Thursday, October 02, 2008

A Life-Altering Read

I am currently reading a book that might very well change my life. The Omnivore’s Dilemma reveals the nasty truth about how much of our food is grown, processed, and distributed. Aside from determining never to eat at McDonalds again and reading the labels on everything, I want to eat only meat that is humanely grown and slaughtered.

The first half of the book deals with the fact that corn and corn products are in most commercial foods. Animals which should be eating grass are being fed corn because it is cheap and because they gain weight more rapidly, making them ready for slaughter sooner.

But the descriptions of industrial farms with animals confined in small indoor areas standing in their muck for their entire life are absolutely disgusting. Their diet of corn laced with antibiotics is all they ever know. They cut off an industrial pig’s tail because otherwise another pig will chew it off causing infection because they are in such close confinement. They kill 400 cows an hour.

Even the “organic” label is debunked. You know those free-range chickens we all have come to envision as having the run of the range? In reality to satisfy the organic definition, they spend the last two weeks of their lives in a confined area that has a door at the end leading out to a grassy area. However, most of them never go through the door.

But there is another way to farm. I am so taken with the approach at Polyface Farm in Swoopes, Virginia. Joel Salatin and his family have created a layered environment for raising chickens, beef, hogs, turkeys, and rabbits that is “grass” based. Chicken feed is the sole off-farm source of fertility. Chickens are moved every day to a different patch of grass so they can get nourishment from the grass, worms, grasshoppers, and crickets and so they can then go to work fertilizing it. The hens in the “Eggmobile” are rotated behind the cattle so they can eat the fly larvae out of the cow pies, thereby getting rid of an insect problem. The other animals are also moved often so as not to over-graze any part of the farm.

There is a necessary balance between the amount of land and the number and types of animals Joel raises. Polyface Farm is built on the efficiencies that come from mimicking relationships found in nature and layering one farm enterprise over another on the same base of land. Using no purchased fertilizer or antibiotics, on 550 acres he is able to produce yearly:
30,000 dozen eggs
12,000 broilers
800 stewing hens
50 beef cows
250 hogs
800 turkeys
500 rabbits

Joel Salatin is a conservative libertarian who has not a lot of good things to say about our government and its interference in farming. I may not agree with his politics, but I’m definitely intrigued with his approach to farming.

I haven’t yet finished the book, but I’m already determined to stop buying meat, even organic meat, raised using the current industrial methods. I’m excited about making a trip down to visit Polyface Farm. I spoke to someone today who told me Joel delivers his meat to multiple sites in the DC area each week for pick-up. I want to get on the order list.


Blogger e said...

Given the situation you describe, why eat meat at all? There are ample ways to get the protein everyone worries about from other sources. Another good read is John Robbins Diet for a New America.

8:47 AM  
Blogger Kristin said...

Thanks for sharing the information, Barbara! I don't eat meat but I have, on occasion, served it to friends and family. I want to be smart about that.

I recently read an essay (part of The New Kings of Nonfiction compiled by Ira Glass) about the beef industry in which the author actually bought a steer and followed the process from insemination through slaughter. Very insightful.

8:56 AM  
Blogger Reya Mellicker said...

Whole Foods sells truly free range chickens and truly naturally raised beef. When I worked for them we got a tour of the farms in Pennsylvania.

If you shop at Whole Foods, you can rest assured that you're eating actual food. The animals are well cared for, not shot up with antibiotics, etc.

Another great Michael Pollan book is The Botany of Desire. I highly recommend it.

9:37 AM  
Blogger Barbara said...

E -- I've often thought of becoming a vegetarian, but then I have to ask myself why? It always comes down to sympathy for how the animals are treated. In truth my opting out of eating them isn't really going to change anything. I do like the taste of meat and I like meat as a source of protein.

Kristin -- I love the fact that you are such a non-judgmental vegetarian. Michael Pollan, the author of this book also buys a steer, known only by a number, and follows it from beginning to end.

Reya -- Are you so sure about Whole Foods TODAY? Joel Salatin has nothing good to say about WF, placing most of their offerings in the category of industrial organic, which is just one step up from Safeway! I am going to make a lot of inquiries at Whole Foods before I continue to buy meat there. And as for Costco, FORGET IT!

9:53 AM  
Blogger Steve said...

I've been meaning to read this book. It sounds similar to "Fast Food Nation," which was certainly an eye-opener.

I've been mostly vegetarian for years, though I do occasionally eat chicken and fish. My concerns about farming and resources are part of the reason.

Every time I see one of those stories about some massive recall of beef, I think about all those cows, killed for nothing. It's crazy. Our system is totally screwed up.

9:54 AM  
Blogger Lemmonex said...

I have really wanted to read this, but must fully admit...sometimes facing these truths head on are difficult. Time to grow up and just do it.

9:57 AM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Steve -- This book makes it clear why all those recalls are necessary. The industrial meat producers are going up against nature and it's the consumers who are losing.

Lemmonex -- When I was your age, I thought all this stuff was bunk. As you get older, you start to pay attention a little more. For now, I'm sure you can still enjoy just about any burger with no ill effects!

10:17 AM  
Blogger bulletholes said...

I'm not sure I'm all that concerned about it, but I'll bet its a good book. I mean 30,000 eegs is not very many if you consider that 5000 men on an Aircraft Carrier would eat those up in about 5-6 months, I think.

If I were faced with having good food vs. enough food, well, I like to eat.

Lets see here, if Cool Hand luke can eat 46 (was it 46 OR 52?) Hard Boiled Eggs at a time, HOW LONG WOULD 30,000 DOZEN LAST?

Hi Barbara! My favorite Mathematician!

12:45 PM  
Blogger bulletholes said...

1st paragraph should be 30,000 dozen, I know, and I went ahead and looked it up, cuz i was kinda talking out my you know what and a Battle Group of Ships uses 6000 dozen a MONTH. Thats 5 months for several ships.

12:47 PM  
Blogger Cyndy said...

Speaking of eggs, farm fresh eggs are so much better than what you buy at the store so I can't even imagine how wonderful the eggs from this farm must be. I wish the government would give more help to farmers like these who are doing it right. Although getting help from the government often seems to backfire. I really like that they are successfully doing it themselves without a handout from the government. So nevermind, and good for them!

3:56 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Bulletholes, Cyndy -- I don't even really care about how many eggs they produce each year as long as I can start getting some of them! The ones I get through my CSA have thick shells and very bright orange yolks -- totally different from eggs I might buy at a regular grocery store. The Polyface Farm eggs (according to the book in 2006) sell for $2.20 a dozen. That is actually a very competitive price. The difference may be the reduced cost of distribution.

4:20 PM  
Blogger mouse (aka kimy) said...

em gave f this book .... on both of our must read lists....I can't believe my reading group didn't choose it considering our theme is food....there are so many books about food out there! the group chose kingsolver's animal, vegetable, miracle over omnivore....pollan is great writer!

good luck on changing your buying and eating habits!

5:49 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Mouse -- I could spend a lot of months reading what's been written on this topic. This one is a good beginning.

6:33 PM  
Blogger Kristin said...

You prompted me to go back and check. It was Michael Pollan's essay that I read. Compelling stuff! I might have to read the rest of that book; though, I still recommend The New Kings of Nonfiction. You're already one essay ahead. :)

6:53 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Kristin -- I could easily get hooked on reading about food!

6:55 PM  
Anonymous Tim said...

Joel has a great farm, and he has influenced a lot of people with his writings, and by being highlighted in Pollan's book. We need more farms like that.

Nature's Harmony Farm, Georgia

7:26 PM  
Blogger lettuce said...

i salute your courage reading this. I admit to having steered away from these books, TV documentaries etc. because I kind of know the gist and its so depressing...

one of the things I find frustrating is how much more expensive ethical and truly organic food is - it does kind of make it a wealthier person's option.

(we do now get a local farmers organic fruit and veg box tho...)

2:48 AM  
Blogger Kellyann Brown said...

I made it through one chapter of The Omnivore's Dilemna, it was eye-opening... but depressing. Kingsolver's book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, actually changed some of my behaviors. While I have yet to go totally organic, I have stopped buying fruits and vegetables that are not raised in California (Poor Mr. R., no more pineapples!). Because of Mr. R.'s gout, I no longer cook as much beef, more turkey and chicken. Little bit by little bit...

11:43 AM  
Blogger Emita said...

I loved the Omnivore's Dilemma! The second half was so different from the first, the quest for the "perfect meal" was truly interesting and I can now say that learning to forage for mushrooms is on my list of things to do in life! I found your blog through a friend's blog in Chile :) Saludos!

10:23 PM  

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