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Michael Pollan: The Truthdig Interview
Posted on Apr 11, 2006
By Blair Golson
Like facing up to the realities of shopping at Whole Foods?
Yeah, I use the term “supermarket pastoral” for the experience of shopping in a place like that. Whole Foods, they’re brilliant storytellers. You walk into that store, and it just looks like a beautiful garden, and there are pictures of organic farmers up on the walls, and little labels that describe how the cow lived that became your milk or your beef, and the cage-free vegetarian hens who got to free range.
They’re creating in your minds an image of a farm very much like the ones in the books you read as children—with a diversity of happy animals wandering around the farmyard.
It’s very cleverly designed, but unfortunately like a lot of pastoral forms of art, it’s based on illusions. Not entirely, but if you go to the farm depicted on those labels, you find that in fact, things look a little bit different.
Square, Site wide
Does the same thing go for free-range chickens and eggs?
It’s very interesting. Free-range chickens—I did go visit a large organic chicken producer here in California, and if you look at their label, there’s a farmstead with a little silo and a farm house and a farmyard and chickens running around, but if you go to the farm, the chickens are grown in these huge barracks as long as a football field. They’re indoors, there are 20,000 of them in a house, and running along this barrack is what looks like a little front lawn—mowed, maybe 15 or 20 feet deep.
There’s a little door at either side of the barrack where, theoretically, chickens could step outside and take the air. But they don’t. One reason is that the doors are closed until the chickens are about five weeks old.
The farmers—if you can use that word, the managers—are concerned that the chickens might catch their death of cold or pick up a germ, so they don’t open the doors until the chickens are five weeks old. They smother them at seven weeks; so it’s not exactly a lifestyle. It’s more like a two-week vacation option. And the chickens don’t avail themselves of this option because they’ve never been outside before. They’re terrified of going outside. First of all, it’s not big enough for the whole flock. Second of all, the food and water is inside; they’re not used to it; they weren’t brought up this way. They’re like the cat in the Manhattan apartment; when you open the door they just stand there in terror wondering about the other dimension of reality outside that door.
Free range is a conceit. It’s to make us feel better about these chickens. It’s not doing anything for the chickens, as far as I can tell.
Yes, that organic chicken is still a better product, I think. It’s getting better feed, it’s got a few more inches of legroom than a conventional chicken, but it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.
And hence your efforts to find places that were all they were cracked up to be…
I went looking for a better model of farming—a truly biological or ecological farm. They are out there. There are people doing amazing, visionary work. And the one I chose to focus on is a farm called Polyface. And it’s run by a man named Joel Salatin and his son, Daniel. They grow six different animals on 100 acres of open land and another 400 of forest. And they do it in this very intricate rotation, so that on one day, the cows are on a pasture.
Then they wait a couple of days and the chickens come in. They eat all of the grubs out of the manure, which takes care of the farm’s problem with flies and disease, and they spread that manure in the process of doing that, and they fertilize it with their own manure to keep the pastures very healthy. Then the chickens move out and another animal moves in. This rotation going through the farm several times every season, and the result is a great deal of high-quality food, but also, most astoundingly of all, an improvement in the environment of this farm. There is more top soil, more grass, more fertility than there would be if nothing were being done here.
That is a very significant achievement, because it belies this basic American idea that our relationship with nature is a zero sum game—by which we all assume that for us to get what we want from nature, nature is diminished. This farm is saying, “No, that is not necessarily true. There is a way to get your food from the earth in such a way that it leaves the earth improved.”
To me, that’s an incredibly heartening message; it says we’re not this pest species in nature, that we really have a contribution to make.
Is there any evidence to suggest that that model is spreading?
It’s not about to take over American agriculture, but there’s a very strong movement to put animals back on grass, get them off of feed lots, and sell grass-finished meat. Grass-fed beef is growing very quickly, and I find it a very hopeful development.
But didn’t you write that places like Polyface can’t ever hope to make money supplying the biggies like Wal-Mart or Whole Foods because those places only buy from mega farms?
You have to get out of the supermarket, basically. The supermarket is not going to support this world in the long run, I don’t think. But the supermarket is not the only place to buy your food. There are very many good alternatives—the farmers’ market being the most obvious. But also CSAs—which stands for community-supported agriculture—where you essentially join a farm and every week you get a box of produce. People are buying really good grass-fed meat over the Internet.
If you’re someone living in a major metropolitan city, and you wanted to eat in the healthiest way, patronizing the most ecologically friendly food purveyors—setting aside cost for the moment—how would you shop?
I am that person. I’ve joined a CSA, so I get a box of produce every week. I also go to the farmers’ market. I have found some producers of things like beef that I buy in quantity and keep in my freezer. But I also find grass-finished beef—I’m kind of lucky here in Northern California—I can find it in local markets. So I do a little bit of many different things. And it’s a little easier to do here in California than in others places. Our farmers’ markets are open 12 months a year, and that isn’t true everywhere.
But I also get on the Internet and find interesting food. There are terrific websites. There’s the Eat Well Guide, where you put in your ZIP code and it tells you about local farms doing interesting things. The other thing to do is to visit local farms and establish a personal connection, if you have the time and the inclination. I find that incredibly interesting. I like knowing farmers who are growing my food.
But all of us are going to take this to different degrees. I don’t think it’s all or nothing. I still go to the Safeway. I still stop at Whole Foods every now and then. And many people don’t have the time or inclination to put any more work into it, and so maybe Whole Foods is fine, and maybe they’ve got a lot of money, because Whole Foods is really expensive. And that helps. The kind of farming that Whole Foods supports is better than conventional farming.
All I’m suggesting is that you can take it to the next step if you want. And the next step is incredibly rewarding, because the quality of the food is so high, and the kind of stewardship going on is very impressive.
But like I said, it’s not all or nothing. We have three food votes every day—that’s more votes than we have in most other aspects of our lives. And if you used one of them in a way that supported a change—an alternative food chain, that’s a big accomplishment. That’s enough to create these alternatives and make them more accessible and probably cheaper as well, as more people use them.
You can go whole hog or just dip your toes in, but either way, I think it’s a very important food vote you have.
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