1. Tuesday Morning. Pollan wakes up late in the morning and hurries to his morning chores. He explains that Polyface Farm uses a novel method of raising broiler chickens in movable pens. Typically the land around a chicken farm will become hard and barren, since the chickens over-fertilize the ground. But because Joel moves his chickens every day, they spread their manure evenly, returning fertility to the soil. He transports his chickens in a tractor that he calls the Eggmobile. When the cattle leave piles of manure behind, he brings the chickens to eat the larvae that have developed in the manure. This both sanitizes the pasture and gives the chickens a valuable source of protein.
Joel’s method of farming emphasizes the interconnectedness of animals and the environment around them. He recognizes that chickens will impoverish the soil if they are allowed to over-fertilize the ground. Instead, then, he promotes a more symbiotic relationship by regularly rotating the chickens and allowing them to eat larvae from manure left behind by the cattle. In this way, what could be a source of waste instead becomes a source of fertility.
The logic of food production at Polyface Farm is very different than that of an industrial food chain. The relationship between cows and chickens is more of a “loop” than a hierarchy. Joel expresses the view that “everything is connected to everything else.” For example, one creature’s waste becomes another creature’s food. This is a very different model of efficiency than the simplification and cost-cutting of factory farms, but it is also efficient in that it produces more and wastes less. Joel refers to each of his “stacked” farm enterprises as a “holon”—a word derived from Greek, meaning a whole that is also a part of something else.
In a sense, Joel’s methods mirror the tactics of industrial farming. Both are concerned with reducing waste and increasing efficiency—which is to say, producing as much food as possible per square acre. However, Joel approaches the issue of efficiency very differently. Instead of creating an industrial waste disposal system, he uses the natural interconnectedness of ecosystems—some animals eat what grows from the waste of other animals—to find a more sustainable system.
In the Raken House, Joel raises chickens and rabbits together. Under normal circumstances the ammonia fumes in the rabbits’ urine would leave them vulnerable to infection—but instead of feeding them antibiotics, Joel turns the rabbit urine into a fertilizer that feeds the worms in the woodchips, which are then consumed by the hens. In another example of a “holon,” Joel practices rotational grazing with his turkeys. He lets the turkeys eat the grass in his grape vineyard, since they help fertilize the trees and vines. Finally, he uses these “stacking” techniques to create a very rich compost from cow manure and corn that he then feeds to his pigs.
An industrial farm might look at rabbit urine as a problem to be solved with antibiotics. Joel finds a more creative but still efficient solution by turning the waste into a natural fertilizer. Joel consistently refuses to treat natural consumption and waste cycles as impediments to productivity, instead seeing them as part of a larger web of interconnections that can make a farm stronger, more diverse, and more fertile.
As Pollan watches the pigs happily feast on the cow manure, he reflects on the difference between the lives of these pigs and those of pigs raised on industrial CAFOs. He is particularly drawn to their spiraled pigtails, since industrial pigs have only a stub of a tail: the farmers snip them off. There is a “horrible logic” to this, Pollan knows. Confined in close quarters without sunlight, pigs in CAFOs will bite the tail of the pig near them. The pigs are so demoralized that they won’t resist their aggressor. By leaving only a more sensitive stub of the tail behind, the farmers render the assault more painful, ensuring that the pigs will resist. In contrast to this efficient but inhumane solution, Pollan reflects on the way that Polyface Farm allows pigs to celebrate their “pigness,” living their lives in a system that doesn’t repress their natural impulses.
At Polyface Farm, Pollan begins to develop a theory of animal pleasure and happiness. For Pollan, the pigs at Polyface are happy because they are free—not free in the sense of wild and untouched by human control, but free in the sense that they can indulge their natural impulses. On an industrial farm, the natural needs of a pig are repressed in the name of “efficiency.” At Polyface, by contrast, pigs can indulge in their essential “pigness” by living a life that allows them to engage in the activities they have evolved to do.
2. Tuesday Afternoon. By the afternoon, Pollan is exhausted, and he observes that most farmers probably aren’t up for the sort of intellectual and physical labor involved in running a farm like Polyface. But Joel relishes the mental challenges of running a complex farm like this—an attitude that has often been lost in an industry where chemical solutions predominate. A farmer like Joel has little need of fertilizers, chemicals, and antibiotics, since he maintains the health of his animals and produces little waste. At Petaluma Poultry, by contrast, in which hundreds of chickens are raised together in close proximity, disease is a constant threat, and antibiotics are necessary to keep the chickens alive. Joel believes that health is the natural state on a farm, and problems like pests and disease are signs that the farmer is doing something wrong. Instead of using medicines, he can use his own resources to find creative and sustainable solutions.
Crucially, Joel’s farm is not a space free from human intervention. On the contrary, Joel is a very active and involved farmer, making many small and large decisions every day—like when, for instance, to move cattle and pigs to a new grazing spot, or when to slaughter animals. The difference is that his decisions are based on his individual experience and expertise, rather than the dictates of a vast corporate system. Polyface Farm shows that humans can intervene in nature in a way that is ethical, conscientious, and sensitive to the ways that animals’ needs can overlap with human farming techniques.
Pollan praises the productivity of Polyface Farm, which produces thousands of pounds of eggs, chicken, and beef. But Joel notes that Pollan’s calculation of the farm’s productivity should also include the forest. These trees provide shade and hold moisture, cooling down the environment for the animals and reducing evaporation in the fields, thus providing more grass for the cows. The forest also improves the farm’s biodiversity by helping control predators. And finally, the trees provide woodchips that make compost, which technically makes the beef not only “grass-fed” but “tree-fed” as well. Pollan realizes that for Joel, every living thing on the farm is part of a single ecological system.
Joel’s assessment of his farm’s efficiency or productivity is not solely limited to the amount of food he produces. He also points out that the health and biodiversity of his forest contributes significantly to the overall functioning of his grass-based ecosystem. In this way, Joel sees productivity as a measure not necessarily of numerical output, but of how efficiently all the elements of his interconnected food chain are working together.