Monday, April 7, 2008


In the second half of the book, Michael Pollan leaves industrialized corn production behind and examines a different kind of farming – the kind practiced by Swoope, Virginia, farmer Joel Salatin.

Salatin describes himself as a "Christian-conservative-libertarian-environmentalist-lunatic farmer," and, more succinctly, a "grass farmer."

I made a few observations in an earlier post about how Howell Farm recycles itself – many of the crops grown here become feed for the draft animals, and then the manure from the draft animals gets used in the fields as fertilizer, helping grow more crops.

That's a fairly straightforward example of the kind of symbiosis that can take place on a farm free of the monoculture prevalent on many large American farms. What Salatin does is supersize those natural efficiencies by multiplying the elements of his web – he raises chicken, beef, turkeys, eggs, rabbits, pigs, tomatoes, sweet corn, and berries on 100 acres. Most every would-be waste product goes to enrich some other aspect of the farm, and at the core of everything is his pasture grass.

Grass is all-important in this web because it can do something farm animals and we humans cannot – convert solar energy into food energy. Up the food chain, the animals eat the grass, and then we eat the animals. Which means, indirectly, we're eating sunlight, and when that happens the result is usually for the better of all involved – the environment, the animals, and our own health.

Now that I've finished the book, I'm intrigued at how Pollan's comparison of grass-based farming to corn-based farming breaks down into an even more fundamental comparison between a world fed off the sun versus a world fed off fossil fuels (see my previous post on synthetic nitrogen fertilizer for more on that.) When we choose the sun, we get healthy food grown in healthy places. When we choose fossil fuels, we get food not as healthy grown in unhealthy places, but it comes to us far easier.

I'm struck that the same choice now faces America in regards to global warming and human-caused climate change. When we choose fossil fuels over solar and other renewable energy sources, the consequence is that the Earth's natural system of climate regulation is thrown out of balance. And yet, it is those same fossil fuels that provide so much of the easy abundance of modern life – electricity, transportation, and the ability to grow more food than once ever thought possible.

So I'd break the question down even further. Given the choice, do Americans want it easy, or do they want it Good? Having it both ways might not be an option.