Chapter 8 Summary
In “All Flesh Is Grass,” Michael Pollan moves on from his investigation of America’s industrial food chain and looks into alternative models of producing food. He expects to look into the recent focus on “organic” food, one of the most rapidly expanding product lines in America’s supermarket. Instead, Pollan finds himself looking into Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm in Virginia.
Salatin does not label his food “organic”; he argues that organic food has become another form of industrial produce that ships food from one region to another. Salatin’s Polyface Farm is a mixed farm that is founded on grass rather than corn. Salatin’s cattle graze (and fertilize) the grass. Afterward, his chickens set to work, eating grass as well as parasites from the cattle manure. This allows Salatin to produce healthy cattle without relying on chemicals and antibiotics. The grass is also harvested for hay. This is why, although he raises cattle, chickens, pork, rabbits, and turkeys, Salatin considers himself a “grass farmer.” Grass is at the root of everything he does, converting energy from the sun. This energy is the basis of Polyface Farm’s pastoral food chain.
This system of farming is organized around what Pollan calls a “natural model.” In nature, grasslands coevolved with grazers like cattle, whose grazing was followed by birds. The grasslands rely on these herbivores to keep shrubs and forests from encroaching on their territory. Pollan notes that the industrial model robs the topsoil, but Salatin’s model enriches the soil. It seems to be sustainable in a way that industrial models and global markets will not allow.
Pollan takes the time to emphasize how different Salatin’s model of farming is from the industrial model on which George Naylor relies. Polyface is pastoral, not industrial; it relies on perennial grasses rather than annual crops; its ecosystem is a polyculture, not a monoculture; it relies on solar energy rather than fossil fuels. Salatin’s food is sold locally as well—so much so that he refused to FedEx Pollan any of his food. Consequently, Pollan finds himself moving hay bales on Salatin’s Virginia farm to study Polyface Farm, but his search does not end there.
Salatin’s farm, as well as his disdain for foods marketed as organic, leads Pollan on the next leg of his quest to map out America’s food chains. According to Salatin, most organic farms ironically fit more closely into the industrial model of produce, shipping products around the country to feed supermarkets and fast food chains. Pollan concludes the chapter determined to find out whether industrial organic is indeed a contradiction.