Live Real. Eat Real.

Beyond Organic and Why Joel Salatin Is Our Hero

I’ve been working on cleaning up the photos of Patty being, well, butchered (now, now – it’s not as bad as you think) (TONS more photos than I thought), working on my poor cookbook and dealing with a mild cold, so Beloved – who is reading (and really, really enjoying) The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan – has come to my rescue with what is, so far, one of his favorite passages in the book…and a question at the end.

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This text is a direct quote from The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan.  The only setup you need is to know that Polyface Farm in Swopes, Va is a sustainable heritage farm and George Naylor operates an industrialized mono-crop corn field in Iowa that, as Pollan said is “floating on a sinking sea of petroleum.”  Michael delivers up a great dish of Joel.

Hard to believe, but Joel Salatin and George Naylor are, if regarded from a great enough distance, engaged in much the same pursuit: growing grasses to feed the cattle, chickens, and pigs that feed us. Compared to Salatin, however, Naylor participates in an infinitely more complex industrial system, involving not only corn (and soybeans), but fossil fuels, petrochemicals, heavy machinery, CAFOs, and an elaborate international system of distribution to move all these elements around: the energy from the Persian Gulf, the corn to the CAFOs, the animals to slaughter, and their meat finally to a Wal-Mart or McDonald’s near you. Consider as a whole this system comprises a great machine, transforming inputs of seed and fossil energy into outputs of carbohydrate and protein. And, as with any machine this one generates streams of waste: the nitrogen and pesticides running off the corn fields; the manure pooling in the feedlot lagoons; the heat and exhaust produced by all the machines within the machine – the tractors and trucks and combines.

Polyface Farm stands about as far from this industrialized sort of agriculture as it is possible to get without leaving the planet. Joel’s farm stands as a kind of alternative reality to George’s: Every term governing a conventional 500-acre corn-and-bean operation in Churdan, Iowa, finds its mirror opposite here on these 550 acres in Swope, Virginia.

To wit:

Naylor Farm Polyface Farm
Industrial Pastoral
Annual species Perennial species
Monoculture Polyculture
Fossil energy Solar Energy
Global market Local market
Specialized Diversified
Mechanical Biological
Imported fertility Local fertility
Myriad inputs Chicken feed

 

For half a century now, which is to say for as long as industrial agriculture has held sway in America, the principal alternative to its methods and general approach has gone by the name “organic,” a word chosen (by J. I. Rodale, the founding editor of Organic Gardening and Farming magazine) to imply that nature rather than the machine should supply the proper model for agriculture. Before my journey through the organic food industry I would have thought that virtually any organic farm would belong on the Polyface side of this ledger. But it turns out that this is not necessarily the case. There are now “industrial organic” farms that belong firmly on the left-hand side. Then there is this further paradox: Polyface Farm is technically not an organic farm, though by any standard it is more “sustainable” than virtually any organic farm. Its example forces you to think a lot harder about what these words – sustainable, organic, natural – really mean.

As it happened, the reason I found my way to Polyface Farm in the first place had everything to do with Joel Salatin’s unusually strict construction of the word sustainable. As part of my research into the organic food chain, I kept hearing about this organic farmer in Virginia who had no use for the federal government’s new organic standards. I also kept hearing about the exceptional food he was producing. So I gave him a call, hoping to get some salty quotes about the organic industry and perhaps get him to ship me a pastured chicken or steak.

The salty quotes I got. Speaking in a rapid-fire delivery that sounded like a cross between Bill Clinton and a hopped-up TV evangelist, Salatin delivered a scathing indictment of the “organic empire.” I struggled to keep up with a spirited diatribe that bounced from the “Western conquistador mentality” and the “clash of paradigms” to the “innate distinctive desires of a chicken” and the impossibility of taking a “decidedly Eastern, connected, holistic product, and selling it through a decidedly Western, disconnected, reductionist Wall Streetified marketing system.”

“You know what the best kind of organic certification would be? Make an unannounced visit to a farm and take a good long look at the farmer’s bookshelf. Because what you’re feeding your emotions and thoughts is what this is really all about. The way I produce a chicken is an extension of my worldview. You can learn more about that by seeing what’s sitting on my bookshelf than having me fill out a whole bunch of forms.”

I asked him what was on his bookshelf. J. I. Rodale. Sir Albert Howard. Aldo Leopold. Wes Jackson. Wendell Berry. Louis Bromfield. The classic texts of organic agriculture and American agrarianism.

“We never called ourselves organic—we call ourselves ‘beyond organic.’ Why dumb down to a lesser level than we are? If I said I was organic, people would fuss at me for getting feed corn from a neighbor who might be using atrazine. Well, I would much rather use my money to keep my neighborhood productive and healthy than export my dollars five hundred miles away to get ‘pure product’ that’s really coated in diesel fuel. There are a whole lot more variables in making the right decision than does the chicken feed have chemicals or not. Like what sort of habitat is going to allow that chicken to express its physiological distinctiveness? A ten-thousand-bird shed that stinks to high heaven or a new paddock of fresh green grass every day? Now which chicken shall we call ‘organic’? I’m afraid you’ll have to ask the government, because now they own the word.

“Me and the folks who buy my food are like the Indians—we just want to opt out. That’s all the Indians ever wanted—to keep their tepees, to give their kids herbs instead of patent medicines and leeches. They didn’t care if there was a Washington, D.C., or a Custer or a USDA; just leave us alone. But the Western mind can’t bear an opt-out option. We’re going to have to refight the Battle of Little Bighorn to preserve the right to opt out, on your grandchildren and mine will have no choice but to eat amalgamated, irradiated, genetically prostituted, bar-coded, adulterated fecal spam from the centralized processing conglomerate.” [emphasis mine]

Whew…”

Whew is right! Which side of the ledger do you eat from?

 

Posted in participation of Food Renegade’s Fight Back Friday

 


9 comments

Be says:

The Great American Plains have lost almost half their top soil since the conversion to industrial agriculture. Sure, we are floating on a limited petroleum sea, but even worse is that we are depleting scarce and dear resources that take far longer to replace. If we look at the true cost (add your tax dollars to the 99 cent menu at Mickey D’s) of industrial food we would be better off eating real food – as locally sourced as possible.

We do it. We like it.

Oh, and our own self interest happens to support Gaia’s interest. How cool is that?

Andrea says:

One of my favorite quotes regarding this issue is from Heather Roger’s book Green Gone Wrong – unfortunately, I can’t find the exact quote at the moment, but the essence of the quote is that while industrial food may seem cheaper, the true cost is externalized on the environment and human health. I think that’s a very eloquent, succinct, and easily understood way of putting it!

Andrea says:

Oops, sorry – that should say Heather Rogers’ book

Be says:

Indeed that is succinctly well put. True too.

The entire book is a great treatise on the subject. It’s a great argument against those who say that eating well is too expensive. If you haven’t read it you should – you will love it.

Lisa says:

Did you know that your posts no longer come through fully in my Reader? Yeah, probably you do…

Jan says:

Yup – I changed my feed settings to show only partial posts. I’d like to encourage people to click through to the blog.

Nancy says:

We’re very luckly to live in the Willamette Valley area of Oregon. We have lots of local farmers here. Many of the farmers have studied with Joel Salatin and Joel has been here several times to speak and do workshops. I buy most of our meat direct from farmers either at the farm or the farmers market. Eggs and veggies come from the farmers market (two a week in the summer and one a week during the winter). Most of the rest of our groceries come from our wonderful local food co-op which has a “Local 6″ program supporting products from our county and the surrounding 5 counties. We do still buy a few things at Safeway.
Some of our purchases are organic but many are just local/sustainable. For local I don’t worry about the “organic” label. I do purchase organic for the few items I get from Safeway, because their idea of “local” is a joke.

I need to check into these books, what you’ve read, and Andrea’s recommendation, but this guy sounds like the farmer in Food Inc. I just remember the chicken scene and how he defined the government’s terms and his own terms.

Be says:

Yes, both Michael Pollan and Joel Salatin are in Food Inc. You are thinking of the same eggmobiles and wit.

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