Michael Pollan thinks and writes about biology using a simple and powerful tool – looking at systems from the perspective of a plant or an animal. This perspective has led to his books, “A Botany of Desire” and “The Omnivore’s Dillema“. He found this insight while working in his garden, watching a bee gather nectar as he planted potatoes. He wondered, “What did he and the bee have in common?”
Both, he realized, were advancing specific genetic lines, and both thought they were in control of the process. But that wasn’t entirely true – he was “seduced into planting that specific potato, giving it more space”. When you think of agriculture as “co-evolution”, where “clever grasses get us to deforest the world and plant grasses,” agriculture looks very different.
Pollan says he’d always thought of lawns as somewhat conformist and totalitarian, the mower reducing everything to the same size. But now he realizes he’s “a dupe of the lawn,” helping it fight its battle agains the trees. He warns that the discussions we’ve had today about ethanol and biofuel shows that “ethanol is the ultimate victory of corn over us, corn bending us to its will.”
As an alternative, he shows us a remarkable farm – Polyface Farm in the Shenandoah Valley, where Pollan apprenticed under Joal Salatin for a week. The farm thrives through complex interactions between six animal species and the grass they feed on.
He shows us the relationship between just two species – cattle and laying hens. He grazes the cattle in a specific pasture, and keeps them in (and other animals out) using inexpensive electric fencing. Three days after the cows move from the field, he brings in a coop full of laying hens. The 350 hens rush out of the coop and immediately “make a beeline for the cow patties”. The patties are filled with maggots – by waiting three days, they’re fat and juicy for the hens – wait a day more and they hatch as adult flies. The chickens spread out the manure and add their own manure, which is high in nitrogen. The result – the grass grows like crazy and can be used to graze the sheep or make very rich hay.
The farm produces an amazing yield of meat on only 100 acres. It gives lie to the myth that meat cannot be sustainable and that organic meat farming can’t be profitable – the key may be to go far beyond organic and into very complex permaculture. Salatin, he tells us, doesn’t consider himself a chicken or cattle farmer, but a grass farmer, which is what makes the remarkable system work.
Pollan tells us that we have to get over the idea that we get more for us, and less for nature – at the end of the season at Salatin’s farm, there’s more soil, more biodiversity, more for everyone.