One of my walking buddies loaned me The Ommnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan, the “Young Reader’s Edition” (Penguin 2009). I avoided reading this book since I had the wrong idea about it because I started in the middle and glanced at a page where Michael was describing how cattle are slaughtered for McDonalds, and how the process was intended to make it nicer for the cows, but it made me not want to read any more. I’ve never been into blood and guts reads.
At the time I was also raising chickens for meat. I don’t eat much meat anyway, but I thought since my chickens are happy and good egg layers, that I should try raising some male birds for meat, and then we’d know that the chickens we were eating were happy chickens and had a happy life. BUT — the boys never got used to me and always freaked out when I got near their grass grazing area. And then I started to feel guilty. I purposely picked a breed that didn’t look very cute, but still they grew on me. The day I drove them 1.5 hours to be processed at a small, humane processing plant was one of the worst days I’ve had.
Really, I want to recommend this book. Because I should give it back soon, I decided to give it another look. Michael Pollan has done an amazing job of describing a commercial farm, and an independent “beyond organic” farm. The commercial farm grows or buys corn for feed, and the animals are confined in small spaces. Not so with the Polyface farm which raises lots of animals, feeds them growing grasses instead of corn, and lets them roam in fields.
Joel Salatin, the farmer at Polyface, rotates his animals through the pastures to take advantage of the different ways they use the land. First, cattle graze for a few days (only a few days, because grasses, when lightly grazed, will continue to grow unless grazed too hard). Then he rests the field for a few days, to allow grubs in the cow pies to grow for the laying hens which will move into the field next. After a short while (if you leave chickens in one spot for too long, they will also graze too heavily and ruin the field — I know this personally) the hens are moved out and the field rests again, followed by broilers (meat birds) and so on.
The cows provide cow pies with insects for the chickens to eat, the chickens fertilize the grasses, and the grasses grow so the cycle can start again. Mr. Salatin’s chickens control disease by eating the insects in the fields, as well as saving him the cost of fertilizer. I’m sure the cow pie part sounds a bit gross, but the eggs from chickens that have had access to grasses and bugs are so much better tasting than solely feed fed chickens. This farmer is a genius, and he’s got an even more ingenious method of using pigs to turn cow compost, but I’ll leave that up to you to read.
The snapshot of how our food is raised between the two different farms really is fascinating, and like Animal, Vegetable, Miracle gets you thinking about the food you choose to eat and how it impacts on the planet; thinking about that is not such a bad thing.