The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals Chapter 11 Summary

Michael Pollan

Chapter 11 Summary

In “The Animals: Practicing Complexity,” Pollan continues to document Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm. Pollan is consistently struck by the complexity of Salatin’s agricultural practice, and he contrasts it with the precariously simple systems found in industrial farming. Throughout the chapter, Pollan struggles to discuss aspects of Salatin’s farm in isolation—only to repeatedly discover that the farm operates as a whole.

Perhaps the most important concept in “The Animals” is the “holon,” which is borrowed from Arthur Koestler’s The Ghost in the Machine. Pollan defines a holon as

an entity that from one perspective appears a self-contained whole, and from another a dependent part. A body organ like the liver is a holon.

On Salatin’s farm, everything operates on more than one level. For example, the grass is used to feed cattle, which fertilize the ground with their manure. Salatin uses chickens to peck at the insects within the cattle manure, which prevents pests and disease from spreading on the farm. In the pig barn, manure is covered with wood chips and corn, which forms compost that can be spread the following spring. Salatin credits the heat of the compost with keeping the pigs warm in the winter. The farm has a woodlot on its north-facing slopes, which Salatin admits is difficult to account for in a ledger. However, it provides a habitat for birds, which consume pests; it provides woodchips for compost; and it prevents erosion and allows ponds to form. In Salatin’s farm, nothing is taken for granted and most parts of the farm serve several purposes, which allow the land to outproduce monocultures.

In contrast, the fence-to-fence sowing promoted by the United States Department of Agriculture had little time for trees. Pollan points out that this model of agriculture has numerous problems. It promotes monocultures, which are prone to disease. Concentrated animal feeding operations may seem efficient for the supermarket because managers can buy from a single source but they are also susceptible to disease, particularly the organic operations that cannot use antibiotics. Pollan believes that agriculture has been robbed of its traditional wisdom and intelligence. Joel Salatin has to find very clever solutions to his problems, but most farmers wait for solutions to be bottled and sold to them. Salatin points out that most schools encourage the strongest rural students to leave their farms, and the result is that low-scoring students tend to stay on the farms. He concludes, “It’s a foolish culture that entrusts its food supply to simpletons.”