1. Monday. Pollan points out that we tend to think grass is a monolith (i.e. that it’s all one thing, just a sea of green). But to a cow or a grass farmer like Joel Salatin, a pasture of grass is a “salad bar” filled with different varieties of grasses. Pollan explains that grass farming was imported to America from New Zealand, with help from publications like the Stockman Grass Farmer. One of the central principles of grass farming is that farmers can capture the energy of the sun through photosynthesis—by raising animals to eat grass, thus passing the energy up the food chain.
As Pollan learns from Joel, grass is part of a far more complex ecosystem than is commonly acknowledged. At the same time, however, grass is also the foundation of a very basic and fundamental food chain: the transfer of energy from the sun to grass via photosynthesis, and from the grass to the animals who will eat it.
Joel raises his grass by “management-intensive grazing,” a technique that relies on the farmer’s strategic abilities. He explains to Pollan that he moves his animals to graze a pasture when the grass is at its most productive. Joel then moves them on to a different pasture in order to give the grass a chance to recover, rather than giving the cattle a “second bite” of desirable grasses—which allows those species to replenish itself rather than dying off. His calculations rely on the unit of the “cow day,” which is the average amount of forage a cow will eat in one day. As a result of these techniques, Polyface Farm is incredibly productive in terms of the amount of grass grown per pasture.
Joel’s approach to grass farming represents a compromise between nature and human intervention. He raises his cows to eat grass, as they have evolved to do, but he does not let them graze entirely freely. Instead, he carefully calculates the amount of grass he can allow them to eat without exhausting the local grass species. He then moves the herd accordingly. This compromise clearly works, since Polyface Farm is such a productive and healthy ecosystem.
2. Monday Evening. Joel uses a “mob and move” technique in which he moves groups of cattle to a new pasture every day. This simulates the migration patterns of ancient animals and allows the grass to recover from grazing, since grasses evolved to thrive from exactly this sort of intensive but rotational grazing. Joel moves the cattle from place to place simply by setting up new electric fencing, a task that only takes fifteen minutes to accomplish. As Pollan watches the cows enjoy their evening meal, he reflects on the simplicity of this food chain: the cows eat the grass, which has photosynthesized energy from the sun. It couldn’t seem more different from steer number 534’s dinner at Poky Feeders, with its impossibly complex industrial food chain.
At Polyface Farm, it is clear that all elements of the food chain are connected and rely on one another. The grass thrives under rotational grazing, and the cows thrive from eating grass, which is more nutritious for their digestive systems. Pollan thinks Joel’s approach compares very favorably to industrial farming strategies, which don’t make much intuitive sense. Instead of simply allowing animals to follow their natural instincts, they employ complex and obscure production techniques.
But although this food chain might look simple, Pollan argues that it’s actually not. When a cow eats the grass, it sets off a chain reaction in which the grass produces new and nutritious topsoil. This stimulates more growth, as the carbohydrate energy from the roots is redirected to produce new shoots of grass. This is the “critical moment” when over-grazing would destroy the grass’s growth. But because Joel Salatin rotates his cattle, the pasture maintains biodiversity: favored grasses aren’t eliminated by overgrazing.
Pollan gives credit to Joel for the mental effort and ingenuity he employs in designing his farm. There is art as well as nature to his approach. If Joel didn’t regularly rotate the cows on a predetermined schedule, for instance, the grasses would die out from overgrazing and the overall biodiversity of the farm would suffer.
A diverse polyculture of grass is significantly more productive, removing thousands of pounds of carbon from the atmosphere each year. In fact, if more pastures were grazed like Joel Salatin’s instead of being used to grow animal grains, farmers could grow enough grass to significantly offset fossil fuel emissions. This is such an appealing vision that researchers have been trying to develop nutritious grasses that humans could eat directly.
One of the most appealing facets of grass farming is that it sets off a positive set of chain reactions for the environment. Like industrial farming, grass farming affects the environment—but rather than releasing toxins, it helps clear the atmosphere of fossil fuels.
According to Pollan, eating animals that eat grass is about as close as humans can get to a “free lunch,” since this is a solar-powered and sustainable food chain. He wonders how and why humans ever moved away from grass-fed beef to corn-fed beef, since an acre of well-managed grass is actually more productive than an acre of corn. He comes to the conclusion that corn is more compatible with an industrial food chain than grass, which requires more human labor and local expert knowledge. And while corn is a commodity with industrial value (it can be used, for example, in the production of ethanol), grass isn’t useful for other commercial purposes, and thus receives no subsidies from the government or agribusiness.
To Pollan, it is clear that grass farming works better for nature. He wonders, then, why farmers feed corn to their animals rather than grass. Ultimately, he comes to the rather grim conclusion that corn has beat out grass as the animal feed of choice on industrial farms only because it is better for humans (and even then, only in the short term)—corn is cheaper and more portable, and it has a vast array of financial and business interests behind it. In this sense, human desires are winning out over the needs of natural ecosystems.
3. Monday Supper. Pollan sits down to supper with Joel Salatin, Joel’s wife Teresa, Joel’s daughter Rachel, and a few other family members and farmhands. He notices that everything they’re eating has been grown on the farm, and that the Salatins are living largely “off the grid”: they homeschooled their children, rarely watch television, and lead a self-sufficient life. In this sense, they represent the Jeffersonian ideal of the independent American farmer.
Pollan enjoys dinner with the Salatins because they embody an ideal of the independent farming family—an ideal that has a long history in the United States. For Thomas Jefferson, for instance, an ideal nation would be composed largely of self-sufficient farms like Polyface.
Joel tells the story of his family’s history of alternative farming. His grandfather was one of the charter subscribers to the first organic farming magazine. His father raised chickens in Venezuela and was forced to flee after the coup; he received a small settlement that he used to buy Polyface Farm and a herd of cattle. The land had been over-tilled by tenant farmers, so Joel’s family has spent decades revitalizing the soil’s fertility. Joel’s father worked as an account and farmed recreationally, which gave him the freedom to experiment with non-traditional agriculture. Instead of growing corn—which he thought was a recipe for financial ruin, given the experiences of many of his clients—he turned to grass farming. Although Joel’s father has since died, Joel thinks he would be proud to see Polyface Farm today.
For generations, Joel’s family has been on a mission to promote more sustainable farming practices that revitalize the biodiversity of grass pastures and restore the balance between humans and nature. Perhaps precisely because he farmed recreationally and so was not beholden to larger corporate interests, Joel’s father felt free to experiment with grass farming rather than succumbing to the lure of corn’s “efficiency.” In fact, Joel’s father saw that corn farmers tended to impoverish themselves by producing only a single crop.