Pollan M. 2007. Omnivore’s Dilemma: A natural history of four meals. New York (NY): Penguin Books. 185 – 273 p.
Throughout my ‘Plants and People’ class I have developed a picture of an industrialized farm that in run less by people and more by the machines. Every time I read about these farms who cruelly abuse innocent animals using metal apparatuses I am enraged and disgusted. Luckily enough for my conscious, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” written by Michael Pollan paints a much nice picture of a more nature loving American farm.
This lengthy section describes everything to do with a farm, from the microscopic components like the bacteria that grow and the insects that crawl around to the cattle that stomp around and the local buyers that keep the natural farm alive. It examines everything from the economy to the perfect symbiotic balance between nature and all the farm animals. As well as providing me with a wide scale of knowledge, this chapter also helped to reinforce my childhood image of a farm. Michael Pollan is able to convey all this information in an interesting, story-telling way by his own adventure while staying on Joel Salatin’s farm.
The section starts with the description of the perfect relationship between grass and cows. I, like many others that Michael Pollan described, did not realize how important the seemingly minuscule blades of grass can be such a vital aspect of the farm’s life. I liked to pretend that I have never thought of grass as important because it is so small, but like Michael Pollan argues, my point is invalid because cows look at grass like it is a fresh, tasty desert. “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” (page 186). I guess what they say is true, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Not only is there a perfect balance between the grass and the cattle, but Joel Salatin’s whole farm is like a well working body. Every organ doing it’s own share of the work, each component contributing to the next, to function as a whole. “‘This farm is more like an organism than a machine, …'” (page 213). I think it’s beautiful, the way Joel talks about his own farm. He works everyday from sunrise to sunset to ensure his farm is in perfect order, yet he attributes all the work to nature. “‘I’m just the orchestra conductor, making sure everybody’s in the right place at the right time.'”(page 212) It’s amazing how he manages to tie it all together. The grass feeds the cows. The chickens cleans the larvae from the cowpies while providing themselves with a protein rich diet. The chicken and cow manure feed the soil. The forest provides air conditioning, holds moisture, prevents erosions, allows for predator control among many other things. The pigs aerate the fertilizer and it doesn’t end there. Joel Salatin really does orchestrate an amazing symphony.
Michael Pollan then expands into the everyday farm life of Joel Salatin. As he describes the process of growing grass, feeding it to the cattle while the cattle spread their manure over the underlaying grass as fertilizer, I was starting to think that maybe running a farm could be doable. Especially as I was able to comprehend as Michael Pollan was describing the “law of the second bite” (page 189), I felt maybe this wasn’t the hardest job out there.. But that image of Farmer Chels soon faded away as I read more about Joel and his coworkers everyday tasks. Not only was the physical work more demanding than I expected, but all of the inventions and schedules created by Joel are far more intricate and impressive than I could have ever imagined. Not only did the farmers have to have a perfected routine, but they also have to predict how the environmental factors will affect the production and consumption of the farm. “A lactating cow, for example, eats twice as much grass as a dry one” (page 190). I gave up my dream of being a farmer when Michael Pollan started talking about cow days. What is a cow day you may be asking? So was I. “The unit in which a grass farmer performs and records all these calculations, deciding exactly when and where to move the herd, is a ‘cow day’, which is simply the average amount of forage a cow will eat in one day; for his rotations to work, the farmer needs to know just how many cow days each paddock will yield” (page 191).
Not only does Michael Pollan do an excellent job of explaining the way Joel Salatin runs his natural and animal friendly farm, but he also provides an great insight into how corrupt the farming system can be. It seems as though the government has created strict guidelines that makes it almost impossible for farmers to farm their land the way they want to. As Michael Pollan puts it, the government is willing to help grain farmers whose production will provide an income for themselves. “In an industrial economy, the growing of grain supports the larger economy: the chemical and biotech industries, the oil industry, Detroit, pharmaceuticals, agribusiness, and the balance of trade”(page 201). However, for grass the story is completely different. Instead of providing the grass farmers with financial support, the government creates rules and regulations that make it nearly impossible for the farm to survive.
Beverly P. Eggleston IV is the character Michael Pollan uses to really emphasize the power the government exerts over farmers and the farming industry to make them all conform to best benefit the government. “Bev was nearing the end of his financial rope while the USDA dillydallied on the approvals he needed to open. Yet when he’d finally secured the necessary permits, hired a crew, and begun killing animals, the USDA abruptly pulled its inspector, effectively shutting him down” (page 246). Excuse my language, but I don’t know how Bev didn’t lose his shit! The government made him jump through all these hoops just to open his meat-processing plant, and when he finally succeeds, they just create more problems for him and force him to close. I found it mind boggling that the State would want to make it so difficult for Bev to succeed when he is trying to create a more humane and ecologically friendly way of producing meat. Unlike the big meat processing plants, Bev’s meat is clean, well treated, well raised, and local. Not only do the farms that the meat comes from allow you to visit, they even recommend you come see how your dinner is being brought up. “‘Instead of mad cow disease, we’ve got glad cows at ease'”(page 247).
Michael Pollan does a great job of wrapping up all the information he provided about the corruption surrounding the farming business. Instead of ending on a rant and leaving the readers enraged, he finishes the idea with a solution. “‘We don’t need a law against McDonald’s or a law against slaughterhouse abuse-we ask for too much salvation by legislation. All we need to do is empower individuals with the right philosophy and the right information to opt out en masse'”(page 260). Although I did get a little bored reading through all the information, this closing idea really hit home and made me feel like I could make a difference and help stop the overwhelming corruption. As Joel mentions, the change has already started. More and more chefs are deciding to switch to local farm raised foods to serve at their restaurants. Even more local mothers are shopping at Joel’s farm to be able to provide more healthy and safe foods for their children. Even after reading this book, I realized that over the years my own family has changed. About three years ago, we began buying our beef from my mother’s friend who raises her own cattle.
Just like Michael Pollan took me on an adventure from the corrupt farming business to the perfectly run, naturally balanced Salatin Farm, he also writes of his own adventure from the farm to his own homemade, local meal. I found this was a perfect way to summarize his work. He was able to touch on and review almost all of the components of his story as he searched for what ingredients to use and what dish to make. I found it particularly bold of Pollan to choose a chicken dish after he had so recently slaughtered them himself. But not only was this ending a perfect way to summarize what I had been reading about over the past few hours, it also reinforced my love to my childhood image of a farm. As Michael Pollan and his guests enjoyed their deliciously local meal, I drank in every word that illustrated Joel Salatin’s happy farm.