In Genetics-speak, that cross strain or hybrid is called the F1. The children of the F1 hybrids, the F2 hybrids, are usually shadows of their parents so the farmer must buy his F1 seed from Monsanto or such. George Naylor, Pollan’s corn farmer, buys his, a brand called Pioneer Hi-Bred’s 34H31.

From somewhere in Idaho

Pollan met George Naylor in the middle of his corn field on a “slate-grey” day. Naylor “is a big man with a moon face and a scraggly grey beard” and was wearing “the farmer’s standard-issue baseball cap, a yellow chamois shirt and overalls – the stripy kind favored by railroad workers”. His Iowan field “has some of the richest soil in the world, a cake of alluvial loam nearly two feet thick” made by the “retreat of the Wisconsin glacier ten thousand years ago”, and is home to tall “prairie grasses – big bluestem, foxtail, needlegrass, and switchgrass”.

Corn Field

Corn Field

It is remarkably productive: an acre of the Naylor farm yields “more than ten thousand pounds of food”. The farm is part of a vast mono-culture of identical plants which runs skyline to skyline, a Manhattan of corn, devoid of people. The population of Green County, where the Naylor farm is, in its heyday was 16,467, now it’s a bit over ten thousand. The local town, Churdan, is a shuttered ghost town, just a café and minimart left, with the “windowless concrete skyscraper” of the grain elevator standing vigil at the far end.

The growth from the modest twenty bushels per acre eked out by the Native Americans and the pioneer farmers, got underway in 1947 when the munitions plant at Muscle Shoals, Alabama started to turn its surplus of ammonium nitrate into fertilizers instead of explosive. Hybrid corn just loves lots of nitrate fertilizer. The combination spawned corn farms running on oil. Pollan writes “every bushel of industrial requires the equivalent of … fifty gallons of oil per acre of corn”. “Ecologically this is a fabulously expensive way to produce food …”. The industrialized farm-factory has a side effect: nitrate fertilizer is washed from the fields down into the Raccoon River, which runs through Des Moines. River chemistry converts nitrate into toxic nitrite, which can find its way into tap water for humans. So, in Des Moines, the city has to issue “blue baby alerts”.

Yet despite all this technology and hard work, George Naylor “is all but going broke”. Why this should be “is complicated” and “has something to do with the perverse economics of agriculture …; a little to do with the psychology of farmers; and everything to do with farm policies …”, the last being the life’s work of Earl “Rusty” Butz, AKA “The Sage of Perdue”, Richard Nixon’s second secretary of agriculture. See the picture of Butz with Trickie Dickie, and a young Dick Chaney.

A sale of 30 million tons of grain to the Soviet Union “in the fall of 1972” compounded with “a spell of bad weather in the Farm Belt” forced grocery prices to a record high and an apparent food scarcity. Hunger It is never lost on politicos that the immediate cause of the French Revolution was hunger due to bad harvests, so when in 1973 ominous grumblings  started; “housewives were organizing protests at supermarkets” and newspapers asked “Why a Food Scare in a Land of Plenty?”, there was action.

Richard Nixon, Earl "Rusty" Butz, and Donald Rumsfeld

Richard Nixon, Earl “Rusty” Butz, and Donald Rumsfeld

So, the “Sage of Perdue set to work re-engineering the American food system, driving down prices and vastly increasing the output of American farmers.” “He exhorted farmers to plant their fields ‘fencerow to fencerow’ and advised them to ‘get big or get out’.” With the 1973 farm bill, he rejinked government subsidies from loans designed to keep farmers’ solvent into direct payments intended to increase production. And that farmers did, all too well. Over the years, government has found other things to spend money on, consequently “just about every farm bill since has lowered the target price in order [apparently] to make American grain more competitive on world markets.”  The result is that as of October 2005, corn was bought for $1.45 a bushel and the agriculturists at the University of Idaho reckon that that bushel costs $2.50 to produce, trapping the farmer into attempting to grow still more, ad infinitum.

A monument to this abundance, or a “plague of cheap corn” as George Naylor put it, was the “bright yellow pyramid the size of a circus tent” Pollan saw at the foot of the grain elevator in Farnhamville, Iowa, part of a “bumper crop” “represent[ing] what was left of the millions of bushels of corn that had overflowed the elevators [the previous] … October.” Pollan felt that “something [was] deeply amiss in the sight of so much food lying around on wet ground.”  Ricardo Salvador, a Latino agronomist and Prof. at Iowa State, took a similar line: “To be honest I felt revulsion. In Mexico, even today, you do not let corn lay on the ground; it is considered almost sacrilegious.”

But from the perspective of hardnosed commodity brokers, this hill is only so much “number 2 field corn”. This term was coined by the Chicago Board of Trade as part of a grading system introduced in 1856 to simplify commodity trading. It is almost inedible: you’ll have to soak the corn kernels in water for several hours to get something tasting like “lightly corn-flavored starch.”  But, then again, you’re not supposed to eat it; it flows into factories which turn it into ethanol, high-fructose corn syrup, umpteen other things and meat. Pollan intended to follow this yellow river on its journey to the consumer so he contacted the chief processors of corn, Cargill and ADM, but they declined Pollan on “food security” grounds.

Mommy, what does C.A.F.O. mean?

Pollan left the Manhattan of corn and towering corn elevators which stand like a lone moorland menhirs to visit a cattle metropolis called Poky Feeders. The high plains of western Kansas are crisscrossed by “ramrod roads”, Kansas lay lines to the standing stones of Idaho. He speeds down one until “the empty dun-colored January prairie suddenly turns black and geometric, an urban grid of steel-fenced rectangles as far as the eye can see” which is coupled “an aroma more bus station men’s room than cows in the country”. Welcome to Poky Feeders. He had come to visit his steer, number 534.

By Derekbalsley (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

Cattle Lot By Derekbalsle

534 had started his life in a birthing shed on the Blaire Ranch “a few miles outside Sturgis, South Dakota”. His mother was 9534, that would be the 34th cow born in 1995, and his father via “a fifteen-dollar mail order straw” was “Gar Precision 1680, a bull distinguished by the size and marbling of his offspring’s rib-eye steaks. If this strikes you as rather Brave New Worldish, you’re not alone; only we’ve not yet applied industrialization to human reproduction. His first six months were spent with his mother, on Blair Ranch’s “rolling short-grass prairie” with the option of “nibbling on a salad bar of mostly native grasses: western wheatgrass, little bluestem, buffalo grass, green needlegrass.”

“In October, two weeks before [Pollan] made his acquaintance, steer number 534 was weaned from his mother.” Then “he was rounded up and herded into a “backgrounding” pen with others of his cohort, to spend a couple of months learning to eat corn from a trough. It was in this pen that Pollan chose 534 because he “had a wide stout frame and was brockle-faced- he has three easy-to-spot white blazes.” “Ed Blair, the older of the two brothers, suggested only half in jest that [Pollan] go the whole hog and buy the animal” which “immediately struck [Pollan] as a promising idea.” Shortly after 534 was off to Poky Feeders.

The heart of Poky Feeders is the mill. It processes a million pounds of feed a day, which is corn rolled into flakes which weren’t “half bad; not as crisp as a Kellogg’s flake, but with a cornier flavor”, liquefied fat i.e. beef tallow, and “a sticky brown goop of molasses and urea, plus vitamins and a couple of antibiotics “- Rumensin and Tylosin.”

It all makes inexorable economic sense, even the cannibalism.“ “Fat is fat,” the feedlot manager shrugged when [Pollan] raised an eyebrow.”  Trouble is, apart from the yuck factor, the system is new in evolutionary terms which means things go wrong. The classic example is “Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), commonly known as mad cow disease, first brought to light in merry England where, once upon a time, bits of sheep were fed to cattle. A disease of sheep known as scrapie was passed to the cattle and then to humans. For a while British beef was banned in Europe and , there were fears that it could turn into an epidemic as the human version Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease was essentially untreatable. In a damage control exercise, the British public were treated to the spectacle of the nerdy Minister of Agriculture, John Gummer, feeding his four year old daughter with hamburgers at a Norfolk country fete. The furor has died down, for now, and is not a known problem at Poky Feeders.

The main problem that Poky’s three “hospitals” cope with is Bloat. A diet loaded with starch stalls the fermentation in the animal’s rumen which “inflates like a balloon” and may occlude his esophagus and suffocate him. The cattle can also get “a kind of bovine heartburn” which too can be lethal. This is why the animals are fed antibiotics. “Most of the antibiotics sold in America today end up in animal feed”. As the current stocks of antibiotics are variations of a handful of compounds, it is only a matter of time before they are compromised by antibiotic resistant superbugs. According the staff veterinarian, Dr. Mel Metzin, all this is due to the simple fact that “they’re made to eat forage and we make them eat grain.” so the “cattle rarely live on feedlot diets for more than 150 days”, perhaps “as much as [the animals”] systems can tolerate.” Still Dr. Mel is upbeat: “Hell, if you gave them lots of grass and space, I wouldn’t have a job.”

Pollan found 534 in pen 63 which on first impression was “not a bad piece of real estate, all considered.” Then he figured out the pond which pen 63 overlooked was no pond at all but in CAFO speak “a manure lagoon”. (CAFO is the acronym for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation.) Pollan had on “the same carrot-colored sweater” he had worn when they had first met in South Dakota and wondered if 534 would show a “glint of recognition?” Nope, “none whatsoever.” He looked well although his eyes were a little bloodshot, “irritated by feedlot dust” according to Dr. Mel. Indeed, Dr. Mel was impressed: ““That’s a handsome-looking beef you got there.” “[Pollan’s unspoken reply:] Shucks”

Rube Goldberg and Number 2 corn

Around 60% of “the 10 billion bushels of corn harvested each year” is used in CAFOs and the like. The rest – remember humans don’t eat kernels of number 2 field corn – is deconstructed in a wet mill. As ADM and Cargill, who do most of America’s wet milling, had declined to show him their plants in Decatur, Illinois and Iowa City respectively, he made do with a model mill at the Center for Crops Utilization Research at Iowa State University. It is “a Rube Goldberg [Heath Robinson (GB Eng.)] contraption of stainless steel tubes, pipes, valves, vents, drying tables, centrifuges, filters and tanks” which as Larry Johnson, the Center’s director, describes it “is essentially an industrial version of digestion”. Pollan goes into some detail on how the processes work, but suffice to say it is ingenious, cost effective and mainly made from metal. The end product are things like High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) which is “the most valuable product refined from corn”. Then these products are reassembled into food items like Cocoa Pebbles breakfast cereal or Coca Cola, and a surprising range of other products, e.g. Windex, diapers, gypsum drywall, wax paper and fresh vegetables!

First Booze Then Fries

Unsurprisingly, the result of ingenuity and a prodigious amount of cash is what Pollan calls “A Republic of Fat”. The UN reckons that there are now a billion or so people with overnutrition – an interesting euphemism – which is more than the unfortunates with malnutrition, at around 800 million. So, there is more than enough food in the world to feed everyone and it is probably technically possible to do it. Quite when we’ll get around to it is another matter.

The US takes the lead in the obese league with 60% of Americans who are overweight and 20% who are obese. It has not always been so. “Most researchers trace America’s rising rates of obesity to the 1970s.” which is coincidentally the era of Earl Butz. Maybe that’s no coincidence at all.

Pollan gets his label Republic of Fat from a book about America and alcohol entitled The Alcoholic Republic. Apparently, from the time of the Founding Fathers onwards, America was on a “collective bender” to the astonishment of European visitors. One wrote home, “Come on then, if you love toping. For here you may drink yourself blind at the price of sixpence.” Pollan reckons that the driving forces for both republics are the same things: too much corn and ingenious marketing.

At the top of the roll of honor for those marketers is David Wallerstein, who invented for McDonalds the “equivalent of a papal dispensation”: Supersize. McDonald’s empire has in recent times been losing market share which wasn’t helped by the film Super Size Me. This goes some way to showing that the Republic of Fat will not need a period like Prohibition to reform a clearly daft state of affairs.

A recent Freakonomics Radio podcast “You eat what you are”, which includes Pollan, suggests that reform is happening in the US, so soon back to slimmer Americans, with the rest of the world in tow with the end of world hunger thrown in. That would be nice. In the meanwhile, Pollan has updated the ancient Mayan self-description “the corn people” or corning walking”, “So that’s us: processed corn, walking”.