Grass: Agriculture’s Underdog

A couple of weeks ago when I had first read Michael Pollen’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, I was absolutely stunned and appalled at American agriculture and its practice of feeding ruminants corn.

Since I come from a mostly vegetarian family, I had never known of the horrific ways modern cows are grown and processed to feed an equally horrific modern American appetite. The average North American appetite – well, that’s something I know a little bit about. You see, I work at Costco Wholesale, the mecca of family-sized products and free food samples to hook you to them. I’ve rang in orders of meat – just meat – ranging from the modest $50 to well over $1000. I’ve also had families come through my till that spend $300 on 1-2 weeks worth of meat. I don’t know if that sounds like a lot of money or meat to you, but it is for my family. So when I read about the amount of resources that go into producing meat filled with antibiotics, urea, and corn, and the effects on global warming that result from it, it made me a bit upset. Personally, I don’t understand the vast quantities of meat that people eat, and furthermore, demand. I think that if North Americans stopped dissociating themselves from nature and made better informed decisions about their diet, then we could break the demand for this unnatural meat and eat smaller quantities of more sustainably produced meat. Perhaps I should start handing out copies of Omnivore’s Dilemma to the customers that come through my till at Costco…

About halfway through this book, Pollan embarks on a journey to a grass farm owned by the family of Joel Salatin. I’d like to say that Pollan ‘opened my eyes’ to the importance of grasses, but it was more like he wrenched them open, as I had always underestimated grasses and never really wanted to learn about them. Pollan’s writing changed that. As Joel tours Pollan around his farm, Pollan notes the simplicity of the farm, the importance of grass, and the stark differences to mainstream American farming.

I quite enjoyed Joel Salatin’s character, a Christian liberal who supports organic farming techniques. Joel refers to his pastures as “salad bars” in that they contain a diverse array of grasses, and also emphasizes the simplicity of the food chain and states that grasses are a keystone species that are disregarded by typical American farmers (Pollan 188). Joel’s analogy of grass blades to solar panels was very witty, and his explanation of the benefits of grass farming on the soil was intriguing. Joel remarked that if the cows grazed on the grass in particular way (as a mob which moved quickly), new soil could be built from the decaying roots of grass and the grass would be extremely productive in converting solar energy into biomass (Pollan 198). The grazers also help the grasses spread their seeds, contribute to more fertile soil with their manure, and even “create shady little pockets of exposed soil where water collects”, which make great little homes for germinating seeds (Pollan 193). In addition to all this, the grazing of tall grasses exposes the shorter grasses to sunlight, which adds to the health and diversity of the pastures (Pollan 197). The diversity of the grasses can further increase the health of the cows munching on them, as the cows will pick and choose which grasses they eat (choosing specific grasses for specific nutritional needs) (Pollan 195).

The only downside to this method of farming is that the recovery of the pasture (from the grazers taking their “first bites”), could depend on a variety of environmental conditions such as “temperature, rainfall, exposure to the sun, and the time of year” and “the amount of forage any given cow requires, depending on its size, age, and stage of life” (Pollan 190). One could argue that the active account of these factors that each farmer keeps, makes the farming more interesting and keeps the farmer on his/her toes, as opposed to what Pollan calls “the off-farm brain, and the one-size-fits-all universal intelligence represented by agrochemicals and machines” (Pollan 191).

I found that Pollan did an exceptional job highlighting the differences between grass farming and typical farming. For example, Pollan states that “the single most obvious difference was that these cows were harvesting their own feed instead of waiting for a dump truck to deliver a total mixed ration of corn that had been grown hundreds of miles away and then blended by an animal nutritionist” and that in grass farming, we are effectively bringing the cows to the food, instead of bringing food to cows (Pollan 194). In my mind, this approach makes so much more sense in that it decreases transportation energy, treats the cows as cows (feeding them what their ruminant stomachs require), and seems generally more natural. Pollan really hit it home home when he remarked that “if the sixteen million acres now being used to grow corn to feed cows in the United States became well-managed pasture, that would remove fourteen billion pounds of carbon from the atmosphere each year, the equivalent of taking four million cars off the road” (Pollan 198). Whoa.

When Pollan describes the Salatin family home, it helped reinforce this idea that this type of agriculture was a mesh of new world and old world. The fact that the Salatin family acquired most of their food from their farm and could trace all of its roots, put the ideals of The 100 Mile Diet into reality for me, in that it can be done and that it is not impossible in today’s urbanizing world. I can’t really imagine the Salatin family chopping up their cows to fulfill an endless appetite for meat the way North Americans buy meat in grocery stores like Costco. I absolutely loved how Pollen put it: “instead of mining the soil, such a meal builds more of it. Instead of diminishing the world, it has added to it” (Pollan 199).




One thought on “Grass: Agriculture’s Underdog

  1. Great blog!
    This reading also changed the way I thought about grasses. But from a cow’s eye a field of fresh grass is probably the greatest “salad bar” ever. I also think it’s awesome that the Salatin family had almost all of their food from their own farm. It’s a dream of mine to have a hobby farm one day and to totally be self sustaining.
    It also horrifies me how animals are treated in the meat industry. Some of the descriptive sections on this were hard for me to read, but it’s definitely something we should all be aware of.


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