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Splendour in the Grass*

April 22, 2015
This week, GWG returns to The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan.  Previously, on December 10 and 31, 2014, and January 14, 2015 we reviewed highlights from Pollan’s exploration of industrial agriculture and our corn-based diet.  On February 18, we gained an overview of “Big Organic” and “Little Organic” farming.  Pollan heads back to Polyface Farm where he spends a week as a field hand and experiences life and work on a small farm.  Along the way, he learns that Polyface resembles what farming used to be, that natural agriculture is complex and worlds apart from industrial agriculture’s monoculture of the products and by-products from a single animal or crop that have come to dominate what we put on the American dinner table or what we wait for, motors running, in the drive-thru lane of some fast food outlet.
Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm is 100 acres of grassland and 450 acres of woodland that support an annual production for consumption of 30,000 eggs, 13,000 chickens, 25,000 pounds of beef, 50,000 pounds of pork, 800 turkeys, and 500 rabbits. Calling himself a grass farmer, he acknowledges what they are doing is more like farming the sun, but using information age technology it is a 21st century postindustrial enterprise. 
It’s hard to know where to start to describe the farm because everything is connected and cyclical.  It doesn’t really matter; eventually it all comes full circle.  But to start where Pollan does, he learns that the pasture is a salad bowl of grasses for the livestock, which provide different nutrients to the animals and grow at different times of the season.  The cattle are treated to new grassy pastures daily using portable fencing and management intensive grazing practices which ensure the grasses  recover and are harvested by the animals just following their ‘blaze of growth” and not under grazed which leaves woody stems and deteriorates the grassland.  It occurs to me this might also be why we are advised not to trim our lawns below two inches.  By following this pasture rotation, Polyface gets 400 grazing days a year when the country’s average is 70.  If the same acreage of corn were returned to grassland, about 16 million acres, it would save 14 billion pounds of carbon from the atmosphere and be equivalent to taking 4 million cars off the road.
Pollan examines why we moved from grass-fed cattle-raising to corn when more nutrients come from an acre of pasture than from corn.  That came about from a number of factors including the cattlemen who discovered that fattening livestock was faster and cheaper with corn,  and regional or seasonal differences in taste and production could be wiped out with standardization.  The government played a part by subsidizing feedlots with tax breaks and adopting a marbling grading system that favored corn fed cattle (think fat).  Feedlots were exempted from clean air and clean water laws.  Over time, small farms lost out to large-scale operations and feedlots and knowledge about grass farming was lost in the process.  Grass can’t be broken down as corn can be into its constituent molecules and reassembled as “value added” processed foods.   The 99 cent hamburger doesn’t take into account the true cost to the soil, public health, or the public purse that is never charged directly to the consumer but is indirectly and invisibly a cost to the taxpayer in the form of the subsidies, the health care system, and the environment. 
Back to Polyface Farm.  All the components of Polyface work together.  Salatin says he can’t change one thing without it affecting everything else.  The number of chickens is right-sized for the pasture it feeds on, the same for the pigs, cattle and other animals.  There is minimal or no expense for machinery, fertilizer or chemicals.  Its efficiency is the result of following a natural and complex, interdependent system of  agriculture, a polyculture, as contrasted to most of the efficiency in industrialized agriculture being achieved by simplification—a single crop or animal. 
This picture of agrarian self-sufficiency is a way of life, a 356 day a year job, and one that receives little institutional support or attracts many takers.  For those who do embrace it, Salatin believes that “one of the great assets of a farm is the sheer ecstasy of life.”   
Next time—food—you get what you pay.

*A nod to Wordsworth  Read more.

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