1. Green Acres. After a long day shoveling hay, Pollan is exhausted. He’s begun working on an organic farm in Virginia, Polyface Farm, which is owned by Joel Salatin. Joel is a self-described “Christian-conservative-libertarian-environmentalist-lunatic-farmer,” an independent businessman who grows his own food and slaughters his own animals without corporate oversight. Pollan has visited this farm to see how Salatin’s vision fits in to the modern landscape of food production.
Pollan now shifts his attention to a different food chain—one not connected to the industrial system. Joel Salatin is clearly independent-minded, but Pollan is seeking to find out whether his radical vision can be adapted to other situations and understood within the larger context of how Americans eat today.
Pollan describes Polyface Farm as “pastoral,” with its idyllic meadows, woods, and rivers. For Pollan, this Virginia farm recalls the pastoral ideal of Thomas Jefferson, who dreamed of a nation of small, self-sufficient farms like this. Pollan’s time with the independent-minded farmer Salatin shows him that the pastoral ideal is alive and, “if not well exactly, still useful, perhaps even necessary.”
Thomas Jefferson’s dream of a “pastoral” nation of farmers reflects a nostalgic vision of going back to nature. Even in the eighteenth century, the pastoral ideal was based on an idea of “natural” food production that may reflect an ideal as much as it does an actual reality.
2. The Genius of the Place. Salatin describes himself as a “grass farmer,” because grass is the foundation the complex ecosystem at Polyface Farm. Although the farm only occupies 1000 acres, it produces thousands of pounds of beef, chicken, pork, eggs, turkey, and rabbits. Even more astonishingly, this impressive rate of production doesn’t impoverish the soil. Because Salatin raises his animals on hay, his farm is sustainable. The cornerstone of Salatin’s philosophy is that humans don’t have to destroy the earth to have a rich and satisfying meal.
Industrial food systems are often based on an idea of food production as a “zero-sum game”—which is to say, in order to feed themselves, people have to impoverish the natural world around them. By contrast, Salatin operates on very different principles. His system of grass farming recognizes that the health of the environment also impacts the health of humans.
Humans have had a long co-evolutionary relationship with grass. In the hunter-gatherer period, people cultivated the grass to attract and nourish the animals they depended on for sustenance. For grass, this relationship was symbiotic, because humans cleared the land of trees, protecting the grass’s access to water and sunlight. In the agricultural period, “annual” grasses like wheat, rice, and corn began growing nutritionally dense seeds that humans could harvest and eat directly. (They are called “annuals” because they put their energy year-round into making seeds, rather than storing energy underground in roots during the winters.)
As Pollan shows, grass has coevolved with humans, and its spread was a result of a combination of natural processes and human intervention. People figured out that they could deliberately cultivate grasses and harvest the seeds, which were a nutritionally dense and important source of energy for humans.
3. Industrial Organic. Pollan notes that Salatin’s farm is in many ways the opposite of Naylor’s: pastoral rather than industrial, biological rather than mechanical, a polyculture (i.e. a farm that grows many plants) rather than a monoculture. Polyface Farm has been described as an “organic” farm, a word implying that nature, rather than industry, is “the proper model for agriculture.” However, Pollan points out that these words—natural, organic, sustainable—turn out to be more complicated than they seem. For example, Salatin’s farm is technically not an organic farm, although his methods are sustainable. Moreover, there are “industrial organic” farms that meld the two methods.
At first glance, Salatin’s farm might seem to entirely fit the Jeffersonian pastoral ideal of humans in harmony with nature. However, Pollan points out that the story is more complicated than that. Nearly all farms, no matter how “organic” or “sustainable,” are in some ways involved with the industrial food system that transports large amounts of food around the country. In this sense, there is probably no farm that is entirely a product of nature rather than human culture.
Salatin doesn’t label himself an organic farmer, and has no use for the government’s organic food standards. Instead, he calls himself “beyond organic”—someone who wants to “opt out” of the entire system of control by government and agribusiness. When Pollan asked if Salatin could ship him some of his food, Salatin refused on the grounds that shipping food is not sustainable. Pollan then agreed to visit Polyface Farm in person. Before his visit, however, Pollan spent several weeks touring alternative and “industrial organic” farms to investigate Salatin’s claim that the originally revolutionary organic food movement has now compromised its ideals.
Pollan is surprised that Salatin refuses to FedEx some of his food, since all the food chains that he has come into contact with so far are perfectly happy to ship food over long distances. This is because it is more efficient and maximizes profits—by producing and distributing food on a vast scale, food companies can enrich themselves. Salatin’s farm, however, clearly operates on other principles, refusing to compromise its waste-reducing ideals and the freshness of its foods in order to increase profits.