Monday, May 31, 2010

Symbiotic Farming

Did any of you think about where your lunch came from?

Maybe your first thought is McDonalds, Subway, Taco Bell, Chick-Fil-A, Pizza Hut, or wherever you happen to be dining this afternoon. But where did those ingredients come from? Where were the animals raised? Where did the plants grow? Where were the minerals dug up?

Questions like this led Berkeley Professor, Michael Pollan, to write "The Omnivore's Dilemma." This is a fascinating book that explores the origins of four different meals. I heartily recommend it.

For me, the most interesting part of the book was the discussion of Polyface Farms. Polyface Farms is so organic that it calls itself "Beyond Organic" to distinguish itself from what might be called "Industrial Organic." They only sell their fresh meat, eggs, and other products to individuals and restaurants within 100 miles of their farm in Virginia. Many of the best local restaurants swear by the produce of Polyface Farms and feature them explicitly on the menu.

What makes Polyface Farms so fascinating is the symbiotic systems the farmer uses to manage a complicated but mutually beneficial relationship between different animals and the land. The farmer calls these HOLONS from the Greek word "holos" meaning a "self-contained whole." I'd like to share with you three of the holons from Polyface Farms.

Holon #1: The farmer puts up a portable electric fence around an acre of pastureland and releases the cows for just one day. The cows eat the lush grass and, of course, leave behind lots of cow patties. The next day they are moved to a new acre of land where fresh grass awaits them. Meanwhile, back on the original acre, exactly three days later a portable chicken coop is wheeled up and these truly free range chickens are released to eat bugs. But their very favorite is the nutritious fly larvae that are rapidly developing in the cow patties. Remember, they are also spreading around their nitrogen rich chicken manure over that same acre of pastureland. With a serving of cow manure and a helping of chicken manure, perhaps it is the pastureland that is getting the best meal of all! The whole cycle moves from acre to acre until the whole area is covered, the cows are fat (grass-fed), and the chickens produce eggs so nutritious that there yolks are carrot-colored.

Holon #2: In the winter the cows need to be indoors, in a barn. The farmer lays down a layer of sawdust on the ground. Of course, the cows do their thing and pretty soon the floor is a layer of organic muck. The farmer adds another layer of sawdust and a new secret ingredient - handfuls of corn. Layer after layer, this matting builds up. By the end of the winter, when the cows are released back to the pasture, it can be three feet thick. Then the pigs are let into the barn. Now, keep in mind that this manure and sawdust mixture generates lots of organic heat which ferments the corn embedded in it. Well, if there's anything a pig loves it's alcoholic corn! They begin to root round that barn like mad porcine plows and soon that barn floor is churned into the most incredible compost you have ever seen. This is then placed on the corn field and elsewhere. This holon gives you warm cows, happy pigs, and tall corn.

Holon #3: Rabbits are cute and fuzzy but their pee is toxic. In fact, the ammonia in it is so strong it can scar their own lungs if they are trapped in cages above. There are three stories in this holon. The rabbits live above and the chickens live below, all on a layer of dirt and wood chips which is full of earthworms. The chickens love earthworms and vigorously dig around the wood-chip mixture to find them. This action somehow transforms the toxic rabbit pee (and droppings) into a powerful carbonaceous bedding that the worms thrive in. The chickens are fed. The rabbits are protected. And, the worms are happy (at least until they are unceremoniously plucked from the muck).

Polyface Farms is an interesting place: local produce, completely organic, and animals doing the things that come very naturally to them. I don't know about you, but I think this is the way farming should be done.

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