The Omnivore’s Dilemma: Pastoral Grass, a Reflection on Part II

In case you haven’t read the reflection on Part I yet, I suggest you do before continuing on. If you have read it, I hope you enjoyed it and were able to reflect and think on its topics a little more with how it applies to your own lives!

Michael Pollan begins the second section at the end of, what he calls, the “longest day of the year”, the first of seven days working on the farm of Joel Salatin. This is where we begin our journey into the, ironically complex, world of organic. Salatin runs Polyface, a farm in Virginia, which uses basic ecological concepts in cooperation with modern technology to create a remarkably sustainable operation, quite similar in function to an actual ecosystem. Joel considers himself a ‘grass farmer’, above all else, arguing, quite convincingly, that grass-based agriculture is the most efficient transfer of solar-energy into food. Joel’s system of rotational grazing means he can graze different animals at different times, herding them with portable electric fencing, in such a way that maximizes the grasses productivity and fertility of the land via the natural fertilization it receives. Of course, Joel’s system also excludes antibiotics, pesticides, and added hormones, as you would expect of an organic farm, right? In fact, when most people think of an organic farm, this is exactly the kind of system, more-or-less, that comes to mind. However, Salatin’s method is certainly not the “organic” standard, and in fact, isn’t even classified as an “organic” farm. The organic foods you find at the super market do adhere to the “no antibiotic/pesticide/hormone” mantra, but are in fact grown and processed quite differently. So, what exactly accounts for those differences? That is what Pollan aims to find out.

When you ask Salatin, he puts it like this, “There’s a whole lot more variables in making the right decision than does the chicken feed have chemicals or not. Like what sort of habitat is going to allow that chicken to express its physiological distinctiveness? A ten-thousand-bird shed that stinks to high heaven or a new paddock of fresh green grass every day? Now which chicken shall we call ‘organic’? I’m afraid you’ll have to ask the government, because now they own the word.” Now, Pollan could have just taken Salatin’s advice “and asked the government”, but that isn’t quite his style. Instead, Pollan does what he does best and goes out to find the answers himself, with a trip to the Whole Foods. It is during Pollan’s trip that we are introduced to a new “literary genre”, which he calls “Supermarket Pastoral”, where labels are riddled with stories about the animal, its life, the farm, and terms like “free-range” and “free from unnecessary distress”. This is the world of Big Organic. A world where deep, descriptive, emotional marketing taps into our desires to get back to the basics. One has to wonder how accurate all of this really is. The organic industry rakes in $11 billion a year and behind the Supermarket Pastoral literature, Big Organic may more aptly be described as Industrial Organic. But how did a movement that started as a grassroots attempt at getting back to a more natural, maybe historic, way of growing and eating food, become so similar to the Industrial Agriculture it was supposed to stand in contrast to?

To explore this more in-depth, Pollan decides to explore the history of the organic movement by taking us to People’s Park, which in the late 1960’s stood as a revolutionary center of organic culture. This “greening” movement was inspired, in large part, by the J. I. Rodale founded magazine, Organic Gardening and Farming and other alternative agriculture literature, spurring the rise of people like Gene Kahn, the founder of the very well-known Cascadian Farm. As you probably could have guessed, that is exactly where Pollan takes us next, and what he finds is that the similarities between industrial organic agriculture and traditional industrial agriculture are substantial to say the least. The company’s logo which depicts a happy looking pasture is in stark contrast to the busy, chaotic landscape, machinery, migrant workers, and intense tilling of the land. In fact, the surplus of tilling, to prevent weed growth, actually contributes to more pollution. Hoping that this isn’t the norm for the large organic brands, Pollan travels next to Earthbound Farm, most well known for their fresh bagged salads. In short, Earthbound proved to be another organic farm, which started with modest origins and intent, but boomed into a similar monster of industry that it had tried to counter. For the final part of his industrial agriculture quest, Pollan settles on Petaluma, California, to meet one of the “Rosie the Chicken’s” he had seen packaged at Whole Foods days earlier. The “free-range” farm which was so emotionally described on the packaging was, in fact, “free-range”, but not quite how one would imagine. Pollan describes the set-up as looking more similar to a “military barracks” with thousands of other “Rosie’s” and while they do certainly have access to the outdoors, few make the attempt, or even have the time to enjoy it if they did, considering the age of slaughter is just 7 weeks.

After this rather disheartening and eye opening adventure, this is where Pollan has the first of two “organic” meals, using the items he had purchased from Whole Foods. He cites the absurdity of his organic asparagus, which was grown in Argentina, but does note that his other produce does, in fact, taste better. He ponders on if that may be contributed to their cellular structure not being weakened by pesticides. Pollan, overall, is inclined to believe that organic is better, but intriguingly questions, “Better for what?” His answer leans more on the side of health, but as he has described, Big Organic is really just a time-bomb, with its heavy reliance still on fossil fuels and it balancing act between the roots of organic and industrial agriculture, the whole venture seems unsustainable. In hopes of finding something better, this is where we travel back to Polyface and Joel Salatin.

Pollan spends a week at Polyface, where stark differences can be seen almost immediately. As I previously mentioned, Joel’s method is rotational grazing, which allows the grass time to recover from being eaten and trampled and to absorb the cows natural fertilizer which further boost the grass health. The whole set up couldn’t be any more opposite than that of Poky Feeder’s. Here, the cows can act according to their evolutionary nature. After a brief history on the Salatin family, and how they came to own the land which they have so expertly converted into an incredibly efficient and sustainable system, it is time for Pollan to rest for the next day. Throughout the rest of the week, Pollan details “chicken duty”, their relationship with the rabbits, and the overall interconnectedness of the entire operation. If one thing changes, everything has to change. After a brief aside on the FDA, its “one-size-fits-all” regulatory system, and Joel’s insistence on ‘sticking it to the man’, Pollan walks us through each step of the slaughter, even trying his own hand. After the job is done, people from all over begin to arrive to pick up their chicken orders. You see, the idea of communal food and sustainability doesn’t stop with how Joel raises his livestock and grows his produce. Joel will only sell locally, at restaurants, small stores, and individual customers. In fact, his brother, Art, is the one who makes the deliveries. Pollan decides to go with him where he gets to see first-hand the interaction between farmer and consumer, where he argues that this method ultimately leads to more integrity on behalf of the farmer and a more knowledgeable consumer, knowing who makes their food and where it comes from. As far as testimonials go, Pollan got more than he could have asked for, all of them raving about taste and quality.

For the second meal, Pollan decides to cook a locally sourced meal with chicken, eggs, and vegetables from Polyface Farm, and some other ingredients form a local store (accept for the cocoa). He shares this meal with some area friends, all the while discussing his past week, and speaking in high regard of the quality, taste and positive feelings he had from the food itself. While Joel’s methods are much to be admired, Pollan’s concern is that this type of farming is simply too complex in its thinking and work level for the average farmer to buy in to, not when modern agriculture is so focused on simplicity and minimal work. There is also an unfortunate disparity in the level of intelligence required for the Polyface style operation compared to “traditional” methods. Overall, he seems to think that changes towards a Polyface model agricultural system will ultimately depend on the consumer and will certainly come with its fair share of challenges, such as the complexity of such a system in more metropolitan areas. Whether it is for health or for taste or for fashion, Pollan thinks it only a matter of time before consumers wise up and spark some change.

This entire section was really quite eye opening, but has sort of left me with a feeling of “where do I go from here?” You see, I typically go for organic, as often as possible, for all of the reasons Pollan highlights in the start. Now, however, I find myself wondering if my decisions really mean much. If I were to try and go all out, it would be quite difficult, considering I currently live in Houston, Texas in a very metropolitan area with very little local food accessibility. What I ended the section thinking, is that continuing to opt for organic is as good as I can do for now, as long as I opt for sustainably grown, in season foods, whenever the opportunity arises. While Pollan certainly exposed a lot of new information, it sort of made everything just a little more complicated. All said and done, I feel all the more knowledgeable, better feeling, and better equipped, to make better, smarter decisions from here on out.


What are your thoughts? Share in the comments below!

Leave a Reply