Part 6: Dancing at Polyface Farm

Omnivore’s Dilemma rightly decries feedlots, educates us about many insane aspects of our food production system, reminds us of the injustices perpetuated upon the botanical farmers through public policy, worries about the degradation of soil, helps us understand how cow stomachs work, and describes his ideal of animal agriculture. But Pollan also encourages readers to swallow statements like “In fact, when animals live on farms the very idea of waste ceases to exist; what you have instead is a closed ecological loop—what in retrospect you might call a solution.” He was referring to a specific type of small-scale farm, Polyface Farm. It is an effort by Virginia farmer Joel Salatin and his family to be sustainable, if not kind.

This is a comment one visitor sent into United Poultry Concerns: “I toured Polyface on a sweltering day. Chickens were in tiny cages with tin roofs in the beating sun, panting like mad. The cages were located over manure piles the birds were supposed to eat larvae from. Rabbits were kept in factory-farm conditions in suspended, barren wire cages. There was no sign of freedom or compassion for these animals.”

When Pollan calls Polyface a closed system that ends at the fence line is overstated at best, and from an ecosystem perspective, false. That is perhaps the inevitable outcome when food chains are defined non-biocentrically as industrial and organic production on farms, and hunter-gatherers procuring food away from farms. A farm’s land remains part of and continues to interact with the host ecosystem, no matter what activity occurs. Farming or no farming, it just interacts differently depending on what is happening on the land and in the air and water.

We can remember that all farms were once naturally evolving habitat. They are now fragmented, fenced ecosystems, multiplied hundreds of millions of times in animal and non-animal agricultural plots girdling the Earth, but part of ecosystems still. In addition, remember because I repeat it enough, grazing cumulatively uses up to 26 percent of Earth’s arable land “while feed crop production requires about a third of all arable land.” Similarly, remember that livestock accounts for 20 percent of terrestrial animal biomass. That is a monumental amount of habitat removed and invasive species introduced. Animal agriculture is an immense, unnecessary contribution to the loss of ecosystems. Omnivores are at its core.

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